Questions about Mulan’s Legend and History, Answered
Was Mulan a real person? Where was she born?
An inscription on a memorial dedicated to Mulan located in Hubei claims to be in Mulan’s hometown. However, Ming dynasty historian Zhu Guozhen recorded that Mulan was born in Bozhou. In addition, other ancient historians claim that Shanxi, Henan, and Hebei were Mulan’s birthplaces.
Most modern historians use the disagreement among imperial historians to argue that the Chinese people merely wanted to believe that Mulan’s story was true. However, there is little evidence to support her historicity.
Under which emperor did Mulan serve? During which dynasty did she live?
Conflicting historical records indicate that Mulan may have lived during the Han, Northern Wei, or Sui dynasties.
An inscription in a memorial erected during the Yuan dynasty states that Mulan served under Emperor Wen of Han, who was a benevolent and virtuous ruler. The memorial describes how Mulan fought against the Xiongnu, which may have occurred around 150 BC.
Ming dynasty historian Zhu Guozhen wrote that Mulan served under Emperor Yang of Sui, who ruled from 569 to 618 AD. Emperor Yang was incredibly corrupt, and is believed to have raped thousands of virgin girls during his reign. After he died, his tomb was (according to legend) relocated several times due to consecutive lightning strikes. Zhu Guozhen describes how Emperor Yang sought to take Mulan as a concubine, but she took her own life to preserve her honor.
Most modern historians believe that Mulan’s story is fictitious, but insist that it is set during the era of Northern Wei, most likely under the reign of Emperor Taiwu because Taiwu engaged in a twelve-year war against the Rouran khan between 429 and 441 AD (the Ballad of Mulan states that Mulan served for twelve years). Because it was not beneath Emperor Taiwu to compel elderly men to join his army (he won battles through attrition), it is possible that a young girl might have been forced to take her father’s place to save his life during the reign of this corrupt warlord. However, because the Ballad of Mulan says that her father was drafted by the khan, it it also possible that she fought on the opposite side.
How did Mulan die?
According to Ming dynasty historian Zhu Guozhen’s account of Mulan’s life:
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.
Although Romance of Sui and Tang and The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan incorporate similar tragic endings into Mulan’s story, the remaining versions of the story make no mention of her death. Most retellings conclude with Mulan either being reunited with her family or marrying a brilliant scholar and living happily ever after.
Additionally, the Ming dynasty play Mulan Joins the Army and the Qing dynasty novel Fierce and Filial both state that Mulan had a nine-year-old sister by the name of Munan and a five-year-old brother by the name Hua Fang (who was nicknamed Yaoer).
Finally, Romance of Sui and Tang includes a subplot where Mulan’s sister Youlan (who was only slightly younger than Mulan) dresses as a man to deliver a letter after Mulan’s death.
How old was Mulan when she joined the army? How long did she serve?
Most retellings indicate that Mulan was a teenager. Only Fierce and Filial mentions her exact age—seventeen years old. Because she served for twelve years, she would have returned at the age of twenty-nine.
Did Mulan have difficulty finding a husband before she joined the army?
According to the legend, Mulan was exceedingly beautiful and talented. In fact, the Tang dynasty poem Mulan Temple compares Mulan to Wang Zhaojun, one of the most beautiful women who ever lived in ancient China.
According to the Ming dynasty play Mulan Joins the Army, Mulan was arranged to marry the son of Wang Sixun after she returned to war. The Qing dynasty novel Fierce and Filial gave Wang Sixun’s son a name: Wang Qingyun, and made them already engaged at the beginning of the story. According to the novel, Mulan broke off her engagement to join the army.
Who was Mulan’s romantic love interest?
In Mulan Joins the Army and Fierce and Filial, Mulan’s betrothal and marriage were arranged. (Although Mulan is recorded to have feelings for her fiancé in Fierce and Filial, there is a lack of romance in the modern sense.)
The first version to introduce romance into the legend was the 1939 film Mulan Joins the Army. Mulan’s subordinate, Yuandu, begins to develop feelings for her after Mulan goes undercover as a woman.
Since 1939, every retelling of Mulan’s story has included a romantic interest.