The history of Mulan, from a 6th-century ballad to the live-action Disney movie

“There have been many tales of the great warrior Mulan,” says Mulan’s father in voice over as Disney’s live-action take on Mulan opens. “But ancestors, this one is mine.”

It’s true, there are a lot of Mulans out there. The story of Mulan, a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man and joins the army to save her father’s life, has been told over and over again for the past 1,500 years at least. It’s both beloved and iconic, and Mulan, who is as virtuous as she is strong and brave, is an essential heroine. And every time we retell her story, we have to make certain that she is still virtuous — whatever virtue means for the time and place where we’re telling it.

From the very first Mulan story in the sixth century, every time Mulan seems to be breaking the rules in a rebellious middle finger to the status quo, she’s actually following higher and more important rules. And that’s what keeps her transgression against gender boundaries from being too threatening to existing power structures. In the end, Mulan’s virtue might mean that her rebellion stops being a rebellion at all.

The first recorded version of Mulan dates back to the sixth century. It’s short, and it ends with some thoughts about rabbits.

A rabbit in the Zaicafe rabbit cafe in central Moscow, 2020.
Mikhail Tereshchenko/TASS via Getty Images

“The Ballad of Mulan” first appeared sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, and it is astonishingly streamlined. It’s a folk song, and it reads like one: just over 300 lines of something to be sung and memorized and passed from person to person. It’s through this ballad that Mulan took her place as an enduring heroine of Chinese culture, and it contains everything we need to know about what made her such an icon.

The ballad begins with Mulan at her loom, weaving. But she’s sad and preoccupied, and her sighing overwhelms the sound of the loom. Mulan’s elderly father is being called away to war, and he has no son to go in his place. So Mulan makes up her mind that she’ll go instead. She buys a horse and rides off to war.

The ballad has no details of what exactly happened during Mulan’s time in the army; we just know that she was away for 10 or 12 years, and that she fought valiantly and distinguished herself. When Mulan returns to the imperial court, the emperor offers her prizes and promotions, but Mulan asks only for a steed — in some translations a horse, in others a donkey — so that she can go back home to her family.

Upon arriving at home, Mulan takes off her soldier’s uniform and dresses in her old clothes, putting up her hair and applying makeup to her face. Then she goes outside to meet her old war buddies, and they’re astonished. All these years fighting side by side, and they never knew that Mulan was a girl.

It’s like rabbits, Mulan explains. If you trap a rabbit, you can tell whether it’s male or female. But if you just see a rabbit sitting in a field, you’ll never know its sex. And on that enigmatic note, the poem ends.

Because the ballad is so simple and elegant, we can see exactly what elements are important to the story at this early stage. The ballad cares that Mulan is a strong and brave warrior, but it doesn’t care enough about her acumen as a soldier to spend time enumerating her deeds. It’s interested in the time she spends crossing the barrier between gender binaries. Her transformation into a soldier — buying a horse and a saddle and a bridle and a whip — takes up half a stanza. When she puts on her old clothes, the process gets a full stanza of its own.

And what the poem is deeply, deeply invested in is the idea that all of this exciting, potentially transgressive boundary crossing is justified, because Mulan is only doing it for her father. She’s not really breaking imperial China’s strict gender rules when she crossdresses, because she’s obeying the most important rule of all: filial piety. And once she’s completed her tour in the army and saved her father, she goes back to her old life of traditional femininity without a qualm.

Mulan is following a particular understanding of virtue, and it can seem counterintuitive to Western audiences. That’s just not how the European tradition teaches readers to think about cross-dressing warrior women, argues Lan Dong in her survey Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. “While some European amazons or military maids dressed as men to pursue power, individual liberty, true love or happiness,” Dong writes, “the Chinese heroine steps out of the family quarter to fulfill her duty as a daughter, wife, or mother in particular circumstances.”

But in the Chinese literary tradition, these two conditions are what allow Mulan to be transgressive and a beloved icon at the same time. She breaks rules when it’s the only way to reassert the importance of filial piety. And as soon as she’s finished following her highest duty, she returns happily to the gendered status quo.

“I am embarrassed that I just have returned from weapons and war, not good enough to be a match for you”

The history of Mulan, from a 6th-century ballad to the live-action Disney movie

An 18th-century portrait of Mulan in ink and colors on silk. Ming Dynasty.
Wikimedia Commons / Aavindraa

Dong describes the legend of Mulan as a palimpsest, a story that keeps shifting and reforming over time but always bears the traces of its original forms. It began as “The Ballad of Mulan,” and then out of that ballad’s legacy came a literary tradition of Chinese Mulan stories.

Over the millennium and a half since the sixth-century ballad was first recorded, Mulan has been the star of plays, of prose epics, of silent movies and children’s picture books and operas and Communist propaganda films. And all of them focus heavily on Mulan’s extreme virtue as the justification for her exciting and transgressive cross-dressing.

Sometimes Mulan’s virtue takes the form of her deep commitment to traditional femininity. In Xu Wei’s 16th-century play Female Mulan Joins the Army Taking Her Father’s Place, Mulan has bound feet, and when she unbinds them to fill her warrior’s shoes, she worries that her beauty will be ruined. “I will still get married after I come back,” she frets. “What will I do then?”

After she returns successfully from the wars, her parents inform her that they’ve found her a husband, and Mulan enters happily into an arranged marriage. “I have long heard that you are highly respected in the world of letters,” she tells her bridegroom. “I am embarrassed that I just have returned from weapons and war, not good enough to be a match for you.”

In many versions of the story, Mulan’s virginity is what makes her pure enough to withstand the potential corruption of cross-dressing. In Chu Renhu’s 17th-century Historical Romance of the Sui and Tang Dynasties, Mulan must choose between loyalty to the emperor and her commitment to chastity after the emperor summons her to be his consort. Unwilling to sacrifice one virtue for another, she kills herself over her father’s grave.

As China entered the 20th century, Mulan became a powerful figure of political propaganda. During and after the Sino-Japanese war, films and operas about Mulan showed her fighting off a Japanese invasion. During the Cultural Revolution, female members of the Red Guard donned male uniforms in a nod to Mulan’s legacy, and the Mulan opera Who Says Women Are Not as Good as Men made the argument for female equality in China.

In 1976, Maxine Hong Kingston’s seminal Asian American memoir Woman Warrior made Mulan a recognizable name in the West. She would go on to star in American children’s picture books and folklore collections for decades.

And then, in 1998, Mulan became a Disney princess. And America began in earnest to put its stamp on one of China’s most iconic heroines.

“She is a Western lass who grew up eating bread and butter”

Mulan and her father

A still from Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan.
Walt Disney Studios

As Dong reports, China had a lukewarm reaction to Disney’s animated Mulan. It made only $1.3 million at the Chinese box office, about one-sixth of the revenue Disney had been hoping for. And while some commenters gave it points for effort, commending the film’s “sincere effort in understanding Chinese culture,” nearly everyone agreed that Disney’s Mulan was a creature of America. “She is a Western lass who grew up eating bread and butter,” said one popular magazine article, although it also admitted that this new Mulan was “lovable.” Some filmgoers dubbed the movie Foreign Mulan.

Much of the distaste for the movie stems from the idea that 1998 Mulan has entirely different motivations from the traditional Chinese Mulan. She goes to war to save her dad, sure — but she also goes because she’s a tomboy who rejects traditional femininity.

The 1998 Mulan follows classic ’90s Not Like Other Girls pop feminism rules, and as such she believes in individuality and standing apart from the status quo. “Maybe I didn’t go for my father,” she muses. “Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right, so when I looked in the mirror, I’d see someone worthwhile.” Those values don’t mesh with the structure of the classic Mulan story.

That 16th-century Mulan who blushingly assured a stranger that she didn’t deserve to marry him would never have failed a matchmaker’s made-up marriage test the way Disney’s does, and 1998 Mulan would never have fretted over the idea of her feet getting bigger the way 16th-century Mulan did. 1998 Mulan sings a whole song about how she’ll “never pass for a perfect bride or a perfect daughter,” but the traditional Chinese Mulan only worked in the first place because she was both a perfect bride and a perfect daughter. The classic Mulan is unthreatening because she returns home to her old life as a good daughter at the end of the poem, but 1998 Mulan is so revolutionary that she single-handedly changes the entire empire’s opinion of women.

None of this should suggest that 1998 Mulan is a bastion of progressivism. Mulan’s revolution of Chinese opinion only becomes possible in Disney’s 1998 movie because the writers rejiggered the story structure to give her deception greater stakes. In Disney’s animated take, Chinese gender roles are so strict that Mulan’s cross-dressing is a capital crime, and we know early on that if her secret is revealed, she’ll pay with her life. In contrast, the classic version of the story has Mulan’s army buddies react to the big reveal at the end with a bemused shrug: Mulan’s a girl! they say. Who knew! And then Mulan says the thing about rabbits. Gender barriers are more porous and more fluid in this much older Chinese version of the story than they are in the 1998 Westernized version.

And while Disney heavily marketed the 1998 Mulan as a butt-kicking pop feminist heroine of girl power, its filmmakers held on for dear life to part of the traditional story structure that keeps Mulan’s gender-bending ways from ever getting too threatening. At the end of the animated Disney movie, as in nearly every version of Mulan written since that sixth-century ballad, Mulan goes back home to her family to resume her life as a daughter, and she picks up a respectable husband for herself. Her days of rule-breaking are behind her. Now it’s time for her to devote herself to the task she failed at in the beginning of the movie and land a husband.

In the end, Mulan hasn’t broken the rules of femininity that really matter in Disney’s gender coding. She followed the most important one: She got her man.

In 2020, is it possible for Mulan to be truly subversive?

Mulan fighting in 2020 Mulan

Yifei Liu in Disney’s Mulan (2020).
Walt Disney Studios

Disney’s 2020 Mulan nods to its earliest predecessor within its first 15 minutes. When we meet Mulan as an adult for the first time, she’s chasing two rabbits. She thinks they’re a boy and a girl, she tells her family later, but — echoing the closing couplet of the sixth-century poem — “it’s hard to tell when they run that fast.”

This Mulan also features instrumental reprises of the 1998 film’s “I want” song, “Reflection.” That’s more or less the course this movie is trying to chart: a middle path that nods to the legacy of both the 1998 animated Western version and more traditional Chinese versions of the story.

In 2020 as in 1998, Disney’s Mulan is a tomboy who disgracefully fails her matchmaker’s marriage test, and in this version, too, Mulan’s deception is a capital crime. But this new version is careful to make it clear that Mulan’s highest motivator is still filial piety. When she asks the emperor whom she just saved to send her home and the court gasps in shock, the emperor informs the watching crowd that “devotion to family is an essential virtue.” And when he presents Mulan with a ceremonial sword in recognition of her great deeds, it’s engraved with a list of virtues: the army’s cardinal three virtues of bravery, truth, and loyalty — and now, following Mulan’s example, devotion to family.

Moreover, while the 1998 Mulan’s sex was revealed against her will, and all of her army buddies immediately turned against her, in 2020’s version, Mulan makes the decision to reveal her true identity to her commander in service of the virtue of truth. She’s briefly punished by being exiled from the army. But when she returns to the commander with a warning that the emperor is in danger, her friends, more or less in the spirit of “The Ballad of Mulan,” rally around her. In the end, the battalion rides to the emperor’s defense with Mulan openly in the lead, dressed as a woman.

Gender roles here are not exactly as porous as they are in the original ballad. But they are certainly less stringently defended than they were in 1998.

The new film also gives Mulan a foil, a fellow unruly warrior woman named Xian Lang, who fights against the Chinese with the villainous Roran army. Xian Lang was, we learn, once like Mulan, a young idealist who wanted to use her supernatural strength and acumen for the highest of purposes. But she was exiled from her own country, and now she serves the Rorans so that when they come to power, they will pass some of their strength along to her. Unlike Mulan, Xian Lang’s strength is threatening, and so it’s been blunted by the uber-masculine Roran-leader Böri Khan, who sneers that Xian Lang is a “curbed dog.”

Xian Lang ostensibly exists to show us the dangers Mulan faces from the dark side of the patriarchy. Mulan, too, might be rejected by her country, and she, too, might be forced to work for those who fear and sneer at a woman’s power. But it’s hard to avoid a sense of a good woman/bad woman binary with this pairing. The notion seems to be that what makes Mulan good is that she wields her power in favor of a good man (the emperor), and what makes Xian Lang bad is that she wields her power for a bad one. The idea of a woman wielding her power on her own, for herself, doesn’t seem to exist in the landscape of this movie.

Still, there’s a moment in the live-action Mulan that is genuinely new to the story, and maybe even subversive. It comes at the film’s conclusion, after Mulan has returned home to her family and received her father’s blessing for running away with his sword and armor. Her commander follows her into her home village, presents her with the emperor’s accommodation, and begs her to reconsider her decision to return home. Won’t Mulan, he asks, become a member of the emperor’s personal guard and continue to fight for China?

Mulan’s eyes widen, and she turns her gaze up to a phoenix — the mythical bird that has become her guardian and her totem throughout the film — spinning lazy circles overhead. Then the screen fades to black, and we leave Mulan there, on the precipice of answering the question that has haunted her legend from its first moment: Is it possible to tell a version of Mulan that doesn’t end with the woman warrior renouncing her sword to become a dutiful daughter and wife again?

Is it possible — finally, and at least 1,500 years after her story was first written down — for Mulan’s assault against the gender binary to begin to stick?

This Mulan doesn’t have any answers available for that question. But at least it bothers to ask at all.

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