The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong

Trista - October 8, 2019

Have you seen the movie Mulan? Disney released the movie in 1998, and it told the story of a young Chinese woman who pretends to be a man so that she could join the army. Did you know that the Disney movie is based on an ancient Chinese tale of a brave woman who did exactly what Disney’s Mulan did?

There are different versions of the story, but they agree on a woman whose father was too old and sick to join the army. To save his life, she pretended to be a man to join in his place. The stories are about a woman named Hua Mulan, who may have been a real figure who lived between 420 and 589 CE, during the Northern and Southern dynasties of China. Keep reading to learn more about how the Disney version adds up to the ancient Chinese account of this extraordinary figure.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan as a failed bride. Photo:

1. The Title Character Is Training To Be A Perfect Bride

When we first meet Mulan in the Disney movie, she is training with a matchmaker who knows how to prepare girls to be the docile, sweet brides that men in the image-obsessed culture desire. The problem is that Mulan is failing at every turn.

She is depicted as a klutzy tomboy who is unable to perform the necessary tasks, like perfectly pouring a cup of tea. She brings chaos into a meeting with the village matchmaker and is cast out as a disgrace. She is seen as having disgraced herself and her entire family, and she will never make a perfect bride.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
The Huns invaded China. Photo:

2. Meanwhile, China Is Under Attack

The opening scene of the movie depicts the leader of the Huns leading his army over the Great Wall of China. The guards stationed on the wall light a sequence of fires to let the emperor and the armies throughout the empire know that China is under attack.

The Huns were a real people who lived across Europe and Asia at about the same time that the stories about Mulan began to appear in China – between the fourth and sixth centuries, CE. However, they probably didn’t go as far as China, so this part of the Disney story is likely fictional.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
The emperor had to defend China. Photo:

3. The Emperor Conscripts An Army

In order to fight off the invading Huns, the emperor and his counsel decide to conscript an army of men. In the movie, the counsel travels to villages throughout China, including Mulan’s, to announce that one man in each family must enlist in the army.

In Mulan’s family, the only man is her father. He drops the cane that he walks with as he steps forward to accept the draft notice. He is ready to die in the service of the emperor, but Mulan is not willing to let that happen.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Fa Zhou is old and too weak to serve. Photo:

4. Mulan’s Father Is Too Old To Serve

Fa Zhou, her father, already fought in a previous war. Though not feeble, he is old and walks with a cane. In the scene, after he accepts the draft notice, he puts on his armor and takes up his sword to practice.

But wielding the sword is too much for him, and he falls to the ground. Mulan witnesses this scene while hiding behind a pillar and knows that she must do something. There is no other man in the family who can enlist in the army, but she cannot let her father go. He will certainly die.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan and her father in the Disney film. Photo:

5. Mulan Decides To Enlist In His Place

In the middle of the night, Mulan uses her father’s sword to cut off her long hair and tie it up the way that men wore their hair. She then puts on his armor and takes his sword and conscription notice. She saddles up his horse and rides to the camp where the conscripts were to meet.

When her parents and grandmother wake up, they discover that she left in her father’s place. Her father decides not to go after her because if he reveals that she is a woman who enlisted in the army, she will be killed.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mushu was as unqualified as Mulan. Photo:

6. An Equally Misfit Dragon Assists Her, But Only In The Movie

Mulan is enough of a misfit as it is. She can’t even pour a cup of tea! In the movie, her ancestors awaken and send a dragon to help her on her journeys. They meant to send her the Great Stone Dragon, but unbeknownst to them, a misfit named Mushu journeys to her aid.

Mushu is looking to restore his own name. Like Mulan, he is a bit of a klutz and caused some catastrophic incidents in the Fa family. Suffice it to say that in the original version of Mulan, no dragon accompanies her.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Shang Li is the leader. Photo:

7. Shang Li Trains Mulan And The Other New Recruits

Shang Li is the general’s son. The general must take the conscripts who are already trained to the front lines to fight off the invading Huns. He leaves behind Shang Li and puts him in charge of training the recruits.

The recruits, like Mulan, are a hodgepodge group of misfits. But Mulan is the worst of them. On her very first day, she accidentally starts an all-out brawl that gets every one of the men punished. She certainly isn’t off to a promising start in the army.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan is unfit for both a man’s and a woman’s world. Photo:

8. Mulan Is As Inept With A Sword As With A Tea Kettle

Mulan is hopeless. She can’t serve a pot of tea, and she also can’t wield a sword. She fails at one task after another while she is training, even with the help of Mushu, and is the laughingstock of the recruits that she is training with.

Finally, Shang Li has had enough and sends her packing. He hands her horse’s bridle and tells her to go back home. She will never succeed in anything. But Mulan is determined to not only save her life but to prove her own self.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan climbed on top of the pole. Photo:

9. Mulan Proves Herself When She Claims An Arrow On Top Of A Pole

On the first day of training, Shang Li shot an arrow to the top of a pole and ordered the recruits to try to retrieve it. One after another, they failed in their attempts to climb up the pole and get the arrow.

After Shang Li sent her packing, Mulan spent the night fighting to find a way to get up the pole. After many failures, she made her way to the top of the pole and retrieved the arrow. She has proven that she has what it takes to be in the army and is allowed to stay.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan can never be the woman that men expect. Photo:

10. Mulan Finds That Her Comrades Only Care For Beauty Queens

Mulan has finally found her way into the man’s world of China’s army, but she is disheartened to hear from her fellow conscripts the kind of woman that they want to find when they return home from war.

They want someone who is everything that she is not – sweet, gentle, docile, and certainly able to pour a proper cup of tea! They are opposed to a self-determined, assured woman who has a mind of her own and is willing to fight for what she believes in.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong

Mulan and one of her fellow soldiers. Photo:

11. The New Recruits Go To The Front Lines

Remember the quirky Mushu and his lucky sidekick, the cricket? They forged a letter saying that the recruits were needed at the front lines. What they didn’t know was that the Hun army had defeated the army that Shang Li’s father was leading and that the recruits were China’s only hope.

Shang Li had all of the men (and one closeted woman) suit up and made the arduous journey into the mountains. Once there, they discovered a civilian village burned, and his father’s army annihilated.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan fired a cannon to start an avalanche. Photo:

12. Mulan Defeated The Invading Hun Army

The Hun army vastly outnumbers the ragtag bunch of new recruits that Shang Li is leading. They really don’t stand a chance, so they are ready to lay down their lives with honor. But Mulan, who is finally coming into her own, sees a way to destroy all of the Huns.

She shoots a cannon off into the side of a snowy mountain and sparks an avalanche. As the avalanche pummels down the mountain, it overwhelms and buries everyone in the Hun army – or so she thinks. The Huns are defeated, at least for now.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Shang Li nearly died in the avalanche. Photo:

13. And Saved The Life Of The General

Shang Li, who is now the general since his father has died, is also swept up in the avalanche. Mulan rescues him by getting him onto her horse and then pulling herself, her horse, and Shang Li to safety. Unfortunately, she was wounded in the process.

By all accounts, Mulan – or Ping, as the men know “him” – is a hero who will be awarded individual honors. But there’s just one problem. And it’s a big problem. Mulan isn’t a man, and if a woman attempts to join the army, she will be killed.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
“Ping” was actually Mulan. Photo:

14. But Then, Mulan’s Female Identity Was Revealed

While Mulan is in her tent resting, Shang Li comes to visit her. She sits up to greet him and inadvertently exposes that she is a woman. He is horrified, and she pleads with him that she joined the army to take her father’s place.

The men that she had saved and who had come to appreciate “him” as one of them were also horrified. But they also can’t fathom that a woman, not a man, showed the courage and wits necessary to bring down the Hun army and rescue their general.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
A life for a life. Photo:

15. Shang Li Spares Her Life

The general and the men in the army now know that “Ping” is actually Fa Mulan, the daughter of a highly esteemed man. And despite her accomplishments, she has brought shame on everyone, including her father.

But she did save the life of the general. The law required that Shang Li put her to death for impersonating a man, but she had saved his life in the avalanche. His moral conscience requires that he spare her life. He throws down his sword and orders his men to move out, leaving her behind.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan must make a choice. Photo:

16. Mulan Is Left To Die

Mulan is left behind in the snowy mountains, with her horse, Mushu, and the lucky cricket. The army has moved out with her, leaving her stranded in the middle of nowhere. She is far from home but decides that she must make the painful journey back.

She decides to head back home when the Huns, who had been buried in the avalanche, re-emerge from their snowy graves. They are alive and well and are intent on making their way to the Imperial City so that they can capture the emperor. She is the only one who knows that the army is not defeated, as she had thought. Now, only Mulan can save China.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
The emperor and his counsel. Photo:

17. Mulan Goes To The Emperor With An Important Message

Mulan rides her horse to the Imperial City to tell the emperor that the people of China are in great danger. The Huns are still alive, and they are actually inside the Imperial City. But she is a woman and not only that. She is disgraced – she had failed at becoming a perfect bride, and Mulan had failed as a soldier because she was, in fact, a woman.

Everything is stacked against Mulan, but now, the fate of China is in her hands. And nobody is willing to listen to her as she brings the dire warning.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
No one will listen. Photo:

18. But No One Will Listen To Her

Mulan rides her horse up so that she is alongside Shang Li, who is being honored in a parade for his service to the emperor in defeating the Huns army. But he tells her to go home and not embarrass herself, her family, or anyone else.

Mulan is undeterred – she has a mission that only she can fulfill. She no longer fits into any of the categories that people in her day were expected to fulfill. She is a failed bride, a failed soldier, basically one giant failure. But she is the only one who can save China from the invading Huns.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
The Huns take the emperor captive. Photo:

19. The Huns Invade The Imperial City

Mulan’s message was unheeded, and it isn’t long before the Huns make their appearance in the Imperial City. They storm through the crowd, crush the army that is parading before the people, and take the emperor prisoner.

In the movie, Mulan gets some of her former comrades to dress up like concubines so that they can get inside the palace, where the emperor is being held hostage. They stuff their dresses with fruit, which they then use to attack the Huns. Let’s say that while that part is certainly amusing, it didn’t happen in the real story.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan with the captain’s sword. Photo:

20. Mulan Defeated The Hun Captain

Mulan, the perfect misfit, shows that she is adept in both a woman’s world and a man’s when she takes on the leader of the Huns. She has no weapon, and he has a sword that he tries to use to take her down.

In a swift maneuver that involved some woman’s finery, she takes his sword and uses it against him. With the help of Mushu, the Hun captain becomes part of a fireworks spectacle for the entire city to see. But will she be honored this time for her deeds, now that everyone knows she is the woman Mulan and not the man Ping?

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan and Shang Li. Photo:

21. Mulan Rescued Shang Li And The Emperor, And Also Got To Marry The General

In the film, Mulan saves everyone and her father, along with the rest of China, honor her. However, before Mulan, most Disney movies that feature a “princess,” or a female in the lead role, were about a damsel who was in some distress. Prince Charming, in whatever form he should appear (even as a beast), had to save her. Mulan is different in that, while there is a love interest, it isn’t until the very end of the movie.

And this is another place where Disney gets it right. In the ancient Chinese story, the heroine is not rescued by any man. There are some versions where she does fall in love with the general, but there are also versions where she remains celibate. In one version, she even commits suicide to keep from becoming a concubine.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
One of these is not like the others. Photo:

22. Disney’s Princess Mulan Takes A Sharp Turn From Other Princess Movies

Disney movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are the exact opposite of Mulan. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are both princesses who fall into a deathlike sleep and can only be re-awakened by true love’s kiss. They are passive characters who need a man to rescue them.

Mulan is completely different. The heroine doesn’t only save herself, her family, and all of her soldiers in arms; she saves all of China from certain annihilation by the Huns. One can easily imagine Disney taking some artistic license and making Mulan in need of rescue, but even in her darkest moments, she has the strength and fortitude to rescue herself.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Sans, the lucky cricket. Photo:

23. The Disney Version Was Remarkably Similar To The Original Chinese Story

Before Disney released Mulan, there were concerns that this ancient Chinese story would be white-washed, similar to how Aladdin was a bit insensitive to its Arab roots (consider how the Sultan pronounced “Allah” in Aladdin).

But Disney was careful to keep this Chinese tale as Chinese as possible. No, Eddie Murphy doesn’t appear in the original tale; Mushu and the lucky cricket are also noticeably absent. But Chinese themes like honor, loyalty to family, and even elements of Confucianism are present throughout the movie.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Cover image for Disney’s cartoon version of Mulan. Photo:

24. But With One Glaring Inconsistency

There are a few ways that the Disney movie deviated from the original story. The most glaring inconsistency is that in Disney’s Mulan, the title character faced certain death if anyone discovered that she was discovered actually to be female.

But in ancient China, sometimes women actually could be drafted into the army, especially in situations as dire as the one in the movie. A woman who lived at the time that “The Ballad of Mulan” was first recorded probably would not have been killed for doing what its heroine did. However, in the original story, Mulan was not drafted; she chose to serve in her father’s place secretly.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan with the crest of the emperor. Photo:

25. “The Ballad Of Mulan” Exists In Many Different Versions

The first version appeared in China somewhere around the fifth or sixth century CE, during the era of the Northern and Southern dynasties. Its earliest iteration is known as “Musical Records of Old and New.”

In the time since there have been plays and other stories written about the legendary female warrior. The different versions place the hero as living at different periods in Chinese history, with one placing her at the beginning of the Tang dynasty, at about the year 620 CE. However, this would have been after the legendary figure, if she lived at all, would have lived.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan as “Ping.” Photo:

26. Hua Mulan Enlisted In Her Father’s Place

Various versions of the story mean that there are differing accounts as to the exploits of the heroic female warrior. But they all agree on one point, which is the crux of Disney’s storyline, too. Mulan secretly joined the army to serve in her father’s place.

Her father is elderly and will undoubtedly die if he is forced into battle. In one version of the story, she has a younger brother who is still too young to enlist. Perhaps this is why, in the Disney version, she has a dog named “Little Brother.”

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
The real Mulan was quite skilled. Photo:

27. There’s Another Inconsistency – The Real Mulan Could Use A Sword

In the Disney version, Mulan is hopelessly inept when she attempts to use a sword. The first time she attempts to use it, she can’t even get it out of the sheath! She must spend her first few weeks in the army in training.

But the real Mulan had been well-trained in all martial arts, including swordsmanship. She was as well-trained as most men. She would not have been clumsy with a sword or have to prove her worth by retrieving an arrow from on top of the pole. If the Chinese legends are based on a real person, she would not have struggled at all to find her way into the army.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Disney’s Mulan lasted a few weeks before getting out. Photo:

28. Mulan Spent 12 Years In The Army

In the movie, Mulan is nearly exposed on the very first day that she is in the training camp. She goes for a swim so that she can adequately bathe but is unexpectedly joined by some of her comrades who had the same idea. She realizes that she will have to be extremely careful to protect her female identity.

The real Mulan remained in the army for a full 12 years. This meant that she had to hide her female identity for much, much longer than Disney’s character did. If she had enlisted as a teenager, she would have had to hide the fact that Mulan was going through female puberty and spend one week every month hiding the fact that she was menstruating.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Mulan asked the emperor if she could return home. Photo:

29. In The End, She Only Wanted To Return Home

After all of her courageous exploits, Disney’s Mulan is honored by the emperor and offered a job as his royal counselor. But all that she wants to do is return home to her family. She never set out to become a hero. She just wanted to protect her father.

This part is another place where Disney got it right. The real Mulan didn’t set out to earn honor and glory for herself. In the end, after she has spent 12 years consistently saving the empire, all that she asks for is a horse so that she can return home to her family.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
The real Mulan never got outed. Photo:

30. After Returning Home, She Revealed Her Identity

In the Disney movie, Mulan’s identity as a woman is discovered by accident after she was wounded. She was nearly killed by Shang Li, as the penalty for a woman impersonating a soldier is death.

In the Chinese legend, however, her identity is never “discovered.” She spent 12 years fighting alongside a group of male soldiers and was never found out. After being honored by the emperor and finally returning home, she at least reveals her true identity as Hua Mulan. But her family is just happy to have her home.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
What did she think returning home would be like? Photo:

31. Mulan Returned Home To A Changed Family

A lot changes in a year. And even more changes in 12 years! In one version of the story, Mulan returned home to find that her father had long since passed away. She had received no word of his passing, as she had been captured by the enemy army and spent years in the service of its leader.

Not only was her father gone, but her mother had also remarried. She would have had to remarry, as prospects for women in traditional cultures have always been quite barren. But the heroine is quite distressed at how many changes occurred and that her home is no longer the happy place that it once was.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
Thankfully, not in the Disney version. Photo:

32. In One Version, The Heroine Commits Suicide

One telling of the story of Mulan has the heroine captured by enemy forces soon after she goes into the military. She was interrogated by the daughter of the general, to whom she revealed her identity. The two became the best of friends and swore their lives to each other.

In the end, after she returned home, the empire is conquered by another army. The leader of the conquering army wants to take her for a concubine, but she cannot bear such a shameful fate. In the end, she commits suicide to avoid being taken into the king’s harem. Fortunately, Disney did not use this version as its source material.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
The only man Mulan cares about is her father. Photo:

33. In The Real Version, There Is No Love Interest

The Disney version did an excellent job of keeping Mulan and Shang Li from falling in love with each other until the very end. But then again, a seemingly homosexual romance between a soldier and “his” general may have been a bit too progressive for the year 1998.

The real Mulan doesn’t have any love interest. There is, of course, the version in which she is fated to become a concubine, but such a relationship can hardly be called romance. But she doesn’t fall in love with the general or anyone else. She’s the ultimate woman who doesn’t need a man.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
There is no Mushu or lucky cricket in real life. Photo:

34. The Story Lacks Supernatural Elements

One striking element about the original version of Mulan is its lack of supernatural features. The Disney version has Mulan’s ancestors appear as spirits, along with the dragon Mushu, who awakens and goes out to help her.

But none of those things are present in the original. Supernatural elements, like ancestral spirits, are so common in ancient literature that ironically, one reason why scholars doubt that the story is based on a real person is that there is nothing supernatural in “The Ballad of Mulan.”

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
She probably wasn’t real. Photo:

35. Historians Think The Story Is Fictional

Folk tales are oral histories that get passed down for generations, sometimes for hundreds of years. The story of Hua Mulan is a folk tale, grounded more in the lives of the people who told it than in actual history.

There is no evidence that the character of Mulan existed at all, or that her exploits happened. While the era in which she would have lived – the Northern and Southern dynasties – was undoubtedly filled with political turmoil and bloodshed, the events in the story don’t add up with history.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
But maybe she was real. Photo:

36. But It May Not Be

There is one historical figure who may fit the story told in one version of the Mulan tales. Princess Pingyang was the daughter of Li Yuan, the emperor who founded the Tang dynasty. She was a female warrior who led the Chinese army to victory during the seventh century.

Of course, Pingyang lived after “The Ballad of Mulan” was first transmitted, so she probably wasn’t the original inspiration. But if Pingyang was a known historical figure who led the army to victory, then maybe there was a real Mulan who preceded her.

The Real Story Of Mulan and Where Disney Got it Wrong
An 18th-century cloth with ink and colors thought to be Hua Mulan. Wikimedia Commons.

37. The Real Story Should Change How We Think About Ancient China

Practices like foot binding, which cripple women in the name of beauty, have long been associated with traditional Chinese culture. The pervading idea is generally that women were to be docile and submissive; basically, everything that Mulan failed at.

But this same culture celebrated a legendary female warrior who was able to hoodwink a group of male soldiers and lead the Chinese army to victory. Maybe there was more to ancient China than Western historians give credit for. The story of Mulan should change not only how we think about women but also how we think about China.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

“Mulan.” Internet Movie Database.

“The Origins of Disney’s Mulan Are Darker Than You Thought.” Screen Rant. July 27, 2019.

“Is Disney’s Mulan based on a true story? Meet Hua Mulan, the Chinese warrior”. Jo-Anne Rowney. Radio Times. 8th September 2020.

“Girl Power, A Cricket, and a Dragon: Disney’s Mulan”. Mari Ness. TOR. Mar 31, 2016

“The Real Story of Mulan.” SyFyWire Fangirls.

Also Read: 16 Facts About the Real Pocahontas. Shannon Quinn. History Collection. September 28, 2018