Silence is the perfect herald of joy - Shakespeare
Shang reined in his horse alongside his parent's carriage. His eyes trailed to the solitary hill where a modest house, encased within a thick wall, was sitting by the riverside. The land around it flourished with lush grassland, cascading willows, and well-cultivated flower beds; a perfect setting for China's greatest hero to spend the rest of his peaceful retirement.
"I believe that is the Venerable Fa's house, General Li," Shang heard one of the foremen told his father after methodically drawing correlations between the squiggly lines on his map with the actual landmarks in their vision.
The entourage moved closer and stopped completely just outside the archway to the Fa's residence.
"Oh gods, look at that handsome man over there!" Shang's ears accidentally picked up a hushed whisper followed by muffled feminine giggles.
"...and he is in uniform too!" Proclaimed another enthusiastic squeak. Her voice was soon drowned out by the twittering and cackling dissent among them. Shang flicked his sight briefly to them but regretted his action soon after when his eyes were greeted by a number of coquettish ladies flashing their coy smiles at him.
Feeling the heat rise to his cheeks, the young captain hid his true discomfit under his usual stoic mask and stern facade. Shang wasn't known for bashfulness, nor insecurity, but when it came to women the only weapon he could yield when he was faced with this kind of mortal enemy; one he couldn't fight off with his sword; was his unperturbed, "in command" countenance.
He hastily engrossed himself with other thoughts, averting his eyes to focus his attention on the house in front of him. After all, this was what he came here for, to get himself a bride. He wondered what she was like and whether she would be his perfect wife. Shang was very much familiar with the protocol of betrothal, especially after his father lectured him about what was to be expected of their meeting today. He was aware he might not even have a chance to see his bride-to-be until the day of the wedding itself. The thought worried him but even as he masked his apprehension behind steely fortitude, his mother could decipher how anxious the young captain really was. Through the journey, she repetitively reassured him that she and his father had selected nothing but the best woman for him. Although Shang remained skeptical, he just quietly nodded in reply.
An opulent looking carriage was parked outside the Fa residence. A few of its foremen were chatting idly while feeding their steeds, relaxing after the long journey.
Emerging from the carriage was a stocky, mature looking gentleman dressed in formal robe. He was quickly joined by another, younger, man, slightly taller than him but with equally perfect posture. He looked to have been riding beside the carriage when they first arrived for his fine robes bore the dust of travel, unlike the first man. Behind the two men was a lady, who Grandma Fa immediately recognized.
Dressed in finest hanfu, which was embroidered with colorful thread, Mrs. Li looked like a stately lady, very much unlike the day she met Grandma Fa after her accidental debacle. Even from a distance, Mulan could see the exquisite beauty of her future mother-in-law. She owned a flawless complexion, flattering curves for a woman her age, and an alluring gait as she tottered on her bound feet, careful not to step past the hem of her ruqun. It was no wonder that General Li took a real interest in such an individual with perfect appealing beauty.
Mulan quickly hid herself inside the house. Her presence was unwanted unless someone invited her.
From behind the obscurity of the paper wall, Mulan heard the older gentleman introduce himself to her mother and her grandmother as General Li Jiang, who used to served on the same battalion as her father. Her cognitive mind quickly deduced that the younger man must be Li Shang, her husband to be.
The men sat in Fa Zhou's private business room. From the slight gap between the door and its frame when it was left slightly ajar, Mulan caught a glimpse of her future husband sitting with her father, listening intently to the conversation. He was like Grandma Fa described; tall, dark and handsome. Well, Mulan couldn't exactly take in too many of his features so quickly, worried he would notice her staring at him if she lingered, but it was clear to her who Li Shang inherited his charming appearance from.
While the three men conversed in the private room, busy with the more serious, mundane business of dowry, house and wedding rites; the ladies sat around the dining table, indulging themselves in mindless conversation.
Fa Li, acting as the generous host, regaled her guests with a wonderful spread of food and selection of tea in the dining room. That was when she invited Mulan to make her dramatic entrance.
Mulan tried to glide gracefully. However, one of her feet caught the hem of her formal dress. She ended up stumbling and spilling the tea all over the floor. This was not the kind of dramatic entrance she had been planning… but it was still dramatic nonetheless.
She flushed and fumbled to recover from the ordeal only to find that her constricting outfit impeded her movement to bend low enough to pick up the mess she created. Thankfully, her mother swiftly came to her rescue. After cleaning the stain off her impeccable ruqun, Mulan took a seat next to her mother. Suddenly, the room dropped eerily quiet. Mulan curbed her desire to squirm under the perusal of her future mother in law's piercing stare.
Li Yue inclined her head towards Fa Li, "So, this is the girl that caused the catastrophe in the Matchmaker's house?" At first, Li Yue had thought Grandma Fa was exaggerating her story about the phenomenal mishap Mulan had created during her attempt to obtain a groom. But now, seeing it for herself had her believing every word.
Fa Li couldn't believe Li Yue's audacity, but she remained silent until Grandma Fa opened her mouth ready to deliver her biting reply. Fa Li cleared her throat loudly to bring the old woman back to her senses. She knew exactly what Grandma Fa's insolent mouth was capable of doing.
"You heard right, Sister Yue," Fa Li responded with her long-suffering voice," However...-"
"Mulan is capable of a lot of things other girls cannot do," said an annoyed, raspy voice. Fa Li's eyes widened when she realized her mother-in-law had still gone ahead and sabotaged the conversation despite her warning. Mortally irritated at Li Yue's prejudice, Grandma Fa bluntly administered her sharp retribution."She is excellent with a sword, literate and educated."
By then, it was clear that Shang's mother didn't share the same value and sentiment as the Fa's matriarch.
Solemnly taking a sip from her cup, Li Yue replied, her voice calm and composed,"Playing with swords is not for girls," perhaps Mulan imagined it, but she heard the faintest note of warning in her tone. "And the effect of exposing your skin to the sun is irreversible." She added.
Mulan was shocked when Li Yue suddenly snatched at her hand. Apparently, her mother-in-law-to-be saw nothing wrong with taking unheard of liberties. The woman examined the rather unkempt palm very thoroughly.
"Hmmm…." Li Yue drew a breath while her eyes prowled over Mulan's sun-kissed skin. Judging by the disgusted expression on her face, Mulan knew she strongly disapproved.
"I am sure your son will be able to appreciate a girl with a brain rather than just a perfect figure, sister Yue," Mulan heard her mother offer her opinion modestly. "Besides, we still have time before the wedding to… fix those things."
Li Yue almost snorted in skepticism, but she held her grace. Grandma Fa was close to throwing another pot of soup at her, this time voluntarily. Perhaps she even considered making Mrs. Li an ingredient.
Thankfully, Fa Li caught on to Grandma Fa's burgeoning frustration. To relieve the escalating tension and the prospect of murder, Fa Li wisely asked Grandma Fa to usher Mulan to the kitchen to brew another pot of tea. Consecutively, the male members of the group trickled in to join the two remaining ladies. Grandma Fa was quick to return to the room and, after sending a sharp glare in Li Yue's direction, she took her seat once more. Mulan was equally quick to conceal herself behind the kitchen door, determined to hear every life-altering word. Fa Li averted her gaze to the floor, pretending nothing had happened. Glacial silence fell across the room.
With all the men seemingly oblivious to the ongoing rift, the ladies turned their attention back to the main topic of their meeting. Fa Zhou gestured for General Li to speak.
"The Honorable Fa Zhou and I have come to an agreement to accept the betrothal." General Li announced in a thundering voice that hit the silence like a mighty cannon."And, with the prospect of impending war hanging over China, we must finalize all the wedding preparations immediately." He addressed his audience who listened to him raptly."Is everyone clear?"
Meanwhile, Mulan was concealing herself behind the door, taking note of every word that would alter her future.
His question was answered with a collective nod until Li Yue indicated she had something to say,"As Mulan's future mother-in-law, I would like to add a request. She will have to be trained under my tutelage and constant supervision within the final eight weeks before her marriage." the woman darted her gaze to Mulan with enough scorn to make a grown man cry. Mulan flinched at the treatment.
After digesting Li Yue's request, Grandma Fa's eyes flashed dangerously and Fa Li's breath caught in her throat. By this point, Mulan's head was swimming in raw apprehension as hundreds of voices in her head screamed various scenarios of her condemned life in the hands of her snappish, distrustful and overbearing mother-in-law.
With the aura of contempt rising in the air, even the placid Fa Li felt she needed to stand up for her daughter's rights. "Sister Yue, isn't that a little bit… -"
"Irrational and unnecessary?" Grandma Fa interjected from where she sat. Her voice was dripping with disdain. By now the opposing party was looking truly offended.
Fa Zhou cleared his throat loudly. "Ladies!" His voice of supremacy took control of the situation, successfully halting the disagreement and restoring order.
"Mrs. Li, I appreciate your gracious offer," his voice gradually mollified into more persuasive tones. He softly looked over at his wife and gave her a reassuring nod. "However, since Mulan will be staying with your family after she marries and therefore we will spend less time with her, would it be agreeable for you to stay with us in our humble abode to assist in her learning process instead of shortening our time with her?" With polite diplomacy, Fa Zhou offered a solution. His eyes glanced to General Li, asking for further consent.
Li Yue's forehead creased with a blunt frown of disagreement, but she immediately rectified it, smoothing her features into a more agreeable outlook, upon seeing her husband's subtle look of disapproval in her direction before he refocused his attention on his colleague.
"Honorable Fa Zhou, we accept your wise suggestion." General Li swiftly dipped his head signifying his approval without consulting his wife's opinion further."We are looking forward to having Mulan as a part of the Li family."
There was no peace in the Fa house even a few weeks before Mrs. Li came to stay with them. Though Fa Zhou tried to reassure his wife and his mother that Mulan was more than capable of meeting her prospective mother-in-law's expectations, it didn't assuage Fa Li's apprehension.
Fa Li directed all of her energy into accommodating Li Yue's presence. She was constantly tidying the house; inspecting minuscule flaws that could potentially displease her important guest; while Mulan tried to find distraction by helping her Grandmother, who was not nearly as spry as she pretended to be.
Mulan tried not to think too much about the upcoming days when Mrs. Li would come, solely to educate her to be the wife she deemed fit for her son. She had a feeling it would not end well. Unfortunately, she found it hard to find anything that could divert her mind off the subject.
Ever since the unwanted betrothal, to Mulan's dismay, she had to stop practising her sword fighting. Also, in line with her future in-laws' mandate, Mulan was forbidden to spend any time in the sun without a covering of some kind and she had to limit her time riding Khan. In preparation to be a bride, she had to watch her figure, constantly bath herself with fanciful fragrances and rub her body down with exotic spices. Her mother began pestering her about her looks and prohibited the cutting of her hair to better enhance her feminine look.
Mulan used to go to school with her younger brother, Fa Ping, even though she had to dress like a man to avoid unwanted attention. Her father had permitted her to explore the world of boundless knowledge which was, at the current time, only available to privileged men. From the start; inspired by her own father's exploits; Mulan was drawn to politics and battle strategy. Unfortunately, this powerful insight had to cease right after her hand was given in marriage to Li Shang. In order not to disappoint his daughter further by depriving her of the things she loved, Fa Zhou summoned a tutor to come and teach her calligraphy and painting.
Mulan wistfully thought her problems would be solved after she got herself a man. She was about to find out just how very wrong she truly was.
The day of Mrs. Li's arrival finally came. It was strange to think that in a few weeks time, Mulan would be leaving her old life; its comfort and freedom; behind.
Mulan's anxiety built up by the minute, until she caught the silhouette of her parents tending the garden together, working side by side. Her father was always perfectly responsible and composed. He was the voice of wisdom and authority in the house, while her mother balanced his personality with her sensitivity and gentleness. Together they worked seamlessly building their home.
After five long years of marriage, Fa Li had given birth to a daughter. Mulan was a girl with astonishing positive energy, bringing joy into their household with her boundless spirit and her zest for life. But still, Mulan was not the son many Chinese families looked forward to from the strong, beautiful couple.
Grandma Fa thought that the couple's love would wither in the face of adversity and prejudice, but Fa Zhou refused to take another wife and chose to be son-less rather than hurt the love of his life. The trial, instead, paved their relationship and expedited the growth of their love. The gods seemed to reward Fa Zhou's loyalty and steadfast support when Fa Ping, their son, arrived ten years later.
Whether it was a lucky union or a planned coincidence, her parent's successful marriage was solid proof of how a random, unknown match with no potential of compatibility, could be nurtured into true love. This somehow soothed Mulan, reminding her of the possibility of a happy, fruitful marriage, even when one had to marry a stranger.
From the garden, Fa Li stole a glance at her daughter who was expeditiously dusting the porch of the house. All along, Fa Li had known Mulan was a wild-spirited, idealist girl.
Despite all their combined effort, Fa Li was certain her daughter would never fit into the mold of the perfect bride any traditional men had in their mind. With all honesty, as a mother, she was worried Mulan would never marry for the rest of her life.
Although Mulan's boundless courage was one of the most beautiful things about her - which men in their right mind would try to appreciate a girl born with a zeal of fire in her heart and clouds of fantasy in her mind? Now the universe had bestowed her a match. Instead of feeling liberated and peaceful, Fa Li felt apprehensive that Mulan would never be the perfect wife Shang had hoped for.
The feeling of strain enveloped the Fa's dwelling as soon as Li Yue made her appearance. Seeing the chance of an antagonistic interaction between Mrs. Li and his mother, Fa Zhou wisely sent the old woman away to avoid any possibility of unnecessary bloodshed.
Mulan wasn't completely clueless when it came to feminine courtesy and respectability. She understood her womanly duty around the house, what she should or should not do. She knew how to cook, clean, diligently keep the house tidy, and attend the family laundry, so they were never short of clean, fresh clothing. But apparently, Fa Li's standard was nowhere near Li Yue's.
In her awareness that she had not much time to spend, Li Yue began preparing Mulan almost immediately. She was determined to mould Mulan into her son's perfect bride. Ever since the first bad impression Mulan had left on her the day she stumbled over her own dress, Li Yue had a fundamental doubt about Mulan's ability to become a proficient, graceful wife - who acted and conducted herself respectfully.
"Stop chewing so loudly! You were not born in a barn."
"Mulan, you are slouching!"
"Don't stare at your husband! However, he can stare at you."
"How many times do I need to remind you to redo your hair before your husband comes home?"
"You call this garment neatly ironed?"
"Oh gods, you smell like the kitchen! Don't expect Shang to cuddle you in bed if you are smelling like his dinner."
"Mulan, you need to know how to hide your tiredness in front of your husband. Here, use some makeup!"
Those lines of reproach became a regular encounter in the Fa's residence. Li Yue's lustrous, yet sharp, yell rebuked Mulan for every minuscule mistake she committed.
Mulan wrestled and struggled with the implacable heap of lessons Li Yue piled on her. Li Yue speculated that Mulan would eventually break down and give up the fight. Perhaps this would ultimately convince her husband, Li Jiang, to call off the prenuptial arrangement, or even make Fa Li realize her daughter would never be fit as anyone's wife.
Since the day of her arrival, Li Yue could see why Mulan behaved like a foolish teenager unaware of social rules and expectation. No one in the Fa household seemed to be able to tame the dark horse of the family. Fa Li was far too gentle, and Fa Zhou spoiled his daughter by giving the girl freedom to pursue her heart desire.
But what Li Yue had falsely conjectured was Mulan's reaction to her brutal teaching regime.
At first, Fa Li disagreed with Li Yue's constant chiding, however, after four weeks under the woman's merciless supervision, the results couldn't be argued with. Mulan began to get a grip on the situation. Instead of surrendering to her failures and crying in defeat, Mulan was persistent and kept up the fight. Li Yue's constant harsh criticism, belittlement, and barbarous admonitions became Mulan's motivation to strive resolutely to succeed. Li Yue was pleased with the results, and silently commended Mulan's unyielding spirit.
Just when Mulan thought the hard bit of the lesson was behind her, Li Yue had another important task for Mulan to master.
It was exactly one week before her wedding when Li Yue invited Mulan to her quarters.
"Mulan, sit down. I have something to show you," she said commandingly, her hand picked up a scroll from the pile that Mulan recognized as her dowry. Li Yue unraveled the parchment on her bed and with her index finger drew Mulan's attention to the inscription of ink marking its surface."This is a dowry painting, every exemplary Chinese wife must learn this fundamental knowledge prior to their wedding," Li Yue announced tonelessly.
Mulan felt her cheek blushed realizing the indecent content of the scroll. It was depicting an intimate lovemaking position, four of them to be precise. Next to her Li Yue coughed loudly, winning back Mulan's undivided concentration.
It was clear to Mulan that her future mother-in-law didn't just expect her to display ladylike gentility and make her husband feel at home. She also needed to excel in the much less public areas in her married life, such as pleasing him in bed or comforting him after a tiring day at work.
"I believe your mother has never properly educated you on how to please a man…. in bed." She gestured for Mulan to study the parchment."If a girl wishes to be a perfect wife, she needs to hone her bedroom skills and be prepared whenever her husband demands this of her. This is crucial to keep your marriage intact and a vital part in discouraging him from searching for comfort elsewhere."
Mulan couldn't believe she was having this conversation with her future mother-in-law. Retrospectively, Mulan admitted, just like the majority of Chinese parents, her mother was reluctant to share this kind of profane topic and had avoided it completely, now leaving her as a clueless damsel in distress merely a week before her husband required her service.
"I hardly have time to think about men," Mulan answered obstinately. In her critical mind she argued, why couldn't she be a perfect wife by just being who she was? Why couldn't she ask her husband to understand her and accept all of her personality traits and weaknesses, as she would his?
"Now you have to. You will be living with one," Li Yue stated, her expression unperturbed even though she began to feel irritated at Mulan impolite attitude. Li Yue went on to explain the detail of lovemaking procession so that Mulan knew what to expect on her wedding night. While Mulan had come to terms with her own arranged marriage, engaging in intimate rites with a stranger still repulsed her to no end, and she was hoping Shang would be reasonable when it came to this.
"Aren't all the chores I do; the cooking, the cleaning and bearing him sons; enough to suffice to make him happy and enough to abide by the social rules?" Mulan persisted, answering defensively."Why do I still need to strive to please him in bed like a whore?"
This time Li Yue had enough. Her annoyance compounded with every daring word Mulan said to defy her logic, manipulating her into abandoning the course of tradition.
"Mulan, my son is not marrying a maid nor a concubine!" she reprimanded her with a firm voice. Mulan cringed upon hearing her prospectus mother-in-law's blunt, biting reply. "As a wife, you must know your place. It's your primary duty to know how to please him, and that goes far beyond making a hospitable home and running a warm bath!"
Li Yue observed how Mulan's fearless, dazzling, dark eyes enveloped with disappointment. Her courageous posture now slumped in defeat, and the spark in her eyes disappeared upon realizing what kind of life she could expect from this marriage. She would have to trade her freedom for a life of unending servitude with no prospect of acknowledgment, respect, nor rewards. Honestly, Li Yue felt miserable to shatter her innocent dream, to tear her many fantasies of a loving marriage into the grim reality of life bound by rules and obligations.
"But how can I please him if I hardly know him?" This time there was hardly any defiance in Mulan's intonation, only a sincere curiosity, demanding answer and enlightenment from Li Yue as the more experienced party.
The brief spur of frustration which was previously evoked by Mulan's stubbornness abruptly evaporated. Li Yue looked sympathetically into her youthful countenance, relating Mulan's experience with herself in her younger days thus realizing the validity of her inquiry.
"Well…." She said, her voice softening,"All men are the same. The key to their hearts is in their belly and underneath their pants."
Mulan blinked incredulously. That was the most absurd, shallow and unanticipated explanation she had ever heard from a lady as revered as Li Yue, the wife of the esteemed General Li, especially after the sudden detour from their conversation. She was expecting her to say deep proverbs that would silence her rebellious thoughts completely.
"You don't believe me?" Mulan heard Li Yue's deriding reply."Mulan, your failure with the Matchmaker, wasn't because you are not graceful, dainty nor lacking awareness in feminine proclivity."
After spending nearly two months with Mulan, Li Yue was very much aware of Mulan's hardiness and uncompromising spirit."You were unsuccessful because you refused to fit into the mold of a typical woman befitting to marry."
Mulan sunk her head. She knew the woman was right about her. The tradition demanded a wife to be effeminate, obedient and foolish, and Mulan was anything but those. She was tomboyish, independent and stubborn. She always challenged her own boundaries, dared to try new things, and believed no defeat could ever be final. She knew she could force herself to fit the mold if she wanted to. But even when she mastered all ladylike propriety and fooled the world, she still couldn't fool her heart.
However, Mulan was no selfish daughter. She understood she lived in a time and place where she had to conceal her heart and bury her dreams. Besides, she wasn't the idealistic little girl she once was. She used to have her head above the clouds, fantasizing about the things she would achieve when she grew up. By maturing in her choice, despite the intensity of her wants, she accepted her predicament and would adhere to pleasing her family and her country's traditions.
"Mulan, obey me," Li Yue implored. "And I promise you, you will be the perfect wife my son could ever want you to be."