Friday, April 24, 2015

The Stuff of Legends!: Mulan.

You know, outside of movie reviews, it’s not often that I give any props to Disney.  I mean, it’s not like I have to.  We all know what the Mouse has done for the old tales, for better or for worse.  However, there is one thing I have to give old Mouse Ears Incorporated credit for, it’s that they’re good at putting things on the cultural radar.  Without Disney, I doubt myself or anyone else in the Western Hemisphere would have ever heard of Mulan.

I’m sure you all remember Disney’s Mulan, right?  Released in 1998, it was the Disney movie that made feminists and Asian Studies majors alike punch the air in triumph while also giving the world the best workout song ever to come out of a family film.  It seems that Disney isn't quite done with this story, because a live action version is in the works.

Disney, of course, has its own way of doing things.  The legend of Mulan actually dates back hundreds of years.  The ballad of Mulan was first transcribed before the founding of the Tang dynasty in the 6th Century in Musical Records of Old and New.  The original work is now lost, however quite luckily it was transcribed in the 11th Century by a man named Guo Maoqian for his anthology of poems Music Bureau Collection.  The story of the ballad has since been adapted into any number of works in China including more poems, plays, novels and movies.

To research this post, I read a book entitled Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with related texts, edited and translated by Shiamin Kwa and Wilt L. Idema.  This book includes in it one poem, one song, two plays and a movie script as well as a preface and various plot synopses of various related works.

The earliest poetic version tells the story in very plain form.  Mulan is worried for her old father who is supposed to go and join the army.  She decides to go in his stead.  She fights as a soldier for twelve years, after which she’s offered a high position by the emperor.  She declines and decides to go home.  Upon arriving home, she puts on her old clothes .  Her comrades-in-arms are now surprised to discover she’s a woman.  That’s really it.  Nothing else.

The vagueness of it all makes Mulan a really hard character to pin down historically.  She easily could have been a real person and she could easily have been made up.  Where Mulan hails from is also up for some degree of debate.  Some say she was from Wan County.  Others say she was from Shagqiu Province.  Yet others say she was from Liang prefecture.  The only thing that seems certain is that she came from somewhere on the Central Plains.  Over the course of her many different incarnations, Mulan has had any number of surnames including Hua, Fa, Zhu and Wei.  In some versions, her full name is actually Mu Lan.  Who she actually goes off to fight is different all the time, too.  The Disney movie used the Huns as the enemy of choice.  In many cases they are just general bandits.  On rare occasion, they’re given a leader by the name of Leopard Skin.  Leopard Skin is depicted in one of the plays not so much as an invader as the leader of an uprising from within China.  In some more modern adaptations, her enemy is the Turks.  This makes sense considering people don’t even know which era she lived in.  Cheng Dachang of the Song Dynasty wrote that she lived during the Sui and Tang Dynasties.  Others say she lived during the time of the Six Dynasties.  Stories that circulated on the Central Plains suggest that she lived sometime before the Tang Dynasty.  Considering China’s long history and the length of a dynasty, this actually doesn’t help pin her down historically.  In most versions, she simply goes home at the end.  Though, one version by Chu Renho entitled Sui Tang Yanyi gives Mulan a tragic end, not on the battlefield at the hands of her enemies but by her own hand.  Upon returning home she finds her father has died and her mother has remarried.  She then is summoned back to the capital by the emperor to become his concubine.  Rather than face this fate, she commits suicide.  No known versions of the legend prior to this include such a fate and very few afterward have.

However, the lack of information about the "real Mulan" kind of makes the legend malleable, which is good for keeping a story relevant.  This malleability of the legend makes it easy to adapt to different times.  However, it also kind of allows the focus to shift in an interesting way.  While Mulan does go off to join the army and fight, her enemies don’t really matter that much.  They could be any enemy of the Chinese empire.  Even in the Disney movie, the Huns may be big and scary, but there’s not much to them.  So, it’s not so important who she fights as much as the fact that she did go and fight.  However, just because it’s important that she fought, why it’s important varies from culture to culture.  Here in the United States, Mulan has come to be something of a feminist hero with a big helping of “Girls can do anything boys can do!  Heck yeah!”  However, that has not always been the case in China.  The preface to the book explains that in China, the focus tends to be on filial duty and patriotism.  Sometimes it’s more the former.  Sometimes it’s more the latter.  On top of that, Mulan’s legend was not used so much to inspire women as to inspire men and not in the most positive of ways.  Even in one of the plays in the book, Mulan even says something like she plans to shame the men who would not do as much as she’s doing.  So, a lot less “You go girl!” and more “Look, even a girl will go off to fight our enemies in her father’s place.  Some of you men wouldn’t even do as much as that.  Shame on you!”  Even with legends like this, the gender roles of pre-Industrial China remained what they were.  Maybe that’s why in every version she always returns home to her old life rather than taking the Emperor’s offer.  Heck, she usually gets married at the end too.  It’s also usually a marriage arranged by her parents to the son of a neighbor who scored well in his exams.

You could probably spend a lot of time studying the legend of Mulan and how it connects to gender norms and Chinese history.  However, I’m not quite equipped to take on something of that scale here on the blog.  However, I will leave you with a link to the original poem right HERE and another translation HERE.  What the heck, have a link to a clip from the film Mulan Joins the Army too!  Also, I’ll link a website comparing the Disney version to one of the plays.  While the original story may be a bit bare bones, the ability of this story to change with the times and cultures and appeal to new generations really does make it The Stuff of Legends!


  1. This is really interesting, thanks for sharing. And ties in perfectly with my recent post on cultural approaches to fairy tales! It does seem odd that such a seemingly feminist tale would come out of such a non-feminist, foot binding culture, and your comments make a lot of sense about how it was given a different emphasis at the time-very enlightening.

  2. "Like" - sips coffee. :)
    And a footnote - with the Disney live action version in the works I know it's going to get a lot of scrutiny - even more than the original animated feature did - so I'm very curious to see how they slant things. I'm guessing the 'girl power' aspect will remain strong but I hope they represent Chinese women's strengths in general as well.
    I read something this last week actually about the frequency of women warriors in China and Japan - that while it wasn't the norm for most women, the women who did fight were astonishingly skilled and often had a rank of, not 'Master' but more like 'special assassin' - though I'm being super general with the terms here because I can't find what I was reading. The point was the women always fought and there was rarely a time when no women were in the ranks - and they fought well. They were often special assignment class though, rather than shoulder to shoulder with the men in the armies. Again - don't quote me - I didn't stop to get into it deeply because I was research-hunting something else and that just caught my eye in the middle of it all.
    In the comparison link you included I find it interesting that Disney had Mulan "fail as both a woman and a man" whereas the Wei version has her equally comfortable and capable in either role. I never noticed the juxtaposition before but it's true. (Wow Disney - way to show your insecurities and bias!) Which makes me wonder: do all the American protagonists have 'something missing' or 'don't fit' and the resolution of the story is when they find their place? (and not just FFTs either - I think it's many or most of the stories.) There's even a Disney-formula with the 3rd or 4th song having to be the "I want" song, which is almost always really about not feeling like they fit, or that they're unfulfilled. I'd bet you this is a cultural emphasis (Kristin - cultural difference in fairy tales alert!) and that the heros/protagonists in FTs in other countries don't have this focus. Hm. (Lightbulb! I just understood a whole bunch of odd notes from a story meeting years ago! And I just realized how to rewrite the plot points to reflect this. Wow..) Food for thought.
    Really interesting post Adam, thanks!

    1. I'm glad you thought it was interesting. I wasn't sure this was among my best work.

      Also, I forgot all about the upcoming live action version, so I just added a sentence and a link related to that.