Long before she was the heroine of a Disney movie, Hua Mulan was a fearsome warrior of Chinese legend.
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Long before she was the heroine of a popular Disney movie, Hua Mulan was inspiring generations of young people in her own country of China. The legend of this warrior woman has existed since at least the fifth century and has hardly waned in popularity over the intervening millennia and a half.
Although there have been variations in the tale over the course of its history, each version of the legend of Hua Mulan retains a few basic elements, the first being that there is a war (with whom differs from tale to tale) for which Mulan’s father is drafted. Although he is determined to serve his country rather than face dishonor, Mulan fears her father is too old to fight and will be killed, so she dons his armor and takes his place.
The warrior-heroine then joins up with a group of young men also heading off to become soldiers, fighting beside them for years while somehow keeping her true identity a secret. After leading the army to victory in a final battle, the emperor himself wishes to bestow a reward of her choosing upon Mulan, but all she asks is to be allowed to return home.
In some versions of the story (such as Disney’s famous movie), there is a romantic subplot with a fellow officer, while in other tellings, there isn’t, ditto for the part about Mulan having a younger brother who is too young to join the army. Some versions are more comedic, others darker — with one from the Qing dynasty having the heroine commit suicide.
Despite all of these variations, the central tale of a girl going to war to save her father has remained immensely popular in China, although the story was often ignored in the study of serious Chinese literature, given that it was passed down orally.
The story is also unique among the most popular Chinese folktales in that it has no supernatural elements; Mulan does not have any magical abilities, she takes her father’s place simply by putting on his armor. Because she is such a beloved folk hero, many people have hoped and even assumed that Mulan must have been based on a real woman.
Most scholars, however, disagree. There is no historical evidence of a real Hua Mulan and the fact that the story is part of a mainly oral tradition makes it hard to find contemporary written information about her.
One theory states that the name (which means “magnolia” in Chinese) was a type of honorific bestowed upon men who had served in the military. Although the legend is one of the most beloved in China, the unfortunate reality is that Mulan would have lived in a culture that expected women to be totally submissive and it is therefore highly unlikely she would have been allowed to join the army.
However, there are a few theories that state otherwise. Some historians have posed the idea that in times of great need (such a barbarian invasion), China might have been desperate enough to recruit female warriors to help defend their homeland.
There is also the famous account of Princes Pingyang, as a historical example of a real Chinese female warrior. The princess lived during the seventh century (shortly after an anonymous poem made the first reference to Mulan) and raised troops to help her father, the future Emperor Gaozu, seize the throne.
With his daughter’s support, the emperor fought to victory and established the Tang dynasty. After the princess’ unfortunate death only a few years later, her father ordered an elaborate funeral for her with a complete military guard. When some member of the court protested at this honor being given to his daughter, the emperor declared “she was no ordinary woman.”
For centuries, the same has certainly been said of Hua Mulan.