In November, Tony Blishen wrote a post about children’s author QIN Wenjun 秦文君, and in January Anna wrote about children’s illustrator YU Rong 郁蓉 . We didn’t know at the time that Qin Wenjun and Yu Rong were collaborating on a new picture book based on the story of Mulan! Recently, Yu Rong invited me to translate I Am Mulan, and has kindly agreed to an interview here.
Helen: Congratulations, Yu Rong, on your new book! And thank you for inviting me to translate it. Could you tell us how you came to be working with Qin Wenjun? It’s quite a partnership!
Yu Rong: I was shown Qin Wenjun’s story by Fangfang from CCPPG [China Children’s Press and Publication Group] in 2014. I was immediately attracted to the story, because Qin has re-written this famous and traditional story from a very fresh perspective, through the dream of a modern girl. It is a very clever way to introduce the ancient story to a modern audience. I didn’t accept the invitation to illustrate the book at first, mainly because it seemed a real challenge for me. The story of Mulan, and the character Mulan herself, have been written about and drawn for centuries. How could I possibly unseal the traditional perception and image of Mulan and open it afresh to a modern reader ? This was a big question for me for a long time.
This video introduces the story of Mulan and focuses on traditional representations.
Helen: As with your previous picture books, you use a combination of paper-cut and pencil drawing. Could you tell us a little about that? On the one hand it’s bold and striking; on the other hand there is a lot of little detail (tiny things that little children looking at the pictures see, but those reading the words might miss).
Yu Rong: I started with the inspiration from traditional Chinese paper-cuts, in which one colour dominates the whole page (see, for example, Free as a Cloud). It is rather challenging with paper-cuts made in this way to explain the characters, bring them to life and convey subtle expressions and emotions.
Later on, I gradually introduced different colour combinations for the paper-cuts. Adding pencil drawing opens up the dimension of space and makes the paper-cut more lively. Also, it allows me to add lots of fun detail. For instance, in I Am Mulan, there are two rabbits hidden on each page – they are closely linked to the traditional Mulan.
I added lots of interesting activities, for example, on the busy market page, as well as personal touches relating to friends and colleagues who helped me to make this book beautiful. And, of course some little secrets from my own life and my family… I find that this combination allows me to explore my freedom in the image making. When children discover the hidden secrets, I am sure they will not try to keep them to themselves, and will enjoy pointing them out to adults as well.
[Many thanks to Yu Rong for these three photos – for more photos of her work in progress, or to request permission to copy these images, please contact Yu Rong]
Helen: It seems that all Chinese children know the story of Mulan – as familiar a cultural figure in China as, say, King Arthur, or Robin Hood, in England. And, since the Disney film in 1998, Mulan has become part of an international cast of cartoon characters. China has changed such a lot in the last few decades – I’m wondering what did Mulan mean to you and Qin Wenjun when you were children? And do you think Chinese children today respond to the story of Mulan in the same way?
Yu Rong: Qin Wenjun says that for her, Mulan was a heroine and idol young girls could aspire to be like: brave and strong and tough. As for me, I was also inspired by her appearance, her long hair pinned with beautiful flowers and pearls, and her red-tasseled spear! Qin Wenjun interviewed 100 children when she was writing the story. She’s given me a few of their comments to share here. One said that she admired Mulan’s acting skills, such that nobody in the army could recognise her as a girl for 12 years. Another said: Mulan was so beautiful, she had the most striking golden cloak to wear. Another one said: Mulan loved her father so much that, in order to defeat her father in the duel, she practiced her skills secretly in the middle of the night. I think the traditional idea of a patriotic war heroine may have faded somewhat for Chinese children today but the perception of her love for life and family and friends remains as powerful as ever.
Helen: In this new book, I liked the way in which you have two stories running together: the story of Mulan, and the story of the little girl dreaming that she is Mulan! And I loved the ending, when the little girl says she wants to grow up to be strong like Mulan, but she’s not going to hide the fact she’s a girl! It’s a very powerful message.
Yu Rong: This is what Qin Wenjun wanted to do in her text and it is the aspect of the story which appeals to me, personally, the most. We have the parallel running of the two stories of Mulan and the modern girl; and the surprise ending which highlights the different perception of gender between Mulan and the modern girl. Qin Wenjun asked me to say that she has written more than 10 picture books, and that this book is the most courageous, challenging, demanding and, in a sense, the happiest one.
Helen: Thinking of women who are strong cultural figures (like Boudicca, Joan of Arc) and of competent females who had to pretend to be male (like the authors Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot); and of fictional characters like Velvet Brown in Enid Bagnold’s story National Velvet… could you introduce us to some similar female characters (real or literary) from China?
Yu Rong: Mulan absolutely fits this description, and all Chinese children learn the story of Mulan. Then there’s Zhu Yingtai 祝英台 in The Butterfly Lovers (a love story often compared with Romeo and Juliet). Actually, there are a lot of very strong female characters in Chinese history – for example, these Five Women Warriors – and lots of clever, resourceful girls and women in Chinese literature.
Helen: Thank you, Yurong!
Chinese edition : 秦文君（作者），郁蓉（绘者）：《我是花木兰》 (中国少年儿童新闻出版总社, 2017 — ISBN 9787514826852)
English translation, I Am Mulan, by Qin Wenjun and Yu Rong, tr. by Helen Wang, unpublished, available from CCPPG