HUNDRED LEAF BLOSSOM
By Tao Changchang (aka Nasu Hasami)
(English Translation: Across the lines of [China] this land /across all time and space / where I belong is beside where you stand / when I say I love you / I mean forever / forever by your side.)
Ni Hao Zaijian (A Welcome Farewell)
When the history fades, all we have is what remains.
Within the waters, and beyond the mists, and when the myths depart,
all we will ever remember, will surely be written on our hearts.
Soft sleeves brushed against each other in the stillness of a shy embrace. Hands shadowed, whispered and traced each other. They learned curves they did not know and marked contours yet to be explored. They traced angles and lines and unchartered paths, memorising those newly formed maps, and committing those wanderings to this space in time. The shimmering moonlight was their only witness, wide and white and swimming against silken, sunken hues. The evening sky was steadfast in blue, dancing in black, sparkling and glimmering, and hinting at the unknown. It was calming and beautiful and bright.
It was a sky she knew, glistening in a lake she knew, in a home she had always loved, in the rightful place where she belonged.
There were no unknown mountains nor foreign hills or valleys or rivers or fields. There were no new and strange things, hiding and lurking in shadows. There was not a single spark of mystery to rouse panic or stir the breath of fear.
Although there was the exception of one thing that was a little new and a little strange.
He was, in the most astonishing sense, new to her home and strange to her life.
Standing stiffly, he was a little stilted, stoic, sombre, and in a most handsome way, sincerely shy. He was a little unsure and tentative, although he knew her and he appeared to desire to know more of this new revelation. Yet, his manner was as cold as the cold stone bench he sat upon, and he continued to shiver within his brocade despite the sweet spring air, or her friendly warmth and this growing familiarity that fell between them. This stranger, the man she had served under in the militia, a young General of no more than one hundred men, he continued to shiver despite Hua Mulan's good humour and her generous smiles. The young General continued to shy away despite her kindness and quiet affection. The officer Li Shang was stiff and pensive despite their acquaintance, and despite whom she was and all that had passed between them in the recent months.
This was new: this warmth and want and need to linger in this moment under the moonlight, by his side and in his presence; this desire to trust in the moments between now and yesterday and forever, and all the fervent prayers that would fill yesterday and swallow tomorrow and pray — pray that it lasted longer than now — longer than one moment, longer than this. This wish to stay here, beyond self and thought and time. They'd walked through this battle and this season side by side. They'd fought this war side by side. Despite her gender and despite her deception, he was here, tonight, by her side, his eyes lost on the water and in the sky. A smile occasionally lost on her, and a thought occasionally lost to her: the woman, Hua Mulan.
She who was not a boy-conscript or a girl in her father's clothes, and no longer a fraud or a fiend, but a friend and a comrade.
She no longer wore the garb of a man, but bore the precocious nature of a woman. It was a strange and peculiar sight, but there was no question as to her sex. Hua Mulan drew the elegant lines of a woman, dressed and sheathed in embroidered brocade and soft silk as she smiled coyly. She curled her laughter around his words, thrilling and delighting him as any well-trained courtesan might. As she spoke, she would gift him with gentle and sweet touches. A light caress to his shoulder or a brush of her exposed skin pressing against his own uncovered flesh. Her slender fingers stirred an affection in the young General he longed to explore, though his upbringing held him stiff. It was mesmerising, admiring her shortened ebony locks brush by her shoulders and dance in the wind, delicate and beautiful as they lightly brushed against her skin. The perfume she wore was sultry and exotic, and it both intrigued and intoxicated him, leaving him in a rush of confusion and pleasure. There was a smile on her face that lit her eyes and bared her teeth. It was a grin too familiar and much too strange drawn across such a delicate and pale face. This woman beheld a laugh that delighted him and a voice that charmed him, and in turn, made him smile and laugh and wield his own enchanting charismatic powers.
Yes, she was a woman, but Hua Mulan was so, so many other things too.
She was a fellow soldier, and now, a friend. She was a warrior in her own right — maybe her father's blood revelled a little there — but it was her hands that fell the Chu insurgence, and it was her hands that saved the Qin empire: a woman's hands. Hua Mulan's hands.
The name still felt strange on his lips, and the memories blended with what he thought he'd known and understood of the greater mystery of things he always believed he knew and trusted.
He thought he had known those hands when they were a man's hands. They felt different wrapped inside his hands now, dainty and petite, lightly brushing in farewell as he readied his horse. Those hands looked so different now, fingering invisible lines across his bridle and saddle, mussing and stroking his horse's mane. Touching things that weren't there, knowing things in that subtle way that revealed she knew him. Over the years, General Li Shang had traced those same invisible lines a thousand times.
Silence filled the space between them, and that silence was filled with small gestures and light smiles. This was all very unusual and strange, standing in the moonlight, unchaperoned, and speaking candidly with a woman who was not his blood relative, nor his wife or concubine. It was all very, very strange.
'I'm not any different than how I was no more than a few days' ago,' she murmured.
In truth, she was not any changed since earlier that morning. When she smiled, looking up at him through hooded eyes, it was the recruit Fa Ping's grin that spread across her mouth. Her nervousness was barely disguised by the fingers knotting themselves into her hair and pulling slightly.
'It's the dress, I suppose,' Li Shang mumbled, very inelegantly. His voice was half caught in a laugh, though he knew it unkind to laugh at any woman's wardrobe. The image was simply too strange. In his mind he battled the image of Fa Ping, a boy, in a dress, behaving licentiously and flirting with him.
Then the woman soldier giggled, leaning against his horse and nuzzling it.
'It's not because I'm a girl, is it?'
'I wouldn't say you were a girl.'
'It's not because I'm a woman, then?'
She was grinning and looking up at him again, catching and arresting him with her eyes the way she did. There was something about her and her eyes. Something different about her when she wasn't Fa Ping, even though Fa Ping had shared those eyes, there was something there that had never shined up at him from a boy's eyes.
'You're not any different either, Shang.'
Out of the robes of war, however, he was a very different man, and she should not be calling him by his name. It was too soon and too intimate and they were standing on an unknown ground with loose footing. He was just a man from the Capital and she was just a woman from the village of Song. The world didn't yet see her for the deeds she had done or the mark she had made for herself. As it was, there was little chance the world would ever remember her. She had been born the wrong gender to be revered. The greatness of her achievements would never be recorded in the annals of time, the services to her country would be neglected, and eventually, she would be forgotten.
It was that thought, and the myriad of apprehensions Li Shang had borne with him that had denounced his arrival at her home. He had managed a smattering of sentences twisted together, some mumbling about a helmet and a request from the Emperor, all bundled with an awkward grin and an affection for a comrade he didn't understand. He had tried in vain to ease the tension, yet it lingered thick and coarse between them, shafted and struck there as a wedge between them. There were too many improprieties and borders to be crossed and Li Shang did not feel inclined to instigate a fresh bitterness between himself and the lady soldier Hua Mulan.
The memory of recent days past was too fresh and too new. He had been a moment from executing her for impersonating an officer, and she had been wanton in seeking her death in the Xianyang, yet, through her rambunctious nature, she had become the saviour of all China, and endeared herself to him.
In the hours since she had been pardoned, and Li Shang had cantered after her as fast as his horse could carry him, he hadn't known what beast it was that had possessed him. In that moment, when he saw her depart from the Imperial Palace, he was not so sure where the soldier finished and where the man began. For all he tried to justify his actions, Li Shang did not believe it was a soldier's instincts that had carried him to her.
Although, if it had been a man's desires, he pondered on the exact intentions of that man's plight. Caught thus in the middle of an internal war, Li Shang had been too preoccupied to fully appreciate the Hua family banquet they presented to him, nor the garish nightmare it descended into.
The lady Hua Mulan spoke little, if at all, and Li Shang had been too overawed in her father's presence to speak much of anything beyond war strategy and battle tactics. Mistress Hua quieted her daughter every time she dared to speak. As was the custom, Hua Mulan's mother believed she was not entitled to join the conversation between two military men, regardless of what her daughter may have achieved by her own military prowess or prestige. The plans Li Shang beheld seemed futile, though the young man wasn't certain, not entirely, what his plans were beyond returning the helmet she had worn with her war clothes. When he arrived in her village, he had been expecting a woman, but not so much of a woman that he stood stunned and afraid. He had been expecting a little of the soldier, too. Yet, this strange culmination that stood beside him rattled him beyond reason. She was neither shy nor delicate nor quiet. She giggled and chortled and hacked out laughter as though it pained her to keep it in. Mischief shone and reigned as it glistened in her smile and sparkled in her eyes. She was determined to see him off on his journey back to the Capital, despite this stilted silence and their unsure, uneven friendship.
'I can return inside, exchange my gown for some trousers and a tunic, if that will make you more comfortable, or I could punch something, or kill something, even cook something outdoors.'
'No. It's fine. You're fine, Madam.'
'Still, you say this and refuse to look at me.'
With that he turned, reciprocating her smile with his own lopsided grin as he grabbed his horse's reins, poised as though he may hoist himself astride any moment now.
Hua Mulan was very pretty, blushing and scratching her neck as she looked up at him, the expression on her face lost somewhere between amusement and befuddlement.
Li Shang did not wish to bid her farewell, not like this, not yet. Neither did she wish to say goodbye to him, not after everything they'd seen together. They had begun this journey side-by-side. Surely, the path had not come to an end so soon.
Li Shang's smirk fell a little as he dropped his reins and bowed to her, taking her hand in his. His lips danced across her skin lightly, whispering softly against the lines his fingers had traced. It was softer than a true soldier's hand. Something inside of him nagged at him and told him he should have noticed that long ago.
'We've never been introduced properly. It's an honour to know you, Hua Mulan.'
She met his bow. Rightly, it was with somewhat less grace than he, and a snicker that echoed into the night accompanied the jolted shift in her weight.
'Ni hao, Li Shang.'
Chinese-Mandarin (Pinyin*) Translations
*Pinyin is a system of Romanisation of Chinese characters introduced and standardised by Mao Zedong. This system of translation became the official international standard for transcribing Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet in 1982. As the recognised international standard, I have chosen to use Pinyin over Wade-Giles.
你好再见Ni Hao Zaijian. (Ni Hao) Welcoming greeting (literally, 'have you eaten'), commonly understood as 'hello' or 'it's nice to meet you'; and (Zaijian) 'Farewell'. Colloquially the title would read 'Hello, Goodbye'.
你好 Ni Hao, (greeting, as stated above).
咸阳 Xianyang, Capital of Qin during the Warring States conquests.
Little is known of the military system in China at this time, however, the rank of Captain did not exist amongst their war officers. Decorated soldiers were considered Generals of small leagues to large armies of men, and assigned animals to define their ranks, as with the Court Officials.
As for the crime Hua Mulan committed, the distinct fault was not that she was a woman, but that she had illegally joined the militia by impersonating an officer (her father).