How to be a warrior princess: Chinese heroines

Nina Powles remembers how it felt to discover Mulan, a Chinese ‘warrior princess’, as a child, and looks into other stories of woman warriors in China and how their stories still resonate today.

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A statue of Lady Fu Hao

1. Learn how to cut your own hair

When I was five, there was only one doll in my doll collection that wasn’t white or blonde. She wore a yellow skirt and a jade-green top that covered her arms, with a gauzy blue and red sash around her waist. She had straight black hair cut just above her shoulders and a thin line of purple eyeshadow painted above her heavy-lidded eyes. She came with two accessories: a red dragon small enough to sit on her shoulder, and a plastic sword with a pattern of dragons on the hilt. Her blue and white felt slippers were almost like the ones I’d seen my grandmother wear.

The Disney animated film Mulan came out in 1998, and for three Halloweens in a row thereafter, I dressed up as Mulan. We were living in New York City at the time, where Halloween was a big deal—in the weeks leading up to October 31st, shop windows and doorways all over the city were decorated with cotton-wool spider webs, paper vampire bats and flashing plastic pumpkin-shaped lights.

The Disney animated film Mulan came out in 1998, and for three Halloweens in a row thereafter, I dressed up as Mulan.

We always went trick-or-treating in a group around the neighbourhood, someone’s mum in a witch’s hat leading a gang of colourful princesses, a few Batmans and the odd vampire. All the usual Disney princesses were present among our group: Snow White, Cinderella and two Belles. Beauty and the Beast had been released in 1991 and Belle’s iconic yellow gown was still the most coveted Halloween costume.

As a nineties kid I was a diehard Disney fan, re-watching over and over my favourite fairytale princesses on VHS and re-reading the illustrated book versions that were released alongside the movies. I loved all the classics, especially Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, but in a purely aesthetic sort of way. I remember being mesmerised by Aurora’s golden hair that fell in perfect waves to the middle of her back, and by the glittering blue dress that emerges out of a shower of silver stars to hug Cinderella’s tiny waist.

My hair as a kid was thick and bouffy and unable to be tamed. The night before Halloween I took to my hair with a pair of scissors to make it look like I’d cut it with a sword in a single swoop.

2. Read stories of warrior princesses who have gone before

The princesses who captured my imagination were not quite so traditional as those that Disney took from Grimms’ Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Andersen. I was more interested in imagining myself as Mulan or Pocahontas, running barefoot through pine forests and wielding a bow and arrow. Before Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen, before Jane Eyre and Lyra Silvertongue, they were my superheroes of sorts.

Mulan is the best-known (and perhaps only known) Chinese heroine outside China. But in East Asian folklore there is a long history of powerful women warriors, some who really existed and some who can only be traced back to legend.

In East Asian folklore there is a long history of powerful women warriors …

Khutulun, whose name means moonlight, is a Mongolian warrior, and was the daughter of Kaidu, a powerful ruler of Central Asia. She would not marry any man unless he could defeat her in wrestling, and none could. It is said that she amassed a herd of ten thousand from winning horses in so many wagers with potential suitors.

In Chinese mythology, the god of war is female; her name means dark lady of the nine heavens. She is also the goddess of sexuality. She rides on the back of a giant phoenix, holding onto the clouds as reins, and wears feathered garments of nine different colours.

Lady Fu Hao was a military general, high priestess and oracle caster during the ancient Shang Dynasty. Her story was unearthed in the form of characters carved into oracle bones, which are the first known examples of written Chinese script. People submitted questions to the gods and Lady Fu Hao wrote their question on a piece of ox- or turtle-bone. She touched a hot iron to the bone until the heat made it shatter, then interpreted the pattern of cracks and carved her prophecy into the bones.

At what age do we stop pretending? There comes a point when it’s no longer cool or interesting to play dress-up and pretend to be a forest princess with a magical animal companion, like Lyra with her daemon, or like Princess Mononoke, who rides on the back of a white wolf with blood smeared across her cheeks.

3. Rewrite your story

Every retelling is another version of the story, whether in film or around a campfire or in a teenager’s diary or among children playing on the street. As for the traditional European fairy tales, there have been countless versions over countless mediums and more are being written every day.

Only recently I discovered The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter’s radical and very adult retellings of classic fairy tales. My wish for more complex, more interesting and more badass princesses was granted here. A beautiful woman who transforms herself into a tiger, a girl named Alice who is raised by wolves, a young bride who is saved from death at the hands of the evil Marquis by her mother, who shoots him in the head. ‘You never saw such a wild thing as my mother,’ her daughter tells us.

Woman Warrior is a book I wish I’d known about when I was younger.

It was with the publication of Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood with Ghosts by Maxine Hong Kingston in 1976 that Mulan became a well-known figure in the West. Often described as one of the best and most complex portrayals of growing up as a Chinese-American immigrant in the 20th century, Woman Warrior is a book I wish I’d known about when I was younger. Retelling her and her family’s story alongside the stories her mother told when she was young, Hong Kingston imagines herself into the myth of Mulan: ‘I would have to grow up to be a warrior woman.’

Mothers and aunts are important characters in myths and fairy tales, and Hong Kingston begins her story with the dark tale of her aunt, the ‘no-name woman’, who was humiliated and banished by her family for becoming pregnant outside of marriage. ‘Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound,’ she writes, intertwining history with folklore.

Like Maxine Hong Kingston, I never really stopped imagining. I just learned to imagine in quieter ways.

4. Find your sworn sisters

I have written about Mulan before, but only the Disney version. The name Mulan (木兰) means magnolia in Chinese. Her story first emerged in poetry, in the form of The Ballad of Mulan, first transcribed in the sixth century. The poem is made up of 31 couplets of mostly five-character lines.

In the original story, there are no talking dragons or ghost ancestors or Mongolian invaders. Mulan is already skilled in martial arts, sword fighting and archery by the time all the men in her village are called to defend China. With her father growing old and her brother still a child, Mulan takes her father’s place in the army by disguising herself as a man. She returns home only after twelve years of fighting.

In another forgotten version of the story, Mulan is captured by the Xia Army and questioned by the king’s warrior daughter, Xianniang. Discovering that Mulan is also a woman, the two warriors become sworn sisters by cutting their palms with each other’s swords at the same moment. They stay by each other’s side for the remainder of the battle, surrendering themselves to be executed together instead of being taken prisoner.

In the most famous stories, the woman warrior bravely faces her enemies alone, or with the help of a male love interest or animal sidekick.

Female friendship is so rarely a part of these legends. In the most famous stories, the woman warrior bravely faces her enemies alone, or with the help of a male love interest or animal sidekick.

On Halloween night in the city, my best friend and I run down the street in our makeshift costumes, me with my plastic sword and her with her shield. We run past jack-o-lanterns and paper bones, pretending we’re running for our lives. It’s dark and there are ghosts and demons and glowing skulls in the trees, but no one can stop us, holding tightly onto each other and we run and we do not let go.

Nina Powles
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Nina Powles is a writer from Wellington. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University and was the 2015 winner of the Biggs Family Prize for Poetry. Her work has recently appeared in Mimicry, Scum and Shabby Doll House as well as several self-published poetry zines. Her debut poetry book, Luminescent, was published in August 2017. She is half Malaysian-Chinese and currently lives in China.