The Fierce and Filial Girl from Northern Wei by Zhang Shaoxian (北魏奇史閨孝烈傳, c. 1850)
This novel unites many of the previous renditions of Mulan’s story into a single volume, emphasizing that Mulan’s brilliance and courage stemmed from her virtue.
As the title suggests, this novel deacribes Mulan as a woman who is both fierce and filial. She is filial (孝) because she is committed to honor her family, particularly her father. While 烈 (“fierce”) has no English equivalent, it designates a hero who has the tenacity to uphold the “three cardinal guides” (sovereign and officials, father and sons, husband and wife), even at the expense of one’s life.
describes Mulan as a mighty warrior who lives an exceptionally virtuous life (the term 孝烈 in the title emphasizes Mulan’s devotion to her parents and her commitment to remain rigorously chaste). Although Mulan proves herself to be so militarily adept that the enemy is terrified of her prowess, she remains a tender woman. Although she is capable of slaughtering the enemy with ease, she weeps to see the corpses of the men she has killed. When the men are forced to endure a harsh winter, she struggles to persist with the army. During one of her final battles against the enemy, Mulan overexerts herself to the point that she vomits blood.
As the story opens, Mulan is betrothed to one of the most brilliant scholars in all of China. Because tradition demanded that she be primarily devoted to her fiancé’s family, her choice to take her father’s place in battle showed that she placed her father above her future husband. However, due to her resolve to remain devoted to her father, she is willing to risk offending her fiancé, even if it means she may never marry.
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Seventeen-year-old Mulan is one of the most beautiful and talented women in Hebei. The fact that she is engaged to marry Wang Qingyun, one of the few young men who exempted himself from the previous drafts, makes her the envy of the entire village. However, when Mulan’s father (a retired battalion captain by the name of Hua Hu) is called to serve in the army, her world turns upside-down. Because her siblings are still very young (her sister Munan nine years old while her brother Yaoer is five), Mulan volunteers to take her father’s place in battle. Dressing as a man, she gives up everything she has ever know to join the army.
The men are sent to Black Mountain to eradicate bandits who have taken control over mountain passes that are critical to trade routes. Due to racial tensions, Supreme Commander Xin Ping decides to divide the newly formed army into two companies. As he reads through the credentials of the men who have been conscripted, he notices that almost all of the seasoned warriors are Xianbei; the only man among the Chinese soldiers who has fighting experience is Hua Hu. When Xin Ping calls Hua Hu’s name, Mulan steps forward. After she demonstrates her military prowess, Mulan is promoted to captain over the Chinse men.
The leader over the Xianbei men, as well as vanguard over the entire expedition, is a man by the name of Niu He. When the Xianbei camp is attacked in the middle of the night, Niu He flees for his life, but Mulan quickly leaves her camp behind to rescue the Xianbei men from disaster. As the bandits flee, Mulan orders the men forward in pursuit and wins several decisive victories. When Niu He returns, he is embarrassed. To conceal his failures, he refuses to reward Mulan for her service but reports that the victories were his own.
After no further victories are won, Xin Ping comes to investigate why the army is having such difficulty eradicating the bandits. Upon sensing Niu He’s incompetence, Xin Ping takes leadership over the expedition personally. After he orders that one of the bandits (whom Mulan had captured) be released from prison, Xin Ping interrogates the bandit and discovers a weakness in the enemy’s stronghold. As a result, he manages to capture Heaven Cather, one of the three bandit ringleaders.
Earth Master comes to rescue Heaven Catcher and is about to kill Niu He, but Mulan dashes onto the scene. Mulan wounds Earth Master, forcing the bandits to withdraw. Out of fear, the enemy retreats into an impenetrable fortress. Xin Ping and his men spend the next six years laying siege to the bandits’ stronghold.
The emperor grows impatient and orders the army to advance at any cost, threatening to execute the officers if they continue being idle. During an emergency meeting, Niu He steps forward and suggests sending Mulan with a letter offering amnesty if the bandits surrender. He does not expect this plan to work; instead, he simply wants to eliminate Mulan out of jealousy. Because nobody has any better ideas, Mulan agrees to go on this suicide mission.
Earth Master recognizes Mulan as the soldier who defeated him. Although he desires revenge, he remembers that the life of his brother Heaven Catcher will be at risk if he kills Mulan. His adviser proposes a way to trap Mulan inside the bandits’ stronghold without using force. Mulan (whom they think is a man) is forced to marry Princess Lu Wanhua. Mulan reluctantly consents to the wedding.
When Mulan refuses to consummate the wedding, the princess grows suspicious and eventually discovers that Mulan is a woman. Mulan shares her story and urges the princess to defect. Finally, Mulan decides to sacrifice everything in service of the emperor. She swears that the princess can marry Mulan’s betrothed, Wang Qingyun. (The original audience would have interpreted Mulan’s actions to be virtuous, and seen her as being utterly devoted to fulfilling the three cardinal ordinances, even if it means sacrificing what she cherishes most. However, virtually every subsequent Mulan retelling, even ones based on this novel, has omitted this now-controversial plot element).
Because Qingyun is the most brilliant scholar in all of China, the princess agrees to defect, and the two women become sworn sisters. The princess agrees to betray the bandits and work to destroy them from within.
To escape from the bandits’ stronghold, Mulan dresses as a woman. However, the bandits have anticipated this. The guards are ordered not to let any men out, and women who exit must prove their femininity by wearing lotus shoes. When Mulan escapes, the bandits conclude that she must be a master of dark magic.
Mulan gets lost on the way back and ends up on the wrong side of the mountain. Right before nightfall, she realizes that she is hopelessly lost. Suddenly, Li Jing (mentor to Mulan’s grandfather in The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan) appears and gives her a magical bow and arrow. Then, Li Jing transports Mulan back to her camp through the use of magic.
Xin Ping decides to release Heaven Catcher and use him as a way to entice the bandits to open their fortress. He will personally lead a team of men to Maoer Ridge (where Heaven Catcher is being held captive), and announces that Mulan will serve as acting supreme commander until he returns.
The bandits feign surrender. They invite Supreme Commander Xin Ping and his army into their stronghold, hoping to capture them. Although Xin Ping knows this is a trap, he recalls the emperor’s orders to advance at any cost. Meanwhile, the bandits are prepared. Three thousand bandits are ordered to fight only against Mulan, whom they believe to be a sorceress. During the battle, Mulan is seriously injured and is about to die, but Princes Wanhua drags her to safety. During the chaos, Princess Wanhua sneaks behind the bandit leaders, kills them, and then flees to “assist” Leopard Skin, the last and mightiest of the bandit king.
The army advances to confront their final opponent, but Mulan must remain behind because several of her ribs were broken in the previous battle. For the next three months, Mulan is in critical condition and fades in and out of consciousness.
When Mulan is finally strong enough to fight, she rejoins the army and finds that they have been locked in a battle against a sorceress, Huang Fengshan, for the past three months. The sorceress has killed many of the army’s mighty men, including Vanguard Niu He. When Mulan returns to the battlefield, her presence inspires the army to attack one more time. During the battle, Mulan confronts the sorceress and defeats her with the magical bow and arrow she received from Li Jing. Upon seeing that their hero has been defeated, Leopard Skin and the bandits flee back to their heavily fortified stronghold and refuse to come out. Xin Ping and his men spend the next year laying siege to the fortress.
Meanwhile, the emperor has lost his patience with the expedition against the bandits. This operation, which was initially supposed to be short, has lasted over seven years. In an attempt to ensure that the expedition is finally drawn to a close, the emperor orders that an examination be conducted to find the most brilliant man in all of China. Wang Qingyun, Mulan’s fiancé, is chosen and sent to supervise the army. When Mulan hears that Qingyun is coming, she becomes bashful and refuses to allow him to see her dressed as a man because she wants him to remember her only as a beautiful woman.
Qingyun investigates the bandits’ stronghold and concludes that the only way to force them out is to trigger a landslide. He sends a memorial to the emperor, requesting that ten barbarian cannons be constructed and sent up the mountain. After the cannons arrive, Qingyun fires them in rapid succession with the intent of inducing an artificial landslide. Leopard Skin flees down the backside of the mountain, where Mulan is waiting. She captures Leopard Skin, and Princess Wanhua forces the bandits to surrender.
Mulan returns home. Qingyun marries Wanhua, but takes Mulan as his second wife. The night of their wedding, Qingyun makes love to Mulan prior to consummating his marriage to Wanhua. Mulan conceives a son who eventually becomes the next prime minister of China.
This novel is also known as Fierce and Filial, An Extraordinary History of the Northern Wei: The Story of a Heroic and Filial Girl, and The Legendary Story of a Filial and Heroic Girl from the Northern Wei