No one is quite sure when the story of Mulan was first told, or even first written down. But at some point—perhaps the 4th century, perhaps the 6th—someone decided to write down the sparse, evocative lines of “Mulan shi,” lines evocative enough to turn Mulan into one of the most popular figures in China: a skilled warrior, devoted family member, and emblem of virtue.
And oh yes, a kickass crossdresser.
(Important sidenote and disclaimer: Since I don’t read or speak Mandarin, I am entirely dependent on English translations and transliterations for this post, which meant a bit of arbitrary guesswork. For instance, I could not find any scholarly consensus on the correct English transliteration for Mulan—some sources have Hua Mulan, some Fu Mu Lan, some sources Fah Muk lan, with multiple variations, so at the risk of being entirely wrong about this, I am arbitrarily going to use “Mulan” for the rest of the post, since that’s the version Disney used. Other transliterations of Chinese names will be equally arbitrary, for similar reasons: I couldn’t find any consensus on the correct translation of the title for Xu Wei’s 16th century play, for instance, or on how to spell Xu Wei, also written as Hsu Wei. Repeat this for pretty much every author and literary source mentioned in this post. While I’m sidenoting, all of you really need to check out Xu Wei’s bird paintings, which have nothing to do with this post, but are extraordinarily beautiful. Ok. End of sidenote.)
“Mulan shi,” the original ballad, is extremely short—only a few hundred lines—and Mulan’s story within the ballad is even shorter than that, since the last few lines are about rabbits. As the ballad begins, Mulan is weaving, worried because her father is about to be drafted into the military. Since she has no brothers, Mulan purchases military equipment and joins the army in her father’s place. Ten years later, after the death of their general, the army returns home, and Mulan is honored by the emperor.
In a great touch, all she wants from the ceremony is a camel, so she can ride it home. Later retellings of the Mulan legend would interpret this as Mulan’s desire to return to a traditional feminine role; I like to interpret it as a “Screw you, emperor, you think a ceremony pays for ten years of hellish fighting just because you wouldn’t release my elderly father from the draft?” It’s very possible I am reading far too much into this. In any case, Mulan heads on, presumably on the camel, and changes back into woman’s clothing—to the astonishment of her fellow soldiers, who, the poem tells us, had no idea that she was a woman. And then the ballad has a few lines explaining how really, really hard it is to distinguish the gender of rabbits.
The story may have been based on a historical figure; several localities in China claim to be the hometown of the original Mulan, and several graves, shrines and temples attributed to Mulan can be found throughout the country. Interestingly enough, although the ballad would later strongly be associated with Han Chinese culture, one or two words suggest that Mulan’s story may have originated from another area, perhaps Mongolia, before it was transformed into a Han Chinese story. The ballad uses the word “Khan,” for instance, suggesting a non-Chinese origin. Other words, however, suggest a Han Chinese origin: the poem, for instance, also mentions physical locations in China, notably the Yellow River, giving it a firm Chinese setting.
Regardless of where the ballad originated, several poets of the medieval Tang dynasty (618-907) found it inspiring enough to write expansions and variations on the ballad. Wei Yuanfu, for instance, added the detail that Mulan’s father was not only old, but sick, making her mission one of saving her father’s life as well as serving her country. He also added a little—a very little—detail about the battles Mulan fought in, emphasizing her heroism, and eliminated the final bits about the rabbits in favor of lines emphasizing the importance of remaining loyal to the imperial dynasty. Du Mu compared Mulan to other woman warrior leaders, praising Mulan for giving up a feminine lifestyle out of loyalty to the emperor.
In poem after poem, that loyalty to family and empire is Mulan’s only reason for leaving home and dressing as a male soldier. Poems feature her dreaming of home, of putting on makeup again, and praise her for temporarily sacrificing that life for her family and emperor. Of course only loyalty would lead a woman to choose to wield a sword in battle. I mention this largely because most of these poems seem to have been written by men.
Even if written by men, however, the poems fit comfortably with other stories, historical and fictional, of heroic Chinese women who served in the military or led armies. In some cases, they were even directly compared to Mulan—even though, unlike Mulan, many of them did not don male clothing, as some illustrations and texts show. That comfort perhaps explains why by the ninth century, Mulan’s story was well enough known that popular poets such as Bai Juyi could simply use her name as a metaphor for imperial loyalty, or, more rarely, crossdressing, without needing to give details.
In the 16th century, Xu Wei (1521-1593) dramatized the story in his The Heroine Mulan Goes To War In Her Father’s Place, or Female Mulan Joins the Army Taking Her Father’s Place, or Ci Mulan, which I am now going to cite as Ci Mulan because it’s shorter (see sidenote above). Perhaps best known today for his innovative paintings, Xu Wei suffered from alcoholism and severe depression. In 1566, he stabbed his wife (either his second or third; sources differ) to death. Chinese officials later determined that he was insane and released him. He spent the rest of his life drinking, painting, practicing calligraphy, and occasionally writing, eventually dying in poverty.
This may not exactly sound like the sort of man who would be interested in writing a two act play about an honorable Chinese heroine, but Xu Wei had a slight twist on the subject: he depicted Mulan as an outsider both to China and, to an extent, her own culture. In his version, Mulan is not Han Chinese, but Tuoba Khan, from a military family that has, very unusually, trained her in military arts—while keeping her feet bound, as was traditional in Xu Wei’s own culture. Mulan naturally worries about fitting her tiny, previously bound feet, into men’s shoes. She also worries about losing her small feet in the process. In this version, Mulan wants to wed—and in Xu Wei’s vision, she needed small feet to do so.
This was a change from the original ballad and the Tang dynasty poems: foot binding probably did not begin until the 10th century (after the original ballad was first written down) and did not become common until later. In another major change from the original, after changing back into her woman’s clothing, Mulan does get married at the end of Ci Mulan. This is a woman who could be a man, for a time, but who wanted to remain a woman, and whose story focuses less on loyalty to the empire, and more on her role as a woman. At the same time, Xu Wei stayed with the original concept that Mulan, bound feet or no bound feet, achieved stunning success as a man.
Ci Mulan was popular enough to inspire additional versions: a novel by the largely unknown Zhang Shaoxian that focused on the battle scenes, and ends, like the play, with Mulan’s happy marriage; another novel that insisted that Mulan was ethnically Han Chinese, and ended with her dramatic suicide; and multiple operas, stories, and broadsheets, with four chapters of Sui Tang Yan Yi, or Historical Romance of the Sui and Tang Dynasties, or Sui Tang Romance, by Chu Renhu, perhaps the most popular and influential.
Written at some time in the 17th century (either 1675 or 1695; sources are contradictory), Sui Tang Yan Yi is a tangled, colorful version that depicts the young Mulan, in this version half Chinese, half Turkish, trained both as a daughter (with bound feet) and a son (in military arts). Alas, Mulan’s father dies shortly after she takes off for war, and when Mulan returns home to find that she has been summoned to become the emperor’s concubine, rather than loyally obeying this order, she instead commits suicide on her father’s tomb.
In some ways, this refusal to obey an emperor’s order, and to return to her status as a woman (either by returning to her woman’s clothing and makeup, or getting married, as in other versions), is a complete change from other versions. With one small detail: the emperor, in this version, is Turkish, and Mulan is half Chinese. That half Chinese part makes her refusal to serve as his concubine highly patriotic—a detail picked up by later Chinese leaders. Sui Tang Yan Yi also contains several subtle and unsubtle critiques of men, including some from Mulan, who states that she’s crossdressing because of a lack of loyal male subjects and filial sons. That message is not particularly subtle: if men won’t do the job, women must and will. The work was enormously successful, and helped establish Mulan’s permanent place as a national heroine.
As a heroine who could be, as needed, Chinese or half Chinese, whose story could end happily, or sadly, or with a romantic marriage, or with celibacy, Mulan was not only popular, but could be used in a number of ways: to sell books and pictures and tickets to plays and operas, or as a patriotic symbol by Chinese leaders during their wars with the Japanese in the 1930s and 1940s, and later by the Communist Party of China. Throughout the 20th century, and well into the 21st, Mulan continued to star in television shows, comic books and movies.
And eventually, Mulan made it to the United States, and Disney. If not in a form that particularly pleased the Beijing government or many of her Chinese fans.
Originally published in March 2016 as part of a series on Disney films and their source material.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.