The Ming Dynasty witnessed a decline in intellectualism and a rise in entertainment. Whereas previous generations prized scholars who were devoted to nourishing their minds, the influential philosopher Li Zhi encouraged the populace to retain “childlike hearts.” This resulted in a rise in the pursuit of personal happiness; submission to one’s husband, father, or emperor was no longer paramount.
Amid this culture which had ceased prizing the cultivation of virtue through careful study of the Confucian classics, Xu Wei released his now-famous play, Mulan Joins the Army. Filled with crass humor and gratuitous erotica (Mulan changes clothes in front of the audience), this play marks a dark time in the development of the legend. Whereas previous retellings of Mulan’s story elevated the status of women, Xu Wei was primarily interested in objectifying them. The fact that he murdered his third wife should be enough evidence that he had no interest in women’s rights.
Sadly, this rendition of Mulan’s tale is also the most popular. While Xu Wei did Mulan (and women in general) an incredible disservice, he did succeed in bringing the story of Mulan into the public spotlight. Before the Ming Dynasty, Mulan was only mentioned by a handful of poets; after Xu Wei released Mulan Joins the Army, authors and even historians began taking an increasing interest in Mulan’s story.