The Real Legend of Hua Mulan
The Real Legend of Hua Mulan

The Real Legend of Hua Mulan

Larry Holzwarth - September 15, 2020

The Real Legend of Hua Mulan
Advertising poster for Disney’s animated 1998 film Mulan. imdb

18. Enter Disney

Some fans of the Mulan legend attribute The Warrior Woman as the source which inspired Disney to create the animated film Mulan. The belief stems from the fact the book shares the surname Fa with the movie. In the animated version of the legend, Mulan is Han Chinese, the enemies are Huns. Defenders of the Disney version often claim Huns are another accepted term for the Xiongnu, though most scholars dispute it. The Xiongnu center of power was in the area now mostly occupied by Mongolia, while the Huns of the time upon which the legend of Mulan was built were to the west, along the Volga River. While the producers of Mulan practiced considerable artistic license, they did include some of the more frequently reported aspects of the legend. Among them was Mulan’s refusal of a prominent position as an award for her service.

It was Disney’s animated film which made Mulan popular in the Western world. It spawned, among other things, an animated sequel, Mulan II (direct to video and poorly received), television programs, plays, children’s books, toys, and more. Disney followed on the success with a live-action film of the same title in 2020. Along with creating the awareness of the Mulan legend in the west, it generated debate over the historicity of the character, which continues in the 21st century. The debate involves scholars, historians, archaeologists, linguists, and simple fans of the movie and subsequent entertainments based on the legend. Arguments for Mulan’s historical reality are offered on both sides, often using the same sources to present their position.

The Real Legend of Hua Mulan
Archaeologists excavating the tomb of Chinese warrior Queen Fu Hao. University of Washington

19. Was Mulan a real person in history?

Those who argue for the truth at the basis of the Mulan legend frequently cite her appearances in the documents of the succeeding dynasties of Chinese history and development. Yet none of the records regarded as official histories include mention of her by name. She appears in songs and ballads, poetry and novels, plays and songs. She does not appear in military histories, official records, including tax and census records, or any other official documents. If she attained godlike status, as one memorial suggests, it was not among the Han with whom she is most closely associated today. According to the oldest reference to Mulan, the Ballad of Mulan, she would have been of the Tuoba people.

Archaeological excavations have revealed numerous graves of women warriors in China and Mongolia, in some cases buried with their weapons. Women warriors in China also preceded the Ballad of Mulan. Fu Hao led troops during the Shang Dynasty, circa 1200 BCE, with records of her story left on oracle bones, the oldest method of written records in Ancient China. Over 250 such oracle bones record her story and other details of her life. Yet nothing similar records the story of Mulan. Her history is one of the romantic arts, rather than military. Many other female military leaders are well documented in Chinese history, including Qin Liangyu, who attained the highest military rank available during the Ming Dynasty. But the official records are blank regarding the legend of Mulan.

The Real Legend of Hua Mulan
Magnolia blossoms remain an important symbol of Chinese culture. Amazon

20. The story behind Mulan’s name

Mulan is often interpreted in English as magnolia, which is at best an imprecise reference. Her most often used surname in the West is Hua, interpreted as flower. Magnolia blossoms have long cultural significance in China, making her name a symbolic one. Her surname is reported differently in different eras, in the Ming Dynasty she was referred to as Zhu, while in the Qing Dynasty it was Wei. Other sources use Fa, the name she was given in the Disney animated film. The confusion over the family name leads some to speculate that the character of Mulan was an amalgam of several women warriors, with the story embellished for dramatic or political purposes.

This theory is supported by Mulan’s history of reappearing in times of crisis throughout Chinese history. Her story is taught in Chinese schools, as an example of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the people and the state. In China, she is considered to be legendary, though with some basis in fact. Despite the many contradictions built within her legend notwithstanding, she is honored throughout China and around the world. In 1991 a crater on the planet Venus was named Hua Mulan in her honor. The 1998 Disney animated film was translated into more than 30 languages and was a global success, though it was less popular in China, where the public found it deviated too much from the legend of the heroine. After sixteen centuries, the question of Mulan’s historicity is largely irrelevant.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Dramatic Story Behind Disney’s Mulan”. Natalia Klimczak, Ancient Origins. May 29, 2020

“Disney’s Mulan may be a myth, but Fuhao’s is as intriguing as it is true”. Wee Kek Koon, South China Morning Post. February 13, 2016

“Ballad of Mulan”. Jack Yuan translator, 2006

“The history of Mulan, from a 6th-century ballad to the live-action Disney movie”. Constance Grady, Vox. September 4, 2020

“The Evolution of the Ballad of Mulan”. Mari Ness, September 3, 2020

“Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend”. Shiamin Kwa. 2010

“Hua Mulan”. Entry, June 14, 2018

“The History Behind the Legend of Mulan”. Philip Naudus,

“The Woman Warrior”. Maxine Hong Kingston. 2010

“The Controversial Origins of the Story Behind Mulan”. Suyin Hayes, TIME Magazine. September 4, 2020

“Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States”. Lan Dong. 2011