If Mulan was a real person, one of the best sources to use to argue for her existence would be historian Zhu Guozhen’s writings. Zhu Guozhen was remarkably thorough in the way he preserved historical details; his scholarship has enabled modern-day scholars to gain a greater understanding of events from imperial China.
During the Ming Dynasty (c. 1625), Zhu Guozhen collected reports on various civil and political topics which he had witnessed, compiling them into a work which he titled A Minuscule Book from the Yongzhuang Studio. In a section titled Women Generals, Zhu Guozhen addressed the subject of female soldiers. He wrote:
Employing women soldiers provides many tactical advantages... Wei Mulan, The Filial General, was a virgin from Qiao in Bozhou who served during the reign of Emperor Yang of Sui. She was greatly distressed by her father’s declining health during the time when soldiers were being recruited for an expedition east of the Liao River. Because her brother and sister were both young and immature, she resolved to take her father’s place. After gathering supplies and donning a suit of armor, she rode off on a horse. She fought in eighteen battles over twelve years, but her comrades never discovered her true identity.
When she returned from war, the Son of Heaven praised her meritorious service and offered her a prominent position, which she declined. Instead, she requested that she be allowed to return home and care for her elderly parents. When returning to Qiao, Mulan took off her military attire and changed into an old dress. Her comrades were shocked [to discover that she was a woman], saying that such events had never transpired since the inception of humanity.
When the royal court finally heard about Mulan’s true nature, Emperor Yang offered her a position in the royal harem. Again, Mulan declined, saying, “Your humble servant is unworthy of this honor.” When the emperor tried to take her by force, and she realized that she could not resist his demands, she ended her own life.
Emperor Yang was greatly moved by how fiercely loyal she was to defending her family and her chastity. Thus, he posthumously promoted her to general and added “filial” to her title. This is why she is now known as The Filial General.
Original Chinese text
This excerpt comes from a text which has been praised by modern scholars for taking great care to handle historical materials well. Most interestingly, Zuo Guozhen notes that Mulan’s surname was Wei. This should not seem strange, as the name Hua Mulan was invented for poetic (not historical) reasons.
Although this retelling of Mulan’s story has a tragic ending, it is one of the most logically consistent versions. An emperor who was willing to conscript elderly and feeble men into his army, thus forcing Mulan to take her father’s place, would have seen himself above needing to adhere to moral principles; this same emperor would have wanted to take a woman such as Mulan for himself. Emperor Yang was, in fact, shameless in his immorality. Toward the end of his life, he lived such a lavish and wasteful lifestyle that he single-handedly placed China under a significant burden. He conscripted countless men into his army and sent them to fight in frivolous expeditions, commissioned numerous lavish construction projects, and forced thousands of women into his royal harem against their wills. His abandonment of Confucian principles makes him an ideal candidate for the emperor under whom Mulan served.
Even though A Minuscule Book from the Yongzhuang Studio has been accepted by numerous scholars as a credible historical text, Zhu Guozhen’s treatment of Mulan has been called into question. While Zhu Guozhen repeatedly demonstrated his ability to meticulously record the history of his time, some scholars doubt that he had the resources to thoroughly research events that had occurred centuries prior. Additionally, many earlier references to Mulan insist that she lived much earlier than the Sui Dynasty. Thus, this particular excerpt is considered by many modern scholars to be a fictional anecdote inside a historical text.