The Dramatic True Story Behind Disney's Mulan
Hua Mulan is one of the most legendary women of ancient China. Her heroic actions were first recorded in ancient texts, retold in the famous poem Ballad of Mulan, and later popularized in the 1998 Walt Disney film Mulan. Today, her story continues to be told in schools across China.
In Chinese “Huā” means “flower” and “Mùlán” means magnolia. The magnolia flower is one of the symbols of China since ancient times. However, there is different information about Mulan’s possible roots, and her family name is uncertain. In the text History of the Ming, her family name is Zhu, but in History of the Qing it is Wei. The only sure information is that her story is connected with the history of China in the 4th or 5th century AD.
The Origins of the Ballad
The original source of Mulan’s story came from one folk song in the North Wei Dynasty (386 AD - 557 AD) which was called The Ballad of Mulan. The first known transcription of The Ballad of Mulan comes from the 6th century. Unfortunately, the original work no longer exists and the text of this poem comes from another work known as the Music Bureau Collection.
This is an anthology of lyrics, songs, and poems compiled by Guo Maoqian during the 11th or 12th century. The author explicitly states that the Musical Records of Old and New was his source for the poem about Mulan.
Mulan as depicted in the album ‘Gathering Gems of Beauty.’ (Public Domain)
The next appearance of Mulan’s tale came in the late Ming Dynasty. In 1593, the playwright Xu Wei dramatized the legend as The Female Mulan or The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father's Place. It was a play in two acts. The last of the most important versions of the Ballad was incorporated into the Sui-Tang Romance, a historical novel written by Chu Renhuo in the 17th century. Thus, the folk tale about the warrior woman Hua Mulan stayed alive in people’s memories.
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The Story of the Bravest Heroine of Chinese Poetry
The oldest known Ballad of Mulan consists of 31 couplets and is composed of mostly five-character phrases. The legend of Mulan has been written with many variations, but the plot is always the same: Mulan was washing clothes when she heard that the army was recruiting new soldiers. To save her old and ailing father, Huan Hu, she decided to be recruited as his “son.” She knew that her father was too old and too ill to survive the war, so she decided to disguise herself as a man to go in his place.
Hua Mulan goes to war. (Kung Fu Tea)
The tale continues with Mulan leaving for the battlefield carrying the sword inherited from the ancestors of the family. She fought for ten or twelve years and gained high merit, but refused any reward and retired to her hometown instead. During the war, she met an officer, who is normally named Jin Yong, with whom she fell in love.
Hua Mulan is arguably China's most famous female warrior. (closetprofessor)
Legends say that after 10 years on the battlefield Mulan was promoted to general. When Jin Yong learned that Mulan was a woman, he became more attached to her. In many versions of the story both Mulan and Jin Yong dream about getting married to each other. In time, other soldiers also started to find out that Mulan was a woman.
One day, before a very difficult battle, Mulan decided to go onto the battlefield in women’s clothing so her soldiers would realize her true identity. The reaction of the soldiers was one full of respect and admiration. They were overwhelmed by her bravery, grace, and wisdom. Thus, she inspired her army to win a battle once more.
Mulan in battle. (Disneyfied or Disney tried?)
After another heroic triumph, the emperor wanted to reward Mulan. He was surprised that the bravest of his soldiers was a female. However, Mulan asked for nothing but a horse to ride home. Many variations of the story say that when Mulan returned home she discovered that her father passed away.
In these accounts, she doesn't feel like a hero, but instead like she lost the love of her life. She is also depicted in these folk tales as haunted by her experiences on the battlefield. Feeling lonely and misunderstood, the legend says that she decided to commit suicide.
Hua Mulan. (Lock, Stock, and History)
The Real Mulan
Traditionally, Mulan’s life is placed in the time of the Northern Wei, however, many details of her story were added during the reign of the Tang dynasty around 620 AD. In 621, the founder of the Tang dynasty was victorious over Wang Shichong and Dou Jiande, and another story about a warrior woman appeared at this time. Legends about both of these women were eventually connected into one story.
Statue of Mulan being welcomed home, in the city of Xinxiang, China. (Public Domain)
The history of Mulan came about because in the 4th and 5th century China was suffering under the invasion of a nomadic ethnic group. The central government was completely destroyed by the “barbarian” group. The war was terrible and warriors needed a source of hope. The wars took more than three centuries and affected many parts of the Chinese Empire. Therefore, a woman solider (in the form of Mulan or others) was a phenomenon which inspired soldiers to fight.
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Mulan in the Modern World
The legend of Hua Mulan comes back to life every time that China needs hope and inspiration. The character of Mulan has remained a very popular motif in art and literature. She appears as a heroine of more than 10 movies and theater plays.
She is also a popular heroine of modern novels and researched books. Her monuments are located in many places around the world. Even a crater on Venus is named after her. Hua Mulan is a symbol of bravery and honor. Chinese people believe that she was a real person… and as long as she inspires them, it may not matter to them whether that is the truth.
A modern artistic representation of Mulan. (CC BY NC ND 3.0)
Disney’s film Mulan grossed $22.8 million in its opening weekend, and went on to gross £304 million worldwide, making it the second-highest grossing family film of the year. While Disney hoped to replicate its success throughout China, reception was not as favorable as many Chinese people felt that the Disney version was too different from the original legends as told in ancient texts.
Featured image: Chinese warrior woman (Atelier Sommerland / Adobe Stock)
By: Natalia Klimczak
Updated on May 29, 2020.
S. Kwa, W.L. Idema, Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts, 2010
M. H. Kingston, The Woman Warrior, 1975
W. Jiang, Ch. Jiang,The Legend of Mu Lan: A Heroine of Ancient China,1992