Many of us have seen the Disney movie Mulan, soon to be released as a live action movie. It was based on a legendary female warrior from Chinese history, Hua Mulan, and there is even a crater on Venus named after her. What do we know about this figure and how accurate is the Disney depiction compared with the original tale?
Hua Mulan is from the Northern Wei era (386–536 CE) of Chinese history and her story is originally recorded in the poem Ballad of Mulan. Hua Mulan, however, does not appear to be an historical figure. Her story is treated more as a legend and her name does not appear in Exemplary Women, a collection of biographies of women during the Northern Wei dynasty. She is, however, included in Yan Xiyuan's One Hundred Beauties which is a compilation of various women in Chinese folklore.
The Ballad of Mulan begins with a worried Mulan sitting at her loom because her father is old and weak and her brother a young child. Yet one male from each family is expected to serve in the army to defend the Tuoba realm from Rouran invaders. The Tuoba clan founded the Northern Wei and was centered around the Yellow River delta. The Rouran Khaganate were pre-Mongols and the first to have a Khan as leader. Mulan decides to take her father’s place and bids farewell to her parents, who fully support her actions. She was already skilled in martial arts, sword fighting and archery. She goes off and after twelve years of fighting and defeating the Rourans, the army returns, and the warriors are rewarded. Mulan, however, turns down an official post and asks only for a camel to carry her home. Her family greet her with joy, but it is only when she puts on her old clothes that her comrades realise they fought for 12 years alongside a woman.
In the Disney animated movie version, the Rouran invaders were replaced by the Huns, who invade China by breaching the Great Wall. The Chinese Emperor does send out conscription notices to recruit one man from each household into the army. However, in the Disney movie, the deceit is not known or approved by the family until it is too late. Also, in the training camp she is initially unskilled, unlike the original story. When her identity is discovered she is expelled from the army, but then goes on to defeat the Hun leader in single combat, saving the Emperor’s life. She declines the offer of becoming the Emperor’s advisor but returns home with gifts. However, despite the differences and with later additions to the original poem, the story of the strong female warrior Mulan remains an inspiration to young girls and women today. Indeed, warrior women are not confined to Chinese literature, but are common among many ancient civilisations.