The Story Behind the Animation: Disney, and the Ballad of Mulan
The Year Was 1998...
In 1998, Disney released a film called Mulan. This was my personal favorite work of Disney's Renaissance era (book-ended by The Little Mermaid in 1989, and Tarzan in 1999.) Mulan is a fun movie, with extremely catchy songs, and traditional animation that meets all of the high standards that Disney used to be known for.
On top of that, it's set on the backdrop of ancient China, which a sinophile like myself finds really cool. So much of the movie was done right, that it was easy to overlook the film's incorrect cultural references, and glaring anachronisms -- like, for example, that the Forbidden City did not begin construction until the early 1400s, while the Huns ceased to exist nearly one thousand years prior.
Disney was more concerned with telling an exciting story than creating a historically-accurate documentary (which explains the character of Mushu) -- and that's entirely okay. I think there's a lack of information, and a great deal of misinformation in where the story of Mulan actually comes from, though. This article is meant to fill in some of those gaps.
The Legend of Hua Mulan
Hua Mulan -- note the spelling difference with the film's Fa Mulan -- is a legendary Chinese hero, but also a historical one. That is, at least by most accounts, she was a real person, although sources differ on many of the details of her life. Notably, the years of her birth and death vary between sources; although she is most commonly thought to have lived during the Northern Wei Dynasty, which lasted from 386 BCE to 534 BCE. Even her family name is a source of debate, with the name of Zhu being given by the History of Ming, and the name Wei given by the History of Qing. The name Hua ( 花) means "flower", has become the most widely-accepted name in popular culture and knowledge. This is fitting, because the name Mulan (木蘭) means "wood orchid."
In contrast with the heroine found in Disney's movie, Hua Mulan was said to have been a practitioner of martial arts from a young age, and to have been a skilled wielder of various types of weapons. It is interesting that Disney chose to depart from this type of warrior in creating their titular character, and to instead explore a character that faces her femininity in a different way. The core of Mulan's story, however, remains, and is consistent among all versions of the legend: Mulan pretended to be a male so that she could join the army in the place of her father. The number of years spent at war, twelve, is also common element across the different versions of Mulan's story, although the Disney version suggests that a much shorter amount of time has passed.
The map shown above is of Asia as it existed during Hua Mulan's life. As you can see, China was still very much divided at this time, notably into Northern Wei and Southern Qi. During this period, Northern Wei was in conflict with the Rouran, also known as Juan-Juan, a Mongolic tribe from the north. After years of battle, Northern Wei was successful in defeating the Rouran, causing them to retreat into Western Europe. If Hua Mulan did indeed live during the sixth century, these are the types of battles she would have likely been involved in. Disney's use of the Huns as a fill-in for these tribes is incorrect, but geographically, they were not too far off.
In any case, for twelve years Mulan fought while disguised as a male. In this time, she was promoted twelve military ranks. Afterwards, having honorably and effectively completed her service, she was offered monetary rewards and a high post by the emperor (referred to as a Khan, in a very interesting contrast with the presentation of Disney's emperor of a unified China). Hua Mulan rejects all the rewards, just as her Disney counterpart does, desiring only a fast steed (or camel, depending on translation) on which to return home to her family. It is only after arriving that her gender is revealed, to the shock of her comrades.
There isn't a romantic subplot between Mulan and a strapping young general, or any spirt-dragons to speak of, but the key beats to the tale are hit by the Disney version. It's a "Disneyfication" to be sure, but it's arguably closer to its source than many other Disney films are to theirs.
Mulan's Legacy and Origin
Much of what we know about the life of Mulan comes from a classic poem titled the Ballad of Mulan. The author of this work is unknown, but it was first transcribed during the 6th century, in a musical collection titled Musical Records of Old and New, which has long since been lost. The opening verse of the poem is seen below.
Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,
Mulan weaves, facing the door.
You don't hear the shuttle's sound,
You only hear Daughter's sighs.
They ask Daughter who's in her heart,
They ask Daughter who's on her mind.
"No one is on Daughter's heart,
No one is on Daughter's mind.
Last night I saw the draft posters,
The Khan is calling many troops,
The army list is in twelve scrolls,
On every scroll there's Father's name.
Father has no grown-up son,
Mulan has no elder brother.
I want to buy a saddle and horse,
And serve in the army in Father's place."
- The first verse of the Ballad of Mulan
The full poem is actually very short, considering how deeply Mulan has been ingrained in Chinese folklore, legend, and even pop culture. It's length totals less than one-thousand words, and as a result many details of Mulan's life and story are left untold. Due to a rising popularity among the Chinese people, the poem was expanded into a novel, but this did not occur until the later years of the Ming Dynasty, likely during the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. By this time, Mulan was long dead, and presumably not a whole lot of new information had been coming out in regards to her life. Realistically, many of the details were embellished, elaborated upon, or even fabricated for the purposes of telling a compelling story -- perhaps, not so much unlike Disney itself has done.
In Popular Culture
Mulan has been adapted many, many times over the years. In addition to Disney's animated version, it has been made into live-action dramas, Beijing operas, and feature-length films. Notably, there was a film released in 2009, titled simply, Mulan, that featured Wei Zhao in the starring role. This movie certainly wasn't a bad watch, but it has gained something of an undeserved reputation on the internet for telling the "real story" of Hua Mulan. I've heard such comments made even here, on HubPages, and it amuses me every time because it's simply not true. It's a movie more grounded in reality to be sure, but it's still mostly fictional.
The truth is, we don't know a whole lot about Hua Mulan, and it's highly unlikely that we are ever going to know more than we do right now. So it's best to just take works for what they are -- works based on a folklore hero -- and enjoy them. There's no need for the elitism.