Good Witch, Bad Witch–Which is Witch?

By: E.J. Lawrence

My apologies to the reader for the really bad pun in the title. I just couldn’t resist.

I have a very vivid memory from childhood. I was four or five, and I was sitting in the living room of our apartment watching The Little Mermaid on VHS. My dad was on the couch watching with me. I don’t remember how I felt about the movie up until this point, but I do remember the moment that terrified me.

To add some context, I happened to be a pretty adventurous child who wasn’t afraid of much–no monsters in my closet or under my bed. No night terrors or fear of the dark. But the most scared I ever remember being as a small child happened toward the end of The Little Mermaid. It’s the moment when the sea-witch Ursula’s identity is revealed, and suddenly, she begins to grow…and grow…and grow. I remember screaming, “Daddy, turn it off!” as I covered my eyes with my hands. I didn’t watch The Little Mermaid for probably another ten years.

Baba Yaga–Now try to sleep at night

To date, no mythical or fairy tale creature terrifies me quite like the witch. She can steal your voice; your life; your very soul. The Slavic Baba Yaga is particularly fearsome–her house stands on chicken legs. And, well…there’s just something not quite natural about a house that’s stilted on two chicken legs.

Witches. Are. Terrifying.

And yet, one of the little-known (or little emphasized) points about the fairy tale witch is that she’s as likely to help as harm. In a Russian version of Cinderella–“Vasilisa the Fair”–Baba Yaga threatens to eat Vasilisa if she does not do as she’s told; however, Vasilisa does as the old woman requires, and it is through her patience that Baba Yaga helps her to marry the Tsar in the end.

This doesn’t make Baba Yaga good; but it does show how even the witches in these stories have their own codes of honor and are perhaps more nuanced than we often give them credit for.

Yama Uba

In Japanese folklore, there’s the Yama Uba who, like Baba Yaga, can be harsh, but will also help a lost traveler or bestow wealth on the needy. I have heard the argument that the witch in “Sleeping Beauty” isn’t all bad–she puts the girl to sleep, after all, rather than kill her. Perhaps even she had a modicum of feeling?

Fairy tale witches–like everything else in a fairy tale–serve more as symbols than independent characters. Though, what they’re symbols for has stirred a great deal of debate.

Some argue that witches are women who represent an independence that society fears; that she is the unbridled power of women.1 Some argue that witches represent the fears of the female protagonist–the part of herself that she represses, but a very real, tangible image of what she has the potential to become.2 Still others say that the witch is a symbol of the negative aspects of femininity–rather than nurture children, she eats them; rather than create healing herbs, she dabbles in poisons and harmful potions.3 Perhaps the fairy tale witch is all of these, or at least a mixture of some.

What I think is interesting to point out when trying to determine the role of the fairy tale witch is the etymology of the word itself. For one, the word is so old that determining its exact etymology is difficult. The OED marks it of “indeterminate origin,” but that doesn’t stop there from being theories. On the one hand, it could be cognate with the words “wicked” and “wicce” (meaning “bad”). On the other, it could be kin to the words “wizard” and “wise”–both words with positive connotations.4 In many early English manuscripts, the word was used interchangeably to refer to a woman who dabbled in dark magic or a woman who used healing herbs to save someone’s life. It seems that the English language has long recognized the nuance and the duality of the term, even if they more often associate the word with the former rather than the latter.

“Ladies’ Champion” (Martin le Franc, 1451)

And yet, all of that seems to be consistent with what we know of fairy tale witches themselves. They can be malicious and malevolent, seeking to harm two poor children lost in the woods or poisoning their stepdaughter with a shiny red apple. But they can also be good, helping a young maiden escape her evil stepmother and find love or casting charms of protection when it suits her purposes. But perhaps it is her unpredictability or perceived capriciousness that causes the word “witch” to give us such uneasiness. I can’t say for sure.5

Yet, I can think of no other fairy tale character as nuanced or as complicated as the witch. Even within the confines of the fairy tale universe, she stands apart as independent, making decisions as they come; wielding her skills and talents as she pleases. Whether or not this is a “good” thing, I don’t know.

And, in fact, neither does she.

  5. I can say, however, that it wasn’t Ursula’s capriciousness that frightened me when I was a child. I’m pretty sure it was her stealing Ariel’s voice and then growing into a giant octopus.

The Pirate Queen of the South China Seas

by K.P. Kulski

A couple weeks ago, E.J. and taught a class on Writing Realistic Women in Historical Settings for In Your Write Mind, a writer’s conference annually hosted by Seton Hill University. During the lecture, I touched on the idea that women of lower classes could find opportunities for power through communities of crime such as piracy and robbery

This got me thinking about how living and operating in communities that were outside and/or in direct conflict with the larger social norm, women could more easily step into roles that would have been improbable within their societies. Please note that I will be discussing these groups and concepts in a historical context, but certainly many of the forthcoming statements may or may not apply to modern day.

Piracy in the South China Sea ( Image ©

While these communities of crime were brutal and unforgiving, structural norms for the sake of order or blind adherence to traditional roles did not hold the level of importance it did in larger society. Organized crime was a state of flux with the strongest and most shrewd rising to power and then ultimately falling in favor someone else. Social power structures are therefore not stationary, if anything, quite the opposite. By nature, crime violates social norms through violation of law. Further, these communities tended to be focused on factors such as cunning and clear success for the basis of authority with little regard for things such as gender or class.

The history of piracy and general seafaring has many examples of women who found escape from social restraints on their gender and chose to live a life on the high seas. It is not surprising, since in many ways, a ship alone upon the ocean can be its own extremely isolated and unique society with varied power structures. Through cunning, effective leadership and delivery of victory (therefore money), individuals from many backgrounds could find themselves in positions of power. Neither class nor gender was necessarily an obstacle.

(Image ©

It should be no further surprise that one of the most powerful pirates in history was a woman. At her height of power, she commanded a fleet that numbered 70,000 pirates and 1,200 vessels.[1] A “pirate confederation whose members outnumbered by two times the total forces involved in the Spanish Armada.”[2] This woman, born as Shi Yang would later be infamously known as Cheng I Sao “the wife of Cheng I” or Ching Shih “widow of Zheng.” She was not high-born, in fact she was a commoner who originally worked as a prostitute in the Canton region before her meteoric rise to pirate power. Her strength and immense supremacy over not only a single ship but several fleets, justly conjures the image of a pirate queen. If not anything else, Ching Shih was exactly that, a position achieved through her unparalleled capabilities of strategy and leadership.

Her rise to power began first as an exceedingly effective union between her and the pirate Cheng I through marriage. Historians are not completely sure of the basis of the marriage, if it was motivated by love, lust, business alliance or some combination of all three. But Ching Shih put her political and strategic skills to work alongside Cheng I whose pirate status (in fact he was from a family of pirates) legitimized her own status within the pirate world. While together, they successfully unified and strengthened the pirates of the South China coast by 1804. Historian Dian Murray points out that it appears Ching Shih elevated and launched the careers of her spouses, a role reversal from larger society, that it was Ching Shih who provided the impetus and skills for success.

When Cheng I died suddenly in 1807, Ching Shih maneuvered herself as sole leader of the massive fleets they had built together. She did this through identifying how to further legitimatize her claim (something already strong), created relationships with tributary pirate gang leaders and even used religious beliefs to her advantage.

But she was much more than a cunning contender to power, Ching Shih was a highly effective leader. Taking power is one thing, but consistently delivering successful operations was vital to maintaining it. She did just that, even recognizing that robbing ships alone could not sustain operations. Ching Shih took control of vital salt shipments and organized extensive networks that sold vouchers to local fishermen and other seafarers that exempted them from attack. She did all this through strict control with draconian punishments that included immediate decapitation for anyone who tried to usurp or disobey commands.[3] She maintained an interest in the proper treatment of women that extended to female captives establishing a punishment that included death for pirates who raped women, captive or not.[4]

Ching Shih next married the adopted son of her deceased husband. This union was as much a partnership of ambition with Ching Shih in the driver’s seat of the fleet. She created the conditions for her new husband Chang Pao to gain power within the fleet as the commander of a subset of the organization, known as the Red Flag Squadron.

What’s most interesting to me is that Ching Shih did not seem to identify herself solely as a pirate, instead she held a supreme confidence in her abilities and knew when to roll the dice and when to bow out of the game. She was flexible and took to new roles fluidly and with equal skill. Eventually she left the pirating world, obtained a position of governmental authority for her husband and set herself and her family up nicely in Canton.

Ching Shih never lived within the constraints of society and never let anyone define her. It was a remarkable outlook. When she died at the age of 69, she left behind a well-lived life where she not only refused to take “no” for an answer, but never seemed to recognize that anyone had the right to refuse her in the first place.

Featured image credit: Still from the 2003 movie, Singing Behind Screens



[1] Dian Murray. “One Woman’s Rise to Power: Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” Historical Reflections 8, no. 3. (1981): 3.

[2] Murray, “Cheng I’s Wife and the Pirates,” 3.

[3] Murray, 6.

[4] Murray, 6.

Part 2 – Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

by K.P. Kulski

Camaraderie in the military is necessary for the smooth function of operations. It tends to develop easily because military life is a series of routine hardships. This sentiment intensifies as the experiences intensify, particularly in combat. Current politics have made quite a spectacle over the concept of transgender military service. I don’t necessarily believe Mulan was transgender, or at least is depicted as transgender. However for my analysis here, whether she was or was not, doesn’t really matter. What matters is the implicit commentary of her story that demonstrates the importance of military camaraderie over gender concerns.

The story depicted in the ballad reveal an important sentiment that is applicable to the presence of transgender people in the military. Given the quality of the individuals, who like Mulan, serve in a capacity that is revealing of their character and capability, the identity that is formed from respect, admiration, and deep non-romantic love that is so often framed by combat veterans, is outside of the realm of gender, but within the realm of the greater human experience. Mulan’s story and blurred gender identity shows the mulan-montagereader that she is greater than the sum of her private parts, that she’s a whole person, that her actions have been the most important part of her existence. The reaction of her fellow soldiers, is initial surprise, but without change in their demeanor or respect for Mulan.

If we examine the ballad in a feminist lens, that looks at her female specific experience, we can find further interesting commentary. In modern society, we are aware of studies devoted to understanding the occurrence of under promoted women. Whether it be women who are more qualified, yet are surpassed by less qualified men on the ladder to success, or women who are paid less than their male counterparts, there is a sense that to be successful as woman, it requires at least twice the effort and qualifications.

This idea isn’t lost on the world of Mulan. In the ballad, Mulan serves faithfully for twelve years, earning the great respect of her comrades-in-arms. It took twelve years for her to develop a respect that would lead to unquestionable respect of her person, without social considerations of gender.

However, she is also upheld as an example of honor and grace for her lack of interest in power. Her motivations remain pure till the end. She can be compared to the Khan, the ultimate symbol of male power. Notice the play on words, the focus on the title “daughter,” throughout the poem, “they ask Daughter who’s in her heart, they ask Daughter who’s on her mind.”[1]

Mulan’s status as the definitively female, “daughter” does not change at the end when she returns home, “When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming, they go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.”[2]

hua-mulan (1)Who is the other prominent figure in the story? Well, oddly enough it is, “the Son of Heaven,” a reference to the Khan. It is him she meets at the end of her service and he asks her what she wants so she can be rewarded for her service and the only thing she asks is for a horse to return home. She does not seek a post as a minister or other high rank. With her lack of desire for power and only desire to return home, reflect on the idea that she never really changed, that she had always been “daughter,” despite leaving home. Along with the simultaneous existence of gender identity, Mulan also embodies opposing ideas: fierce warrior, loyal daughter; male power, rejection of male authority, soft and hard power.

With all this considered, when I take a look at the costume of Disney Mulan in the toy store, I’m baffled. It’s not the dress itself, but that the very thing Mulan is defined by, the determination to pick up a weapon, to break gender conformity and demonstrate her own power is completely lacking in the doll. It is the same as taking the ice away from Elsa and painting her with motifs of fire. I love that Mulan exists in popular culture and that has been brought to Western society through the Disney films. In fact, as a part Asian woman in a Western culture, I greatly appreciate it. As I dig further into Mulan herself, there remains, quite a bit about her, said in only 31 couplets that is strangely loud, profound and relevant to our times. She was a woman who decided to go to war. But really, what did she fight for and against? What did her battlefield look like?

[1] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators.

[2] Ibid.

Part 1- Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

p21118_p_v8_acby K.P. Kulski

It’s not surprising that Mulan is my favorite Disney princess. My favorite female figures of history of have always been warriors, women who defied social norms. I particularly loved the idea that they could defend themselves and exert a power of their own. In a world of Disney princesses who need saving and who are most known for their beauty, Mulan stood out.

But she isn’t really a princess is she? While she’s included in the Disney princess lineup, she wasn’t born into or married to a royal family. She’s not particularly celebrated for her taste in frilly gowns, compassion or a singing voice. Her story is significant because she was a warrior and (by extension) because she did not follow gender expectations. In fact, she spends most of the film in armor. Despite this, I’ve noted that Disney merchandise opts to feature Mulan in beautiful gown instead of armor.

Before I dig all that up further, let’s look at the actual history of Mulan. First, let me assert that there are many tales about Mulan, some conflicting. Mulan’s story enjoyed a popular revival and reimagining in both the 16th and 17th centuries. For the sake of this article, I am focusing on the original “Ballad of Mulan” as recorded in the Music Bureau Collection, which was compiled in the 12th century, long after Mulan was said to have lived.[1]

Her surname and therefore ethnic origins are uncertain, sometimes she is referred to as Hua Mulan, but she could have easily been Zhu Mulan or Xie Mulan. During the period of the Wei Dynasty, a non-Han Chinese group, the “Ballad of Mulan” was written by an unknown author. We’re talking about the 5th or 6th centuries. Whether Mulan existed is also uncertain.

Gathering-Gems-of-BeautyNonetheless, in a time that male physical might and female beauty permeated stories, Mulan’s tale stands out as quite unique. By disguising herself as a man, she takes her aging father’s place in the army. This part is pretty familiar if you’ve watched the Disney movie. However, according to the song, Mulan’s military term is not a short one, in fact, she spends twelve years campaigning in the Khan’s army.[2] There is a clear connection to filial piety in Mulan’s actions. In order to save her father, she is willing to break with expectations and social conventions. While worth exploration, I would warn against focusing entirely on that element of the ballad. There is much more going on this tale. We are presented with an extraordinary, dualistic existence that discusses gender norms, breaking gender norms, earning of honor and loyalty to a noble philosophy.

Most obviously, Mulan challenges the idea that gender exists in binary, and more importantly that social roles are not necessarily gendered. Mulan’s comrades-in-arms, do not lose respect for her the moment they find out she is female. They are surprised, but after, “traveling together for twelve years,”[3] Mulan remains the same individual they have come to admire, who has proven herself over and over.

The ballad goes on to stress that Mulan embodies elements of both genders, “’I open the door to my east chamber, I sit on my couch in the west room, I take off my wartime gown and put on my old-time clothes.’”[4] If we use traditional Taoist ideology, east corresponds with yang—female and west with yin—male.[5] Mulan accesses her femininity, is open to it, but rests within her masculinity. She opens herself to the yang, but remains rooted in yin, yet chooses to remove the outward symbols of maleness and puts on female. To further stress common duality, the ballad closes with, “’The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip, the she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled. Two hares running side by side close to the ground, how can they tell if I am he or she?”[6]

The ballad seems to want the listener to understand that Mulan is female, but more than that, her actions are not male, that they are instead, simply honorable. The stress of the story focuses on Mulan’s nobility, grace and inner reflection.

In next week’s post, I will further discuss and analyze the ballad with special attention on military camaraderie and about female success in traditionally male spheres of influence. I’ll take a look at how the story of Mulan can give us insight into our own political and social issues. Maybe Mulan will save the today’s world too.

[1] Klimczak, Natalia. “The Ballad of Hua Mulan: The Legendary Warrior Woman Who Brought Hope to China.” Ancient Origins.

[2] Note, I say “Khan” here, the northern tribe title for a ruler, where the Disney film depicts the “Emperor,” which is a Han-Chinese title. Again, this is a story that does not originate from a Han-Chinese background.

[3] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Heaven and Earth: Taoist Cosmology.” The Art Institute of Chicago.

[6] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators.

Featured: Rejected Princesses

As a mother, I’m quite aware of the gap of stories of girls who are self-motivated and independent (not in need of saving) for children. Things are improved, but there are so many stories to tell that are historically based, of strong women who acted and not merely acted-upon… a theme so vital to our interests here at Unbound.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 12.26.04 PMThe project, Rejected Princesses, present with endearing illustrations the stories of women and girls who have not been featured in the popular awareness. Created for children, the stories are accessible, fun and positive. The interest and introduction to reading and the knowledge, themes and ideas that they convey are vital to the education of children everywhere. Books can change the world.

I recommend perusing the Rejected Princesses site and although modern, in the interest of our monthly theme, read the story of Soraya Tarzi.

Tower of Moon and Stars: Queen Seondeok of Silla

by K.P. Kulski

I am writing this not as an academic but because I was once a little girl, one who learned about a magnificent queen of history and was inspired. There isn’t a lot available in English about Queen Seondeok (also written as Sondok, Sonduk) who ruled the ancient Korean Silla Dynasty from 632-647 CE, particularly when it comes to primary source material. This renders Seondeok as a quasi-mythological figure, and while we know she was real and existed. It seems the fate of English speakers to know her mostly through stories. While problematic for the historian, the solid edges of her personage and reign can be less important than what she represents for women.

How can a little girl hear the dramatic story of a princess who was chosen to inherit the throne because of her exceeding intelligence and not feel that there is something more The_Great_Queen_Seondeok-p1important than their physical appearance? For those of us who love to read, are enraptured with knowledge and the quest to obtain it, Queen Seondeok and the respect she garners is a rare example of a woman who was most well renown for her substance. It is no surprise that the K-Drama of Queen Seondeok is wildly popular among both Korean and American fans. Further, stories of Seondeok also relay her compassion and concern for those she ruled, all characteristics that are not traditionally celebrated in monarchs who are more often known for their military conquests than civil-mindedness. It was Seondeok’s intelligence, diligence and compassion that cemented the Silla Kingdom but further developed Korean culture. This was a turbulent part of Korean history and the peninsula was split between competing kingdoms, Silla, Goguryeo and Baekche. Diplomacy was valued as well as military strength. Understandably, Seondeok’s abilities greatly contributed to maintaining Silla despite rebellions and upheavals during her fourteen-year reign. In fact, it was through both soft and hard power—an alliance with Tang China, that the Silla dynasty would be able to militarily unify Korea.

Seondeok’s intelligence is depicted in three main ways: curiosity, observation and prophetic. Most stories originate from Seondeok’s childhood and focus on her extraordinary abilities that led to her designation as heir.

Curiosity is the first step in the path of knowledge, without it there is no will to seek or obtain knowledge. During the time of Seondeok, Buddhism flourished in the Silla Kingdom. It is from Seondeok desire to expand on both personal knowledge as well as her kingdom’s, she sent students to China. These students returned with Buddhist manuscripts that greatly influenced the Queen and led to the construction of several Buddhist temples and shrines.

Probably the most famous story of Queen Seondeok emerges from her childhood. It is possible that the story is meant to cement her creditability as a ruler when she was chosen from other contenders for the position. It is said that her father received a gift of peony seeds along with a painting of the plant. She remarked that it was a shame that the flowers had no scent. Surprised at how she would know such a thing without having ever smelled a peony, she responded that the painting did not depict insects, which would be drawn normally to a flower by scent.[1]

According to legend, she was so observant, knowledgeable and thoughtful that she was able to read signs from the natural world that indicated the future. In one instance, she predicted an attack from the rival Baekche kingdom by observing the sound of frogs at a gate.[2]

Intelligence and the gathering of knowledge is rarely comparable to the stories of military and physical might. Usually those stories, which are equally exciting, depict a hero whose physical prowess and training has led them to great victories. Often these victories have a supernatural element, where the hero taps into powers greater than humanity. Sometimes this is from deities, or magic. Stories of Seondeok are much the same, except her special power lies within the realm of knowledge and the power of the mind. Even more, there is no external gift from higher powers, instead it is the power she has created within herself from the gathering of knowledge and use of her honed mental capacity.

It is believed that Seondeok constructed the Cheomseongdae Obeservatory, the first known Observatoryof its kind dedicated to the study of astronomy in East Asia. Not only does the study of the heavens indicate a sense possibility and intellectual advancement, but greatly increases the accuracy of agricultural practices for the society who has access to the information.[3]

Being presented with heroes that deviate from the model we are used to – male, physical, warlike, allows us to celebrate the value of multiple strengths. It acknowledges the many skills, abilities and pursuits in the world that enrich it and are required to overcome challenges. Further, untraditional heroines like Seondeok are such important vessels of inspiration for our daughters, sisters and mothers.


[1] “Queen Seondeok,” New World Encyclopedia, Accessed 02 JUL 2017.

[2] Ibid

[3] “ Cheomseongdae Observatory,” UNESCO World Heritage, Accessed 08 JUL 2017.

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