Meet Hua Mulan — The Legendary Warrior Behind The Disney Classic

Published March 7, 2018
Updated January 17, 2020
Published March 7, 2018
Updated January 17, 2020

Long before she was the heroine of a Disney movie, Hua Mulan was a fearsome warrior of Chinese legend.

Hua Mulan

Wikimedia CommonsAn 18th-century depiction of Hua Mulan.

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 woman warrior has existed since at least the 6th Century and has hardly waned in popularity today.

But was Hua Mulan a real person or was she simply an inspirational figure from ancient Chinese lore? Here is the true story of Mulan’s tale.

The Legend Of Hua Mulan

Hua Mulan Riding On Horse

Ancient OriginsThe legend of Hua Mulan follows a brave Chinese woman who becomes a fierce warrior after joining the army to protect her ailing father from enlisting.

The enduring legend of Hua Mulan has survived thousands of years through countless iterations of poetry, songs, plays, and movies. While many today perhaps know her story best from Disney’s popular movie, her tale of bravery and honor was first transcribed from an ancient folk song into the poem Ballad of Mulan.

The ballad tells Mulan’s original story of disguising herself as a man to protect her father from being drafted into the war. As a soldier, Hua Mulan goes into battle for twelve years, becoming a skilled and esteemed warrior of the Chinese army. But when the emperor tries to bestow the highest honor upon her for her service, the dutiful daughter retires and returns home to her family.

Written first in the 6th Century in the Musical Records of Old and New then later in an anthology known as the Music Bureau Collection by Guo Maoqian, it is the first instance that the Chinese public is introduced to the heroine.

Mulan Statue Garden

FlickrMulan’s likeness is depicted in statues across Chinese cultures in a number of countries.

A thousand years later, Hua Mulan’s epic tale as a fearless woman warrior from the ancient poem was adapted into novels and theater plays. Interestingly, Chinese artists at the time would reinvent the Hua Mulan legend during periods of unrest to give hope and comfort to the public.

In 1850, for example, Zhang Shaoxian’s novel An Extraordinary History Of The Northern Wei: The Story Of A Filial And Heroic Girl was published during a time when the Qing Dynasty was threatened by internal conflicts and foreign intruders.

Besides the main protagonist Hua Mulan, Shaoxian’s novel also introduced other strong female characters, including a former concubine who becomes Mulan’s sworn sister, Lu Wanhua, and the formidable wife to the leader of the invading bandits, Miao Fengxian.

The Influence Of Hua Mulan’s Story

Hua Mulan Painting

Wikimedia CommonsOne of the many depictions of Hua Mulan in Chinese art.

Among the most notable iterations of Hua Mulan’s story is the 16th Century play The Female Mulan Joins The Army In Place Of Her Father by the prominent late-Ming Dynasty artist Xu Wei. His play was the first to introduce the “Hua” surname derived from the Chinese word for “flower” — a detail that is heavily incorporated in Disney’s version of Mulan’s tale.

Set among the Xianbei tribe in the Northern Wei sometime between 420 and 589 CE, Xu Wei’s play was divided in two acts. The first act was meant to setup the heroine’s story and finished by a provocative scene: Hua Mulan, preparing to take her father’s place in the army, removing her footbindings.

Footbinding was not a practice typical of women in Northern Wei, but it was for many millenniums a common practice among the Chinese elite supposedly dating back to the 10th Century.

Hua Mulan In Warrior Armor

Hubei Government WebsiteThe epic of Hua Mulan has been retold countless times over thousands of years.

As author Amanda Foreman reported for Smithsonian Magazine: “A small foot in China, no different from a tiny waist in Victorian England, represented the height of female refinement. For families with marriageable daughters, foot size translated into its own form of currency and a means of achieving upward mobility.”

Since the weight of Mulan’s story lies in her supposed transition from woman to man in order to disguise herself among the soldiers, the release of her footbindings could be interpreted as her sacrifice of the traits most treasured for women at the time so she can fulfill a higher purpose. That is, protecting her family and serving her country.

Similar to the tales of Joan of Arc, Xu Wei’s version of Hua Mulan’s adventure has been examined by countless scholars for its interpretations of gender and feminism. While countless retellings of Hua Mulan’s story exists, Xu Wei’s play has been cited as the foundation for most of the legends later adaptations.

Was Hua Mulan A Real Person?

Animated Disney Mulan

DisneyMulan’s tale has become so embedded in Chinese culture that many confuse the folklore heroine as a historical figure.

The legend of Mulan and her dedication to family and country became deeply embedded in Chinese folklore. Combined with the fact that the tale has been around for so long, historians have worked to determine whether Hua Mulan was a real person or simply a figure of Chinese myth.

So far, there is no historical evidence that Mulan really existed and her story’s roots in oral tradition makes it even more difficult to confirm whether she was a real person. However, the possibility can’t entirely be dismissed. Women warriors and elite women commanding military arms have occurred many a times throughout Chinese history.

During China’s Warring States period around 260 BCE, Sunzi, the Chief Military Commander of Duke Wu, trained 180 court women to assert military and political influence in the surrounding states.

There was also Princess Zhao of Pingyang, otherwise known as Princess Pingyang, who raised troops to help her father — the future Emperor Gaozu — seize the throne. With his daughter’s support, the emperor claimed victory and established the Tang Dynasty. After her death, she was the only woman of that period who received the honor of a military funeral.

A clip from the 1964 ‘Lady General Hua Mu Lan’ starring Hong Kong actress Ivy Ling Po.

Indeed, books about strong women — both fictional and real — were abundant in China, particularly during the High Qing Dynasty period. The acknowledgement of strong female figures — from poets and artists to warriors and emperors — in Chinese history and folklore signified women’s capability to contribute outside of the traditional domestic role.

However, the fact that Hua Mulan is not included in literature focused on historical female figures, such as the Biography Of Exemplary Women — a compilation of biographies of women during the Northern Wei dynasty — by scholar Liu Xiang may be another strong indicator that the beloved Chinese heroine did not exist as a real person.

Hua Mulan’s Story In Modern Pop Culture

Disneys Mulan

DisneyDisney’s 1998 animated hit movie ‘Mulan’ will be rebooted as a live-action motion picture.

The first onscreen adaptation of the legend of Mulan was the 1927 silent film Hua Mulan Joins the Army. A number of film portrayals have been produced since but it wasn’t until the release of Disney’s 1998 animated movie Mulan that the brave female fighter’s popular story became known worldwide.

It’s difficult to compare Disney’s version to the legend of Hua Mulan since the ancient folk story produced countless iterations way before the animated movie was made. Some were made as comedies or romantic stories while others were dramas with unfortunate endings (one devastating version has Mulan commit suicide to avoid being turned into a concubine).

Disney’s version of Hua Mulan’s tale proved to be so popular, they also made a sequel to the animation and are finishing production of the live-action film. The new film will take a more dramatic approach compared to the beloved animation, incorporating details that are closer to the original Hua Mulan stories in Chinese culture.

Disney’s live-action reboot of ‘Mulan’ takes a more dramatic approach compared to its previous animated film.

A few things missing from the new live-action film that were present in the animation most notably include the cartoon’s iconic musical numbers and Mulan’s trusty dragon side-kick Mushu.

“I mean, back to the realism question – we don’t tend to break into song when we go to war,” said director Niki Caro as she explained the reasoning behind those omissions to Digital Spy.

“I guess that’s the biggest thing for me about making – remaking – an iconic title like Mulan in live-action. It’s the fact that it can be real, and it’s the real story of a girl going to war.”

Still, the entertainment conglomerate will include a few extravagant additions that are unrelated to the Chinese folkore, including giving Mulan a sister (she is usually either an only child or has a brother) and adding a supernatural villain into the mix.

The live-action Disney movie is set to premiere on March 27, 2020. While Mulan’s true story may never entirely be uncovered, the impact of her heroic tale reverberates beyond Chinese culture.

After learning about the enduring tale of the Chinese folk heroine Hua Mulan, check out some of the darker stories behind Disney’s classic movies. Then, relive the magic of old Disney through these vintage photographs.

Gina Dimuro
Gina Dimuro is a New York-based writer and translator.