Part 1- Hua Mulan: East-West With Honor

p21118_p_v8_acIt’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. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ballad-hua-mulan-legendary-warrior-woman-who-brought-hope-china-005084.

[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. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Heaven and Earth: Taoist Cosmology.” The Art Institute of Chicago. http://www.artic.edu/taoism/tradition/b14.php

[6] “The Ballad of Mulan.” Asia for Educators. http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/china/mulan.pdf

The Clear Light of Reason

It might seem odd to kick off a month dedicated to reason with a medieval mystic; however, much of Julian of Norwich’s mysticism is well-grounded in reason, particularly as it applies to her faith.

Julian of Norwich is a significant historical figure in the Catholic and Anglican churches, but also in English literature. Her text, Revelations of Divine Love, is the first known text written in English by a woman. There are two reasons why this is unusual, and it’s not for the reasons one might think. The first is that it was very common for European medieval texts to be anonymous. These writers tended to see themselves writing within a tradition, or building upon the classical works, and so they seldom claimed ownership of the work, since the ideas were part of a larger storytelling world. It’s possible that we have works in English from women written before Julian of Norwich, but if so, there’s no way to tell.

Sir_Gawain_first_page
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
was written around the same time as Revelations…but this author was anonymous

In fact, the works that are most likely to not be anonymous in the middle ages were works of theology. It was seen as of utmost importance that these were signed, in case there were any theological discrepancies, heresies, or points of contention. Since Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love is an autobiography and ultimately a work of theology, we have her name.

The second reason why her work is unusual is that it’s originally written in English, as opposed to a more official language, like Latin. At the time the text was written, at the end of the 14th century, English, long the vernacular language in England, was starting to become more accepted as more than just “street talk.” The first time the chancellor spoke English in parliament was in 1362,1 only a few years before Julian’s “revelations.” Julian claimed her revelations were given to one who “could not read a letter”2; however, the words are clearly those of an intelligent woman. Though she did have the help of a scribe3, it’s possible she did not know Latin, and thus wrote in English.

A work of theology in a vernacular language written by a woman all add up to something unique indeed.

Norwich_UK_city_skyline
By Martin Richards – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8022527

Little is known about Julian herself, other than what she tells us in her Revelations. We know that she was from around Norwich, and we also know that she was an anchoress–that is, a woman who has shut herself off from the world in order to live a life of solitary religious devotion.4 Before she became an anchoress, she fell ill. So ill that a priest was called in to conduct last rites. In her fever, she had sixteen visions which she later wrote in her book, all concerning the nature of Christ. This is, of course, what qualifies her as a “mystic.” The “mystics” of the European medieval era were somewhat on the fringe of mainstream Christianity. Though they were diverse in their beliefs and writings, many mystics believed in revelations and visions from God, something that was more supernatural than it was based in any scientific evidence. Julian of Norwich is regarded as one of the greatest English mystics of the medieval period.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does mysticism have to do with a theme concerning reason?

To which I suppose I could let Julian of Norwich, 14th century mystic, anchoress, and commoner, answer.

Despite Julian’s assertion that she is a “simple creature,”5 her work speaks for itself. The assertion was not uncommon for medieval monastic writings, as humility from the author would be expected. Julian’s work follows the logical pattern of many monastic writers at the time, as she walks her readers through her argument. Each chapter builds on the points preceding it, and all culminate in her final thoughts. Though some might scoff at her insistence that she received sixteen visions from God, no one can deny she uses reason in her interpretation of these visions.

Hans_Baldung_Grien_-_The_Trinity_and_Mystic_Pietà_-_Google_Art_Project
Hans Baldung Grien — The Trinity and Mystic Pietà 

 

Some of her arguments even seemed radical to mainstream theology at the time, including the assertion that the divine was feminine, as well as masculine (“For the Almighty Truth of the Trinity is our Father: for he made us and keepth us in him; and the deep Wisdom of the Trinity is our Mother, in whom we are all enclosed”6). Other theologians of the time suggested this metaphorically; however, Julian’s assertion of the feminine in the divine is more overt and literal.

Ultimately, her premises lead to her conclusion that “Our Faith cometh of the kind Love of our soul, and of the clear light of our Reason, and of the steadfast Mind which we have of God in our first making.”7

And this is what I find so fascinating about Julian of Norwich: her ability to marry Faith and Reason, two things often seen as mutually exclusive. Here, Julian of Norwich argues that Faith comes through Reason and a “steadfast Mind.” For Julian, the two were inseparable and dependent upon one another. As she lays out her revelations and subsequent insights, one can clearly see how well thought-out her arguments were. I’ve read many monastic writings from England, France, and Germany in the Middle Ages. Most of them were men, but I’ve read a few women, as well. All have been well-reasoned, but of the ones I’ve read, none have been as fervent and infused with passion as Julian’s.

Statue_of_Dame_Julian
Statue of Dame Julian at Norwich Cathedral

Regardless of whether or not one accepts her revelations as facts, one cannot deny Julian of Norwich’s importance in history–either because she was the first know woman to write a work in English; or because of her contribution to mystical theology; or because of her ability to give us a rare insight into the life of a medieval anchoress.

Though we’re not overflowing with writings of medieval female intellectuals, they do exist. What makes Julian stand out to me is her focus on love, beauty, and faith, and her belief that the “clear light of Reason” illuminates them for us.

 

For more information on Julian of Norwich’s role as an anchoress, this is a good article: http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-first-woman-to-publish-a-book-in-english-lived-in-a-room-attached-to-a-church-and-walled-off-from-the-rest-of-the-world

1 British Library: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126569.html

2 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 1.

3 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 169.

4 Dictionary.com “Anchorite”: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/anchorite?s=t

5 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 3.

6 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 110.

7 Julian of Norwich. Revelations of Divine Love. Dover, 2006, pp 111.

 

Boudicca: The Celtic Queen Who Refused to Bow to Rome

by: Erica Millard

A few months ago, I read the book “Mr. Churchill’s Secretary,” a fictional novel by Susan Elia MacNeal. I have read twenty books since then, but there is one scene about which I can’t stop thinking.

It haunts me.

In the first chapter of the book, a woman named Diana is coming home from where she works as a secretary for Winston Churchill. She exits the car of a stranger who has given her a ride home. When she gets out, a man is standing there in a dark mask. He tells her to turn around and put her hands on the car hood. She complies despite the fear that something is wrong. “Without preamble, she felt the hot shock of the metal blade as it pierced through her flesh and could hear the tearing as it went through cloth and skin and muscle” (MacNeal 8). She dies there, in a puddle of rain and blood, without trying to run or fight back.

It was about that time that I stumbled on the history of Boudicca, Warrior Queen of the Celts.

Boudicca was a queen of the Iceni Celtic tribe in 47 A.D. Briton was under the rule of the Roman Empire, and Boudicca’s husband was the Icenian King Prasutagus. Although he was the King of the Celts, he was also a “client king” of the Romans, and therefore had full Roman citizenship. By extension, his wife would also have been a part of the ruling class of Rome (Collingridge 173-178).

King Prasutagus died, and instead of passing his kingdom to his daughters which had been his wishes, Rome decided that the kingdom was rightfully theirs. They beat Boudicca and raped both of her daughters, the very women that King Prasutagas thought would be the queens of his kingdom. The bodily harm and the rapes were seen as great insults in both the Roman and Celtic cultures. But they were designed for one thing: to terrify both Boudicca and the Celts into submission to the Romans.

It did not work.

Sword

After hearing of what had happened to Boudicca, the Iceni tribespeople gathered near the home of their queen, “Showing their support for their queen and their hatred of the Romans” (Collingridge 184). Roman rule was tenuous at best, with a previous Celtic rebellion squashed thirteen years previous and the tentative peace only possible through King Prasutagus’s pro-Roman stance.

Other Celtic tribes joined Boudicca and made a massive army, and according to Collingridge, “There was only one response, only one plan of action – and that was to wipe out all trace of the Romans’ polluting culture and their gross abuse of every man, woman and child in the conquered territories” (Collingridge 185). Boudicca and her army attacked and razed three Roman cities. Her army was brutal and harsh, taking the lives of thousands of Britons and Romans alike in an attempt to win back their independence and freedom.

The historian Tacitus recorded Boudicca’s statement:

“Nothing is safe from Roman pride and arrogance. They will deface the sacred and will deflower our virgins. Win the battle or perish, that is what I, a woman, will do” (Pruit).

Boudicca and her army lost in a final battle with Rome, and because of that loss, Briton was then ruled by Rome for another 350 years. Of Boudica, Dio wrote, “The Britons mourned her deeply and gave her a costly burial. The Roman conquest had brought to the Iceni misfortune that ripened into disaster after their rebellion failed. But as time passed, Britannia became an orderly and respected part of the Roman empire. It remained so for another three centuries. Boudica’s people finally won what it seems they had wanted all along: respect, peace and a government that treated them with justice and honor” (Donsbach).

Boudicca died defending her rights and doing what she thought was best.

What do these two women, one fictional and one not, have to do with one another? Both of their stories end in death and that is the very point. One died without even an attempt to fight. The other fought for what she believed in.

If I had a choice, I know which one I would choose to be.

 

Works Cited:

Collingridge, Vanessa. Boudica. London: Ebury, 2005. Print.

Donsbach, Margaret “Boudica: Celtic War Queen Who Challenged Rome.” HistoryNet. N.p., 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017. http://www.historynet.com/boudica-celtic-war-queen-who-challenged-rome.htm

MacNeal, Susan Elia. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary: A Novel. New York: Bantam Trade Paperback, 2011. Print.

Pruitt, Sarah. “Who was Boudica?” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 31 May 2016. Web. 26 Mar. 2017. http://www.history.com/news/ask-history/who-was-boudica