The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place by Xu Wei (雌木蘭替父從軍, c. 1580)
As one of Xu Wei’s most famous plays, this dramatic retelling of Mulan’s story is often credited with bringing this legend into the public spotlight.
Xu Wei’s classic play had a profound influence on how the legend of Mulan developed. Before the Ming Dynasty, Mulan’s story remained brief and vague. Even though Xu Wei’s play was not excessive in length (the original manuscript barely exceeded twenty pages), it was the first to provide many of the details that have now become inseparable from the legend.
The most noteworthy detail Xu Wei introduced was Mulan’s surname, Hua. Because Hua means “flower” and Mulan means “magnolia,” the vast majority of future renditions of this story likewise adopted this poetic choice for Mulan’s full name. Additionally, the names which Xu Wei chose for the primary villain (Leopard Skin) and the supreme commander (Xin Ping) continued into several future renditions of Mulan’s story. The names of Mulan’s father (Hua Hu), mother (Jia), sister (Munan), and brother (Yaoer) have also become commonly accepted parts of the legend.
The main focus of this short play is Mulan’s life as a woman. Although she spends twelve years away at war, the only battle in the entire play is almost completely overlooked. There is more attention drawn to Mulan’s feet (the epitome of female beauty at the time) than her military prowess. Because Mulan was traditionally viewed as the ideal woman, this play does not portray Mulan as having any desire to go to war outside of wanting to protect her father. Upon returning home, she resumes her femininity in both appearance and disposition. She returns to the quiet and timid girl she once was almost immediately.
When writing this play, Xu Wei’s primary concern was pleasing audiences, not historical accuracy. Because bound feet were highly eroticized features of feminine beauty during the Ming Dynasty, Xu Wei chose to capitalize upon this by devoting lengthy scenes within this short play to Mulan slowly unbinding her feet, which would have titillated audiences. Even though the earliest records of foot binding do not occur until centuries after the period in which Mulan was purported to live, Xu Wei chose to ignore this fact because the depiction of Mulan’s bound feet had such a great potential to please male viewers.
Despite this play’s shortcomings, Xu Wei’s most significant accomplishment was bringing the legend of Mulan into the public spotlight. Even though there are no records of this play being performed, artifacts from this play have been integrated into numerous future retellings. Centuries after Xu Wei’s death, this play was discovered and began to serve as a great inspiration for what would eventually become one of the greatest Chinese legends.
As the play begins, we see Mulan introducing herself and explaining to the audience how her father, Hua Hu, is a retired battalion captain. Both of her parents are well advanced in years, and Mulan is the oldest of three children – her brother and sister are both very young.
Yesterday, Hua Hu had just received word of his conscription notice. The king had ordered that an army be assembled to combat Leopard Skin, who commands a fierce group of bandits. Because her father is old and sick, Mulan fears that if he fulfills his military service, his life will be ended. Thus, she is determined to take his place. Being that her father had taught her martial arts ever since she was a young girl, she is confident that she will be able to perform well on the battlefield.
Mulan calls to Xiaohuan, the family servant, who assists her in making the necessary preparations to go into battle. She will need armor, weapons, and a horse. When Mulan realizes that her small feet are sure to reveal her true identity, she slowly begins to unbind her feet.
Mulan pauses and realizes that if she unbinds and enlarges her feet, thus destroying the most beautiful feature of her body, she will be unsuitable for marriage. However, after a moment’s pause, she reassures the audience that she is not making a permanent change to her body because her family has a magic potion that will shrink her feet back to the size of golden lotuses when she returns from war. She claims that, in the end, her feet will be smaller than ever before.
After Mulan stands up, she finds that walking is now cumbersome. However, after taking some time to practice, she begins to grow accustomed to walking with such massive feet. After she has changed clothes, she now looks exactly like a man.
Mulan then spends some time practicing with a spear, learning how to ride a horse, and then goes inside to announce her departure to her parents. When her mother hears of Mulan’s plan, she weeps and refuses to allow her to go. To spend years eating, sleeping, and fighting alongside men would be inappropriate and dangerous. However, when it is revealed that Mulan’s father has been plunged into depression ever since receiving his conscription notice, even going so far as to attempt to take his own life, Mulan’s mother finally acquiesces, and the family drinks a toast and tearfully wishes Mulan the best in her journey. Their emotional parting is interrupted by two soldiers who burst onto the scene and begin aggressively shouting to hurry Mulan to set out with them. Mulan says a hurried goodbye to her family while being urged out of the house.
Once on the road, they travel for a while before stopping to rest by the yellow river. Mulan sits and reminisces, realizing that she is already homesick. The soldiers travel together to the capital, where they will receive further instructions.
The soldiers talk to one another about the hardships which lay ahead, wondering if they will be rewarded for their service. Some of them notice that Mulan, now known as Hua Hu, is a talented soldier. The audience begins to realize that promotion surely lies in her future.
Supreme Commander Xin Ping stands before the newly enlisted men and instructs them. Because he has realized that Mulan is highly talented, he turns to her and promises a great reward if she should come to the front of the army and capture the bandit leader.
The troops advance and engage the enemy. Leopard Skin charges forward, but Mulan captures him. (The only battle in this play is glossed over.)
The supreme commander returns to the king and reports that Leopard Skin has been captured due to Hua Hu’s military prowess. Mulan is offered a prominent position as a reward for her meritorious service, although she may return home for three months before returning and taking up her official duties. Mulan declines the promotion and requests that she be allowed to return home and care for her aged and feeble parents indefinitely. She promises to serve in an official capacity at a later time.
Meanwhile, Mulan’s comrades begin to gossip about Hua Hu. The more they think about him, the more they notice that he is a strange fellow. Whenever he relieves himself, he is always so self-conscious. While most men have no inhibitions to do it out in the open when only in the company of other men, Hua Hu values his privacy. Mulan hears of their suspicious and promises to reveal everything once they have returned home.
Back in Hebei, Mulan’s parents discuss how the son of Wang Sixun, a prominent scholar who is never named, has heard of Mulan’s filial act of taking her father’s place in battle. He is so impressed that he vows to marry her, even he must wait many years for her return.
When Mulan returns home, she is reunited with her family and resumes her feminine appearance, and applies the potion to shrink her feet back down to the size that is fitting for a woman. Two soldiers rush onto the stage, looking for Hua Hu, but are stunned to see a woman standing before them.
During the wedding celebration, the guests eagerly anticipate seeing the couple bowing to one another. However, Mulan stands erect and blushes. Her mother chides, “You fearlessly commanded an army of men for twelve years! How can you suddenly become bashful?”