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 the 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.
Zhu Guozhen was one of the first historians to compile what he believed to be an accurate account of Mulan’s life, recording his findings in Woman Generals. Soon afterward, Biographies of Woman Warriors (女俠傳 by 鄒之麟) and Illustrated Accounts of Famous Women Throughout the Ages (歷代名媛圖說) both produced reprintings of the Ballad of Mulan, crediting Mulan herself as the original author.
Although modern historians have begun to question the scholarship of these Ming Dynasty historians, the renewed interest in Mulan’s story that emerged during the Ming Dynasty helped to propel this legend forward.