Mulan is a fascinating figure of legend and folklore. From the ballad, to books, and then to film, Mulan has gone through several iterations and changes throughout the years. There is so much to discuss and delve into when it comes to her story.
Let’s talk about the origins of Mulan.
So where do we start?
image via pinterest
Let’s start with what we know based, upon what we have been told. Since our first interaction with this story was probably through Disney’s 1998 animated film. We know the Mulan is a young woman who disguises herself as a man when she learns that her father has been drafted into the army. She runs away from home, donning her father’s armor and blade, and she joins the army in his stead. She trains, she grows as a person, and she saves China.
First, it should be established that there is a possibility that Mulan was a real person. However, this isn’t necessarily something that we can currently confirm. I, personally, love the idea of a woman gaining such prestige and adoration that she is canonized into a ballad and that tale then echoes across the centuries. With that being said though, legends aren’t always kind to their real life subjects, so perhaps it’s a mixed bag. The fact remains that, when someone becomes a legend, they become fictionalized. With that being the case, we are always going to battle with what is real and what isn’t when it comes to stories like Mulan’s.
For the sake of this article, we’re going to focus on the legend of Mulan and how ir’s developed. We’re going to focus on three iterations of the story, but it should be addressed here that there are many versions of this tale that can be explored. I should definitely give credit to Jon Solo’s youtube video on Mulan, as it helped me find a good chunk of the sources and material used for this article as well.
some historical background
While we can’t confirm if Mulan was a real individual, we can gather that the Ballad was set during the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty. This was a time where the region of Han China was often invaded by the Xiongnu (who are also referred to as the Hun). A war did take place between the Northern Wei state and a Mongolian state also referred to as the Rouran (source).
“the ballad of mulan”
image via pinterest
While we cannot say with all certainty that The Ballad of Mulan is the first time that Mulan’s story was ever told, we can say that it is the oldest surviving version of her tale that we have. In all likelihood, an oral tradition that precedes this ballad.
Much like what we see with Disney’s Mulan, The Ballad of Mulan tells the tale of a young woman who dresses as a man and joins the army to spare her aging father from the war that is tearing China apart, and the very real possibility that he will die. She hides her identity for over twelve years from the other soldiers in the army, and decides to tell them that she is a woman.
When the war is over and the emperor is gifting the soldiers of his army with gifts, Mulan rejects the offer to become a minister, and she returns home, where her parents, now much older, lean on one another for support as they go out to greet her. Mulan’s elder sister dresses in beautiful clothing and paints her face with makeup to welcome her sister home, and Mulan’s younger brother begins preparations for a feast in his sibling’s honor. Mulan reemerges dressed in civilian clothing, and she greets her comrades, who are shocked to discover that she is a woman.
This is the basis for Disney’s version, but there are other variations of Mulan’s story.
“the fierce and filial girl from northern wei”
image via pinterest
The Fierce and Filial Girl From Northern Wei introduces Mulan as a gifted young woman who is engaged to a scholar. Much like in The Ballad of Mulan, the emperor issues a draft that includes her father, a former battalion commander. Mulan takes her father’s place, much like she does in the ballad.
After she demonstrates her capacity as a warrior, Mulan is promoted in the Chinese army. Niu He, one of the vanguards in the army, comes to resent Mulan because of her skill and her unwavering bravery. In one instance, the army encampment is attacked. While Niu He flees, Mulan leaves to rescue the soldiers taken captive by the attackers. His incompetence loses him his leadership role, and he almost loses his life to the bandit leader, the Earth Master. Mulan steps in and defeats the Earth Master, who flees, and shamed by his failure once again, Niu He grows all the more envious of Mulan.
This culminates in Niu He suggesting that Mulan be sent with a letter of amnesty to meet with the enemy forces. Niu He put this idea forward purely out of dislike for Mulan, and he had every hope that this would end with her death. Mulan, aware of the fact that this mission might end with her dying, agrees to deliver the letter of amnesty to the Earth Master.
The Earth Master recognizes Mulan from their battle several years prior, and due to the Earth Master’s brother being in danger if the Earth Master kills Mulan, he holds off on causing her harm. Instead, he decides that he will marry Mulan, who is still disguised as a man, to the Princess Lu Wanhua.
Lu Wanhua discovers that Mulan is a woman, but instead of reporting this information to the bandits, she helps Mulan escape. Upon returning to her army’s encampment, Mulan is named as acting Supreme Commander.
Ultimately, Mulan returns home, and both she and Princess Lu Wanhua marry Mulan’s betrothed. Mulan gives birth to a son who becomes a minister.
This is a more complicated one, and the source video has more information.
“ROmance of sui and tang”
image via lee & low blog – lee and low books
This is likely the version of Mulan’s story that you have heard if you’ve ever listened to something that discusses the darker version of the tale. I want to emphasize that this is one of several versions of this story, and I also want to emphasize that this is one chapter in Romance and Sui and Tang with a distinct anti-Imperialist message. As stated by this source, “The author includes Mulan’s story as a subplot of a novel which condemns imperialism. Mulan is heralded as a hero who fiercely resists a cruel tyrant. Chu Renhuo concludes Mulan’s story with a tragic ending to comment on the wrongdoing committed by the Manchu under whom he was forced to serve.”
Much like in the other tales, Mulan’s father is conscripted, and in order to save him from an untimely death, Mulan volunteers to take her father’s place in the army.
The enemy army is quickly defeated, and Mulan rescues the khan. However, she is then captured by Princess Xianniang, who is such a kind captor, Mulan eventually reveals her true identity to her. They swear an oath of sisterhood.
The princess and Mulan do forge a friendship together, and this friendship is so strong that, when Princess Xianniang asks Mulan to deliver a letter to her betrothed, Mulan agrees to do so. Since Mulan is able to deliver this letter when she returns home to her family, she sets out for home.
However, unlike in the previous two stories discussed, this tale ends on a more somber note.
Upon returning home, Mulan learns that her father passed away and that her mother has remarried. When the khan who Mulan previously saved learns that she is a woman, he demands that she become his concubine.
Mulan requests that she be allowed to visit her father’s grave for one last time, and while she is there, she takes her own life.
The story continues on by following Mulan’s sister, Youlan, and the story ends with her.
To wrap up…
This is by no means a conclusive discussion of all the iterations of the stories told about Mulan (if it were, this article would be much, much longer); however, my hope is that this will encourage you to consider looking deeper into the tale of this warrior who laid down her life to protect the ones that she loved.
Featured image via the Guardian