The time to wait for the release of Disney’s live-action Mulan is finally over. For a price. Delayed again and again and again because of the pandemic, the film will be available to stream on Disney+ for $30. Say what? But if you’re in no mood to throw any coin at the House of Mouse, here’s another option. Read this selection from Pamela D. Toler’s Women Warriors: An Unexpected History about her. In all its variations and incarnations (Conglomoland is late to the adaptation party with its animated and live action versions), the story of the cross-dressing warrior is one of many in overlooked history, proving that women have always fought—not in spite of being women but because they are women.
The Chinese heroine Hua Mulan is one of the oldest and most enduring examples of a woman who becomes a warrior because of her role as a daughter1.
Scholars have argued for centuries over whether or not Mulan was a historical figure. At some level, it doesn’t matter as far as piecing together her story is concerned. The available information about her life is scarce to nonexistent, even by the often-shaky standard of what we know about other women warriors of the ancient world.
Our oldest source for her story is the “Poem of Mulan,” which appears in a twelfth-century poetry anthology compiled by Guo Maoqian2, who attributes it to a sixth-century collection that no longer exists. The poem is anonymous, undated, and three hundred words long. A few details, such as the use of the title “khan” rather than “emperor,” suggest the poem dates from the Northern dynasties period (386–581 CE)3.
For the most part, I chose not to discuss the stories of mythical women warriors, because there are plenty of historical examples to consider4. But Mulan is a special case. She is as well known in China as Joan of Arc is in the West. Despite the absence of biographical details in the original source, several regions of China claim her as their own folk heroine.
Mulan’s story is familiar to American audiences thanks to the 1998 Disney film Mulan5. But the Walt Disney Company is simply one in a long tradition of Mulan adapters, and by no means the most fanciful in its interpretation. Over a period of 1,500 years, Mulan’s story has been told in Chinese operas, plays, folk tales, and now video games.
While the versions differ in the details, the basic structure of the story remains the same: Threatened by invaders from the north, the emperor (or the khan) conscripted soldiers to defend the country. Because her father was too old to fight and her brother too young, Mulan purchased a horse, weapons, and armor; disguised herself as a man; and joined the army to fulfill the family’s conscription obligation.
The original poem gives us a brief, vivid impression of Mulan’s life as a soldier, but no details:
She did not hear her parents’ voices, calling for their daughter,
She only heard the whinnying of Crimson Mountain’s Hunnish horsemen.
Myriads of mile: she joined the thick of battle,
Crossing the mountain passes as if flying.
Winds from the north transmitted metal rattles,
A freezing light shone on her iron armor.
A hundred battles and the brass were dead;
After ten years the bravest men returned6.
This is war from the common soldier’s viewpoint, stripped down to misery and poetry. Later versions of the story fill this space with heroic deeds, gender-problematic romances, and, in the Disney version, a smart-mouthed dragon sidekick.
At the end of their tour of duty, Mulan and her comrades met with the emperor, who offered them honorary ranks, appointments at court, and rewards “counted in the millions.” (In one late version, the emperor discovers her gender and offers to make her his consort. She tells him she would rather die.) Mulan refused everything; all she wanted was a fast horse (or sometimes a camel) to take her home. Once there, she went into the house and put on a woman’s clothing and makeup. When she came back out, her army buddies were flabbergasted by the truth. During the ten (or sometimes twelve) years she served in the army, none of her fellow soldiers suspected she was a woman7.
In Mulan’s story, the link between being a daughter and becoming a soldier is direct and irrefutable. Chinese readers/listeners/viewers would understand her action as an extreme act of filial piety. In fact, in one version of the story she receives the posthumous title Filial-Staunchness. Filial piety—respect for and obedience to one’s parents—is the foundation on which Confucian society stands. Children are loyal to their parents. Wives are loyal to their husbands. Subjects are loyal to the ruler. The ruler is loyal to the kingdom itself. If everyone performs their duties to those above them in the hierarchy, society flourishes. If duties are not faithfully performed, chaos reigns, the emperor loses the mandate of heaven, and dynasties fall. It is an alien concept for those of us who grew up in a culture defined in terms of rights rather than social duties. But it is as powerful a fundamental social principle as “all men are created equal.”
Seen through this lens, Mulan became a warrior in order to protect her father, her family, and the social order as a whole. She preserved society’s norms by stepping outside them.
- Also known as Wei Hua Hu, Fua Mulan, or Wei Mulan. Names don’t always travel well across time, space, and transliteration.
- Who is known to history primarily for said anthology. Women aren’t the only people who leave thin trails in the dusts of time.
- Just to make it clear how vague all this is: there are scholars who disagree and place the poem, and therefore Mulan, in the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE). Imagine how difficult it would be for future historians to write about Abigail Adams if they didn’t know whether her letters dated from 1776 or 1976.
- No Amazons, except once or twice in passing.
- Disney’s Mulan wasn’t the first appearance of the Chinese woman warrior in American popular culture. Under the name Fa Mu Lan, she is a central image in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts. Published in 1976, Kingston’s book opened the genre of memoir to women and minority writers in the United States.
- Quotations from “Poem of Mulan” are from Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts, ed. and trans. Shiamin Kwa and Wilt L. Idema (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2010), 1–3.
- This is the major point at which the Disney version departs from the basic shape of the story. In Disney’s Mulan, her fellow soldiers discover her deception when she is wounded and reject her—at least until she saves the empire. The change is powerful and reflects the historical experience of many women who fought disguised as men (except for single-handedly saving the empire). Being wounded always brought with it the risk of exposure.
About the Author
Pamela D. Toler goes beyond the familiar boundaries of American history to tell stories from other parts of the world, as well as history from the other side of the battlefield, the gender line, or the color bar. She is author of The Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and Women Warriors: An Unexpected History, among other books. Her work has appeared in Aramco World, Calliope, History Channel Magazine, MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, and on Time.com. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter at @pdtoler.