how well do you know the story of Mulan?

welcome to our first Disney guest post!! today Mandy and I excitedly welcome Philip from mulanbook.com. if you’re a fan of Mulan, you will absolutely adore this post, because he brings alllll the historic knowledge. thank you Philip for taking the time to share your knowledge!!

(idk about anyone else, but this post makes me even more excited to see how the Mulan live-action lives up to expectations)

if you would like to guest post sign up here. now, Philip, over to you!!

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Around 400 AD, an anonymous author composed the Ballad of Mulan. It opens with Mulan weeping in front of her loom upon learning that her father has been drafted. Resolved to take his place, she acquires a horse and joins the army, where she serves for twelve years.

When Mulan returns home, she is rewarded by the emperor for her meritorious service (oddly enough, we’re not told any specifics of what she did). The Ballad then concludes with this line:

Most people tell the gender of a rabbit by its movement:
The male runs quickly, while the female often keeps her eyes shut.

But when the two rabbits run side by side,
Can you really discern whether I am a he or a she?

The Ballad is very short—it can fit onto a single page. While Disney followed the basic storyline, they also added a lot… because can’t fill a feature-length film with a one-page poem.

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The Ballad of Mulan in its entirety

But the Chinese people themselves have been adding to the legend of Mulan over the past 1,500 years. Did Disney compile the various retellings into a single coherent story, or did they invent most of the details themselves?

Side note: As much as I’d like to compare the new Disney movie to the original legend, I’m starting to doubt whether we’ll ever get to watch it, as Disney seems rather fond of delaying its release indefinitely 😢. So, I’ll be considering the 1998 animated film.

It’s a comedy

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A lot of Chinese people got needlessly offended over the humor Disney introduced into one of China’s most famous legends. You see, schoolchildren in China are taught about Mulan the same way we studied Shakespeare. When teachers treat a text as sacred, they fail to convey the fact that its original purpose was to entertain.

Consider the fact that the Mulan Joins the Army by Ming dynasty playwright Xu Wei contains crude bathroom humor. Mulan’s comrades even follow her around waiting for her to “take a shit.”

In a Qing dynasty play, Mulan’s cousin Mushu is so desperate to avoid a draft that he dresses as a woman. Mulan, disgusted by Mushu’s cowardice, decides to dress as a man to take her father’s place.

Did you notice the name of Mulan’s cousin? That brings me to my next point…

Mushu

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Believe it or not, Mushu was first introduced into the legend during the Qing dynasty. In the play Mulan Joins the Army, Mushu is a wimpy teenager who can’t seem to get his life put together. He’s a drunkard who is constantly in and out of gangs. He’ll do anything to get out of work. When his parents passed away, Mulan’s family took him in. Thus, Mushu became Mulan’s adopted brother.

When Mulan’s father receives his conscription notice, he immediately puts Mushu’s name down on the registrar. But when Mushu manages to “disappear” by dressing as a woman, Mulan takes it upon herself to dress as a man and take her father’s place.

In a sense, Mushu was the comical relief. Disney didn’t do anything wrong with Mushu’s character.

I’m not exactly sure why Disney made Mushu into a dragon… in Biography of Extraordinary Mulan, Mulan’s sidekick is a cross between a camel and a snake. Perhaps Disney’s animators had a hard time drawing a camel-snake.

The Matchmaker

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Ok, I have a bone to pick with Disney on this one. Mulan wasn’t a failure before joining the army… she was the envy of the entire town! In Fierce and Filial, Mulan was engaged to the most brilliant scholar in all of China. He was quite the catch… but when Mulan chose to take her father’s place, she broke off her engagement.

Mulan was guaranteed a life of luxury before she decided to sacrifice everything for her father. Several years into the expedition, Mulan begins to fall into depression. Because men in ancient China weren’t particularly fond of strong and independent women, she fears that she will end up alone and unloved. Yet, she remains unshaken in her resolve to demonstrate filial devotion to her father.

Mulan’s gender revealed

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Why, Disney?

The Ballad of Mulan clearly reads:

“We traveled together for twelve years” they said,
“But we never suspected that Mulan was a woman!”

In the novel Fierce and Filial, Mulan even gets a chest wound… but the doctor never notices Mulan’s femininity.

In modern thought, breasts are considered to be an integral part of female beauty… but it wasn’t always this way. In ancient China, men paid more attention to women’s feet than their breasts. According to the novel, Mulan’s feet were bound when she was very young because men considered small feet to be a sign of beauty. (By the way, this was an inaccuracy in the novel—the Chinese didn’t start binding girls’ feet until after Mulan’s time.) Because the doctor never removes Mulan’s shoes, the author didn’t seem to think that the doctor seeing Mulan topless was a critical plot point to address.

When the makers of the Disney film discovered the scene where Mulan is wounded in the chest, they decided to incorporate it into the movie. However, explaining the culture of that time would be too much work. Instead, they decided to just “fix” the story. They seem to be very proud of their solution… because they hinged the remainder of the movie around it.

The avalanche

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In a climactic moment, Mulan fires a rocket and destroys the entire Hun army (well, almost). What a victory! This scene comes right out of the Qing dynasty novel Fierce and Filial… but of course, Disney had to modify it.

In the novel, Mulan’s army has surrounded the enemy, who has retreated into an impenetrable fortress. Mulan and her men lay siege to the stronghold for several years, but the enemy has enough provisions to last a lifetime. The emperor grows impatient and is about to declare that the expedition has failed when his adviser suggests that a search be conducted to find the most brilliant man in all of China. After countless men are examined, a man by the name of Wang Qingyun is selected. When Qingyun is sent to take over leadership of the army, Mulan is in a state of shock… because Qingyun was Mulan’s fiancé! (As I mentioned earlier, Mulan broke off her engagement to join the army.) Not wanting to allow her fiancé to see her dressed as a man (Mulan only wants him to remember her as a beautiful woman), Mulan hides on the backside of the mountain.

After examining the enemy’s stronghold, Qingyun orders that ten cannons be constructed and sent up the mountain. (As a side note, the Chinese didn’t actually start using cannons until centuries after Mulan’s time. It turns out that ancient novels weren’t thoroughly fact-checked.) When they arrive, Qingyun orders that the cannons be fired in rapid succession to simulate a landslide. The enemy king panics and flees down the backside of the mountain… but Mulan has been waiting there. Mulan captures the enemy king, and the victory is secured.

Mulan is rewarded by the emperor

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In the Ballad of Mulan, the emperor offers to grant Mulan anything she desires as a reward for her outstanding service.

But Mulan humbly replies:

I have no need to be promoted to a prominent position
I only ask for a camel that can travel a thousand li
To take me back to my hometown

Most of the legend’s retellings conclude with a tearful reunion after Mulan returns home.

The legend of Mulan is a touching story about love, honor, and sacrifice. Mulan had an unrelenting resolve to fulfil her filial duty to her father. Even when she was faced with insurmountable odds, she refused to give up.

That’s an example every one of us should follow.


Philip Naudus is a Chinese translator. He has read over a dozen versions of the Mulan legend in the original Chinese, and is currently working to translate the Qing dynasty novel Fierce and Filial into English.

You can read the Qing dynasty novel one chapter at a time (as he finishes translating it) for free.

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15 thoughts on “how well do you know the story of Mulan?

    1. I definitely recommend watching it. The primary reason most Chinese people don’t like the film is because it’s an American spin on the Chinese legend… but still, it’s a great movie (from an American perspective, that is).

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    1. It’s my favorite Disney film as well… you should watch it! It’s a flawed movie (and I really hope that the new film fixes the issues I pointed out) but it’s still very much worth the watch.

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