About 400 CE, a “fu”, a prose-poem began circulating in imperial China. It told the story of a teenage girl who made the life and death decision to take her father’s place in the war against the Rouran Khaganate. Many Chinese historians are convinced that this prose-poem to be fictitious, notwithstanding the veracity of the original tale, this awe-inspiring story went on to become one of the greatest legends ever told.
The early accounts about Mulan were all very brief, and later authors became captivated with Mulan’s story and began enriching it. The pseudo-historical personage of Mulan likely lived in the fifth century, when the Toba, who controlled North China, was engaged in a long war with the Rouran on their northern frontier. Most retellings mention that Mulan was a teenager, one says she’s seventeen and had served in the army for twelve years without revealing her true identity.
Early interpretation of Mulan’s story almost solely focused on Mulan’s beauty, elegance, and virtue. Around 1500 CE, Xu Wei first released his now-famous play, Mulan Joins the Army. Filled with witless humor and unwarranted erotica (Mulan changes clothes in front of the audience), this version is a blemish in the development of the legend. Whereas previous retellings of Mulan’s story raised the status of women, Xu Wei was mainly engrossed in objectifying them. Unfortunately, this rendition of Mulan’s tale is also the most popular.
The most celebrated retelling of Mulan’s story to be written during the Manchu dynasty was Romance of Sui and Tang by Chu Renhuo, on which Mulan is a biracial teen who was captured and is forced to be taken as a concubine by the Mongol Khan, it tragically ended when she committed suicide before her father’s grave.
In 1850, author Zhang Shaoxian wrote Fierce and Filial, it tells of how Mulan’s military genius and prowess stem from her natural goodness. Mulan is frequently traumatized by the brutality of war but declines to suppress her soft side and became a seasoned warrior. The character of Gong Li, the witch Xian lang, in the Disney live-action movie is most likely taken from the warrior princess befriended by Mulan in this version of her story.
The tale of Mulan was used as a call to arms against occupiers of China; Chuo Renhuo’s Romance of Sui and Tang against the Manchus of the Qing dynasty during which the legend of Mulan experienced outpouring popularity, as the people longed for such a hero. During the Revolution of 1911, the legend of Mulan was used to motivate women to join the Women’s Liberation Army to free China from the oppressive Qing state and the 1939 motion picture Mulan Joins the Army was made after the Japanese captured Nanjing at the onset of WW2.
In the 1939 movie Mulan Joins the Army, they introduced romance into the legend with her subordinate Yuandu. But in the film Lady General Hua Mu-Lan, Mulan’s superior officer, Li Guang, takes a special interest in Mulan and becomes her mentor which was adapted in the animated musical movie released by Disney in 1998. But in the era of the #metoo movement having a superior officer as a love interest is inappropriate and uncomfortable, Disney decided that Chen Honghui, Mulan’s love interest, must be her equal.
In each of these retellings, Mulan is portrayed as both vigorous and virtuous. Even when she is propelled into a difficult situation, her story inspires readers that one can overcome one’s personal limitations imposed by yourself and the community.
In the legend of Mulan, when she decided to reunite with her parents and divulge her feminine appearance, her comrades are shocked to that discovery which none of them had suspected in the twelve years that they fought together. The Ballad concludes with the phrase, “When a pair of rabbits run side by side, who can distinguish male from female?” Poets challenged the culture with the story of Mulan, yet assured readers that a woman who becomes strong will not lose her beauty or virtue. Mulan, the most filial daughter of all, was heralded as the perfect woman.
“Mulan’s story has traversed the globe several times and has touched the hearts and minds of countless generations since the story was first conceived over a millennium ago.“