Ancient texts from the past 1,500 years reveal the real history behind the legend of Mulan and how it developed into what we have today.
Around 400 AD, a poem began circulating imperial China. It told of a young girl (most likely in her early teens) who made the momentous decision to take her father’s place in battle. Although modern historians now believe this poem to be fictitious, early historians (most notably, Zhu Guozhen) insisted that the Ballad of Mulan was an autobiography. Regardless of the authenticity of the original tale, this amazing story went on to inspire one of the greatest legends ever told.
For over a hundred years, the Ballad of Mulan was passed down via oral tradition, until it was finally written down during the Tang dynasty. Around this same time, several authors (Wei Yuanfu, Bai Juyi, Du Mu, and Li Rong) also wrote accounts verifying Mulan’s story.
The early narratives about Mulan were are all very short. They provide enough information to verify that Mulan took her father’s place in battle, served for twelve or thirteen years without her femininity ever being discovered, and was rewarded by the emperor for her accomplishments. Due to the brevity of these accounts, later authors became fascinated with Mulan’s story and began embellishing it. After all, Mulan’s story has such a fantastic premise that it begs to be told in a more elaborate form.
For the next several hundred years, very little was written about Mulan. While a memorial erected during the Song dynasty suggests that this maiden warrior continued to captivate the hearts of a Taoist sect, it wasn’t until the Ming dynasty that Mulan’s story came into the public spotlight.
Around 1500 AD, Xu Wei wrote the play Mulan Joins the Army. Although this play was short (the unannotated manuscript is twelve pages), Xu Wei inserted reimagined the story in a way that would capture the imaginations of the common people.
Xu Wei took a lot of liberties with this play and wasn’t overly concerned with historical accuracy. For example, the play included Mulan with bound feet… which is the ancient equivalent of having a woman soldier wearing sexy armor. One version of the manuscript even explicitly instructs the actress playing Mulan to change clothes in full view of the audience.
The play primarily focuses on Mulan’s life as a woman. After she spends a long time preparing to go to war, the narrator blitzes through a decade of military service to show the audience Mulan resuming her life as a woman. (Plot summary of Mulan Joins the Army)
Although no records exist of Xu Wei’s play ever being performed, the printed manuscript circulated widely throughout China. Thus, in its written form, this play inspired a renewed interest in the legend.
After the Ming dynasty fell, the Chinese people found themselves under barbarian rule. The Manchu (who founded the Qing dynasty) oppressed the Chinese people and forced them to adapt to the Manchu way of life under penalty of death. During this time, the Chinese people took solace in Mulan’s story, as they desired for such a hero to rise up amongst them. (More information: The Legend of Mulan During the Qing Dynasty)
The most famous retelling of Mulan’s story to be written during this time was Romance of Sui and Tang by Chu Renhuo, which was written to incite feelings of animosity against those who oppressed the Chinese. In the novel, Mulan is a biracial teen who is initially loyal to the barbarian khan. Although she begins fighting against a Chinese enemy, she is captured by a Chinese princess, who turns out to be such a benevolent captor that Mulan eventually desires to return home to bring her family to dwell together with the princess. However, the khan intercepts Mulan and tries to take her as his concubine by force. When Mulan realizes that the khan will not allow her to refuse, she commits suicide on her father’s grave. (Plot summary of Romance of Sui and Tang)
Biography of Extraordinary Mulan was a very different novel, in that it encouraged its readers to withdraw from society and rise above evil by living virtuous lives. The author, who seems to be a pacifist, uses the novel to glorify monasticism. The novel begins by focusing on Mulan’s grandfather, an ambitious young scholar. As he pursues enlightenment, however, he learns the virtue of inaction. After his granddaughter Mulan is born, he teaches her the art of magic but warns that responsible use of magic is so difficult that he has never found an occasion where the use of magic would be proper. Although Mulan eventually learns how to use her power for good, evil still triumphs in the end.
In 1850, author Zhang Shaoxian conducted a thorough investigation of the legend. He reviewed numerous retellings and united them into a coherent story. The resulting novel, Fierce and Filial, tells of how Mulan’s brilliance and military prowess stem from he virtue. The most unique feature of this novel is the narrator’s analysis of Mulan’s inner struggle during her military service. Mulan is repeatedly traumatized by the cruelty of warfare, but refuses to suppress her tender side and become a hardened warrior. In the end, she manages to befriend the enemy princess, and the two women swear to help one another bring the war to an end.
In 1903, the play Mulan Joins the Army turned Mulan’s story into a raucous comedy about how Mulan took her father’s place when her adopted brother Mushu refused his filial duty. Although the play was hardly successful, it helped pave the way for a new era in the legend’s development.
One of the most famous early film adaptations of Mulan’s story was the 1939 motion picture Mulan Joins the Army. Because this coincided with the early stages of Word War II, after the Japanese had already captured Nanjing (China’s capital city at the time), the filmmakers desired to make it into a call to arms. This film glorifies warfare and is the first adaptation of the legend to introduce romance into Mulan’s story.
After Word War II ended, China was now under communist rule. The people of Hong Kong, who were under British rule, began to wonder if they had anything left in common with the mainland. Partially in response to political tensions, the film Lady General Hua Mu-Lan was released. The primary emphasis of this film is family unity. When Mulan hears that her cousin, Hua Ping, has decided to take his father’s place in battle, Mulan is inspired to do the same. Ping serves as Mulan’s protector throughout their years of service together.
Mulan’s superior officer, Li Guang, takes a special interest in Mulan and becomes her mentor. Mulan, who has strong feelings for Li Guang, tries to drop hints about her true gender, but he responds by professing his brotherly love. The film concludes with Mulan appearing before Li Guang dressed in feminine attire, much to his delight.
In 1998, the first English-language film adaptation of Mulan’s story was released. Although Disney’s Mulan was a success in America (it was the second highest grossing movie in 1998), it was poorly received in China. Almost immediately after the release of the Disney film, Starlight International Media announced plans to produce Mulan: Rise of a Warrior.
Throughout the film, Mulan struggles to put the needs of the masses above her own emotions. Being that she cares for certain comrades more than others, she repeatedly makes decisions that put her men at risk in attempt to rescue her closet friends. When her dear friend Wentai fakes his own death, Mulan is thrown into depression until she finally learns to detach herself from the battlefield.
In 2010, Disney announced plans to release a live-action remake of Mulan. This film, which is purported to draw inspiration from both Chinese and American cultures, is expected to appeal to audiences from around the globe. Because this movie is yet to be released, very little is known about it, except that the film will be strikingly different from the 1998 animated film.
Mulan’s story has traversed the globe several times and has touched the hearts and minds of countless generations since the story was first conceived over a millennium ago. While we may never know the details of her true story (if she really did exist), Mulan continues to be an inspiration to live virtuously when faced with crisis. Throughout the ages, the legend has continued to tell the story of a woman who is prepared to sacrifice everything out of filial devotion to her father.
The legend always has been, and always will be, a touching story of honor, virtue, and sacrifice.