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The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales: Mulan

Updated: May 24, 2023

In today's installment of The Gruesome Origins of Classic Fairytales we are covering the story of Mulan. We all know the Disney version of this story. Fearful that her ailing father will be drafted into the Chinese military, Mulan takes his spot -- though, as a girl living under a patriarchal regime, she is technically unqualified to serve. She cleverly impersonates a man and goes off to train with fellow recruits. Accompanied by her dragon, Mushu, she uses her smarts to help ward off a Hun invasion, falling in love with a dashing captain along the way.

This movie came from an Ancient Chinese Folktale. Hua Mulan is a legendary folk heroine from the Northern and Southern dynasties era (4th to 6th century AD) of Chinese history. According to legend, Mulan took her aged father's place in the conscription for the army by disguising herself as a man. In the story, after prolonged and distinguished military service against nomadic hordes beyond the northern frontier, Mulan is honored by the emperor but declines a position of high office. She retires to her hometown, where she is reunited with her family and reveals her sex, much to the astonishment of her comrades. Scholars are divided on whether Mulan was more likely a real person or a fictional character of legend.


Ballad of Mulan

The first written record of Mulan is the Ballad of Mulan, a folk song believed to have been composed during the Northern Wei dynasty (386–535 AD) and compiled in an anthology of books and songs in the Southern Chen dynasty (557–589 AD). The historical 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 dynasty (c. 620 AD). 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, and many screen and stage adaptations. The Hua Mulan crater on Venus is named after her.

The Ballad of Mulan was first transcribed in the Musical Records of Old and New, a compilation of books and songs by the monk Zhijiang in the Southern Chen dynasty in the 6th century. The earliest extant text of the poem comes from an 11th- or 12th-century anthology known as the Music Bureau Collection, whose author, Guo Maoqian, explicitly mentions the Musical Records of Old and New as his source for the poem. As a ballad, the lines do not necessarily have equal numbers of syllables. The poem consists of 31 couplets and is mostly composed of five-character phrases, with a few extending to seven or nine. An adaptation by playwright Xu Wei (d. 1593) dramatized the tale as "The Female Mulan" or, more fully, "The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father's Place", in two acts. Later, the character of Mulan was incorporated into the Romance of Sui and Tang, a novel written by Chu Renhuo (褚人獲). Over time, the story of Hua Mulan rose in popularity as a folk tale among the Chinese people.

The heroine of the poem is given different family names in different versions of her story. The Musical Records of Old and New states Mulan's given name is not known and therefore implies Mulan is her surname. As the Ballad of Mulan is set in the Northern Wei dynasty when northern China was ruled by ethnic Xianbei, ancestors of the Mongols, there is some belief that Mulan was not ethnic Han Chinese but Xianbei, who had exclusively compound surnames. Mulan may have been the sinified version of the Xianbei word "umran" which means prosperous. According to later books such as Female Mulan, her family name is Zhu (朱), while the Romance of Sui and Tang says it is Wei (魏). The family name Hua (花; Huā; 'flower'), which was introduced by Xu Wei, has become the most popular in recent years in part because of its more poetic meaning.

In Chinese, her given name (木蘭) literally means "magnolia."

Mulan's name is included in Yan Xiyuan's One Hundred Beauties, which is a compilation of various women in Chinese folklore. There is still a debate whether Mulan is a historical person or just a legend, as her name does not appear in Exemplary Women which is a compilation of biographies of women during the Northern Wei dynasty. Though The Ballad of Mulan itself does not expressly indicate the historical setting, the story is commonly attributed to the Northern Wei dynasty due to geographic and cultural references in the ballad. The Northern Wei dynasty was founded by the Tuoba clan of ethnic Xianbei who united northern China in the 4th century. The Tuoba Xianbei rulers were themselves nomads from the northern steppes and became partially sinified as they ruled and settled in northern China. The Tuoba Xianbei took on the Chinese dynasty name "Wei", changed their own surname from "Tuoba" to "Yuan", and moved the capital from Pingcheng, modern-day Datong, Shanxi Province in the northern periphery of Imperial China, to Luoyang, south of the Yellow River, in the Central Plain, the traditional heartland of China. The emperors of the Northern Wei were known both by the sacred Chinese title, "Son of Heaven", and by "Khagan", the title of the leader of nomadic kingdoms. The Ballad of Mulan refers to the sovereign by both titles. The Northern Wei also adopted the governing institutions of Imperial China, and the office of shangshulang (尚書郎) the Khagan offered Mulan is a ministerial position within the shangshusheng (尚書省), the highest organ of executive power under the emperor. This offering indicates Mulan was trained in the martial arts and literary arts as she was capable of serving as a civilian official charged with issuing and interpreting written government orders.

The Xianbei in China also retained certain nomadic traditions, and Xianbei women were typically skilled horseback riders. Another popular Northern Wei folk poem called "Li Bo's Younger Sister" praises Yong Rong, Li Bo's younger sister, for her riding and archery skills. The Ballad of Mulan may have reflected the gender roles and status of women in nomadic societies. The Northern Wei was engaged in protracted military conflict with the nomadic Rouran, who frequently raided the northern Chinese frontier to loot and pillage. Northern Wei emperors considered the Rouran to be uncivilized "barbarians" and called them Ruanruan or wriggling worms. According to the Book of Wei, the dynasty's official history, Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei launched a military expedition in 429 against the Rouran by advancing on the Black Mountain and then extending northward to the Yanran Mountain. Both locations are cited in The Ballad. The Black Mountain corresponds to Shahu Mountain (殺虎山), located southeast of modern-day Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. Yan Mountain, the shorthand for Yanran Mountain (燕然山), is now known as the Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia. The Northern Wei sought to protect the frontier by establishing a string of frontier garrison commands across what is today Inner Mongolia.


Ballad of Mulan Synopsis

Mulan sighs at her loom. The Khagan is mobilizing the military, and her father is named in each of the conscription notices from the emperor. Her father is old and her younger brother is just a child, so she decides to take her father's place. She buys a fine horse from the eastern market, saddle and stirrup from the western market, bridle and reins from the southern market and a long whip from the northern market. She bids farewell to her parents in the morning and leaves for the Black Mountain, encamping by the Yellow River in the evening, where she cannot hear the calls of her parents due to the rushing waters; only the sounds of the barbarians' cavalry in the Yan Mountains. She advances ten thousand li to battle as if flying past the mountains. The sound of the sentry gong cuts through the cold night air, and the moonlight reflects off her metal armor. A hundred battles take place, and generals die.

After the ten-year campaign, the stout veterans return to meet the Son of Heaven, enthroned in the splendid palace, who confers promotions in rank and prizes of hundreds of thousands. He asks Mulan what she would like. Mulan turns down the high-ranking position of shangshulang in the central government, and asks only for a speedy steed to take her home. Her parents, upon hearing her return, welcome her outside their hometown. Her elder sister puts on her fine dress. Her younger brother sharpens the knife for the swine and sheep. Mulan returns to her room, changes from her tabard into her old clothes. She combs her hair by the window and, before the mirror, fastens golden yellow flowers. Her comrades are shocked to see her. For 12 years of their enlistment together, they did not realize that she was a woman. In response, Mulan offers a metaphor: "The male hare has heavy front paws. The female hare tends to squint. But when they are running side-by-side close to the ground, who can tell me which is male or female?"


I hope that you enjoyed today's post. It was very interesting to learn about the tale of Hua Mulan. I love the Mulan movies and learning about where they came from (sort-of) was very interesting.


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