“The Xianbei people… invade our frontiers so frequently that hardly a year goes by in peace, and it is only when the trading season arrives that they come forward in submission. But in so doing, they are only bent on gaining precious Chinese goods; it is not because they respect Chinese power or are grateful for Chinese generosity. As soon as they obtain all they possibly can [from trade], they turn in their tracks to start wreaking damage.”-- Ying Shao, Book of Later Han, 185 AD.
The land under heaven had been thrown into a state of chaos.
While the mentally challenged Emperor Sima Zhong was busy determining whether he could order frogs to croak, eight princes began an intense conflict over who who would usurp the throne. Because the Chinese were fighting amongst themselves, they were no longer able to resist the barbarians. In the era that followed, the land was torn by war and fractured into sixteen kingdoms.
China was no more.
A new generation arose that knew nothing but turmoil and conflict. After the barbarians burned the historical archives, all memories of the great Chinese empire were completely erased.
It was the darkest moment the land under heaven had ever witnessed.
Then, the Xianbei began to rise to power.
One of the most powerful rulers during this time was Tuoba Gui, emperor of Northern Wei. Uncompromising in his thirst for power, he conquered much of China and forced every able-bodied man to serve in his army.
East of Northern Wei’s borders was Black Mountain, where men who sought to escape from the emperor's bloody expeditions would flee. Because the mountain's steep precipices made it ideal for launching ambushes against unsuspecting travelers, these men who refused to serve a corrupt monarch soon become evil bandits who killed and plundered many innocent merchants.
The faint light of goodness which was once intrinsic to all men had finally been extinguished.
As time passed, over ten thousand men joined the bandits on Black Mountain. The most fearsome was a man by the name of He Hu. Because of his rough nature and cruel disposition, he was often referred to as Leopard Skin. When Leopard Skin realized that merchants were no longer willing to pass through Black Mountain, he feared a shortage of plunder. In response, he united the bandits to form an army and began invading the surrounding areas. Because all the men who were able to fight had already been deployed to fight the emperor's battles, Leopard Skin had no difficulty capturing Maoer and Chengdong. Declaring bandit territory as a sovereign state, he named himself king over the bandits.
When the Emperor of Northern Wei heard that the bandits were threatening his territory, he convened the royal court to discuss the situation.
“My lord!” Supreme Commander Xin Ping scoffed, “How can a single family of thieves be of any concern? Leave them alone! The entirety of our forces does not exceed three hundred thousand men -- if you insist on sending some of these soldiers to Black Mountain, you will have to make sacrifices on the expansion of your empire.”
The emperor frowned. “Yes, but the good people of Wei are being threatened by these bandits. They deserve a sovereign who cares about their well-being.”
“It is not the people you care about,” the prime minister chuckled, “You are worried that the bandits make you appear weak.”
The emperor smiled. “The bandits must be dealt with. Because Niu He and his men have yet to experience a victory, I doubt it will be much of a sacrifice if his five thousand men are sent to Black Mountain. I will appoint Niu He as vanguard and order that an additional five thousand men be recruited to join the expedition.” Turning to Xin Ping, the emperor continued, “Supreme Commander, I will entrust you with the task of finding five thousand fresh soldiers. I hope that you do not look down upon being given such a common task.”
“My lord,” Xin Ping replied, “Your humble servant has received your heavenly orders; I dare not refuse the work of dogs and horses.”
The emperor hesitated. “I fear that the heart of the people cannot be commanded. Being that I I have ordered two drafts in the last year, I doubt that the news that more men are required will be received well.” The emperor then removed his own sword from his waist and granted it to Xin Ping, explaining, “In the event that any men refuse to submit to your command and join the expedition against the bandits, you may use this sword. I hereby grant you ultimate authority to slay anyone you wish.”
Xin Ping kowtowed himself to the ground in front of the emperor. “My lord,” he declared, “I will fulfill your orders. I will find the men required to defeat the bandits.”
The next day, Xin Ping proceeded to a town in Youyan. When the local magistrate learned that fighting men were required, he protested, “You have already robbed this town of every man who is able to pull a plow! What will you do next? Force the sick, elderly, and children into your army as well? Leave this good town alone!”
Indignant, Xin Ping thrust the emperor's sword deep into the magistrate's heart, declaring, “In this manner will every man who interferes with the royal court be dealt with!” Trembling, every man from the town came out and followed Xin Ping.
* * * * *
To the north was a village where the Hua family lived. Hua Hu was a highly educated man who had previously been a battalion captain. In his old age, he retired from the army and took a wife for himself. Hua Hu and his wife, Jia Anren, retreated to the woods and built a house suitable for raising a family. However, because they were both well advanced in years, they failed to conceive.
Every day for three years, Hua Hu would kneel in the shadow of Mulan Mountain and pray fervently for an heir. When Anren finally conceived and bore a daughter, they named her Mulan. Several years later, they had another daughter named Munan. Finally, Anren gave birth to a son, whom they named Hua Fang.
When Mulan was seventeen years old, she was betrothed to marry the prominent official Wang Qingyun. Because of his influential position, he had managed to exempt himself from the drafts, which made him one of the few young men left in the town. The fact that Mulan was engaged to be married to Qingyun made her the envy of all her friends.
Mulan was exceptionally beautiful and had a natural talent for virtually everything to which she applied herself. But more than anything, Mulan loved to read. While few homes could boast of having a single precious book, the Hua family had a book shelf because of Mulan's continual insistence that she simply could not stop reading. She read books on astronomy, geography, mathematics, and literature. She also read about war. She had, of course, read Sun Zi’s The Art of War, but she also read about military tactics, battle formations, and stealth. Mulan did not care much about what she read, provided that she continued to find new books to enjoy. However, finding new books was always a challenge. When she had exhausted her supply of books, she would have to resort to strange and obscure tactics to acquire new ones. Sometimes, she would travel to remote places and go on the most exciting adventures all in search of a book which she had not yet read. Every time she opened a new book, she felt as if her eyes had been reunited with old friends. Nobody who saw the Hua family’s bookshelf would ever forget the sight of so many rare and precious books. How she managed to acquire these books never ceased to astonish the townspeople.
The townspeople often commented on how Mulan seemed to have a boundless supply of energy. When she saw her father practicing martial arts, she would practice alongside him. One day, Hua Hu injured his back and was no longer able to walk without support. When Mulan continued practicing martial arts on her own, her father tried to discourage her. “Practicing spear and staff fighting is for boys!” he often scolded, "Are you so determined to make yourself into a worthless woman?"
A woman's worth was tied to her ability to please a man. Although many men found the sight of a woman practicing martial arts quite titillating, Mulan was quickly excelling beyond the skill level which was acceptable for a lady. Even betrothed and married women had to strive to maintain their worth; if a husband feared that his wife was capable of challenging his authority, he wouldn't hesitate to take a second wife for himself, casting the first one to the side.
Despite the fact the Hua Hu tried his best to encourage his daughter toward more socially acceptable activities, he secretly admired how she danced so elegantly with weapons in her hands. When he finally realized that she could not be dissuaded from practicing martial arts, he began coaching her. Mulan excelled to the point that Qingyun refused to spar with her any longer. Although he claimed that he wanted to encourage her to become more ladylike, there was much gossip that this was because she was the better fighter.
Mulan was truly, as the townspeople liked to say, a daughter of jade. She was beautiful, incredibly gifted, and betrothed to a man who, shockingly enough, seemed to value her unconditionally. During this time when the Chinese knew only hardship and suffering, it was refreshing to be reassured that there was one person upon whom the gods of fate had chosen to smile.
Mulan returned home and bowed to her parents who are sitting in the inner courtyard room. Seeing that she had a book in her hands, they knew better than to delay her. Hua Hu simply nodded and Mulan disappeared into her bedroom chamber.
As Mulan lay down on her mat, she gingerly opened the cover of her newest treasure. This book was about a princess. While she had previously read about many princesses, this one was a mighty warrior who defeated men stronger than herself through the use of magic.
As Mulan lay there, she mentally reviewed the many books she had read over the years. Not one so much as hinted at how to employ the art of magic. Was it even possible?
She was nearly a quarter of the way through the novel when, suddenly, Mulan was jolted from her mystical world when she heard the sound of weeping coming from down the hall. Standing up, she carefully crept through the house and ran into Xiaohuan, the family servant.
“Miss!” Xiaohuan cried, “A great disaster has come upon this house! The Emperor of Wei requires men from every village to join the army and we fear that your father may be among those chosen!”
“But father is an aged man!” Mulan exclaimed, “He can hardly walk -- how is he supposed to fight?”
Xiaohuan fell silent and merely extended a public notice for Mulan to see. Mulan’s knees grew weak as she sank to the floor, clutching the paper in her hands. The wording was explicitly clear -- anyone who refused to comply would face certain death.
“Has the conscription list been finalized?” Mulan asked hopefully. Xiaohuan shook her head.
Drawing herself together, Mulan stood up and marched solemnly to the inner courtyard room, where she saw her father sitting in the corner. He was gasping for breath in between great sobs with his wife was sitting next to him, joining him in tears. Mulan entered the room and bowed to her parents. She cringed as she tried to muster the strength to speak.
Finally, her father looked up. With tears in her eyes, he said to her, “In five days, I must depart. I fear that I will never see you again.”
Mulan simply could not accept this. With tears welling up in her eyes, she protested, “It would be no good for you to go! You are an aged man who experiences constant back pain and your legs are weak. I will not stand idle and watch you commit suicide. No, it cannot end this way! There must be another way.”
As Mulan said these words, she tried her best to think of an alternative. As she thought, what came to mind was a poem:
Deep within my heart, I have a choice to makeI have every right to sit alone and admit that there is no other wayBut I must be completely devoted to my familyThe greatest virtues are loyalty, devotion, and chastity
Suddenly, an idea came to mind.
“Father,” Mulan asked expectantly, “Who came to deliver the notice?”
Father let out a deep sigh and stared at the floor. “I don't know. Xiaohuan answered the door. I never saw the man who came.”
Mulan's heart raced. Her idea just might work. “At this point, you are no more than a name on a register. If someone took your place, the magistrate wouldn't know that you failed to comply with the draft.”
“Are you really that stupid?” Father snapped, “Who would take my place? Hua Fang is only five years old and I have no sworn brothers who would sacrifice their lives on my behalf.”
Just then, there was the sound of knocking coming from the front gate. Xiaohuan raced outside and returned with the recently announced conscription list, dropping it in Father's lap.
The air was filled with anticipation as Mulan and Mother moved closer. They all looked expectantly at the list.
All hope vanished as soon as they saw Hua Hu's name.
Hua Hu's fate was sealed.
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