The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan (木蘭奇女傳, c. 1800)
The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan is a Qing dynasty novel that tells the story of how Mulan’s grandfather passed down the wisdom Mulan needed to become skilled in martial arts.
The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan was written primarily in response to the oppressive Manchu rulers under whom the Chinese people were forced to serve. The anonymous author, who refers to himself as the “Old Master of Ocean Garden,” advocates withdrawing from evil through monasticism. This is perhaps the most unique retelling of Mulan’s story because it supports passivism and, as a result, contains very few scenes depicting warfare. While there are some instances where the characters are forced to fight, they seek to avoid conflict whenever possible.
Although some scholars consider this to be the first novel about Mulan, the author never released The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan during his lifetime. The manuscript was discovered in 1800. It is impossible to know whether the author considered the book complete, or if he had intentionally discarded it.
The main protagonist of this story is Mulan’s grandfather, Zhu Ruoxu. During the first half of the novel, Ruoxu learns the secrets of dark magic from his mentor, Li Jing. However, because Ruoxu has incredible self-restraint, he refuses to exercise his power but seeks to promote change indirectly. Halfway through the book, the focus shifts to Mulan, who finally learns how to apply her grandfather’s magical arts to defeat the forces of evil. However, the emperor begins to suspect Mulan of seeking to usurp his throne and sentences her to death.
The message of this book is that evil cannot always be resisted. In a sense, the author was trying to encourage the original readers that even though they had the power to fight the oppression they endured, seeking social transformation is not always the right course of action.
This novel begins by following Mulan’s grandfather, Zhu Ruoxu. Ruoxu is a gifted scholar who is determined to earn an official position for himself. However, due to political corruption, he finds that he is not given a fair chance at the prefectural examinations. In the process of fighting for his rights to be given the opportunity which he feels that he deserves, Ruoxu meets Li Jing, who becomes his mentor, and Yuchi Gong, a struggling calligrapher. When Ruoxu rescues Yuchi Gong from financial ruin, the two men become sworn brothers.
Li Jing teaches Ruoxu the art of dark magic but emphasizes that magic must be used responsibly. Thus, Ruoxu goes his entire life without ever exercising his powers. Instead, he seeks to promote social transformation indirectly. When Ruoxu recommends that Yuchi Gong seek a career change, Yuchi Gong rapidly excels and quickly becomes adviser to the great general Li Shimin. Eventually, Li Shimin rises to become the first emperor of the Tang Dynasty, and Yuchi Gong becomes his supreme commander.
Ruoxu’s son, Tianlu, marries but has no heir. Because his wife is infertile, Tianlu prays fervently in the shadow of Mulan Mountain every day. When a daughter is finally born, Tianlu names her Mulan, believing that she has been indwelt with the spirit of the mountain. As Mulan grows, she quickly demonstrates that she is no ordinary child. When Mulan is ten years old, she dresses as a boy and sneaks into a monetary and speaks with the head monk, Sangwu (Sangwu was a fierce warrior who left the army to seek enlightenment). Sangwu asks Mulan a series of impossibly difficult questions, but she answers them all to Sangwu’s amazement. The next day, everyone searches for the prodigy who spoke with Sangwu. Because they are looking for a boy, Mulan’s secret is not discovered.
Ruoxu, who is now old and about to die, calls for Mulan. He entrusts to her a secret book of dark magic he had been given by his mentor, Li Jing. Shortly after Ruoxu’s death, the Zhu family’s house is burned to the ground. Because they have lost everything, Mulan spends nearly all her time in front of a loom trying to help support her struggling family.
One day, Sangwu visits the Zhu family and recognizes Mulan as the boy who had visited him years ago. He takes a particular interest in her and teaches her everything he knows about staff fighting, which she quickly masters. Whenever she takes a break from weaving, she finds time to practice martial arts.
One day, Yuchi Gong, who has now been promoted to duke, has a disturbing dream and realizes that amid his rising career, he had forgotten about Ruoxu. When he pays the Zhu family a visit, he is heartbroken to discover that his sworn brother is dead. In an attempt to ease his guilty conscience, he bestows a small fortune upon the Zhu family. Soon afterward, a corrupt magistrate observes that the Zhu family is no longer living like paupers and accuses them of robbery. Outraged, Yuchi Gong strips the magistrate of his uniform and grants it to Tianlu (Mulan’s father).
Late one night, when Mulan is practicing swordsmanship in her bedroom, she senses someone’s presence but sees nothing. Because the creature refuses to show itself, she slashes through the air. Blood splatters onto the wall, and a severed foot of a fox materializes on the floor, but the invisible creature escapes.
Meanwhile, the emperor wages war against the Tujue. Yuchi Gong, who is now supreme commander, issues a draft, hand-picking Tianlu to lead the cavalry. However, Tianlu suddenly falls ill before he can report for duty. Mulan, who is now fourteen, dresses as a man and takes her father’s place. At first, Yuchi Gong is surprised to learn that Tianlu has a son. However, when Mulan demonstrates her incredible skill, he is delighted to allow Mulan to join the army and confers upon her the title General Wu Zhao.
Li Jing, who is now the army supervisor, immediately recognizes Mulan and agrees to become her mentor and assist in keeping her identity secret. Soon afterward, the army departs and camps beside Wutai Mountain. While men rest, Mulan climbs the mountain to deliver a letter from Sangwu to a monk who lives there. The monk grants Mulan a magical camel who is indwelt with the spirit of a snake.
Upon rejoining the army, Mulan is emboldened by her camel, and she captures the enemy’s supreme commander. However, because Yuchi Gong insists upon ineffective strategies, no future victories are won for the next ten years. After Yuchi Gong is demoted, the fox Mulan had previously defeated in her bedroom transforms into a man and leads the Chinese army to victory. Knowing that the fox has ulterior motives, Mulan defeats it with the magic she learned from her grandfather and confronts the King of Tujue herself, forcing him to surrender.
Mulan returns in triumph. When the emperor offers her a prominent position, she reveals that she is a woman and requests to return home. The emperor grants her request, changing her title to Princess Wu Zhao.
After her parents pass away, thirty-year-old Mulan is left alone to raise her siblings, who are still very young. Many years later, some evil men convince the emperor that a man with the surname Wu will usurp his throne. The emperor summons for Princess Wu Zhao and accuses her of treason. Although Mulan attempts to defend herself, the emperor refuses to believe her. To prove that she has no malicious intentions, she thrusts a dagger into her own heart and dies.
The emperor is finally convinced of her innocence, but it is too late. In his remorse, he gives her an honorable burial, writing “Filial, loyal, and valiant martyr” on her tombstone.