How Mulan’s Image Evolved Throughout Chinese History

Let us talk about the latest Mulan movie.

And no, I am not going to talk about how ridiculous the movie is. How the ancestral phoenix has been compared to a kite, the Rourans to the Dothrakis, the emperor to Fu Manchu and our very heroine Fa Mulan to a mutant superhero who belongs to Professor X’s Institute (of Marvel fame) instead of to, I don’t know, a fantasyland called ancient China. Except, of course, that the so-called fantasyland reeks badly of last-century Orientalism mingled with a whiff of the Salem witch trials.

And I am not going to talk about how awkward the costumes look. How the character development arc is basically unneeded when you enter the scene with superpowers. How a mute phoenix represents Chinese ancestral beliefs no better than a talking dragon. How loose flowing hair with beach waves is not a mark of ancient Chinese femininity. Or how qi, a life-force permeating the entire universe, is reduced to some gendered thing just so Disney could spin a feminist tale out of it.

Instead, let us talk about something that is less controversial. About the fact that Mulan has a sword with the words ‘Loyal, Brave, True’ on one face and ‘Filial’ on the reverse. That, along with Christina Aguilera’s song of the same title, is Disney’s attempt at a closer representation of the original ballad.

Except that it is not.

Now is the time to look at the ballad itself. It starts with a scene of Mulan — not skidding on roof tiles before her aghast neighbours — seated idle at her loom. She sighs heavily. Dad has been called to serve in the army. There’s no adult male to take his place.

Alright then, I’ll go.

The ballad is as simple as that. There’s no grand declarations of filial piety. No sentiments of serving king and country. Just an ordinary girl faced with an impossible task. A family crisis, calling for action. Her father was in no state to serve — death is a foregone conclusion. And without the breadwinner, how would her family survive?

The poem proceeds with an almost disinterest in the machinations of war. Mulan bids her parents farewell. She sets up camp by the Yellow River. The river gushes in her ear. She hears not the calls of her parents. She is far, far away from home.

The troops cover a great distance. Their armour glint in the cold winter’s light. Ten years pass in a flash. Some experienced generals die. Some survive.

Mulan is one of the lucky ones.

She stands before the Khan. He dishes out rewards for his soldiers. Positions at court? Military titles?

No. Give me a fast camel. I want to go home.

At the city gates, dad and mom wait. They have aged. They lean on each other for support. Younger brother has grown up. Elder sister is as lovely as ever.

It is so good to be home. One might imagine Mulan’s sigh of relief as she puts on her civilian clothes. It is over. Peace has been restored — for goodness knows how long.

In fact, Mulan’s era was one of the most tumultuous in Chinese history. Wars were continually fought. Against the Rouran in the north, against the ethnic Han regimes in the south. Territories lost and reclaimed. Boundaries reestablished. Kingdoms rise and fall. Civilisations wiped out forever from existence.

And in the midst of it, there were just a group of women, desperately trying to survive.

They belonged to the upper classes. Had times been good, they would be cloistered in their rooms, secluded from the world, secure in their wealth and their place in society. They may have counselled their sons. Do some embroidery. Stroll around gardens and recite poetry. The men of the family would have protected them from harm. Or at least, they might have proceeded as Confucius would have envisioned.

Confucius envisioned a world in which everyone knew their place. That everyone would be filial to their parents at home and loyal to their superiors abroad. A society in which filial piety and loyalty, dual images of each other, would work together in some mysterious harmony to guarantee order and stability.

Except that the Han dynasty and its Confucianist convictions had long been overthrown. And in times of chaos, women had to do what they had to do.
Avenge their father while their male relatives sat in despair? Check.Train a retinue of maidservants for self-defense? Check. Break through enemy lines to save a town from starvation? Check.

It was during these times when we hear such stories of remarkable women who were skilled in martial arts, and actually used their talents for good. The stories all ran along a similar thread. A crisis has struck. The men of the family were either absent or weak. Some woman takes matters into her own hands. She crosses moral boundaries. Ultimately, she achieves victory, and is forgiven for whatever transgression committed.

Mulan’s story may seem one-of-a-kind when read in isolation. However, when seen in this light, against the multitude of stories featuring women and their attempts at survival, we see a common thread. And we come to realise that it is very much a product of the times. That no story is possible in a vacuum. Historical and material conditions have to come together to make a story possible. And in a way, Mulan, if she existed at all, is one of the many women who temporarily took the place of men to defend themselves and their family. It does not make her story any less exceptional. Rather, it gives us context, and we can understand Mulan’s motivations better yet.

So how did Mulan’s story become one of filial piety and loyalty?

Let us fast forward to the middle of the Tang Dynasty. The empire has been unified. The mighty Tang stretches deep into the West while firming its grip over China proper. Each year, the Silk Road brings in foreign traders and a vibrant, international culture.

Under this grand facade, things were coming apart. The An Lushan rebellion greatly weakened the empire’s might. An emperor was reinstated, but regional warlords still held power. How might a declining kingdom recall loyalty among its former subjects?

Now, there was a certain Wei Yuanfu, court official, loyal subject to the old Tang emperors. The shifting political climate would not have escaped his keen eyes. And, perhaps coincidentally, he penned a poem about Mulan.

It is an unremarkable piece of work in the rich repository that was Tang poetry. It neither had literary merit nor was it very novel. It reads very much like a rephrase of Mulan’s original ballad, except for the four concluding lines.
“Could there be officials/With a heart like Mulan’s/Both filial and loyal/Deserving of everlasting fame”

We know that Mulan had been revered as some semi-deity by the common people of Tang Dynasty. A temple was dedicated to her. It may have been a tourist hotspot of sorts. The famed poet Du Mu was known to have visited, and commemorated his trip with a dedication to Mulan. Still, it was the first time, at least in written history, that anyone had made the dual themes of filial piety and loyalty from Mulan’s story explicit.

Now, as it must be reminded, Mulan’s poem never framed her enlistment as an act of filial piety. And if her actions could be somehow construed as a filial self-sacrifice, it would take a leap of imagination to infer her loyalty to her sovereign. If anything, it was more like a by-product of her actions, rather than a motivation for her enlistment.

Casting that aside, Wei Yuanfu’s claim must have made so much sense to the Tang Dynasty literati. Of course Mulan was both filial and loyal. Wasn’t this something that our very own emperor Tang Xuanzong recommended in his commentary of the “Book of Filial Piety”? Convert your filial piety to your father into loyalty for your sovereign. And oh, most conveniently, loyalty should always come before filial piety.

Tang Xuanzong’s admonishments and Wei Yuanfu’s burning loyalty did little to save the Tang Dynasty from its inevitable demise. China was plunged once again into chaos, but not for long. In a matter of half a century, the Chinese found a new master in the Song emperors, and all was well again. For the time being.

The Song loved Mulan. They unquestioningly accepted the Tang dynasty’s designation of her as some figurehead of the filial piety-loyalty duality (that’s quite a mouthful, but I am sticking with it). And Mulan was made more popular than ever, thanks to development of moveable type printing. Which meant stories about heroes and heroines of yore could be circulated among the masses. And at the same time, literature became secularised, and stories like Mulan’s could be enjoyed by all.

And the people needed it. The Song Dynasty flourished for over a century, before a humiliating invasion by the Jin. The emperor and his dad were taken hostage, a sizeable chunk of the territory lost, and the elites migrated to the south. As time passed, and as generals fought in futility to regain lost lands, the people began to turn to another mode of solace. Stories in which brave heroes and heroines fought to defend their homeland. Mulan was one of them. She was worshipped, and revered, to the extent that no one quite thought to question certain glaring gaps in her story.

Where did she learn how to fight?
How did she conceal her identity for so long?
How did her parents feel about her leaving?

It was a century later when the Ming dynasty came along. Mulan had become a staple figure in Chinese imagination. But the Ming playwrights and novel writers were scratching their heads over the blank pages they had to fill. The original ballad gave hardly any details about these questions at all. Sure, it made for a very succinct read, very appropriate for a poem. But those moviegoers and novel readers had to be filled in with more details. They wanted to see some good action, some suspense. Perhaps a bit of humour, thrown in here and there.

In other words, the perfect goddess Mulan of filial piety-loyalty fame had to be pulled down from her pedestal. To be reworked, infused with flesh and blood, emotions, and very human concerns. She had to be made relatable in a way that would meet the expectations of her time. For example, her feet. Ming dynasty women had bound feet. As historically inaccurate as it was, a Ming dynasty audience could not imagine a time when women ran freely on unbounded feet.

So the playwright (among other things) Xu Wei gave her a pair of bound feet (which she unbounded), an opportunity to declare her purity (another fixation of Ming dynasty minds), and a heroic scene in which she captured the leader of the enemy alive. And not to mention, the perfect match to complete her story in a very satisfactory manner.

Xu Wei’s retelling caught on. And from then onwards, every single retelling of Mulan twisted her story in ways fan fiction authors would be familiar with. One story had her become sworn sisters with a fellow female warrior. In another, Mulan had a woman fall in love with her. (The woman later became Mulan’s co-wife).

In a number of retellings, Mulan’s relationship with her parents are explored. They protest, weep, beg and faint as they deal with the multitude of emotions that arise upon hearing of Mulan’s decision. It is very much unlike the stoicism implied by the ballad. Then again, given the ballad’s brevity, we cannot really know.

Now, the strong, weapon-bearing, family-protecting women embodied in Mulan’s ballad were a thing of the past. Apart from the occasional female warrior, many women would expect to spend their lives within the confines of their homes. But some women of the Ming and Qing dynasty had a new weapon — the pen. Female literacy was at an all-time high in the Qing dynasty. Over 3000 women had works published in their name — ten times the number in all the previous dynasties added up together. Their influence was such that a new genre catering to women writers and readers was born. It was a mixture of lyrical and prosaic form, and they became a medium in which women gave voice to their inner thoughts.

Mulan inspired some of these works. A recurring theme features women who’d cross dress out of desperation, but ends up with public recognition. And unlike the Mulan who tosses away her accolades to return to the private sphere, these new ‘Mulans’ do not give up their hard-won recognition so easily.

Perhaps these character archetypes were a foil for the hidden ambitions of these talented writers.

If I were given the chance, if I were a man, no — if I could dress and look and act like one, perhaps I could make something of myself.

Perhaps I could ace the imperial exams. Perhaps I could shine in public service.

But I am a woman, and a woman cannot make something of herself. She has to stay at home and mind the in-laws — but she can write.

Maybe someday things will change.

Maybe some day my granddaughter will pick this story up and see the desire written between the lines.

Perhaps she will go out there and prove herself.

Perhaps, she will no longer have to dress like a man.

现代人读《围城》: 他人的境遇,我们的焦虑



X同学创业开个公司,办得风生水起; Y同学升职加薪,婚姻幸福美满;  而自己不过是个小职员,每天唯唯诺诺,回家还要受伴侣一顿气。


“两年前,不,一年前跟她完全是平等的。现在呢,她高高在上,跟自己的地位简直是云泥之别。” 这是《围城》主角方鸿渐见了旧情人苏小姐后的心里独白,戳痛了多少读者的心。《围城》由民国学者钱钟书所著,以普通人方鸿渐的一生,叙述一个人如何从一个天之骄子,成为一位庸碌的普通人,也借着方鸿渐的际遇,顺带把当时的“上流社会”和“大师“们奚落一番,人谓是民国版的《儒林外史》。









但在围城的世界里,发挥优势是又意味着对现实的妥协。读《围城》的人也许会有种感触——如果鸿渐接受了家境优渥的苏小姐,或者低声下气地接受岳父的安排,人生会否过得好一些? 我能想象的是,他会混得不错,但他不会开心。因为利益而攀结的关系、结下的婚姻,始终包含着妥协和无奈。从苏小姐羞辱鸿渐夫妇一幕来看,方苏二人的婚姻终究不会是一个平等关系。鸿渐将会忍声吞气,任由苏小姐在他们的婚姻里称霸。

鸿渐不至于有“不为五斗米折腰”的骨气,但他起码保持了他的个性。他虽蠢,却不坏。旁人摆出的一副阿谀奉承,自我膨胀的模样,他身上没有,可以说是书中性情最真的一个角色了。这种角色,却注定在书中的时代背景里,渐渐埋没,庸碌一生。反观书中形形色色的”成功人士”,靠献媚、欺诈上位,哪怕肚子里装满着败絮, 还能理直气壮,时间一久,角色就演入了骨子里,成了自己人格的一部分。比起这类人,鸿渐看起来可爱多了。






Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Who Needs Qu Yuan?

The Double Fifth or Duan Wu festival, which falls on this very day, is celebrated as a commemoration of the poet Qu Yuan who was said to have drowned himself after his hopes for the Chu nation were dashed by ineffective rulers. The custom of eating rice dumplings and dragon boat racing is associated with efforts by villagers to retrieve his body. His suicide is conventionally celebrated as a self-sacrificial act stemming from patriotism, instead of cowardice triggered by thwarted political ambitions. While this version of events is taught as an unquestionable fact in schools, further research suggests a more nuanced version of the truth.

Was there really a person named Qu Yuan? An extensive biography of Qu Yuan is to be sought in Sima Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian, though his existence is cast into doubt by several modern scholars such as Hu Shi. Even Qu Yuan’s exact role in court is highly disputed. While mainstream, politically-correct biographies of Qu Yuan portray him as a prominent and highly respected nobleman, by some accounts he is no more than a court jester or liberated slave. [1] Whoever the real Qu Yuan was and whether he existed is a matter of dispute. Even so, he strikes an impressive figure in the imaginings of later writers, first as a sympathetic figure and disgraced scholar, now as a patriotic revolutionary whose love for equality extended to the common people.

The story of Qu Yuan is told as such. Once a trusted advisor and favourite at court, Qu Yuan was banished from court after falling victim to baseless slander and political intrigue. Things went steeply downhill after his exile; first, the king of Chu became a political prisoner of Qin and died in captivity. He was succeeded by his son, who also refused to pay heed to Qu Yuan’s advice. In despair, Qu Yuan plunged to his death.

A Political Allegory
We owe much of our knowledge of Qu Yuan to Sima Qian. Sima Qian experienced his own share of tribulations as a court official to the Emperor Wu of Han. His father was the court historian, a position which Sima Qian was to take up later in life. As a young man, Sima Qian travelled extensively, his travels encompassing historical landmarks including the Miluo River where Qu Yuan had committed suicide. He returned to take up a succession of positions at court. One of his most important projects is the compilation of the histories, a massive project his father earnestly bade him take up. This project would later be known to the world as the Records of the Grand Historian, in which our earliest written record of Qu Yuan is to be found.

Sima Qian enjoyed a fairly successful career until the Li Ling affair erupted. His decision to defend Li Ling, general of a failed expedition, was not well-received by the emperor. Sima Qian evaded his death sentence by opting for castration—a humiliation he endured for the sake of the Records. His thoughts were expressed most eloquently in a letter to his friend, aptly named, “Letter to Ren An”. In this letter, he explains his reasons for choosing life over death despite suffering from humiliation and injustice—then thought of as unbecoming of a gentleman scholar[2]. In his own poignant words, he writes,

“Even slaves and servant maids are able to summon the resolve (to commit suicide). Why not I? I live in shame, in the filth of captivity, for I fear my personal thoughts will never be spoken, my death unremarkable, and my writings never be known to the world.” [3]

Sima Qian references historical figures extensively. Prominent men, he argued, were sentenced to harsh punishments, of which they had no control over. Yet it was those who rose above their situation who was remembered by later generations. Qu Yuan appears in the list of eminent persons. He is to be accorded his own entry in the completed historical volume. Sima Qian drew heavily on comparisons between himself and Qu Yuan, twice in the autobiographical preface, and in his epilogue to the combined biography of Qu Yuan and Jia Yi, he writes,

“When I first read Li Sao, the ‘Heavenly Questions’, the ‘Summons of the Soul’, I grieved for the noble spirit revealed in them. Later, when I visited Changsha and saw the spot where Qu Yuan drowned himself, I wept to think what manner of man he was.” [4]

It is even speculated that Sima Qian deliberately ‘edited’ facts to fit what was otherwise a hocus-pocus of sources into a narrative framework which was a thinly veiled disguise of his personal grievances. [5] He was certainly not the first nor the last to do so. Jia Yi, whose biography was combined with that of Qu Yuan’s in the Annals, wrote “A Eulogy to Qu Yuan” on his banishment to Changsha. He sympathised heavily with Qu Yuan while questioning his suicide,

“Why cherish this country, when you could have served another?”

The same view was echoed by Sima Qian, who wondered why didn’t Qu Yuan seek some opportunity or other in neighbouring countries, given his skill set which, in modern terms, would make him extremely employable. [6]

What is clear is how Qu Yuan served as a reference, a mirror of sorts which disappointed Chinese intellectuals could gaze into and see themselves reflected. His blamelessness and his integrity form an allusion through which disfavoured intellectuals could safely voice their disenchantment, protest their innocence, and criticise the government. However, this did not stop them from criticising Qu Yuan’s decision to take his life or question his manner of handling things. [7]

In fact, Qu Yuan’s form of ‘patriotism’ is a product of his times, a combination of the unique sociopolitical situation of the Chu nation which sought to distinguish itself from its Northern Chinese brethren , and his social status as a gentleman scholar, or ‘shi’ (士), a circumstance which demanded his full loyalty be directed towards a ‘zhi ji’ (知己, or ‘a person who appreciated his worth’. [8] It is no accident nor literary whim that Qu Yuan chose to cast himself as a female persona in his poems, for the relationship between a gentleman scholar and his lord was akin to the relationship between a husband and wife. This sentiment is echoed by Sima Qian in his letter to Ren An, in which he writes, “A gentleman will do his utmost for one who appreciates him, just as a woman adorns herself for one who takes delights in her.” [9]

The People’s Poet
Interpretations of Qu Yuan shifted over generations in accordance with the zeitgeist of the times. While the Han attempted to interpret him through the lens of Confucianist ideals, the Tang complained about his mode of verse (and, in a very Confucian way, linked it with the deterioration of propriety)[10], and the Song were inclined to base their interpretations against a historical framework. [11]

In recent times, Qu Yuan was given a new identity by Maoist scholars and writers as a ‘people’s poet’ whose sphere of concern extends to the common people. One of the most notable examples is that of Guo Moruo’s play “Qu Yuan” in which Qu Yuan speaks in the vernacular, addresses his student and servant girl as social equals, and espouses concepts familiar to a revolutionary, Maoist audience but would have been utterly alien to his contemporaries. His reference to an abstract idea of a unified ‘China’, his populist-oriented views on literature, and his overarching concern for the common folk occur multiple times in the play, in which his personal loyalty to the King of Chu is downplayed. By doing so Guo Moruo draws heavily upon elements from antiquity, albeit fashioning them into a populist rallying cry for social change. [12]

This view is succinctly expressed in an opening line from a book aimed at high-school students, which reads, ‘Qu Yuan is the first great patriotic poet in the history of our country’s literature’. It is not difficult to isolate populist leanings from the body of works associated with Qu Yuan. In “Li Sao”, the line “哀民生之多艰” is a popular candidate for humanistic reworkings, though the very word “民” (min: people, populace) is laced with arguably derogatory meanings, more closely representing the English word “commoner” than “people” in general. [13]

The essay “Fisherman” is also another notable example; Qu Yuan’s conversation with a fisherman implies a fairly equal relationship between members of two disparate social classes. This sentiment makes it difficult to challenge long-established facts such as the authorship of the “Nine Songs” or other works related to Qu Yuan. Even the existence of Qu Yuan himself, though disputed by Hu Shi, is accepted unquestionably by Guo Moruo and consequently, firmly rooted in the collective consciousness of the people.

It is hardly surprising then, that Qu Yuan’s link with the Double Fifth (or ‘Duan Wu’ ) festival became solidly established as a fact, despite evidence pointing to the contrary. In fact, the festival precedes Qu Yuan as a form of animist worship, though the original significance of the rites has been lost in the mists of time. In this retelling, existing customs of dragon boat races and rice dumplings are explained in relation to Qu Yuan’s suicide and the futile attempts by commoners to retrieve his body. A new dimension is added to the two-way relationship between Qu Yuan and his lord, in which the mass mobilisation of the people reflects their collective grief.

The association of a native festival with an ideological hero is nothing new. Wu Zixu of the Wu Nation, who met a grisly death at the hands of the king Fu Cha, preceded Qu Yuan both historically and in cultural consciousness as the celebrated figure of the festival. [14] Even Wen Yiduo, writer and advocate of Qu Yuan’s ‘people’s poet’ persona, is ready to admit that the Double Fifth festival probably has nothing much to do with Qu Yuan, though he is quick to add that it was a good lie to keep, for it is a lesson in living and dying nobly. [15]


To this day Qu Yuan remains vivid in the minds of the Chinese. Every festival is an occasion for remembrance, as the younger generation is taught Qu Yuan’s patriotism. To whom or what this patriotism is directed to is seldom questioned. In Chinese diasporic communities, this paradox is particularly prevalent, given that the object of their (or should I say our?) patriotism is not the same as their Chinese counterparts, just as Qu Yuan’s loyalty to the nation of Chu is not directly equivalent to an all-encompassing loyalty to China as entailed by our modern geopolitical understanding. The memory of Qu Yuan is one of familiarity mixed with a sense of distance and vagueness, like a whiff of incense from a time and land long lost to us.

This sentiment is encapsulated in a poem:

Dragon boats, we only know to fold paper vessels.
Rice dumplings, no more than a tasty meal
Qu Yuan is an illustration,
Tousled beard, head lifted,
He stands by the river.
We study our teacher’s expression.
No holidays for us. Everything is as usual.


History churns, to the south it dashes.
Where it breaks into bubbles
In the Chinese textbooks of ASEAN nations
Fragmented bits and pieces.

” [16]

Note: I realise the title I have chosen requires a stronger assertion than the ones I am able to give in this article. After some deliberation I have decided to keep it. For one, it is more clickbait catchy. Also, I see it as an invitation to my readers to draw conclusions for themselves.

[1] This view is held by scholars such as Sun Qidian and Wen Yiduo.

[2]: In Sima Qian’s time it was considered noble for gentleman scholars to “resolve matters for themselves”, i.e. commit suicide, when accused of a crime. To opt for castration over voluntary death was considered a disgrace which excluded Sima Qian as a member of the scholarly class.

[3] Translations mine.

[4] Translated by David Hawkes.

[5] Hawkes, David. 2011. The Songs Of The South: An Ancient Chinese Anthology Of Poems By Qu Yuan And Other Poets. 2nd ed. The Penguin Group, 74-76.

[6] As mentioned before, the Chu nation’s unique situation prevents Qu Yuan from abandoning his cultural identity and affiliation with his lord and country and adopt Confucius’ mode of travelling around and seeking out someone who would hire him.

[7] Cheng, Sihe. 2004. Qu yuan kun jing yu zhong guo shi ren de jing shen nan ti [Qu Yuan’s predicament and the spiritual problem of Chinese intellectuals]

[8] Guo, Gang. 2015. Qu yuan de ai guo qing huai [Qu Yuan’s patriotic sentiments]. ke cheng jiao yu yan jiu (zhong) 屈原的爱国情怀

[9] Translated by Stephen Durrant

[10] Cheng, Sihe. 2004. Qu yuan kun jing yu zhong guo shi ren de jing shen nan ti [Qu Yuan’s predicament and the spiritual problem of Chinese intellectuals] 屈原困境与中国士人的精神难题

[11] Zikpi, Monica E M. “Revolution and Continuity in Guo Moruo’s Representations of Qu Yuan.” Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews (CLEAR) 36 (2014): 175-200.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Hawkes, David. p.91-93

[14] Martin Svensson, as cited in Zikpi, 2014.

[15] Wen, Yiduo. Duan wu jie de li shi jiao yu [Historical lessons of the Double Fifth festival] 端午节的历史教育

[16] Wen, Renping. 2015. Qu yuan zai ya xi an [Qu Yuan in ASEAN] 屈原在亚细安.

Debunking the Nien Myth

There’s a tale told so often in conjunction with Chinese New Year to explain the origins of various traditions, namely the wearing of red colours and the lighting of firecrackers. As the story goes, a scary monster, known as the ‘Nien’ (the Chinese word for ‘year’) appears every year to terrorise innocent villagers. It is invincible to all save for firecrackers and red clothing. That is why the Chinese dress up in red and burn firecrackers during Chinese New Year.

No one actually takes this literally as far as I know. And I don’t aim to debunk this myth along the lines of, “Nope, the Nien never existed.” My aim, rather, is to argue that the Nien myth was not as pervasive as imagined, that is–it did not date back as far as we often imagine it to be. No records are to be found of this myth in any classical sources, not “The Classics of Seas and Mountains”–a semi-mythical book that records, as you’ve guessed it, the geography of China (as the Ancient Chinese saw it) and its many strange inhabitants. Not “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio”–essentially a compilation of local Chinese myths and ghost stories.

I’d go a step further and say that the Nien myth was made up in the past century or so, but the lack of written records does not permit me to make this statement. No one really knows if the Nien was a local folklore that never made it into written form, if written records had been destroyed, or if it was merely a tale spun in recent years.

The custom of releasing fire-crackers dates a long way back. An early record, written in the Northern and Southern dynasties, (420 to 589 A.D.) describes the custom of releasing firecrackers on the dawn of the new year to frighten mountain spirits. The mountain spirit is said to be shaped like a coma, hops around on one leg, and appears in the dark of night to terrorise humans.

This is likely the predecessor of the Nien mythology. However, most contemporary depictions of the Nien feature it as a four-legged beast with a magnificent mane and single horn–much like a hybrid between a lion and a unicorn. In fact, it resembles the lion used in southern lion dances.

So when was the myth of the Nien popularised? The earliest record I’m able to find online is this article in a Republican-era newspaper dating from 1939. The description is not too different from contemporary versions; though it is mentioned in the article that the humans used food to distract the Nien’s attention–a statement not commonly found in retellings of the tale. And the Nien eventually went extinct, because it failed to produce sufficient little Niens to keep the species going. (In some retellings, the Nien was captured by a celestial being to be used as a mode of transport.)

At any rate, the Nien myth is a tale of man against nature. It is a tale of resilience, of outsmarting the worst of threats–wild beasts and harsh winters, diminishing food supplies and mysterious illnesses. And as society progresses, the threat to survival has long been forgotten. All that remains is a vague tale, a faint remembrance of struggle, and an eventual triumph against all odds.

“Holy Men, Holy Women” by Dina Zaman Review

It is too easy to think of religion as a homogeneous entity, summarisable by a holy book, a set of rules, and an iconic figurehead instantly recognizable from miles away, so that people can point and say, “That’s ___. He’s (it always has to be a he), the founder of ___ism.

Anyone who has thought hard about religion and its many manifestations in various cultural settings would recognize this as an oversimplification of a sprawling web of intricacies and shibboleths. Religion, as it is practiced in the real world, consists of diverging interpretations, assimilation with local cultural beliefs, and idiosyncratic additions injected by neo-religious figureheads mingling their own worldviews into the otherwise two-dimensional set of beliefs.

And though followers of various sects may decry their counterpart’s beliefs as plain wrong, the practices remain very real for those who live and breathe them, who believe in them with the same conviction as one might believe that the Earth is round. (Unless you are a Flat-Earther)

This is pretty much what Dina Zaman is aiming to get at. She attempts to showcase the religious beliefs and practices of Malaysians in their natural setting. Variety is present, and presented honestly, not just between multiple religions, but within a single one.

So we are introduced, within Islam itself, to a group of individuals differing widely in the way they practice their religion. From the ultra-conservative, almost-cultish religious community, to the hijab-wearing agnostic, readers are regaled with a palate of interesting anecdotes which captures the diversity of practices by ordinary Malaysians.

But anecdotes they remain, save for a few exceptions. Make no mistake–Ms. Zaman’s writing is lucid and colorful, peppered with honest lines where the personality of the author and her subjects shine through. However, some of the tales are not written to their fullest extent. Take the hijabi-wearing agnostic as an example. We know she exists, and that she is not the only one. We know she chose to conceal their agnosticism behind the garments of a religious person. We are given a short overview of her background. But there’s about all. A lot is left to the reader’s imagination–we can only imagine her life story, how she came to arrive at this conviction, (aided by some brief passages of the author), and the inner conflict she must have felt between her inner thoughts and her outward show of piety. The reader walks away with this partial picture, somewhat wiser but not too much.

Perhaps I was wrong to expect so much of a book that is a collection of column articles. Perhaps the author never meant her work to be an NYT-esque in-depth study of the inner lives of her subjects. And to the author’s credit, there are a couple of more detailed pieces in the book itself. That said, I wish there were more of every interviewee’s story, for a brief impression invites hasty judgments, inevitably pulling the reader into the “you’re wrong, I’m right” kind of thinking. Which, I believe, is the exact opposite of what the author intends to gain by sharing these stories.

Another thing: expect this book to be more heavily centered on Islamic practices, and less on other religions. For one, the author’s identity as a Muslim prevents her from actively participating in other religious services. This is not a fault of hers–it is rather the fear of censure, by the groups she expressed an interest in, that prevented her from venturing further. It is a feature of Malaysian society which I will not elaborate further. Still, I admire her efforts to break through the barrier and speak the unspoken.

All in all, I would recommend this as an easy piece of reading if you have some time to kill, and want to broaden your mind a little. Take note: it is best to approach this, as with other works, with an open and unjudgemental mind. To acknowledge the practices of others does not undermine your own belief system; rather, it is a celebration of human diversity, a reminder of how far we have come, and how much farther we may go.

10 Signs You Are a Book Addict

  1. You may forget your keys or wallet or handphone, but God forbid that you ever leave your favourite book at home.
  2. The first thing you do upon entering a shopping complex is to dash for the bookstore.
  3. If the aforesaid bookstore is in fact: non-existent/a stationery shop masquerading as a bookshop, you’ll curse the management and the shoppers and your fellow countrymen for not making reading a national priority.
  4. You wonder secretly why is it a social faux pas to glance at your book now and then during a conversation when people casually check their phones at every beep
  5. You enter bookshops with the reverence of a religious believer entering a place of worship.
  6. Upon traveling to a foreign country, you find yourself drawn to the local bookstores, even if all the titles are in a language you cannot understand.
  7. You measure the financial worth of random items in terms of the number of books you could have bought.
  8. When it comes to packing, you toss out a couple of dresses/shirts just to fit your favourite paperback.
  9. Time in the washroom is wasted if you are not accompanied by a book or two
  10. Your bag will always be weighed down by your books. Books, in the plural form, because it is so hard to choose between your favourite titles, that you end up taking them all.