If you’ve been following my writing you’ll have noticed that I’m super excited for the release of Disney’s Mulan remake. It was originally scheduled for release in March 2020, but like much of the film industry (and everything else, really), was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. If you know me personally, you’ll also have realised that I’m obsessed with collecting random facts and Googling the background behind any movie I watch. So, since I’m anxiously marking off the days until Disney finally does release it’s updated Mulan, I thought I’d do a little digging into where the story actually came from so I don’t have to do it during the film. Was Mulan based on a real person? What’s the historical basis for the fantastic accounts that Disney turned into one of its greatest animations?
Let’s get down to business and take a deep dive into the history of this badass babe’s tale.
The original 1998 Disney adaptation of Mulan tells the story of a young girl who dresses as a man to take her frail father’s place in the army after he gets conscripted. It’s a story of bravery, honour, and familial love all set to arguably one of the greatest Disney soundtracks. While the upcoming remake will be lacking the quirky musical aspect, many of the themes are sure to remain. But this tale didn’t originate with Disney. Like many of its productions – The Lion King, Pocahontas, and even the less popular Atlantis – Mulan’s story was taken from elsewhere. Disney is constantly getting in trouble for ripping off stories from other film creators, but unlike the blatantly copied Lion King and Atlantis, in her case, they may have stopped at only reimagining a tale from Chinese folklore.
According to Professor Lan Dong, writing for HistoryExtra, the first record of Mulan in China dates all the way back to a folk ballad of the Northern Dynasties in China, somewhere between 386 and 581 AD.
The Ballad of Mulan tells the story of a girl who takes her father’s place in the army because she doesn’t have an elder brother to take on that role. Years later, after serving her country in the military and returning home a hero, her family prepares a feast to welcome her back home. She changes out of her masculine dress and greets her fellow soldiers in women’s clothes and, despite having fought alongside her for years, they are shook.
Another legend tells of her riding into battle in women’s clothing in order to reveal her true identity, sparking a reaction of admiration and respect from her fellow soldiers. Her bravery and grace in this battle was said to have had such a strong impact on her fellow soldiers that it led to their victory. How they realised she was actually biological female and not just another genetically male soldier enjoying the freedom and fabulousness of women’s attire is beyond me.
While the story has changed a few times over the generations, many of its main themes have endured.
Professor Lan Dong says that “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 depiction of Mulan in a 16th century play titled Female Mulan Joins the Army Taking Her Father’s Place, depicts the heroine within the the Chinese practice of women’s foot binding, popular at the time. It includes the main character unbinding her feet to fit into a pair of men’s shoes before going to war, and rebinding them after she returns home. In a 17th century novel tells of Mulan killing herself after she returns home.
Later adaptations cast Mulan as a national heroine in order to boost people’s morale during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, and then as an icon for gender equality in the Communist Party’s political ideology. The narrative seems to remerge every time China needs a little morale boost.
It’s clear that Mulan’s story is an enduring one, and one which is malleable enough to be shaped to fit the many shapes society has taken over the centuries. She even has a crater on Venus named after her!
But how can we tell if she really existed in the first place?
The name Hua Mulan has become legendary in China, and her story is known by just about everybody, there. According to Ancient Origins, her story is still taught in schools across the country (although to be honest I’m not sure I believe that. Can anyone confirm this for me?). And yet, Mulan probably wasn’t based on a real person. There’s zero evidence to prove that she was in fact a single living breathing person, who existed at a certain time, and not just a character moulded and shaped to perpetuate the ideologies of various times.
Despite this, The Ballad of Mulan did mention locations like the Yellow River and the Yan Mountain, which later generations used to try to interpret or imagine where she came from. In fact, several places in China have claimed to be her hometown, and Dong says that tomb sites, memorial shrines, and statues have all been dedicated to her.
But Mulan is far from the only “warrior woman” that China has created. The 18th century AD gave rise to Wang Cong’er, another formidable woman who rebelled against the Qing Dynasty government using guerrilla warfare tactics. A lot more is known about the life of Wang Cong’er than that of the mythical Mulan, but it may be that somewhere along the way some elements of these stories merged.
Furthermore, According to Smithsonian Magazine, recent evidence has emerged that female warriors may once have ridden across the steppes of what is now Mongolia, wielding bows, arrows and other weapons. Anthropologists Christine Lee and Yahaira Gonzalez discovered the remains of female skeletons in the area, which showed marks commonly associated with strenuous activities like horseback riding and archery.
According to the Smithsonian article, the skeletons came from three groups of nomadic people: “the Xiongnu, who dominated the region 2,200 years ago; the Xianbei, who displaced the Xiongnu around 1,850 years ago; and the Turkic people, who successively occupied the Mongolian steppes beginning around 1,470 years ago”.
Lee believes that theres a simple reason why nobody has realised the existence of these real life warrior women before now and instead attributed them entirely to myth. In the male-dominated field of anthropology, “It’s only because nobody was looking”.
This tracks if we agree with Dong, who says that even if one particular original Mulan didn’t exist, it’s possible that numerous real people or events inspired the original ballad. As the story traveled from place to place and generation to generation, it became a palimpsest, blending elements from all of its adaptations. “To put it in other words,” writes Dong,”long before Mulan became a well-known name to English speakers, her story had undergone much transformation and inspired numerous retellings in China”.
Regardless of whether Mulan was based on a real person or not, the fact that Disney is remaking the animated classing with an Asian cast reflects the massive success of the films enduring tale, and will ensure that the legend lives on to inspire another generation of women.
Learn more about The Ballad of Mulan, or read the English translation, here.