As the status of women began to rise during the Tang Dynasty, an influx of female protagonists appeared in literature. Mulan was one of the heroines emphasized during this time.
Shortly after the formation of the Tang Dynasty, Empress Wu Zetian rose to power. This woman’s sovereign reign over all of China, unsurprisingly, had a profound impact on the society’s opinion of women. However, because culture is often slow to adapt, it was not until after Empress Wu’s death that authors began portraying women in a more positive light. (However, one must remember that Tang dynasty authors’ ideas of the virtuous woman may not appear positive to the modern reader.)
As the female protagonist became increasingly acceptable in literature, retellings of Mulan’s story abounded. Nevertheless, the legend did not center around a strong an independent woman. Wei Yuanfu’s *Song of Mulan, the most detailed of the four Tang Dynasty poems about Mulan, simply mentions that a battle occurred and a victory ensured. In fact, the conclusion to this poem seems to reinforce the patriarchy. As Confucianism returned to dominate Chinese thought, women were praised for their commitment to uphold the patriarchy. In this sense, Mulan was depicted the perfect woman.
Early renditions of Mulan’s story almost exclusively focused on Mulan’s beauty, elegance, and virtue. The most popular retelling, Du Mu’s Mulan Temple, depicts Mulan as agonizing over whether it would be appropriate for her to drink together with the other officers. Even while dressed as a man, she struggled to act in a way that was becoming for a lady.
Although these depictions of Mulan may seem disappointingly anti-feminist to the modern reader, they mark a revolutionary shift in Chinese ideology. Previously, Ban Zhao had insisted that “a man’s worth lies in his strength while a woman’s beauty stems from her inferiority.” As the status of women gradually rose, poets challenged the culture with the story of Mulan, yet assured readers that a woman who becomes strong will not lose her beauty or virtue. Mulan, the most filial daughter of all, was heralded as the perfect woman.