Legend of Mulan

Niina Pekantytär

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Ballad of Mulan

Legend of Mulan has inspired people for thousands of years. She has become a vital part of Chinese culture and storytelling. Who was the real Mulan? Did she really exist or has her legend evolved from many different female soldiers? Let´s find out.

In China, there have been many historically important female warriors and each one of them has integrated into the legend of Mulan. There aren´t any archaeological findings that would prove the existence of the real Mulan but there are lots of literal sources which mention her. A poem called the Ballad of Mulan appeared sometime between 386 BC and 533 BC during the Northern Wei Dynasty in ancient China. After its appearance, the Ballad of Mulan has inspired a countless amount of artists, musicians, writers and moviemakers.

Martial Arts Expert

According to the legend in her youth, Mulan was very much a tomboy. Her mother thought house chores to her and her father, who was a former soldier trained her to become a warrior. Mulan became an expert in martial arts. One day 17-year-old Mulan was washing laundry by the river when she overheard that the army was recruiting soldiers. Her father was old and sick and Mulan knew that he would not survive in the battle. She decided to take her father´s place and disguised herself as a man. Her father was not happy with her decision neither he was against it. Her mother was sad and was worried whether she would remain untouched and would any man be willing to marry her after she would returned.

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Hidden Identity

In the army, Mulan did her best to hide her true identity. She took all the night shifts so that she would not have to sleep in the tent with the other men. Her excellent martial art skills caused jealousy among some other soldiers like Zhang Shaz who always made fun of her. Other soldiers like chief Jin Yong became good friends with Mulan but none of them knew her big secret.
Jin Yong and Mulan fought in countless battles together and eventually Mulan fell in love with her friend but she had to hide both her feelings and her true identity. After 10 years of service, Mulan was promoted to a general. During a sudden attack by the enemy´s army, Mulan wounded herself in the battle and her real identity was revealed. She had gained the respect of her men who now on respected her even more and Jin Yong realized that he truly loved Mulan.

Greatest of all Heroes

After a great victory in a battle, the emperor himself wanted to reward Mulan but she declined and said that she only wished to return to her village. That what happened to Mulan after she left the army is unclear. According to some versions of the story Jin Yong died in the battle and Mulan took her own life to be with him for eternity. In some stories, Mulan returns to her home village where her father has passed away. She does not return to the army but remains in the village. However, her experiences from the battlefields come into her dreams. Is she haunted by these dreams or does she secretly wish to return? We do not know. In the romantic versions of the tale, Mulan and Jin Yong left the army and spent the rest of their lives together.

History of Mulan

​Between 400 and 700 BC Chinese were constantly fighting against Mongols and other tribes from the north. War lasted nearly 300 years in different parts of the land. During these hopeless times, stories about courageous warriors were well received. Since there isn´t any archaeological evidence that would prove the existence of a real Mulan it is more than likely that her character was inspired by one of several Chinese female warriors which have all intertwined into the legend of Mulan.

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Disney´s Mulan

The character of Mulan still lives strongly today in Chinese pop culture, in games, comics, books and movies. Her legends come back to life when people are looking for reminders of outstanding courage. The most known storey version to the western audience is Disney animation from 1998. Disney´s Mulan is in fact quite loyal to the Ballad of Mulan. In China, the story of Mulan has been used to lift up fighting spirit whereas the Disney animation focuses more on the inner growth of the main character. After the appearance of Disney´s Mulan Disney changed the criteria for Disney princesses, when before Disney princess was a character who either married to royalty or had royal blood. Now a leading character who commits an outstanding act of bravery could become a Disney princess. Mulan is the first official Disney princess who is not born into a royal family or married a royal.

Last verse from the ballad of Mulan

The buck bounds here and there, Whilst the doe has narrow eyes.
But when the two rabbits run side by side,
How can you tell the female from the male?

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Finding One´s Identity

​The story of Mulan is about finding one´s identity. In many different versions of the story, Mulan wonder´s what makes a hero. Is a woman a hero when she waits for her husband to return from the war? Is a woman a hero when she raises boys to become soldiers? There are times when Mulan questions her own identity and male and female roles are reversed. Is she now a man because she wears armour and fights in the army? What makes a man and what makes a woman? What makes a true warrior? In China, traditional gender roles have been shifted just within the past 50 years the story of Mulan has given inspiration and courage for all those seeking their identity and their true purpose.

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Folklorist and historian. Alcott essayist. A host of the Little Women Podcast.

Finland, MN
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