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Representation of a Mongol female warrior / the legendary Mulan.   Source: katalinks / Adobe stock

Ancient Mongolian Female Warrior Skeletons Substantiate Disney’s Mulan

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Microscopic marks discovered on the shoulder bones of two ancient female warriors bring the legendary woman warrior, Mulan, from eastern mythology into historical reality.

Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan grossed over $300 million at the box office and filmmaker Niki Caro’s new movie version of the epic tale of China’s legendary woman warrior who dressed up as a man, Hua Jun, to fight for China's emperor, will “not" premier as planned on July 24, 2020, because of the pandemic. But a team of two scientific researchers are, however, telling an infinitely more interesting and factual version of this ancient tale.

Most historians and archaeologists generally believe the story of Mulan was inspired by historical female warriors, the Xianbei, who were an ancient nomadic group inhabiting the eastern Eurasian steppes in what is today Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern China.

The Xianbei migrated into northern China around the end of the 3rd century BC and formed a loose confederation of nomadic tribes during the Jin Dynasty (266 to 420 AD) and the succeeding Northern and Southern Dynasties, and according to Xianbei creation myths, their ancestors emerged from a sacred cave in what is today Inner Mongolia.

Now, anthropologist Christine Lee from California State University in Los Angeles, who specializes in East Asia history, had planned to deliver a speech at the also postponed American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference titled, “The Hidden Lives of Women,” presenting new archaeological research on the historical roles of women.

Cross Dressing and Warring for Over a Decade

The story of Mulan was first written in the 6th century The Ballad of Hua Mulan, and the character appeared in the 17th century  Sui-Tang Romance written by Chu Renhuo in the early Qing Dynasty, telling of a young woman in the Northern Wei period (386-536 AD), during the Tang Dynasty, who pretended to be her own father when every family provided one male to fight in the emperor’s army, with her true identity remaining undetected for 12 years.

Speaking to Are Technica, Lee said historically archaeology has been “a very male dominated field,” which she thinks might have led to a biased traditional interpretation of women who she thinks were studied in their archetypal roles as wives and mothers, with less interest in women warriors. However, the anthropologist’s new study of skeletal remains presents “possible physical evidence” of a warrior women in the region associated with the Chinese legend of Mulan.

Lee's lecture at the symposium would have focused on nomadic Xiongnu female warriors who lived north of the Great Wall of China around 2200 years ago, until they were defeated by the Xianbei around 1850 years ago, and the researcher had planned to read ancient songs, poems and legends about warrior women, including  The Ballad of Mulan.

Microscopic Marks Provides Evidence of Female Warriors

A New Scientist article tells of Lee and her colleague Yahaira Gonzalez spending several years collecting data from China and Mongolia, and they re-examined 29 skeletons from ancient Mongolian burial sites looking for arthritis, trauma, and musculoskeletal markers, including three Xianbei women skeletons, two of which were potentially female warriors. This conclusion was drawn after Lee and Gonzalez studied marks left on the bones where the muscles once attached, which were comparable to how mounted warrior skeletons are marked, indicating that these two woman also “practiced archery.”

Remains of a husband and wife burial (wife is on the left) from the Airagiin Gozgor site, Orkhon Province, Mongolia. (Christine Lee / California State University)

Remains of a husband and wife burial (wife is on the left) from the Airagiin Gozgor site, Orkhon Province, Mongolia. (Christine Lee / California State University)

Lee thinks this expanded role for certain women might be associated with the increasing political instability and social violence, which clouded the centuries following the collapse of China's Han Dynasty in 220 AD, and in contrast to these two possible women warriors, the skeletal remains of three Turkic women had no signs of developed shoulder muscles, therefore they didn’t practice archery.

Lee admits the skeletons only show minimal signs of horse riding and that no evidence of trauma was found around the marks, but the researcher thinks this might be because the women belonged to the elite class, who while highly trained in the martial arts and war crafts, didn’t actually partake in hand-to-hand combat, in contrast to other Chinese and Mongolian skeletons that all have battle scaring. The theory that the two women had belonged to the upper classes is greatly supported in that their skeletons were excavated from a 20-30 feet (6-9 meters) deep, tomb-like burial mound with several anti-chambers.

Top image: Representation of a Mongol female warrior / the legendary Mulan.   Source: katalinks / Adobe stock

By Ashley Cowie



Please stop the desecration.
Would we like it if our graves were dug up and our skeletons finger poked, by yobo's.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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