Mulan: the history of the Chinese legend behind the film

Mulan, Disney’s latest live-action offering, is a new adaptation of a beloved Chinese ballad. Ahead of the film’s release, Professor Lan Dong of the University of Illinois Springfield explores the origins of the legend – and the real history that might have inspired the tale…

  All products were chosen independently by our editorial team. This article contains affiliate links and we may receive a commission for purchases made. Please read our affiliates FAQ page to find out more.
The figure Mulan on a silk print, c19th century

Disney’s live-action film Mulan has not had the easiest start. With the worldwide Covid-19 outbreak affecting its release plan, and the lead actress Crystal Yifei Liu being entangled in political controversies regarding protests in Hong Kong, the stakes for this $200-million feature film are as high as the audience’s anticipation.

Advertisement

The new production is a remake of Disney’s 1998 animated feature film Mulan and carries on the central theme of honouring one’s family and staying true to oneself. Adapting a beloved Chinese legend, the 1998 film highlights Mulan’s struggle to show who she is inside in a coming-of-age story. In the end, she overcomes various challenges and proves her worth, not only in saving the Chinese empire and bringing honour to her family, but also in securing a love interest and therefore a promising future marriage. While the animated film has helped popularise Mulan among a global audience, her story has enjoyed a long history of transformation and adaptation in China and the United States before 1998, and has continued to do so since then.

What is the ‘real’ story of Mulan in Chinese culture?

In China and Chinese-speaking regions, Mulan is virtually a synonym for ‘heroine’; in the United States, her name practically equals ‘the woman warrior’. With such popularity stretching across different cultures, as well as varied opinions and debates on authenticity, many people wonder what the real story is.

The earliest written text of Mulan’s story is a folk ballad dating back to the Northern Dynasties in China (386–581 AD). In a little over three hundred words, the Ballad of Mulan tells the story of a girl who dresses as a man and joins the army, taking her father’s place because she has no elder brother to fulfil that role. After years of military campaign and service to her country, she returns with honour and gifts from the emperor. Her parents, sister, and younger brother hurry out and prepare a feast to welcome her home. Mulan changes her clothes, makes up her hair and face, and greets her fellow soldiers who are shocked. Fighting side-by-side for years, they were not aware that Mulan is actually a woman.

Like other tales that have enjoyed long-lasting popularity and numerous variations, Mulan’s legend includes some of the common elements – the main character leaves home, goes on adventures, and successfully completes something extraordinary. Stories such as hers tend to be elastic, allowing for added details and varied adaptations. The underlining message of her story is worth noting: Mulan’s transgression (pretending to be male) is justified (to save her father and serve her country); verified (to achieve success in military service); and mitigated in the end (to return home and resume her life as a woman). Thus, she is extraordinary yet non-threatening to the social structure.

Crystal Yifei Liu stars as Mulan
Crystal Yifei Liu stars as Mulan in Disney’s live-action remake. (Image by Alamy)

Since the ballad, Mulan’s name and story have been adapted, retold, and alluded to in different genres through various imperial dynasties in China. Numerous Chinese writers have praised Mulan and her extraordinary deeds, highlighting her filial piety, loyalty, virtue, martial skills, or military achievements while attaching new interpretations and colourful details. These retellings usually reflect the social and historical context at the time.

The earliest written text of Mulan’s story is a folk ballad dating back to the Northern Dynasties in China

For instance, a 16th-century play, Female Mulan Joins the Army Taking Her Father’s Place, depicts Mulan as a warrior maiden with bound feet. It includes dramatic moments of the main character unbinding her feet to fit into a pair of man’s shoes before joining the army and rebinding them after her return, situating her character within the practice of women’s foot binding at the time. The play concludes the story with Mulan’s wedding to a husband her parents have chosen for her, highlighting the main character’s return to the ‘rightful place’ for young women.

An illustration of Mulan with bound feet
An illustration of Mulan with bound feet, holding a bow. From Jin Guliang, Wushuang Pu, Shanghai: Tongwen Shuju, 1886. (Public domain)

In chapters from a 17th-century novel, Historical Romance of the Sui and Tan Dynasties, Mulan kills herself after returning home. She also reveals her gender identity so that she can preserve her purity without defying an imperial order summoning her to become a palace consort. Such a plot element reflects the social norm of prioritising a woman’s sexual purity and fidelity above all at the time.

New versions continue to develop in modern and contemporary time. Some adaptations in the 1930s cast Mulan as a national heroine and an iconic symbol to boost people’s spirit in fighting against the Japanese invasion. Later on, her character plays an important role in the Communist Party’s political ideology promoting gender equality in China. The 1998 TV series, Hua Mulan, directed by Shui-Ching Lai and Raymond Lee, and the 2009 live-action feature film, Hua Mulan, directed by Jingle Ma and Wei Dong, are two notable examples of reinventing Mulan’s character and story in the media.

Is Mulan a real historical figure in China?

Readers often wonder whether Mulan was a real person in Chinese history. The short answer is no. We do not have existent evidence to prove Mulan is a historical figure who lived during a particular time.

However, things are complicated, especially when we consider the likely oral origin of the folk ballad (the earliest written document about her), and how her story has evolved in China (beginning in the fourth to the sixth centuries and still ongoing today).

What do all the surviving documents tell us? It is certainly possible that real people and events provided inspiration for the ballad.

We do not have existent evidence to prove Mulan is a historical figure who lived during a particular time. However, things are complicated

We can, for example, look for evidence of where Mulan might have come from. Although earlier versions of her story came from poetry, drama, fiction, essays, and notes, her name made its way into local histories in the 19th century, such as Gazetteers of the Grand Qing (these gazetteers usually collect events and people of note, anecdotes, local lore, and other documents – and are semi-historical at best). While the aforementioned Ballad of Mulan lacks specific information about where Mulan is from, it does mention locations such as the Yellow River and the Yan Mountain, which people later used to interpret or imagine her hometown. In fact, several places in China have claimed to be her hometown. In addition to entries in gazetteers, there are tablet inscriptions, tomb sites, memorial shrines, and statues dedicated to her.

A still from Disney's 1998 film Mulan
No adaptation of the Mulan legend has enjoyed nearly as much attention from viewers and critics as Disney’s 1998 film. (Image by Alamy)

What did the ‘real Mulan’ look like?

The original ballad does not include any details of Mulan’s appearance, although it does mention Mulan changing into womanly clothes and fixing her hair and makeup after she returns home. Later on, drawings of her begin to appear in collections of beauties or as accompanying illustrations in some of the retellings. Although these materials are not evidence to prove Mulan is a historical figure, they contribute additional layers to her story, making it a palimpsest over time. To put it in other words, long before Mulan became a well-known name to English speakers, her story had undergone much transformation and inspired numerous retellings in China.

An illustration of Mulan dressed in military apparel with a sword, a bow, and arrows and standing by her horse. From Wu Youru, Wu Youru Huabao, Shanghai: Biyuan Huishe, c1909. (Public domain)
An illustration of Mulan dressed in military apparel with a sword, a bow, and arrows and standing by her horse. From Wu Youru, Wu Youru Huabao, Shanghai: Biyuan Huishe, c1909. (Public domain)

How did Mulan become popular among English-speaking audiences?

Although it is difficult to pinpoint the exact date of Mulan’s first appearance in English language, translations of the Ballad of Mulan begin to appear no later than the 19th century. By now, readers can easily find multiple English translations online and in print sources.

It was not until the 20th century, through Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976), that Mulan was introduced to a broad range of readers in the United States. Kingston’s book carried her fame to many other countries as well through translated editions. An indisputable milestone in American literature in general and Asian American literature in particular, The Woman Warrior received many awards and honours, has been a widely-taught text in college and university classrooms, and generated lively discussions among scholars and students. It also won the hearts of general readers.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood among Ghosts (1976)

In addition, English-readers have seen a number of children’s picture books retelling Mulan’s story since the 1990s. Some of these stay close to translating the ballad, while others adapt her story with various details and colourful illustrations. Some are published in English; others are bilingual books. Disney’s 1998 animated film, together with its sequel Mulan II (a direct-to-video production released in 2005) and the companion commercial products, has helped Mulan to become a global phenomenon.

While there are a number of film adaptations of Mulan’s story available in Chinese and English, live-action and animated, none has enjoyed nearly as much attention from viewers and critics as Disney’s 1998 film. Some reviewers and critics praise Disney’s first Chinese lead character as a role model; others criticise the film’s racial caricature and cultural appropriation. Overall, the animated feature has released more than 30 dubbed versions and has achieved overwhelming popularity and worldwide box-office success, thus introducing Mulan to a global audience. The new live-action feature film, directed by Niki Caro and with an Asian cast, reflects the financial success and lasting cultural influence of its animated predecessor – and further speaks to Mulan’s continuing popularity among children and grownups alike.

Lan Dong is the author of Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. She is the Louise Hartman Schewe and Karl Schewe Professor in the English Department at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Advertisement

Mulan will be released on Disney+ on 4th September 2020. To watch Mulan you need a Disney+ account (£59.99 a year and £5.99 a month) – then you pay £19.99 for premier access to the movie. You can watch it as many times as you want once you have paid.