Your FAQs about the real Mulan answered

#womaninamansworld #imperialchina #mulan

With COVID-19, many social venues are recommended off limits with good reason. I saw that Disney indefinitely delayed the release of the live-action "Mulan," which I had been looking forward to with such anticipation. Better safe than sorry, it was the right call.

With that being said, let's spend some time get up to date on who the real Mulan really was and how she gained such popularity over the course of 1500 years to reach her hero level status today.


Hi everyone, I'm back with another episode of Chinese History: Legendary Figure Painting. Finally, I am addressing the hands-down most famous classical Chinese heroine in the world: Mulan. With the new Disney remake coming out this month, and everyone talking about the changes they made, stay tuned and get the scoop on how Mulan even got to this point in the first place. I'm Regina Linke, and we're talking all things Mulan.

Before we get to it, don't forget to subscribe! I'm back again painting more badass women in Chinese history and sharing their stories right here.

Today we're talking about Mulan, the most famous heroine exported out of classical China straight into your local movie theaters. Disney's new live action remake of Mulan comes out at the end of the month, and ever since the first teaser trailer came out last year, I've been hearing so many opinions across the internet and from friends who grew up on the animated version about there being no songs and missing Crick-ee and Mushu, about the lack of any apparent love interest, so today we're breaking down the evolution of Mulan's story by answering five big questions.

Question 1: Was Mulan a real person?

The short story is, probably not. It's largely believed that Mulan is a fictional character who has over time taken on legendary proportions. Like me, you might be kind of disappointed. When I hear of women warriors in folklore like Mulan, I desperately want to believe that they were real people, that they had these incredible origin stories in which they defied the bounds of their social status as women and proved their genius for warfare against those physically stronger than they were. So I have to constantly remind myself that just because Mulan might not have actually existed doesn't reduce the impact of her story any less – it actually allowed Mulan's story to evolve and change with the times, which I think is kind of neat.

Question 2: Where did Mulan come from?

The earliest record of Mulan comes from a folk song called “The Ballad of Mulan,” which was transcribed during the Northern Wei more than 1500 years ago. The original work doesn't exist anymore, but the text of the poem was found in an anthology of songs, poems, and lyrics called the “Musical Bureau Collection,” recorded sometime the 11th or 12th centuries. The author actually cites another work called “Musical Records of Old and New” as his source for “The Ballad of Mulan.”

Question 3: What is in the original “Mulan”?

“The Ballad of Mulan” is actually really really short. It's only 360 words long. If you think about the average reading speed is 300 words per minute, you can start and finish the original story of Mulan pretty quickly.

The story basically goes like this: Mulan is weaving at her loom, and learns that invaders have led to a conscription of males from all households to go to fight. Without an older brother and with her father so old, Mulan decides to purchase a horse, a saddle, and some weapons to go to battle. She rides away at dawn and continues for thousands of miles, following the army through hundreds of battles for get this: ten years. She is then brought before the emperor and asked what she wants as a reward for a decade of service. Refusing a gentleman's post as a government official, Mulan requests only a swift steed to take her home. The rest of the poem tells about after her family welcoming her back, and she trades her battle armor for her old clothes and makeup. Stepping outside once more, she surprises her comrades in arms that she was a woman all along. The poem ends with a couplet, asking “when two rabbits run side by side, how can you tell the female from the male?”

So much of the original poem is dedicated to Mulan's background and her journey to the army, as well as her return home and her surprising reveal. The poem doesn't actually give any details about the part in between these two bookends, it makes us wonder what actually happened in the ten years she was away. The poem leaves all her military training, the battles she fought, her victories and exploits, to the imagination of the reader, which is what has given it such potential to grow and evolve as a legend.

Question 4: How did the story of Mulan change over time?

So we start with a song that barely makes 2 minutes to a plot that drives a full length feature movie with a 2 hour runtime, without I might add, any musical numbers. This didn't just happen overnight. As we covered before, the song was recorded during the 6th century, again in the 11th or 12th century, and later picked up during the Qing Dynasty in 1695, where the basic story was fleshed out into what is known as the “Sui Tang Romance.”

In this story, Mulan has the same background but the author has added a number of adventures after leaving home, including becoming sworn sisters with the emperor's daughter and fellow woman warrior. They go into a number of battles and even offer to trade places with the emperor and his men when they are captured. To reward her for her loyalty, the emperor offers Mulan's family a large sum of money. Mulan returns home to find her father has died, and her mother has remarried, giving Mulan nowhere to go as a single woman. She's ordered to marry as a concubine, and instead of resigning herself to such a fate, she kills herself.

This tragedy of Mulan, and many variations of it, have been acted out on stage and in operas. In 1927 the story made its jump to the silver screen with silent film, “Hua Mulan Joins the Army.” This story was made during the turbulent years of China's existence as a nascent republic. The country was struggling with civil strife while simultaneously resisting Japanese invasion, and Mulan became a popular figure of patriotism and national identity that helped rally and unite the people's spirit. Her story was so powerful, that Chinese cinema remade it in 1939 during World War 2. It continued to resonate with the Chinese as a call to rise up and unite against outside invaders.

In these movies, the story of Mulan's exploits on the battlefield take on more and more legendary proportions, she unroots corruption, acts as a spy, she ends up leading armies and taking over as general, etc. etc. And this is no different than what Disney has done and will do with this year's release. In the animated version, Mulan decimates the Hun army, subverts an assasination attempt, and defeats the barbarian leader in hand-to-hand combat. Based on the new trailers for this year's remake, it looks like she's got a shape-shifting witch on her hands as well.

Question 5: What do I think about Mulan?

When I consider where Mulan's story originates, I imagine the story working out very differently. She is technically not Han Chinese, but rather of a Turco-Mongol ethnicity that served the Northern Wei dynasty. At the time the Northern Wei had already had a significant history of warring with other clans, and was constantly under attack by their neighbors to the North, the Rouran Khagnate. Defense on the northern border was a huge priority, and military duty was considered honored service and was given high recognition.

This would explain why Mulan, though being a woman, had sufficient training to excel as a soldier, and why after ten years of service, she brought high honors to her family and earned the respect of her generals and peers. But what I find most fascinating about Mulan is not necessarily what happened during her time in the army. If anything I'm actually drawn to the end of the poem, when Mulan comes back home and puts on her old clothes again. What was going through her mind? Was she happy to return to the same life after being away for so long?

I don't come from a military family, but I hear and read about how difficult the transition is for servicemen and women when they return to civilian life. And I wonder how that might have been like for Mulan. I think about the freedoms that she must have grown used to under a man's disguise, her life of a soldier, and the violence and brutality she must have seen day to day. It makes me ask how does one go from doing that for ten years to assuming the role of what I can only imagine to be a submissive woman, confined to all things domestic? That, to me, seems like the more interesting part of Mulan's, and under that lens, her suicide in the “Sui Tang Romance” when she was forced to become a concubine, doesn't actually sound all that strange anymore.

So what I want to know is what do you think? Have you seen the new trailers for the live-action Mulan? Leave a comment below and let me know if you're excited to see it. Thanks for watching!


Recent Posts

See All

Hauntings by a Widow Spurned

Who doesn't love a good ghost story? Learn about one of Taiwan's most famous ghosts, Sister Lintou, or 林投姐.