Hua Mulan: The Legendary Chinese Heroine

Hua Mulan – an ancient Chinese legendary character

In most ancient cultures and civilizations, stories about female warrior heroines were quite a rarity and not so widespread. However, that was not the case with Hua Mulan – the legendary woman warrior whose brave acts were beautifully captured in several ancient texts and the Ballad of Mulan. The folk tales that develop from the ballad generally talks about a warrior woman called Hua Mulan who disguises herself as a man and heads to battle in her father’s place.  By so doing, she is able to spare her ailing dad from the rigors of war. Mulan goes on to distinguish herself very bravely in several battles and wins the admiration of so many officers and the emperor as well.

The legend of Hua Mulan was popularized in the West kind courtesy of the 1998 Walt Disney film Mulan. In China, however, Hua Mulan’s story has always held a legendary status; in all fairness, it is comparable to the status King Arthur holds in Great Britain for example. Who was Hua Mulan? And how did her stories become such a staple in ancient China and beyond?

Meaning of Hua Mulan’s name

The word “Huā” in Chines e translates into “flower”. On the other hand, the word “Mùlán” means magnolia. Therefore, Hua Mulan means “magnolia flower”. Interestingly, the magnolia flower has been a very popular symbol for the Chinese, regardless of the era.

Considering the fact that Hua Mulan’s story belongs to realm of legend, there have been many accounts explaining her origin story. Some ancient writers, and according to History of the Ming, claimed that her family name was in fact Zhu. On the other hand, History of the Qing claims that her family name is Wei (in the book Sui Tang Romance).

Origin of the story

The commonly held view is that Mulan’s fictional story goes back to the 4th or 5th century AD – a period which coincided with the North Wei Dynasty (c. 380 AD – c. 557 AD).

The story in fact began as a simple folk song in The Ballad of Mulan. The setting of the story primarily takes place during the Northern Wei’s military defense against barbaric hordes, the nomadic Rouran.

In a latter version, around the 6th century A.D., Hua Mulan’s folk tale comes to prominence as the founder of the Tang dynasty uses it boost the morale of his fighters in order to defeat his enemies.  Transcribing of the Ballad of Mulan was done in a compiled book by the title, Musical Records of Old and New. The Southern Chen dynasty monk Zhijiang is credited with compiling the book.

The Music Bureau Collection of the 11th/12th century contains the earliest text of the poem. In addition to the folk tale, the book contains a compilation of lyrics, songs, and poems primarily written by Guo Maoqian. In the footnotes, Guo Maoqian states that the source of the poem about Hua Mulan came from the Musical Records of Old and New.

In late Ming Dynasty, the playwright Xu Wei dramatized the poem into a play called The Female Mulan or The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place. Xu was the one who gave Mulan the surname, “Hua” (flower). Xu’s play, which was in two broad acts, received critical acclaim back then as it was again used to inspire soldiers in defending their family’s honor or pride. The play also depicted Mulan as what the perfect Chinese feminism and beauty look like.

In the 17th century, author Chu Renhuo incorporated Mulan’s character into his novel, the Sui-Tang Romance. The novel was very popular among the Han Chinese people who were at that time oppressed by the ruling Manchu during the Qing Dynasty. The Manchu tried to force the Han people to discard their Confucianist beliefs and traditions. In Renhuo’s version, Mulan appears to have a lot more Han people customs and characteristics.

Did you know: the poem about Mulan has 31 couplets, which is then made up of five-character phrases?

Northern Wei Dynasty

The Touba clan from Xianbei are generally regarded the people who founded the Northern Wei dynasty. This happened around the 4th century A.D. The Touba clan, who were previously nomads, emerged from the northern steppes and later made northern China their home. In order to reinforce their legitimacy, the leaders of the Touba Xianbie adopted “Wei” as their Chinese dynasty name. They also took “Yuan” as their surname.  However, some them still kept some of their nomadic traditions, including training women in the art of horseback riding.

Emperors in the Northern Wei dynasty were commonly called the “Son of Heaven”. In the stories about Mulan, the emperor rewarded Mulan with a top government position within the state department (the Shangshusheng). Mulan declined and asked the emperor for only the “swiftest horse” so that she could ride back to her home town.

Of all the external threats that the Northern Wei emperors had to contend it, the biggest came from the nomadic Rouran. Those nomads typically ravaged towns in the northern part of the empire.

In an attempt to quell their attacks, the northern Wei emperors used the story of Mulan to whip up the strength, bravery and loyalty among the fighters.

Ballad of Mulan – Plot

In the story, Mulan hears that the Khagan (i.e. emperors of the Northern Wei dynasty) have conscripted her very ailing father to help in defending the empire against the approaching Rouran invaders. Mulan’s father, Huan Hu, was at one time a very fierce fighter in the imperial army, fighting in so many tours for the empire. Owing to the fact that he had no adult male child, he had no option than to heed to the call of the emperor.

The story goes on to say that Mulan decides to take her father’s place in the army so as to spare him from dying. Using her savings, she goes to the market and buys a horse, a whip, bridle and reins. In some versions of the story, Mulan steals the family’s sacred sword.

Mulan then heads for the Black Mountain before making her way to battle in full military armor. According to the story, Mulan fights bravely in the over hundred battles, helping her nation quell the Rouran invasion.

Deeply grateful for Mulan’s acts in battle, the emperor (Son of Heaven) invites Mulan to his magnificent palace. The emperor tells Mulan how the entire nation is indebted to her and asks her what she would like most from him. Mulan simply tells the emperor that she desired nothing than to return home. She also turned down the emperor’s offer to make her a top official in his government.

Mulan returns home to a rousing welcome from her family. She then goes in to her room to change into her old clothes and fix her hair. Her fellow officers, who were outside, are left scratching their heads upon discovering that she was is a man.

Hua Mulan legend

Hua Mulan’s utterances to her brothers-in-arms who were shocked to discover that she was indeed a woman disguised as a man

Alternative endings

An alternative version of the story states that Mulan and her closest comrade in the army, Jin Yong, fall in love and get married later. In another account, Mulan returns home and receives the news of her father’s death. Saddened by the death of her father, Mulan descends into a deep depression, often times not feeling like a hero. She also goes to through severe post-traumatic stress owing to the horrors she saw during the war. Lonely and depressed, Mulan commits suicide.

The 17th century A.D. historian and scholar Zhu Guozhen – from the Ming Dynasty – offers a different reason why Wei Mulan* commits suicide. In Guozhen’s book – A miniscule Book from the Yonghwang Studio – Mulan repeatedly declines the emperor’s  (Emperor Yang of Sui Dynasty) to serve in an executive position of the government. The emperor then forcefully brings Mulan to his court (harem). Saddened by her abduction, Mulan, who Guozhen describes as virgin, commits suicide.

* Guozhen changed Mulan’s name from Hua Mulan to Wei Mulan.

Adaptations and Live-Action Film

Mulan (1998)

To date, Disney’s animation film Mulan (1998) remains the most critically acclaimed adaptation of the legend of Mulan| Image: Theatrical release poster of Disney’s Mulan (1998)

Since the early parts of the 20th century, Hua Mulan’s story has been adapted onto the screen and stage a number of times. For example, a stage performance – Mulan Joins the Army – in 1917 saw opera actor Mei Lan (also known as Mei Lanfang) star in it.

The most famous screen adaption of the story of Hua Mulan is undoubtedly Disney’s Mulan – a 1998 animated feature film that starred the likes of Eddie Murphy, BD Wong, Miguel Ferrer and Ming-Na Wen. The latter actor voiced the character Fa Mulan. The animated musical, which was directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook, raked in more than $300 million worldwide. The cast’s stellar performance and the film’s animation design helped the film claim the second spot in that year’s list of highest grossing films. Disney’s Mulan (1998) also won several awards, including one for the musical score at the 1999 BMI Film Music Award. The musical score also got nominated for the Academy Award for the Best Original Music Score.

In a bid to ride on the success of Mulan (1998), Disney gave the green light for Mullan II (2004) – a sequel to the first film. With many voice actors from the first film returning (excluding Eddie Murphy), the film failed to garner as much positive reviews compared to the first one.

In 2020, Disney’s Mulan – a live action version of Mulan (1998) – was released and received mixed reviews. The live action remake, which was directed by Niki Caro, starred Yifei Liu, Yoson An as well as other household actors such as Jet Li, Tzi Ma, and Donnie Yen. With a budget of over $200 million, the feature film’s box office showing was not so inspiring owing to Covid-19 pandemic. The lead actress Yifei Liu also got caught up in political issue relating to the 2020 Hong Kong protests.

Did you knowthere is a crater on Venus named after Hua Mulan?

Interesting Facts about Mulan

Hua Mulan

The story of Mulan has featured in several art and literature, including films, theatre plays, and books. Monuments of Mulan are also quite common in China | Image: Statue of Mulan being welcomed home, in the city of Xinxiang, China.

  • Mulan’s name features in One Hundred Beauties – a book written by Yan Xiyauan which compiles prominent women in Chinese folklore.
  • Those who argue that Mulan was a legendary figure state that her name is absent in Exemplary Women – a compilation of famous women during the Northern Wei dynasty. Had Mulan been an actual historical figure, then stories about her would have appeared in that book. Furthermore, the Ballad of Mulan is believed to have existed long before the actual occurrence of those events.
  • The story of Mulan always served as powerful tool in the arsenal of Chinese emperors whenever they were confronted by an attack from nomadic tribes. The imperial government used the story to boost the morale of the fighters in standing against the barbarians
  • Even though there have been many variations of Mulan’s story over the years, the plot has remained relatively unchanged.
  • Aside from it containing themes of bravery, the story of Mulan inspires in the audience themes of loyalty to family and being true to oneself.
  • During the 1911 revolution in China, story of Mulan featured prominently, acting as a symbol of resistance to Qing dynasty and oppression. Following the revolution, the deposed child emperor, Emperor Puyi, became China’s last emperor, ending the dynastic rule of China. Mulan’s story inspired many women from Han Chinese women (for example the Women’s Revolutionary Army) to fight side by side with men in toppling the Qing dynasty.
  • Mulan’s story has always been invoked every time one group feels oppressed. At some point in the ancient times, her legend was so widespread that people started to deify her. We know of the this immense reverence directed toward her because of the Temple of Mulan. The ruins of the temple is near Hubei, China.

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