Real story of Mulan – warrior and Ballad that inspired the Disney film

With a remake on the horizon we take a look at the true story behind Mulan

Most people will know Mulan from the 1998 Disney animation, but how many of us know it’s based on a ‘true story’?

The Disney film saw Ming-Na Wen voice the lead character with Lea Salonga lending her voice to the musical tracks.

With the House of Mouse re-releasing the classic animation as a live-action martial art movie next year, the warrior’s tale has made headlines again. The move has fans questioning what would be a true representation of the tale and if it’s based on a true story.

Fa Mulan was pretty impressive in the animation, after all “you don’t come across a girl like that every dynasty”, but the ‘real’ Mulan was even more of a warrior whose story has refused to wane in popularity. The heroine even has a crater on Venus named after her.

What is the true story behind Mulan?

Hua Mulan’s story comes from the Ballad of Mulan, a story set in the North and South dynasties, which was between 420 and 589 CE.

While the gutsy girl could possibly be real, it’s largely thought the story of Mulan is fictional. Ballads were meant to be inspiring tales rather than a true story.

The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Selections from the History of Chinese Painting showing Mulan
The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Selections from the History of Chinese Painting showing Mulan

In the ballad, Hua Mulan, disguised as a man, takes her father’s place in the army to fight Genghis Khan. Mulan sits worriedly at her loom when guards arrive to call up one member of each family to fight. She fears her father is too old to fight and her brother too young, so she dons her armour and heads off to war in their place.

The 360-word poem by an anonymous poet differs from the Disney movie from this point onwards. In the film, Mulan snuck off in an epic montage set to an intense soundtrack, but in the ballad she heads off with her mother and father’s blessing.

Mulan, already trained in martial arts, sword fighting and archery, managed to go undetected for 12 years in the army. Mulan is offered an official post, but turns it down. Instead she asks for a camel (not a horse!) to ride back home. When Mulan prepared to leave she switched to her female clothes leaving her fellow soldiers shocked as they realised they had fallen for her trick.

The different versions of Mulan

Skip forward and playwright Xu Wei wrote ‘The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place’ in the late Ming dynasty. Then in 1695, Chu Renhuo wrote ‘Sui Tang Romance’, yet another version of the tale. Mulan has sisters in Wei’s version and a baby son – no men of age – so she takes her father’s place and heads off to war.

This time around there are even more powerful women to marvel at. Dou Xianniang, the Emperor’s daughter, is also a warrior. Dou is so pleased to discover Mulan’s secret they become laotong, which means bonded sisters.

Painting of Hua Mulan, 18th century, housed in the British Museum
Painting of Hua Mulan, 18th century, housed in the British Museum

The tale takes a turn for the worse after their meeting.

The king is overthrown forcing the sisters to surrender, but the pair offer to be put to death if the condemned men are spared.

They decide not to kill Mulan and Xianniang despite their offer. Instead the Emperor’s mother gives Mulan money to take home to her family. When Mulan returns, she finds her father has died while she was away, and her mother has remarried. Mulan is ordered to become a concubine and, unwilling to face such a dishonour, she kills herself.

Before she takes her life she asks her younger sister, Youlan, to deliver Xianniang’s letter to her fiancé. Youlan dresses as a man to make the delivery, but her disguise is discovered and she catches the fiancé’s eye.

Hua Mulan’s last words were: “I’m a girl, I have been through war and have done enough. I now want to be with my father,” a far cry from the happy Disney ending we got in 1998…

How does Disney’s princess compare?

You’ll notice that in both stories Mulan has no romantic sub-plot. When Disney chose to bring the story to the big screen they added Li Shang, the much loved commander who fails to notice his prized warrior is a woman.

Li Shang won’t appear in the upcoming live-action remake, instead Mulan’s commander bullies her but then changes his mind about her when he realises she’s a woman – at least according to the casting call notes.

The remake has also added back in a sister, so perhaps director Niki Caro will revert back to the ballad version of events in other ways too.

Who is Hua Mulan?

When it comes to Chinese folklore the ballad itself is unusual. There aren’t any supernatural elements in the ballad, which is why people believe it was true. Scholars generally disagree.

There is no historical evidence to prove Mulan’s existence. Passed down orally the tale has a complicated origin.

Another theory centres on Mulan’s name, which means “magnolia” in Chinese – the term given to men who served in the military. Her name changes in each tale. In one her family name is Zhu, in another it’s Wei. The most popular name, however, has remained Hua (花; Huā; ‘flower’) because of its poetic meaning.

Liu Yifei as Mulan

That’s not to say there’s no precedent for women fighting in the Chinese army. Historians have suggested Emperor’s may have recruited women in times of need, like barbaric invasion.

There are historic examples. A real Chinese female warrior in the seventh century, called Princess Pingyang, raised troops to help the future Emperor Gaozu, seize the throne and raise the Tang Dynasty.

Sadly, Princess Pingyang died a few years later, but her father held an elaborate funeral with a complete military guard. When a member of court complained about her being given the honour, the Emperor replied: “she was no ordinary woman.”

Hua Mulan may not have been real, but that hasn’t stopped her tale inspiring people, whether that’s in the seventh century or today.

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