Mulan vs. The Legend of Hua Mulan

mulan covernew

Based on a legend from medieval China, Mulan is the story of a girl who disguises herself as a man and goes to war in place of her father. At the time of the film’s release in 1998, it was widely rumoured that the Chinese government banned it because they were so insulted by Disney’s interpretation. In actual fact, they were in a sulk because Miramax had backed a film about the Dalai Lama, and refused to distribute any Disney films at all. Ironically, Mulan was used as a bargaining chip by Disney to help smooth over their relations, and while this succeeded, the film didn’t. Despite taking $300 million elsewhere, Mulan proved to be a substantial flop in the country of its heroine. The reason? Other than it having a rubbish release date, it seems that Disney was just as adept at disguising the title character. So, how different is their version from the source text?

Mulan, by Zhou Wenju (10th Century)

I say “source text”, but Mulan is a folktale, so there are countless iterations that have been bandied about over the years. The earliest recorded version, Poem of Mulan, written sometime between 386 and 533 A.D., isn’t particularly long and doesn’t divulge that many details. It pretty much consists of “Mulan gets bored of weaving, goes to war instead of father, wins, comes home and carries on weaving”. Regardless of how badass it sounds, it’s not enough to be compared with a full-length feature film.

I’ve therefore picked what is thought to be the first ever “play” of Mulan for my comparison, the all-too-literally titled The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of her Father, by an arty chap named Xu Wei. It was composed during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and apparently kick-started the Mulan legend for a new generation (albeit one nine hundred years after the first).

So, aside from the drastically different title, what else separates the Disney film from its revered ancestor?

The Set Up

Disney version

Shan Yu, with his faithful (and apparently constipated) falcon.

Shan Yu, head of the Huns, saw the Great Wall and thought, “Challenge accepted”.

He rallies his vast army and prepares to invade China and overthrow the emperor, for nothing other than playground-level spite. To ensure victory, the emperor orders one man from every family to join the campaign, and sends out his men to serve conscription notices.

Wei version

A bandit known as Leopard Skin, who probably sounded far more menacing to audiences in 16th Century China, gathers hundreds of thousands of men in a rebellion against the emperor and declares himself king. (I did try to find an image of him, but typing his name into Google brought up some photos I’d rather forget.) Given that the emperor’s army was engaged in “subduing the east”, Leopard Skin is rather more sympathetic, but he poses a threat to the status quo and so must be quashed. The emperor serves conscription notices on every family to help join the war effort.

Essentially, Disney’s enemy comes from outside and is an invading force, whereas Wei’s is an uprising and a threat to the emperor’s ego. In addition, the film shows us the Huns attacking the Great Wall and the emperor’s reaction; the play simply sees Mulan stand in front of the audience and give a monologue. Which brings us to the title character.

Mulan

Disney version

Mulan is the only child of Fa Zhou, a former hero of the imperial army. She can win a game of Chinese chequers on the wing, and trick a dog into doing the housework, but astonishingly these skills do not help her find a husband in medieval China. While she looks the part, she manages to set fire to the matchmaker, and then dishonours her father and embarrasses her village by daring to speak in front of the army recruiters.

In case you were wondering, no, Mulan doesn’t really fit in with her restrictive environment, and is outspoken and forward thinking. We can therefore empathise with her, as she has even less of a clue how to act in medieval Chinese society than we do.

She is a constant disappointment to her loving parents, and part of the reason she goes to war is to prove her worth to them, and to express herself more freely. (By dressing up as a man, obviously.) Unfortunately, she has probably never left her village, and has no knowledge of weapons or physical combat, so the army commanders find her equally endearing.

Wei version

By contrast, Wei’s Mulan is a complete badass.

Hua Mulan Goes to War, by anonymous

A confident seventeen year-old, this Mulan is already versed in martial arts, sword-fighting and archery – she just put it on hold to get on with the far manlier task of weaving. Due to her strength and “smarts”, as she puts it, she was able to pick up these skills from her father from a young age, so she can easily pass muster as a man. When her father is conscripted, it’s completely sane and logical for her to go instead of him, and she takes to the task with gusto. Thanks to her skills, the army snap her up and keenly welcome her into the fold.

Equally, in an amazing display of versatility, when she returns from war she is able to put her glad rags back on and carry on with her weaving as a woman, with no sign of a flaming matchmaker or dishonoured parents anywhere.

Disney’s Mulan is initially an epic failure both as a woman and a man, and is far more restricted and introspective. She goes to war to redeem herself, and we sympathise with her not least because we’d also be bricking it in a battle, but because she doesn’t fit in with her restrictive society and wants to be true to herself. In fact, she’s really just a normal teenage girl who has been transplanted into medieval China. Conversely, Wei’s Mulan has no sense of awkwardness and fits seamlessly into society whether she is a woman or disguised as a man. What’s more, she doesn’t go to war to prove herself – she does it out of filial duty, and because her country needs her.  She is perched firmly on a pedestal, and is intended to be emulated due to her strength and passion for her country and family.

Preparing for War

Disney version

mulan stone dragon

Mulan is angry that her ailing father has been forced to enlist again when there are plenty of expendable young men available. Her father says it’s important to do what’s right and to know one’s place, and ominously implies that it is time for her to do the same. Since she can’t face the idea of her father going to war, or replacing dog-teasing and arson with make-up and endless tea-pouring, Mulan runs crying out into a storm.

After much soul-searching atop the dragon statue in the garden, she decides to take her father’s place in the army. In the middle of the night, accompanied by a random burst of 80s electronica, she steals his armour and replaces his conscription notice with her hair ornament.

Her family wakes up in the night to find her missing. Her mother urges the father to go after her or she will be killed, but he knows the Chinese army takes a firm stand against cross-dressing, and will kill her anyway if she is discovered, so all they can do is stare forlornly at the symbolically banging gate.

Wei version

As soon as she hears about her father’s conscription, Mulan drags her servant out shopping to get some military supplies, thinking if she looks the part first, her family will be less likely to fall about laughing when she says what she is going to do.

Fa Mulan, by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng

While dressing up, she has to carefully unbind her feet – keeping in mind she will need to rebind them if she ever wants to get a husband after the war – and then practice her martial arts and sword skills for good measure. Finally ready, she approaches her parents, and charitably suggests that her father cannot go to war, and her little brother and sister are too young, so, who does that leave?

Rather uncharitably, her father says nothing during the entire exchange, whereas her mother seems more concerned about whether Mulan will return a virgin after travelling and sleeping next to all those fine specimens of men. Mulan assures her she will return a virtuous woman, and then heeds the call of the army recruiters when they arrive at the house. Her family lauds her and then cries as she leaves on her horse.

Disney’s Mulan decides to run away and join the army as a last resort to protect her father, and potentially escape a life that she is not suited to. For Wei’s Mulan, joining the army instead of her ailing father is a duty, but she must still convince her parents and seek their approval first. Another key difference is that Disney’s version explicitly states that the army will kill Mulan if she is discovered to be female, but Wei’s version makes no such claim, although it does imply she mustn’t be discovered. So, does she manage to pull it off?

Life in the Army

Disney version

mulan on horseback

As I mentioned earlier, Mulan, now calling herself “Ping”, has never left her village and has lived the life of a sheltered and demure country girl. Fortunately (or not) she is schooled in the ways of manliness by her sidekick, the mini guardian dragon Mushu (more on him later), but she still manages to fall out with the rest of the recruits, and I don’t mean in the military sense.

Said recruits play tricks on her so she fails her training, to the extent she is nearly sent home as a washout. But, in true Disney fashion, she convinces Captain Li Shang she is made of stronger stuff, and uses her practical way of thinking to solve an endurance test involving an arrow. This, coupled with the obligatory musical montage,

successfully turns her into a soldier and wins the respect of her comrades. It’s implied this takes a certain number of weeks.

Wei version

I found this very cowboy-esque depiction of Mulan on a Thai blog, sadly I don’t know who it’s by.

Mulan (now Hu) is recommended as an able soldier pretty much on sight.

In this story, Ping is the first name of the commanding general. He picks Mulan for the not unimportant task of cutting through the battlefront and capturing Leopard Skin when they mount their next attack.

There is not much detail at all about Mulan’s army life in this version, which is ironic given the length of time she purportedly stays there. In any case, Disney’s Mulan has to earn respect and her position amongst the ranks, whereas for Wei’s Mulan it’s an embarrassingly easy ride, even when it comes to fighting.

The Battles

Disney Version

mulan battlefield

Halfway through their trek to war, Mulan and the soldiers come across a town that has been sacked by the invading Hun army. It seems that the general, Captain Li’s father, is also lying somewhere in the remains of the village, together with the rest of the imperial army.

Mulan suddenly realises what she’s gotten herself into, and the gravity of the situation is brought home to the soldiers when they end up getting ambushed in the mountains.

Why show death and destruction when you have creepy little dolls?

Admittedly, Disney had a bit of a dilemma here. Mulan has to become a war hero, but to become a war hero, one must inevitably shoot people with arrows or hack them up with a sword, neither of which constitutes family viewing. Also, by this point the hundred or so imperial soldiers are ridiculously outnumbered.

How does Mulan earn her stripes in this version? In an ingenious move by Disney (or cop out, depending on your view), she takes the last cannon and fires it at the mountain, creating an avalanche.

The avalanche is very picky, deciding to mostly bury the Hun army, but it does also engulf Captain Li. Riding her trusty black horse, Mulan dashes to the rescue and saves him, therefore earning kudos and his trust.

Unfortunately, Shan Yu managed to injure her in the process, and he later wakes up in the snow, leading the last remaining members of the Hun army into the capital.

Wei Version

By the time Mulan has joined the army, the majority of the bandit army has been wiped out by General Xiu Ping. All that’s left is for them to lure Leopard Skin out of his hideout in some steep cliffs by firing a catapult. Once he reveals himself, it’s up to Mulan to capture him.

No idea who drew this. Chinese artists appear to be very modest.

The “fighting” in the stage directions consists mainly of the head bandit darting out in front of the ranks a couple of times, after which Mulan grabs him and hands him over to be arrested. Job done.

Xiu Ping tells the men they will get a pay rise and have three whole meals a day, but they must also bowdown to Mulan (or Hua Hu)’s badassery.

Disney’s Mulan shows both the aftermath of a battle as well as a fight that’s literally for life and death, demonstrating the steep price of war. The army only triumphs against impossible odds due to Mulan’s quick thinking, but Mulan herself ends up paying a price here. For Wei’s tale, the battle is over extremely quickly and there is no sense of threat or urgency – it’s implied that the bandit’s game is already up, and they’re simply trying to flush the mouse out of the hole. War itself is not portrayed as a desperate struggle, or as something that has any consequences.

Brothers in Arms

Disney version

mulan comrades

Mulan cultivates a friendship with three other equally useless soldiers once she has proven her worth. You don’t really need to know their names, you can designate them as Fatty, Skinny, and Tough Guy.

I’m too lazy to insert a pole joke here.

They help save Mulan and Captain Li in the avalanche, as well as provide comic relief (or shock value, if you count the scene where they’re bathing). Captain Li himself also serves as the love interest, and consequently spends seventy-five per cent of the film walking around with his shirt off.

Apart from her soldier buddies, Mulan also has help from an ancestral guardian called Mushu.

Tragically, he’s the one on the right.

Actually, he’s a disgraced ancestral guardian who has been demoted to ringing a gong to wake up the real guardians. He proves to be a failure at this too, and so decides to go after Mulan to help her become a war hero and redeem himself. When Chi Fu, the emperor’s advisor, doesn’t think that Li’s troops are fit for war, Mushu forges a dispatch ordering them to go to battle immediately. So you can add “war mongering bastard” to this little dragon’s C.V., together with “being voiced by Eddie Murphy”.

Wei Version

This Mulan also has soldier buddies, which are lovingly referred to as “SOLDIERS” throughout the play. They are nothing more than stage hands really, and serve only to lead Mulan to and from the army camp at the beginning and end of the tale. There is no love interest among this motley crew, in fact Mulan is married off to her next-door neighbour as soon as she gets home.

As for ancestral guardians, as far as Chinese fables go the legend of Mulan is actually considered mundane, because there are no supernatural elements in it whatsoever. There are no spiritual ancestors lending her a hand, and no tiny dragon sassing off in her ear either. This makes the story simply about a girl who goes to war in the place of her father, and for this reason it is considered all the more compelling and universal.

Above: Sirs Not-Appearing-In-This-Play

Wei’s version is more heavily focused on Mulan, and the other characters are only really used to set the scene and represent her actions. The lack of supernatural elements makes the story more realistic, and this was probably the author’s intention – there is nothing particularly special about Mulan, and she could be pretty much anyone going to war. The Disney film tries to paint a broader picture about life as a soldier, and also introduce western audiences to some aspects of Chinese culture. The fact that her ancestors are involved gives her more of an aura of “the chosen one” and highlights the importance of her actions, in that she is breaking free of her restrictive society.

By this point in the story, both Mulans have shown their figurative balls by becoming lauded soldiers and war heroes. However, their lack of literal balls can’t remain a secret forever.

A Revealing Dress

Disney version

mulan sad reflection

When Mulan has finally redeemed herself amongst the soldiers, she develops a more devil-may-care attitude and decides to go bathing in the river away from her comrades, despite Mushu’s concern about “the couple of things they’re bound to notice”. She therefore comes a cropper when they all rush in to join her, and politely ask if she will join them in a bout of naked wrestling.

Mushu proves he can be useful by biting the bum of one trooper who gets too close, making all the men evacuate the water screaming. Unfortunately, such bottom-biting antics don’t save Mulan later on in battle when she is bitch-slapped by Shan Yu’s sword, and she requires urgent medical attention.

The medic is subsequently surprised to see her humps and lady lumps, and explains his little discovery to Captain Li and Chi Fu. This goes over about as well as you’d expect, as in not at all.

Since having breasts is deserving of capital punishment, Mulan is thrown into the snow and Captain Li approaches her menacingly with this sword. However, in a show of astounding gratitude, he decides not to execute her because she was kind enough to save his life a few moments earlier. Instead she is abandoned in the middle of the mountains with her horse, her sassy dragon and a lucky cricket, so at least they were kind enough to leave her some food. They then all march off to the capital, disgusted by a woman who clearly did not know her limits.

Wei Version

Once the smell of her face powder and the mark of her hair ornament have faded, all Mulan has to worry about is making sure she goes to the toilet in private. For some reason this strikes the other recruits as odd, but there is no suspicion that she is anything other than a manly man underneath all that armour, nor are there any comical close shaves involving male nudity.

Naturally, this leads Mulan to voluntarily reveal herself as a woman to her comrades. Actually, nonchalantly is nearer the mark. After the war, she invites her soldier buddies back to her home village, and then disappears into the house to greet her parents and put some slap on. Her soldiers march in after her and happen to notice she is suddenly female.

Mulan, rocking a fabulous pair of antennae. Click this image to see similarly cool figures by Flickr artist waiwahyip.

Instead of baring their swords, shouting about dishonour and threatening to rend her into tiny pieces, they gasp and shout with elation, saying this is the greatest miracle of all time and pretty much slapping each other on the back in wonder. Then they go home.

So, in a play that was actually written in medieval China, and includes misogynistic anachronisms such as foot-binding, the Chinese army are totally okay with the fact that Mulan is a woman. Whereas in the Disney version, Mulan would have otherwise faced death, and loses all of her heroic kudos in the time it takes to flutter her eyelids. Okay, did I really say that Disney has a habit of sanitising the original story?

On to the Capital

Disney Version

Just as she is ready to call it a day and go home, Mulan notices some of the Huns have survived the avalanche and are heading for the emperor’s palace. She charges down to the capital to warn everyone, but because she is now just a piffling woman no one believes her. Shan Yu takes the emperor hostage, and Mulan and her former soldier buddies band together to save him, resulting in a showdown between Mulan and Shan Yu on the roof of the imperial palace.

“Chinese fire drill! Serious this time!”

With the help of Mushu, she manages to kill Shan Yu using fireworks (yes, seriously. And what’s her obsession with explosions?), and is commended by the emperor for her bravery.

Luckily, the huge crowd amassed in front of the palace is still there, having stood obediently by while the Huns attacked the emperor, and bear witness to Mulan being offered the job as imperial advisor, despite Chi Fu’s objections (fair enough considering it’s his job she’s being offered).

Despite this great honour, Mulan decides it’s time she went home to see her father, and so accepts her gifts of the emperor’s crest and the sword of Shan Yu before riding her trusty steed home.

Wei Version

General Xiu Ping and Mulan visit the emperor’s court to hand over Leopard Skin. He is to be beheaded, and at Ping’s recommendation, the emperor’s eunuch offers Mulan the position of court officer as a reward and gives her an official cap and girdle. She declines her court position, saying she must return home to her family, but will one day repay them “as a dog or horse would its master”. I’m assuming it’s more to do with loyalty than muzzles or leather straps.

No name for this one either.

In any case, this all takes place with Mulan still in her disguise as a man. She meets up with her soldier buddies, who say they too have been rewarded positions as centurions, so they all ride off together in the direction of Mulan’s home.

It’s not all happiness and light however, as Mulan suddenly has an identity crisis and thinks she is unworthy of her reward, as it was not really her that helped win the war, but her male alter ego Hu.

In true Hollywood style, the Disney version has a final battle in the ornate imperial palace, and this allows Mulan to reattain her status as a hero, as well as striking a blow for women’s rights. The play sees the events brought easily to a close and Mulan shying away from her reward, not least because she is unsure who deserves the credit, but because she was only doing her duty. What’s more, the rewards are offered to her male disguise, not the Mulan underneath.

Reflection

Disney Version

Mulan returns home to her father and presents him with the emperor’s gifts.

He rather ungraciously drops them on the ground and hugs her instead, as all he wanted was her safe return. Her mother and grandmother hover by the gate, not knowing what to do, and then a sheepish Captain Li appears, having been wooed by Mulan’s heroism and dedication to her father.

She openly invites him to dinner, while Mushu and her ancestors have a boozy victory party in the family shrine.

Miraculously, he’s wearing his shirt on this occasion.

Essentially, Mulan is more confident, but she has the same disregard for social norms she did before. For instance, in the capital, and clearly a woman, she can’t understand why people suddenly aren’t listening to her. She is no longer a shy and demure female, and this contrasts with the reactions of her mother and grandmother when she returns home. So, she has learned nothing at all – but luckily has enough confidence, kudos and figurative balls for her behaviour not to matter any more.

Wei Version

Mulan returns home to her family, and we learn that she has actually been in the army for twelve years. Um, they seemed to capture Leopard Skin fairly quickly, so I’m guessing they either went on a massive decade-long victory bender, or there was an epic map fail on the way home.

The statue of Hua Mulan in Chinese Garden, Singapore. Taken by “Equina.Firesong” on Flickr.

That aside, she does the complete opposite of Disney’s Mulan – she reverts back to being a modest and demure woman. Even before she has arrived home, her parents are busily arranging her next door neighbour as a husband for her. In fact, they are worrying about how they can encourage her to come home – assuming she has survived the war – so that she can be married off and they can then die with a “clear conscience”.

When she does come back, they are happy to see her and the cap and girdle from the emperor, and at the news that she is still a “little box of dogwood bud in the spring winds”, i.e. still has her V-plates. When her husband-to-be comes over to visit her, Mulan becomes shy and retiring once again, much to her mother’s surprise, because his having passed his civics and composition exams far outweighs her achievements at the emperor’s court apparently. As Mulan ponders her wedding, she also ponders who she is and who really became the war hero, and that the line between male and female has been blurred.

Conclusion

In spite of their different messages and stories, both versions of Mulan see the heroine question her own identity. Disney’s Mulan is unsure of who she is right from the beginning, because she is stifled by her restrictive culture and the role she is therefore forced to play. Conversely, Wei’s Mulan is entirely comfortable in her own person and society, and it’s only when she starts acting like a man that she becomes conflicted.

Disney’s version uses Mulan’s character as a trailblazer for being true to one’s self despite being persecuted or restricted. This is why there is a true sense of threat to both Mulan and her comrades, both in society as a whole and on the battlefield. Although no hand-to-hand fight between the armies is shown, the situation is much more life-threatening in terms of the enemy and how far Mulan can push the limits of her behaviour. After she has become a war hero, the world shifts ever so slightly in that it suddenly allows her to be herself.

Wei’s play, on the other hand, uses Mulan to show that it is everyone’s duty and within everyone’s power to serve their family and country, regardless of their status and gender – but that it’s still important for everyone to know their place in society and act accordingly. This is arguably why Mulan starts questioning who the real war hero is, as such kudos can’t really be given to a woman in her times, and this is emphasised by the fact that she receives her honour from the emperor while still in her disguise as a man. What’s more, despite her adventures, her life after the war and how other people see her has not changed in any way.

Picking a war story was a strange move for Disney anyway, but even more so considering their version leans more towards feminism than the patriotism found in the original, and is more blatant about what actually happens before and after a battle. In fact, you could argue that Wei’s play is far more Disneyesque in that everything’s happy and okay, and the main character triumphs over impossible odds without any fear of it being otherwise. All Wei’s version needed was a wacky supernatural sidekick, and then it would have cracked the traditional Disney formula four hundred years ahead of time.

In conclusion, this is another notch for Disney against my original notion that they sanitise every single source text that they lay their hands on.

Sources

1) Mulan, 1998. Film. Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.

2) Kwa, Shiamin and Idema, Wilt L. – Mulan, Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts. Hackett Publishing Company, 2010 (U.S.A.), ISBN-13: 978-1-60384-196-2

3)Mulan bridges diplomatic divide, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/287784.stm

4) Chinese unimpressed with Disney’s Mulan, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment

/299618.stm

5) China vs. Disney, the Battle for China, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1944598,00.html

83 thoughts on “Mulan vs. The Legend of Hua Mulan

  1. Pingback: Just being oriental… not | Written in Reverse

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  3. Hi there!

    I loved reading this it was fab! I’ve always thought Mulan is such a big inspiration (wether she is real or not) and I’m so glad I’ve come across this. Adding to favourites! By the way, there is another Mulan film: “mulan:rise of ea warrior” which is a 2009 version with Zhao wei (who makes a fab mulan) I was wandering if you’ve seen it? If not, it’s a lot more accurate than Disney and worth a watch. Thanks for reading! 🙂

    • Hi Alex,

      Thank you very much! Yes, I love how Mulan doesn’t act like a war hero and just gets on with the job. I do have the 2009 version of the film and have to agree that Zhao Wei did a great job, but the editor went to work with several swords and knifes, it was rather distracting how quickly it cut away and jumped around. Otherwise definitely worth a watch as you say. Take care!

      • Interesting job in blogging about Mulan. But unlike you, I learned less about its original version that you did. Now that you pointed out the differences between those versions, I congratulate you for the most part.

      • Thanks for replying! Haha I agree with you about the jumpcuts in the film…and I won’t lie…I was slightly confused when the opening scene was showing an Ukrainian man with long blonde hair singing opera…but I’m glad you agree that is still a good film. You too! 🙂

  4. Pingback: 30 days movie challenge, day 12: Your favorite animated movie | Chez Lorraine

  5. Years after the original post… As one of the others mentioned, sorry to stumble upon your blog so long after the fact. It was quite interesting.

    Being of mixed lineage, with Chinese among them, I became familiar with Mulan long before the Disney movie and looked forward to its release with excitement. Sadly, my initial feelings for it were less than great, as it seemed a westernized and watered down version of what I grew up believing to be on of China’s more endearing tales.

    My opinion of the film has changed over the years and I appreciate it for what it is. My two year old grandson watches it several times a day and enjoys it because of the music and animation/artwork. One of the things I find interesting is, it remains one of the few Disney films where the villain’s end is the direct result of the hero’s actions rather than the classic Disney “fall” to his death.

    Your blog was very good with the comparison of the two versions. Also, like some of the other posters mentioned, my favorite remains the 2009 film. I wondered if you were aware there are two Chinese TV series that aired a few years ago based on the legend? Each has their own merits and it’s easy to see they were trying to appeal to different audiences. You may want to take a look. You may have trouble finding them with subtitles, however. So you might want to brush up on your Chinese.

    Again, good blog.

    • Hi thesilverback,

      Indeed, how dare you not find my blog the instant I published it?? 😉 I’m really pleased people are still finding it as well as reading it, so thank you for letting me know and for your comment. May I ask which version of the legend you were most familiar with yourself? There were several different versions in the book I read, so do you know which one is most prevalent in China today?

      It’s great to have this kind of comment from someone familiar with the original Mulan legend, as well as its reception in the east. I’m not sure if her deadline has passed, but commenter Anna Tschofen on this post was looking for people with a more in depth knowledge of the Chinese attitude to Mulan – I don’t know if you could reply to her at all?

      I never actually noticed your point about Mulan and Shan Yu, and it’s certainly surprised me! I can’t think of many Disney villain deaths that weren’t “accidentally/on purpose” or dramatic falls, except for obvious monsters like the giant Sea Witch or the dragon Maleficent. And Sabor the leopard is borderline demonic so to a point Disney can get away with Tarzan making a direct kill. That’s certainly thought-provoking, thanks!

      • Our mother introduced us to the Mulan story when we were kids (in the 60s). It was one of the stories (the poem, actually) from China she would read to us as we were growing up. Her telling was that Mulan was from a family of military background and so she learned to fight rather than to be a farmer (which was the only other option in rural China during that era).

        I believe my original issue with the Disney version was it seemed more like “Mulan Goes to Summer Camp” because of the brevity of the story… not the length of the film but the passage of time depicted in the film.

        Our understanding was she served for more than a decade and rose in rank to commander or general. Also, like with the Wei version, her comrades learned of her gender only after the fact rather than during her time in the Army. Once I got past that issue (and her lack of fighting prowess), I was able to enjoy the Disney film for what it was…entertainment.

        We never really considered the cultural ramifications of the story when we were young and, as an adult, when I learned Disney was planning a movie I was terribly excited. Then disappointed they took it in such a “Disney” direction. Again, however, I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate the Disney version. At least they didn’t turn her into an Asian stereotype character and actually used Asian for many of the voice actors…that’s always a plus.

      • Hi again thesilverback,

        “Mulan goes to summer camp” – ha ha, I agree that’s spot on! One of the biggest surprises for me was that she stayed in the military for so long in the original. To be fair to Disney, they did introduce some darker elements and their hands were tied regarding how much combat they could show (but then why pick the story…?), and it’s still refreshing to have a tom-boy female protagonist for a change! But I can understand people being annoyed that Mulan seems to win out of luck rather than expertise most of the time. Thanks again for taking the time to post here, it’s so interesting getting a different take on a Disney movie!

      • There is one issue for which I must give credit to Disney; names. As is the case in most Asian cultures, names are spoken with family name then given name. The Disney Mulan remained faithful to that tradition. I must admit, it has always been one of my pet peeves when westerners speak Asian names (I know, why harp on the small stuff?).

        Wen Ming-Na (Ming-Na Wen in the credits) who voiced Mulan in the Disney film has also been one I’ve admired for several years for the time she acted in the series “ER”. When first she appeared in ER she and her character used their “American” names. After a brief absence from the series, she returned and both she and her character were using their Chinese names. I have to admit to feeling a bit of “Asian pride” when that happened.

        Again, I know it’s like picking nits but it still felt good.

        Be well.

      • Hi again,

        I must admit, I sometimes have trouble – in a previous job a Chinese customer introduced herself to me using her given name first – the idea being it was easier for me – and so I kept calling her by that name, unaware that she was secretly annoyed that I wasn’t using her family name first! So you’ve certainly cleared this up for me! And nitpicking is great fun, that’s part of the reason I started this blog, ha ha! Thanks again for your comment, and I hope you like the new layout!

  6. This was so interesting to read! I was sitting here watching the Disney version of Mulan and I thought to myself; “I wonder what the real story is…” Your comparison really helped me out. I love the way you right, it’s so intriguing and doesn’t put you sleep haha. Maybe it’s because I’m a huge Disney fan but, I like their version, although I appreciate Wei’s version. Thanks for sharing this!

    • Hi Rachael,

      Thanks so much for your feedback, I’m glad you found my post interesting. I prefer Disney’s take to Wei’s as well, mainly because it has more urgency and danger. Take care!

  7. Great critical writing skills i would say. where did you learn to write like this?

    • Hi Sydney,

      Thank you very much. I studied Sociology in high school and took various literary courses at university, so if I hadn’t learnt to arrange (some of) my thoughts coherently I would have been booted out. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Estimated Ladies and Gentlemen,

    My name is Anna Tschofen and I’m from Austria. In this moment I’m writing a pre-scientific work about role models and read the ballad of Hua Mulan. I could imagine that this ballad is in it’s country well known and i asked myself a question: Has there been a reaction in China to this ballad? Could it be that women became more independed or wanted to become it?

    I’m already in dispair, because I could not find an answer in the internet. It would be really kind of you to answer my question!

    Sincerly,
    Anna Tschofen

    • Hi Anna,

      Thanks a lot for commenting. I’m not sure how much help I can be I’m afraid. I’m not Chinese and have never been to China so I can’t speak for a whole nation! But there are a couple of commenters further down who are of Chinese origin or are studying Chinese culture, so why not reply to their posts and see if they can help?

  9. I don’t believe Wei could have “unbound” her feet for the war. Lisa See describes the process in the Secret Fan as a total deformation of the feet of a girl barely out of toddler stage. The feet were broken and formed into a new shape by the binding. After that they did more crawling than walking. She may have been able to fight from horseback, but she wouldn’t have been doing any military marches.

    • Hi K Smith,

      I admit I wondered this myself, but Xu Wei’s play seems more about principles than realism, and perhaps he mentioned it to reinforce Mulan’s gender and different way of life to the audience at the time (i.e. the old “women and men are different” mantra). People seem to walk away unscathed by explosions and gunshot wounds in Hollywood movies, so I suppose nothing much changes in entertainment! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  10. Wow thank you for this. One of the best entries I’ve read about Mulan so far. I love both the folklore AND the Disney version.

    People also need to look deeply into the Confucian values in the story to understand what Mulan did for her country and for her family. 🙂

    • Hi Tangerine,

      That’s a wonderful compliment, thank you! I’m sure there are one or two posts about Mulan kicking around so I’m honoured that you think mine is up there with the best. I have to say Mulan’s original story was one of the ones I enjoyed most, although funnily enough it was another version from the one shown here. It was actually the 1939 Mulan Joins the Army version that I liked best, where she is in cahoots with a male soldier and there’s rather a lot of flirtation going on. It wasn’t what I expected, I have to say! I admit I haven’t read that much about Confucius, but Mulan’s dedication to her family is plain enough for me. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Hi Sharon,

      Thanks for your message, and for asking a question so obvious I forgot to address it! Sorry about that. The listed source text I used here is quoted as saying:

      “There is to our knowledge no evidence of a historical Mulan. Sanping Chen has argued, however, that the name “Mulan” which means “magnolia” in Chinese, is derived from a foreign word meaning “bull” or “stag”, was a “style” or courtesy name adopted by military men in the fifth and sixth centuries, and was used as a surname by non-Han Chinese families.

      I hope this helps!

  11. “ it’s implied that the bandit’s game is already up, and they’re simply trying to flush the mouse out of the holes”excuse me,what do you mean about the sentence

    • Hi Dorothy,

      It means that the bandit has already lost the battle and is cornered. The army just has to drive him out of his hiding place, a bit like scaring a mouse out of a hole. I hope that helps!

  12. I like Disney story better! I can relate with his mulan, not with wei´s mulan. The importance of a tale is grater than the accuracy with his origin. Tales are forever re writtten and re interpretated. The strongest and most meaningfull interpretation will prebailed because its helping to resolve and actual problem. Story telling as Disney well Knows, if not at least you know, is not an inocent activity. Its even more powerfull than any dogma that has try to be imposed.

    • Hi Cecilia,

      I know what you mean about Mulan; there is a real sense of danger and risk for the Disney one, but the one in Xu Wei’s play is a symbol more than a person. Regarding your second point, do you mean that the version that’s seen as the most useful and helpful is the one that will be passed down to people? I suppose that’s true, as the version of Pocahontas that most people remember is the one where she saves John Smith and brokers peace between the English and the Powhatan, so it teaches a story about tolerance I suppose. Interesting, I hadn’t considered that! Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Pingback: Skirts and Pants | Behind the Story

  14. I liked so much more reading what you wrote than watching this movie after reading the poem. I like so much the way that you write, it’s very good to read. You made a good job!! 🙂

  15. I stubled upon your blog by accident and I wanted to thank you very much for the good read, I thoroughly enjoyed it! Not only is the topic very interesting, but also the effort you put into writing this post is clearly visible. Thanks! It was a pleasure.

    • Hi Anna,

      I’m glad you enjoyed my blog! And thanks for leaving such a nice comment. It’s good to know I’m not the only one interested in these subjects!

  16. Pingback: Historical Heroes | emmayeo

  17. Hi, this is very amazing! And as with having a very great interest in exploring and knowing different cultures and histories, as I know, for the Chinese original stories, Mulan Hua, the original tale is known to be a “character” – heroin as with her NOT the fact that she save how much people or with wt that she is a female but is that Chinese see this tale as a story to appreciate and judge Mulan by her character that fulfil the idea of Confucianism (Rú): Humaneness (Rén); that she doesn’t want to see her father suffer and her strong loyal and love towards family and Righteousness or Justice (Yì), which is that she goes to war in her fathers’ place presents her loyalty to the Chinese community and more importantly, China. This is what the Chinese has to the ideas behind her. Chinese people appreciate her as a having a CHARACTER!! After reading this you make me think of more and more deeply about the diversity and culture and I finally understand the idea behind! Thx!

    • Hi Merida,

      Thanks for your input here. I completely agree – the original version is less about gender roles and more about Mulan’s own resolve and character, and that everyone has a duty to protect their family and/or country. The emphasis is more on her than her achievements, and this is why this is one of my favourite “source texts” so far.

  18. I enjoyed this. Thank you for posting. I have seen the movie poster for the motion picture but have not seen the movie yet.

    • Hi Elizabeth,

      You should definitely check out Mulan, as it’s quite different from other Disney films because of its lead character, setting and some of the issues it brings up. Thanks for your comment!

  19. I can’t imagine watching Mulan in Wei’s version. Well Disney is after all targeting children as their audience so I guess their version works well. Your comparison was great by the way! I have been looking for something about Wei’s version (because I was watching Mulan in Disney while reading this). This is a big help 😀 I’m always looking for the originals of the Disney princesses 😀 Thank you!

    • Hi again Aki. Thanks! I thought it was odd because the original version seemed even more “Disney-fied” than the actual one, in that there was no real threat or risk. I think my favourite version of Mulan is probably “Mulan Joins the Army”, which was a film in 1932, because it pokes a bit of fun at itself and there is also some flirting going on between Mulan and one of the other soldiers who suspects she’s a woman. I recommend checking it out, but failing that try this book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Mulan-Versions-Classic-Chinese-Related/dp/1603841962/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1368475902&sr=8-1&keywords=mulan+chinese+legend

    • Watch the Chinese film Hua Mulan that has subtitles, and they do an excellent version of it that’s quite accurate from the research I’ve done. I think it also creates a stronger character for mulan

      • Hi Ellie,

        Thanks for the comment and tip! I actually have this film and I agree, especially the end decision. It could have been really cheesy at some points but they kept it just right. The editing was a bit hap-hazard though!

      • Hi Hellie,

        Thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right – technically Mulan isn’t a princess, but since she’s a main female character and the daughter of an important person, Disney tend to include her in their “Disney princesses” collection. Come to think of it, Pocahontas probably wouldn’t count either, or Belle! I suppose it’s just an easier way of putting them all together.

      • I know this was from last year but I want to comment anyways. Pocahontas was the daughter of the chief so she is a Native American “princess” in that way, Belle married a prince making her a princess…Mulan was not a princess and didn’t marry a prince. That is how the first two are princesses and like you said Mulan is thrown in just to keep them together and because she is important. But out of all the princess line up Mulan really isn’t one at all. But true to her character she is the odd one out 😛

      • Hi Majik,

        You’re welcome to comment whenever you like! Thanks a lot. That’s Mulan for you, always bucking the trend 😉

  20. Pingback: The Legend of Hua Mulan and Her Disney Counterpart | gnds12513

  21. Pingback: Book Review The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

  22. thanks so much for this post! I am actually using this as a source for an essay I have to write for college i picked this movie because it is my favorite, and you have actually really helped me get some information

    • You’re welcome, thanks for your comment! If only Disney films had been on my study list at university, ha ha!

  23. Pingback: source #3 | hal3ybaby

  24. I am a college student taking a modern chinese history class as an independent study, from a Chinese professor, at DMACC in Iowa (AMAZING School!). My profesor said to wacth mulan again as a refrence to ancient China and the conflicts between the settled and nomadic peoples. I searched everywhere for Mulan (for free or dvd kiosks) to no avail and ended up finding “Hua Mulan 2009”. I know of the lost original “Ballad of Mulan” from just before the Tang dynasty, the literary rewite by Guo Maoqian in the 11th/12th century, and the expasion to a novel in the ming dynasty, but I was unaware of Xu Wei’s work. I was also unaware of the vast distance between the folklore and disney’s verson. In my search to learn more of this part of chinese history, save finding the actual poem (rewrite) the has been my best find by far! I thank you for your work. In a side note, its amazing how the 2009 version fits so perfectly centered in the two pieces you contrast. Thanks again for a great read.

    Ronnie.

    • Hi Ronnie,

      Thanks so much for your comment, it was nice of you to take the time and I’m glad it’s been helpful to you. I’m sure you’ve probably already looked but do check out the book I included in my sources, as it has several versions of the legend and gives a commentary on them. My personal favourite is “Hua Mulan Joins the Army”, which is from the 1930s – there is some interesting banter and flirting between Mulan and one of her soldiers who suspects she is female after all. The 2009 version is certainly an interesting bridge; it looks like it was edited by Leatherface but I did like the various dilemmas and situations Mulan faced.
      Good luck with your class and thanks again for writing!

    • Hi, just curious, may I ask who is your instructor? I attend the Urban Campus in Downtown Des Moines. I used to take Chinese at Central Academy and I’m very interested in this course!

  25. I just finished watching the 2009 version of Hua Mulan, to compare it to the Disney version. The 2009 subtitled version was excellent. I then looked up legend of Hua Mulan on Google and Wa La! I found this site. Loved your comparisons. I am a Mass Media and World History teacher at a high school (of all things will be starting a unit on China in January) and was looking for material for the class (literature, religion, legends etc). After watching the 2009 version I am thinking to recommend a comparison of these two films to our Film Studies teacher for her class. Your comparisons of the legend to the Disney film cinched it for me. I will also recommend your website to her for review. Thanks for all the work. It is also good to enjoy what you do!

    • Hi Robert (or should I call you Mr. Chauvin? 😉 ), thanks so much for taking the time to comment. It’s always lovely to know people are using the information and finding it helpful. I also enjoyed the 2009 live action version (despite the rather ad hoc editing at times), and its different take on the legend. I hope the book in the bibliography is helpful too, I had no idea there were so many different versions. Best of luck to the class and Happy New Year!

  26. Awesome… Great reading! I had been so excited to introduce my little boy to Mulan, who I remembered as my favorite Disney “princess.” So, now that he’s turned four, we watched it together–my first time in about fifteen years–and I realized that this was Disney’s first “coming out” story where they stopped making the princess a damsel waiting to be rescued. Pocahontas, Tiana, Rapunzel… I think they’re getting better and better and I realized why this had been my favorite way back when. It also made me really wonder about the genesis to the story–I knew it was based on a Chinese legend but not much more–so I did a little research. Your article was awesome and in addition to providing the actual history I was looking for it was totally hilarious! Thanks for all the info, the insight, and for making me laugh. 🙂
    PS–Mulan will always remain one of my favorites for being the first Disney princess who didn’t need a prince to save her but I confess that, after having watched it again, my new favorites are definitely Tiana and Rapunzel. It also helped that, in addition to being able to save themselves, both Prince Naveen and Flynn Rider are freaking hilarious. Shang was just constantly pissed and, as you noted, usually shirtless. Not always a bad thing…)

    • Hi April, thanks for taking the time to comment. Mulan is definitely one of my favourite Disney “princesses” too, so I’ll no doubt be sharing the film with my own hypothetical children in future 🙂 I hope your little boy enjoyed it! Rapunzel and the Frog Princess are also on my list, I haven’t seen either of the Disney versions yet so I’ll look forward to it. Thanks again!

      • What?! You haven’t seen the Disney versions yet?! I was under the impression you were an avid watcher of all things Disney… Well, go watch them henceforth and when you’re done, you might be updating your Admirable Disney Female Characters (or something similar 🙂 page!
        Once more, thanks for taking the time to blog on this in such a factual-while-still-funny-and-entertaining way. 🙂 I’ll definitely be sharing!

      • Ha ha yes shocking I know, I’m not as up to date with the new CGI ones so will be checking them. Glad you’re enjoying the site, it makes the research even more worthwhile! If you have any other suggestions/recommendations for posts let me know. Take care 🙂

  27. it is a great work,, may I take some info from yours? I will write your blog as my sources for sure,,
    thanks

    • Hi, thanks for your comment 🙂 It did take a bit of digging to get the details, but it was interesting stuff, and a good excuse to watch/write about Disney films, ha ha.

  28. Pingback: Fa Mulan Material « Women and Creativity

  29. This blog is fabulous. Thankyou for making my crack up laughing inbetween my serious study of folklore vs. Disney. (“This Mulan also has soldier buddies, which are lovingly referred to as “SOLDIERS” “) – Made me spit out my drink!

    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment, glad you enjoyed it! I think Mulan is one of my favourite ones so far when it comes to comparing the folklore with the Disney version. Hope it helped!

  30. I wondered if Disney’s Mulan was based on a true story, although deep down I think I already knew the answer! I enjoyed reading the comparisons between Disney’s verson of Mulan and the folklore made up! Although I am in my mid 40’s, I have a huge collection of Disney movies (both animated and live) and Mulan is actually a favorite of mine. I see Mulan as a strong women who has courge (joins the army to protect her father from harm), is not afraid to stand up for what she believes in (doesn’t necessarily agree with the way society sees things), is selfless (puts herself in harms way to protect those she cares about (protecs her commanding officer causing her to be stabbed instead), a woman who doesn’t need a man to protect her from harm or take care of her and stays true to herself. Maybe I analized this movie too much, lol, but I do intend to show the movie to my great-niece when she is old enough to understand its message! Thank You for a very intersting and, at times, very funny read! I enjoyed it! P.S. Maybe, you should do the same with other Disney movies, because you are a great writer! I always like hearing other people’s interpretations of movies and what messages they got from them!!!

    • Hi, wow, thanks for your comment, it’s really kind of you! I must admit, Mulan is probably my favourite source text so far for pretty much the same reasons you describe. It’s odd how much the legend can differ though…I did read some sources saying it was based on an actual person, and others not, and the 2009 film Mulan, purportedly the “official” Chinese version, is also very different. There is a more prominent love interest, and an ending that’s quite unexpected. I will be doing more Disney films soon but am very behind at the moment, thanks for showing an interest!

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