The Ballad of Mulan is the original legend of Hua Mulan – the one that inspired the animated Disney movie and now the most recent live-action remake. This newest Mulan movie did not come without controversy. First, there were rumors of non-Asian actors starring in the movie. Then, people got upset that there would be no singing and no Mushu.
After that, the actress playing Mulan, Liu Yifei, defended Hong Kong police, inciting a boycott of the movie across Asia. Due to COVID, Disney decided to charge people $30 to watch it at home, which resulted in further uproar. Finally, Ming-Na Wen, the voice actress in the animated Disney movie, criticized the live action remake. But I’m not here to relive the drama, I just want to tell you about the original legend…
The Ballad of Mulan
The first written record of Mulan is the Ballad of Mulan (Chinese: 木蘭辭; pinyin: Mùlán cí). It is a folk song believed to have been composed during the Northern Wei (386–535) and compiled in an anthology of books and songs in the Southern Chen (557–589). The historic setting of Ballad of Mulan is usually the Northern Wei’s military campaigns against the nomadic Rouran.
A later adaptation has Mulan active around the founding of the Tang c. 620. The story of Hua Mulan was taken up in a number of later works, including the 16th-century historical fiction Romance of Sui and Tang, etc. The Hua Mulan crater on Venus is named after her.
Romance of Sui and Tang by Chu Renhuo (隋唐演義, 1695)
Romance of Sui and Tang is a famous historical fiction novel, and is best known for a subplot in which Mulan makes an unlikely friend when she is captured by a benevolent princess. You can actually grab a copy of this on Amazon, however it is in Chinese. There must be an English translation somewhere! If you find it, please share in the comment section below.
“In this 100-chapter novel, Chu Renhuo’s primary aim is to demonstrate that the rise of the Tang dynasty was mandated by heaven. The original readers would have understood that the author subtly contrasts this against the rulers of his day, drawing the conclusion that the Qing dynasty did not have the right to rule over China.
The author includes Mulan’s story as a subplot of a novel which condemns imperialism. Mulan is heralded as a hero who fiercely resists a cruel tyrant. Chu Renhuo concludes Mulan’s story with a tragic ending to comment on the wrongdoing committed by the Manchu under whom he was forced to serve. In this novel, the Chinese are depicted as wonderfully benevolent, while the non-Chinese are evil.”Mulan Book
The Ballad of Mulan
There seem to be several books that are part of The Ballad of Mulan. The most official-looking one is available for Kindle and is bilingual in English as well as Chinese. Since the original poem is so old, a lot was made up by later authors. According to Sanping Chen, an independent scholar and author of Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages points out that a lot of it cannot be historically substantiated.
The original version follows a simplified storyline of the tale many are familiar with, without Mushu that is. In the tale, Mulan’s father is called to battle, and she volunteers to go in his place. While the original poem doesn’t describe her father as old or ailing, as later versions did, it says that there were no adult sons in the household to take his place. After 12 years of war, Mulan returns to her hometown along with her comrades, who are shocked to learn that she is a woman.
“This first version ends with the quatrain:
The male hare wildly kicks its feet;
The female hare has shifty eyes,
But when a pair of hares run side by side,TIME
Who can distinguish whether I in fact am male or female?”
This is by no means a spoiler alert, in case you haven’t seen Mulan yet. But in a seemingly random conversation towards the beginning of the movie, Mulan mentions that she saw rabbits while riding her horse and that she couldn’t tell if they were male or female! It seemed so insignificant, but say what you want about Disney, they do their research when they make these movies. Unfortunately, many who refuse to watch the new movie because it’s not like the “original” Disney animation will not get to appreciate any of this.
Mulan’s Ethnic Origins
“The Northern Wei dynasty was established by a formerly nomadic group named the Tuoba, a clan of the Xianbei people, who came from northern China and likely spoke either a Turkic or proto-Mongolian language, rather than a native Chinese dialect. The Tuoba conquest of northern China was of huge historical significance, akin to the Norman Conquest of England, says Chen.
“The emperor is an important person in [The Ballad of Mulan], but he’s not called by his Chinese name,” says Chen. Rather than the Chinese title of huangdi, the emperor is referred to as “Khan,” “Kehan” or “Kaghan,” depending on the translation—a title used to refer to Genghis Khan and other Mongol leaders. Chen also says that the title of the poem and the fact that it is named for the female character reflects the respected status that women held in these nomadic societies.”TIME
Was Mulan a Real Person?
Despite all the background we know about the origins of the poem and where it it was set, there is no proof that Mulan ever existed. As the story changes over the years, her ethnicity changed to Han Chinese and the story changed as well. There is a lot to speculate about the original story. The name Mulan translates to “magnolia” in Chinese and has Toaba origins. There is suggestion that it is a masculine name, which is why she could pass as a man.
As the poem was adapted in books, plays and eventually movies, aspects of the plot changed too. Some stories emphasized foot-binding, in some Mulan commits suicide. Depending on when the story is told, there are other themes. In some adaptations, the major focus is on gender and the difference between men and women. In others, the main difference focused on is being Chinese vs. being a barbarian. These parallels change depending on who tells the story, what political conflict is going on and the gender norms of that particular moment in time.
There is so much more to say about the real original story of Mulan, but I am no historian. You can read more about it in this amazing thorough article. Wikipedia also has some great insight. Finally, check out this article for comparisons between the Disney movies and more on the debate of wether Mulan was a real person. Consider all this before hating on the new movie and give it a chance. It isn’t like the animated version but is much closer to the original poem.
The new movie isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed watching it and I will probably rewatch it regularly. Just like I annually watch the animated movie, which is my favorite Disney movie by the way. I even like Mulan 2, although not as much. I’m also hoping to buy the original (translated) books and read more about this great character. Because at the core, all Mulan depictions are simply about a courageous woman who inspires girls to know their worth and fight for what is right.