Is Disney’s Mulan based on a true story? Meet Hua Mulan, the Chinese warrior

The real Mulan was a warrior brought to life in the Ballad of Mulan, but she's also at the heart of a far more tragic tale

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Is Mulan a true story?

Most people will know the story of Mulan from the 1998 Disney animation, in which Ming-Na Wen voiced the lead character with Lea Salonga lending her voice to the musical tracks.

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With the House of Mouse re-releasing the classic animation as a live-action martial art movie next year, the warrior’s tale has made headlines again as fans question what’s considered a true representation of the tale.

Fa Mulan was pretty impressive in the animation, after all “you don’t come across a girl like that every dynasty”, but the ‘real’ Mulan was even more of a warrior whose story has refused to wane in popularity – the heroine even has a crater on Venus named after her.

Hua Mulan’s story is told in the Ballad of Mulan, a story set in the North and South dynasties, which was between 420 and 589 CE.

While it’s possible the gutsy girl could be real, it’s largely thought the story is fictional mainly because ballads were meant to be inspiring tales rather than historical stories.

The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Selections from the History of Chinese Painting showing Mulan
The Art and Aesthetics of Form: Selections from the History of Chinese Painting showing Mulan
Commons/Taipei: National Palace Museum.

In the ballad, Hua Mulan, disguised as a man, takes her father’s place in the army to fight Genghis Khan. She sits worriedly at her loom as one member of each family is called to fight against the Rouran invaders. She fears her father is too old to fight and, her brother is just a child, so she dons her armour and heads to war in their place.

The 360-word poem by an anonymous poet differs from the Disney movie from this point onwards. In the film, Mulan sneaks off in an epic montage set to an intense soundtrack, but in the ballad she heads off with her mother and father’s blessing.

Mulan, already trained in martial arts, sword fighting and archery, manages to go undetected for 12 years in the army. When she’s offered an official post, Mulan turns it down and simply asks for a camel (not a horse!) so she can ride back to her family. As Mulan prepares to leave she switches to her female clothes shocking her fellow soldiers as they realise they had fallen for her trick.

Skip forward and playwright Xu Wei penned The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place in the late Ming dynasty. Then in 1695, Chu Renhuo wrote ‘Sui Tang Romance’, yet another version of the tale. Mulan has sisters in Wei’s version and a baby son – no men of age – so she takes her father’s place and heads off to war. This time around there are even more powerful women to marvel at. The Emperor’s daughter, Dou Xianniang, is also a warrior and is pleased to discover Mulan’s secret, so much so they become laotong, which means bonded sisters.

Painting of Hua Mulan, 18th century, housed in the British Museum
Painting of Hua Mulan, 18th century, housed in the British Museum
Commons

The tale takes a turn for the worse after their meeting. The king is overthrown and the sisters are forced to surrender, but the pair offer to be put to death if the condemned men are spared.

Despite their offer, Mulan and Xianniang aren’t killed. Instead the Emperor’s mother gives Mulan money to take home to her family. When Mulan returns, she finds her father has died while she was away, and her mother has remarried. She is ordered to become a concubine and, unwilling to face such a dishonour, she kills herself.

Before she takes her life she asks her younger sister, Youlan, which was to deliver Xianniang’s letter to her fiancé. Her sister dresses as a man to make the delivery, but her disguise is discovered and she catches the fiancé’s eye.

Hua Mulan’s last words were: “I’m a girl, I have been through war and have done enough. I now want to be with my father,” a far cry from the happy Disney ending we got in 1998…

How does Disney’s Mulan compare?

You’ll notice that in both stories Mulan has no romantic sub-plot. When Disney chose to bring the story to the big screen they added Li Shang, the much loved commander who fails to notice his prized warrior is a woman. Li Shang has been left out of the Mulan live-action remake, instead Mulan’s commander bullies her but then changes his mind about her when he realises she’s a woman – at least according to the casting call notes. The remake has also added back in a sister, so perhaps director Niki Caro will revert back to the ballad version of events in other ways too.

Is Mulan real or a legend?

The ballad itself is unusual when it comes to Chinese folklore in that it doesn’t contain any supernatural elements – it’s for this reason that people believed it was true and she was based on a real person. Scholars generally disagree. There is no historical evidence to prove her existence and the story was passed down orally. Her name also means “magnolia” in Chinese, which many theorise was the honorific bestowed upon men who had served in the military, but her name changes in each tale. In one her family name is Zhu, in another it’s Wei. The most popular name, however, has remained Hua (Huā; ‘flower’) because of its poetic meaning.

mulan-remake
Liu Yifei as Mulan

That’s not to say there’s no precedent for women fighting in the Chinese army. While women were submissive at the time the ballad was written, historians have suggested Emperor’s may have recruited women in times of need, like barbaric invasion.

There’s also a historic example. After the ballad was written, Princess Pingyang, a real Chinese female warrior in the seventh century, raised troops to help her father, the future Emperor Gaozu, seize the throne and raise the Tang Dynasty. Sadly, Princess Pingyang died a few years later, but her father held an elaborate funeral with a complete military guard. When a member of his court complained about her being given such a honour, the Emperor said “she was no ordinary woman.”

Hua Mulan may not have been real, but that hasn’t stopped her tale inspiring people, whether that’s in the seventh century or today.

Mulan will be released on Disney+ on 4th September, and stars Liu Yifei as Mulan. You can sign up to Disney+ for £5.99 a month or £59.99 a year. Premier Access to watch Mulan costs £19.99.

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