4. The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place
The original heroine in the Mulan legend was one of a nomadic people. As Han’s influence expanded in China, a process called “sinification”, she gradually took on more and more aspects of Han culture. In the late 16th century, Chinese playwright Xu Wei wrote a play entitled The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in her Father’s Place, which forever altered the simple story related to the ballad. The short play introduced Mulan’s surname, Hua, which was absent from the ballad. Though it referred to the war in the title, very little of the military campaigns are present in the play. It instead focused on Mulan’s life as a woman, and included the process of foot binding. Mulan is presented as the ideal of Chinese feminism and beauty, as it was contemporarily viewed.
Foot binding, to create the small feet viewed as the epitome of female beauty during the period, was not practiced among the people of the Northern Wei. Thus, Xu Wei introduced a new aspect to the Mulan legend. As an educated man he was undoubtedly aware of the fiction he created. Whether and where the play was ever performed is unknown. Hundreds of years after Xu Wei’s death, the play was rediscovered, and the changes introduced by Xu Wei became an integral part of the legend. In the first act Mulan, aware that unbinding her feet would cause them to grow larger, making her unsuitable for marriage, unbinds them anyway. Mulan thus reflected her willingness to sacrifice her own happiness for the benefit of others (her father and family), exhibiting an ideal of Chinese womanhood.
Xu Wei created new aspects of the Mulan legend, including the family name of Hua (flower). He also included previously known stories, such as Mulan appearing before the Emperor and receiving an offer of a bureaucratic office within the government. An offer to serve in the government implies that Mulan was trained in both literary and government affairs. Such a position has required her to understand and enforce laws and procedures. In the play, Mulan rejects the offer. In the ballad, she merely requests a speedy horse to carry her home. The play has her reject the offer, asking to return home to care for her aging parents. She then promises to return to government service at a later date.
In the play, after returning home she reveals herself to fellow soldiers, and applies a lotion to her enlarged feet. The formula restores them to a socially acceptable tiny appearance, making her acceptable as a bride. A son of a scholar in her hometown of Hubei (according to the play), appreciative of her act of loyalty and sacrifice, asks to marry her. The play closes with their wedding, when Mulan appears shy, and blushes when her husband bows to her in the traditional manner. Her mother scolds Mulan, wondering how a woman who could fearlessly lead men into battle, could appear so demure. Xu Wei’s play ends with Mulan no longer a legendary woman warrior, but a dutiful and devoted daughter and wife.
In the early 17th century Zhu Guozhen, a Ming Dynasty scholar and historian, compiled stories and reports into a work he called A Miniscule Book from the Yongzhwang Studio. One section of the work he titled Women Generals. In it, he described Wei Mulan as a virgin who joined the army of the Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty. According to Zhu’s account, Mulan fought in eighteen battles, including those over Nanjing. Afterward, she declined an office with the emperor’s government, and returned home to care for her parents. When Emperor Yang discovered Mulan was a woman, he offered her a position within his own harem. She again declined his offer. He had her kidnaped and brought to his court. Rather than accept his advances, Mulan committed suicide.
Zhu Guozhen’s version of the Mulan legend is often cited as historical evidence of Mulan having been a real person, from which the legends evolved. One reason for its acceptance as factual is his careful presentation of incidents corroborated by other sources. However, sources such as the ballad existed hundreds of years before the incidents described in Women Generals, indicating the legend was already in place long before the Sui Dynasty. He also changed her name from Hua Mulan to Wei Mulan. In Zhu’s version of the tale, a virgin demonstrates filial loyalty. He bestows on her the title of The Filial General, whose honor was such that she preferred death to become unchaste. Most scholars discount Zhu’s work as fictional, at best an anecdotal retelling of a much older legend.
Following the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the onset of the Qing Dynasty, (circa 1644) Han Chinese were oppressed by the Manchu. The oppression included the forced abandonment of Confucianist principles and beliefs. Among them was the act of cutting one’s hair; men were expected to shave their foreheads and wear their remaining hair in a long braid known as a queue. Manchu punishment for non-compliance was frequently death, as it was for other expressions of Confucianism. The folk tales and stories of Mulan grew in popularity among the oppressed Han Chinese, who sought a similar heroine of their own. She began to adopt Han characteristics in the retelling of her stories.
In 1695, Mulan underwent yet another reinvention, in the hands of a writer named Chu Renhuo. His novel, The Romance of Sui and Tang, a work of fiction set in an earlier period of Chinese history, followed a theme denouncing the Qing Dynasty. It posited the earlier Tang Dynasty as ordained by heaven. A new version of the Mulan legend appeared within the novel. In this version, Mulan is half Han, and the army in which she served is defeated in battle. Mulan was captured by a Han Chinese Princess, to whom she revealed her identity. The novel shifts the identity of Mulan from a woman of an earlier nomadic tribe, as in the ballad, to one of Han Chinese ethnicity.
Mulan appears in The Romance of Sui and Tang in an extended sub-plot, which focused on the activities of the Han Chinese and her relationship with her captors. Mulan appeared with her captor, Princess Xia, (the pair adopted each other as sisters) before the Emperor to plead for the life of the princess’s father. The emperor, impressed with the women’s willingness to offer their own lives in the captive’s place, allows the father to go free. Later, Mulan carries a letter to a soldier fighting the Chinese to whom the princess is secretly engaged. Mulan learns on her journey of the death of her father, and her secret of being a woman in man’s clothing becomes known to all, including the emperor. When the emperor attempts to place Mulan in his harem, she commits suicide.
The story in Chu Renhuo’s novel contained little of the simple folk tale first presented hundreds of years earlier in the ballad. It also placed Mulan as more integrated within Han society. Mulan’s younger sister, called Youlan in the text, also features prominently in the novel, including a deception in which she assumes the attire and bearing of a man. Mulan is depicted as sympathetic to the Han Chinese, half-Chinese in ancestry, and willing to give up her life rather than submit to the tyrannical behavior of a “foreign” emperor. She is less of a warrior and general, and more of a freedom fighter, another change to her legend which some submit is based on historical fact.
In 1800 a manuscript was discovered entitled The Complete Account of Extraordinary Mulan. Its author is unknown. Whether or not it is complete, that is, the author or authors had finished their work, is unknown. Through the first half of the book, the protagonist is Zhu Ruoxu, who studies dark magic, but determines never to use his acquired skills. His son, Tianlu, fails to sire an heir, and in an act implied as divine intercession, his infertile wife gives birth to Mulan. Mulan reveals early in her life she possesses special powers. In one incident, similar to the Child Jesus answering the questions from the elders in the Temple, Mulan answers the questions of a former soldier turned monk. Ruoxu indoctrinates Mulan into the dark arts and magic, admonishing her against their use.
The grandfather also trained Mulan in the martial skills of a soldier, which she used to her advantage in battle. As in other versions of the legend, she turns down a position in the emperor’s government. She is awarded the title of Princess Wu Zhao instead. She is later accused of treason against the emperor, and after failing to convince the emperor of her loyalty she kills herself. The book clearly meant to encourage passive resistance by the oppressed Chinese against their Manchu overlords. By the time of the book’s discovery, Mulan’s legend was nearly fully tied to the Han Chinese, as part of their folklore. It added the elements of a spiritual connection to her legend, leading to a god-like status. Mulan further separated from the simple nomadic folklore where her legend began.
This circa 1850 novel from Zhang Shaoxian focuses on Mulan’s chastity and virtue. Her traits of compassion, extending even to those she slew in battle, and filial devotion are demonstrated as the source of her courage. Mulan is described as 17 when the novel begins. She is among the most beautiful women in China, and engaged to a man exempt from the draft. Her father, Hua Hu, was not exempt, and when drafted and too ill to serve, allows Mulan to enter the army in disguise Mulan took the name, Hua Hu. Previous alterations in the Mulan legend are accounted for in the novel, with editorial license allowing for further alteration. Among the enemies in several battles are sorcerers and sorceresses, bandits and barbarians, and evil leaders and rivals.
Throughout the book, Mulan follows the cardinal virtues expected of Chinese women of the time. These were to honor officials and sovereigns, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives. The depiction of Mulan in the novel is one of never straying from these virtues. They were thus the source of her courage, her military prowess, and success and fame, despite numerous injuries and indignities at the hands of her enemies and jealous rivals. At the end of the novel, Mulan marries, and eventually gives birth to a son who rose to be Prime Minister of China. Many of the later retellings of Mulan’s legend draw on parts of this novel for their story, including later films and television presentations.
In 1903, with China still under the Qing Dynasty, a play titled Mulan Joins the Army appeared. A male opera star, Mei Langfang, performed the role of Mulan. In the play, Mulan’s father plans to have her cousin, an orphan named Mushu, join the army in his stead. Mushu however has other plans. When Mulan fails to shame her cousin into substituting for her father in the army, she obtains his permission to do so, under her cousin’s name. Calling Mushu a coward, she agrees to enter the army, in male dress. Mushu remains at home in her place, dressed as a woman, with bound feet. Her superiors in the army are at first suspicious of her abilities as a warrior and leader of men, in part because of her slight build and delicate features. She wins their respect and is assigned command of a large body of troops.
When Mulan arrives at the front during the war against the Xiongnu, she learns the Chinese troops were in a precarious position and about to suffer a rout. She leads her troops into the fray, saves the life of the overall commander of the Chinese forces, and crushes the enemy army. Many are driven into a partially frozen sea and drowned. As in other renderings of the Mulan legend, the impressed and grateful emperor offers Mulan awards and a government position, which she rejects. The play does not include the troops being amazed when they learn of Mulan being a woman, one of the few times the story is related without the twist at the end.
The 1911 revolution in China which led to the end of imperial rule was a series of largely unconnected uprisings throughout the empire. Groups dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty formed both inside and outside of China. The latter concentrated on raising funds for those fomenting change in the various Chinese provinces. Many of these groups were united by Sun Yat-Sen, who formed the United League in Tokyo, Japan in 1905. By 1911 armed uprisings occurred in many provinces, and propaganda from within and outside of China appeared, exhorting the Chinese to resist, The Chinese fought to overthrow their oppressors, establishing Han Chinese supremacy.
Mulan’s legend became a large part of the propaganda. Where she had long been described as possessing almost supernatural filial devotion, she became a symbol of female resistance to oppression. Her legend was again altered, as she was set as an example of the duty of Han Chinese women to aid in the battle against their enemies. Several armed groups of women, such as the Women’s Revolutionary Army, fought alongside units comprised of men. To those units, Mulan was both an inspiration and a symbol of women’s new role in the emerging war. After the Qing Dynasty was deposed in February, 1912, the new Provisional Government disbanded the armed women’s units. Mulan had taken on a new identity in China, one she retained through the 20th century.
In 1917 two firms competing in China’s burgeoning film industry undertook to put the Mulan legend on film. Both used as their basis the play Mulan Joins the Army. Tianyi Film Company and director Li Pingqian reached the market first, with the film Hua Mulan Joins the Army, which appeared in cinemas that year. It was the first full-length motion picture to present the Mulan legend. In its version, Mulan was betrothed when she entered the army, and her fiancé enlisted as well. When they encountered each other during their military service he did not recognize her. The film was well-received by audiences, encouraging the second film company, Mingxing Films, to produce a film at considerable expense, in anticipation of large profits.
The second film, released in 1928, featured established Chinese film stars, a large production budget, locations in the north of China, and more than 400 army troops as extras. At the time of its release, it was one of the most expensive films produced in China. It too used the play and title of Mulan Joins the Army, and upon its release was not successful. The Mingxing production is considered a lost film today, while the first can be seen on various websites. In both, rather than portraying Mulan as the simple northern nomad of the original ballad and legend, she appears as an ethnic Han, a Chinese heroine against internal and external enemies to her people.
On July 7, 1937, war erupted between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan, the opening stage of what eventually became World War II. The full-scale war developed over a series of military incidents which dated from 1931. The People’s Republic of China considers 1931 as when the war actually began. Chinese Nationalist forces and Communist forces opposed the Japanese, and each other. After two years of fighting the Japanese were deep within the interior of China when the war reached a period of stagnation. Heavy fighting continued, with neither side gaining much ground. The war caused economic chaos, added to by corruption within the Chinese bureaucracy and military.
Most of the Chinese film industry fled to Hong Kong, and other points of perceived safety. In Shanghai, the head of the Xinhua Film Company, Zhang Shankun, recognized the propaganda value of the Mulan legend, presented in film. He recruited Ouyang Yuqian, a noted playwright, scriptwriter, and opera star to write a script based on the Mulan legend. It was a story well-known to Shanghai audiences, and Yuqian adapted it to their tastes. He infused the script with nationalist leanings to inspire continued sacrifices while resisting the Japanese invaders. Yuqian used the basic story of the legend, but gave his characters dialogue which referenced the situation concerning the war with Japan. He emphasized the role of women bringing it to a successful conclusion.
When Mulan Joins the Army premiered in Shanghai in February, 1939, it was an immediate commercial and critical success. In the film, Mulan enters the army in accordance with her legend, and during training exhibits skills in physical combat superior to her male colleagues. Upon arrival at the front, she encounters timid military leaders, in some cases willing to collaborate with the enemy rather than face the dangers of combat. The same timidity appears in several civilian authorities. Mulan spies on the enemy, nomadic tribes in the film, and learns of an impending attack. The generals in command disregard her warnings and when the attack is launched their response is ineffectual, in some cases cowardly.
Mulan takes command following the death of the male commander, kills his assistant who counseled collaboration, and leads an attack which routs the nomads. Afterward, in accordance with the legend known to the audience, she turns down a government position and marries her companion in the army, who was unaware of her being a woman. She then assumes the role of a dutiful wife and mother. The Mulan of the film is no longer the gentle woman inspired with filial devotion. She is instead portrayed as more masculine, able to outperform men in the martial arts, including hand-to-hand combat. She also demonstrates greater courage during the emergency of war, though after victory she returns to the ideals of Chinese womanhood of the time.
Following World War II Great Britain reclaimed its colony of Hong Kong from the Japanese. After the end of the Chinese Civil War and the ascension of the Communist government in mainland China, Chinese residents of Hong Kong faced a quandary. Identification with the British, their Chinese culture on the mainland, or the establishment of the nationalist government in Taiwan, was a decision facing the citizens of Hong Kong. By the early 1960s, it was evident to Yueh Feng, a director at Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios, that another retelling of the Mulan legend was called for. He chose the medium of opera, presented in a film rather than onstage. The film presents Mulan not as a heroine who rises to individual distinction, but as part of a team in which all succeed.
Unity, rather than the glorification of war (as in the 1939 film) is the overlying theme of the opera, though it follows the basis of the Mulan legend more or less faithfully. Yueh Feng cast Ivy Li Po, a celebrated star of Huangmei Opera films, in the role of Mulan. She was awarded Best Actress at the Asian Film Awards in 1964 for her performance in the film. Lady General Hua Mulan aimed to promote the idea that the Chinese citizens of Hong Kong were one with their fellows in China and elsewhere, another use of the Mulan legend to promote political and ethnic viewpoints, rather than simply presenting the tale of Mulan as it originated centuries earlier. Portions of the film are available for viewing on YouTube and other sites as of this writing.
Outside of China, the tale of Mulan was virtually unknown for more than 15 centuries. Other than those who studied Chinese history, literature, and the arts, few in the western world had ever heard of her story. In 1976, Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston (born Maxine Ting Ting Hong) published a book titled The Woman Warrior. Part autobiography, part cultural viewpoint, the book relates experiences in the author’s life and compares them with Chinese folk tales and traditions. As a first-generation daughter of Chinese immigrants, the author heard the tales from her parents while growing up. One such tale, heard from her mother, was that of Fa Mu Lan.
The book has drawn criticism and praise since it was issued, with some critics decrying it for stereotyping Chinese culture and pandering to its American audience. Others accused it of fictionalizing Chinese history. The author published a defense of her work in an essay in 1982. The book also had many fans, was selected as one of the best non-fiction books of the decade (TIME Magazine), and sold well. Still, despite the presence of the Mulan story, which gave the heroine yet another surname, it did not generate widespread knowledge of the tale in the Western world. Mulan remained a largely unknown tale of Chinese folklore and legend.
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.
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.
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.
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