Disney Story Origins #1: Mulan


 

“The male hare wildly kicks its feet;

the female hare has shifty eyes,

But when a pair of hares runs side by side,

Who can distinguish whether I am male or female?” ~Poem of Mulan

I used this line from the “Poem of Mulan” to introduce this blog post, because it encapsulates the core message that all of the varied stories of Mulan offer. What I took away from the research I did is that the Mulan from the legends makes the point that men and women are virtually the same, are capable of the same things, and the differences between the sexes are irrelevant. It’s the roles we play that matter.

It’s not the same message Disney’s Mulan has, which is more about being true to oneself even in the face of persecution and execution. We’ll talk about it more in-depth later. Just let me say that I chose Mulan for my first Story Origins post, because I thought it would be simple. What I discovered is that the legend of Mulan, while very simply told, has hidden meanings, and teachings in between the lines. It has a long and rich history.

Disney, while making a classic, gives us what’s on the surface. Disney is often slammed pretty hard for cleaning things up, and squeezing it into their mold so that kids can enjoy it without all of the complicated elements. But Disney always encourages young people to go out there and read the “real” stories, and I’m not going to retell the Legends of Mulan here. I’m just going to point out the greater differences, and encourage you to seek out the older legends. It’s a wonderful and fulfilling learning experience.

“She’ll bring honor to us all.” ~Disney’s Mulan (1998)

This is one story that you can’t get angry with Disney for having their own version of telling because by the time Mulan’s tale was first inked onto a scroll, it had already undergone a centuries-long period of development and change. Depending on who wrote it, when, where and genre in which the version was created, each is unique and brings its own viewpoint and meaning.

The statue of Hua Mulan in Chinese Garden, Singapore.

The first story of Mulan, “Poem of Mulan” is undated and anonymous, and it’s followed by an imitation called “Song of Mulan” written by a Tang dynasty official named Wei Yuanfu (mid eighth century). In “Poem of Mulan”, she refers to her ruler or emperor as “kahn”, that suggests the northeastern conflicts of the Northern Wei period (386—533 AD) to Chinese historians and scholars. So the first (written) work about Mulan dates back to sometime in the 6th century AD.  Before then the story was passed down orally from parents to their children. Even today, it is taught in schools and is one of the many poems that Chinese students learn and memorize during the early years of their education.

I’ve read only five versions of the story. My research is far from thorough, but some of the novels and poems about Mulan are tough to find. I only have so much time and money to dedicate, so I did the best I could with what I have. I had no idea that Mulan had such a deep history, and was such an important story to the Chinese people.

I’m bound to get some details wrong, and I know that there are people out there who know way more than I do about this. This post has a comments section. We can keep the discussion going as long as you want, and I am eager to learn more about the history of Mulan. :D

So while admittedly my research is limited, I think for the purposes of the podcast segment and this blog post, it will suffice. In everything that I’ve read and screened (Disney’s Mulan 1998 included), the basic elements don’t change.

Do I have to call “spoiler alert” here? If you haven’t seen Disney’s Mulan, why are you reading this? Go. See. ;)

A young girl’s elderly and sickly father is called up in the draft. The family knows he’s too sick to go, but they have no alternative: they have a daughter (sometimes two), but women are excluded from joining the military, and a son, who is too young to enlist. The father decides that he has no option but to go. Mulan tells her parents that she will serve in his place. To do so, she will have to disguise herself as a man. She goes to the market to buy the necessities for travel and battle, dons her fathers armor and joins a group of young men heading off to war. For a dozen years she fights side by side with them, preserving her chastity and hiding the fact that she is a woman, even from her closest companions. She successfully leads a battle that decisively ends the war and is lauded by the emperor for her efforts. Instead of accepting an official post, she asks to return home to her parents. When she arrives, she returns to her old room, takes off her armor, puts on her dress and makeup, and effortlessly resumes her old life. This surprises her companions but they realize that when in peaceful times, it is easy to tell a man from a woman, but when there’s a call to arms, everyone fights equally hard.

 

Who’s that girl I see?

 “My surname is Hua, my name is Mulan.” ~The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of Her Father

Fa Mulan Magnolia Flower

I want to say that Disney symbolizes the meaning of Mulan’s name by putting a Magnolia in her hair but a strong argument can be made for a cherry blossom.

To clear up any confusion, Mulan’s first name is Mulan. Her surname is Hua or Fa. The family name comes first in Chinese culture. In the five versions I’ve read and in the 2009 Chinese film “Mulan” she’s called Hua Mulan (pronounced “hwah”), but in other versions, including Disney’s, it’s Fa Mulan (the Cantonese pronunciation).

Before any Disney-haters start thinking I’m giving them a reason to start scoffing, sneering and smirking Biden-style, there is no difference in what the two names translate to in English. It means “Magnolia Flower”.

Most folks call her Hua, Disney calls her Fa. No biggie.

But since the whole purpose of the podcast segment and this blog post is to point out the differences between the  Mulan from the legends and how Disney portrays her, let’s do this

For the purposes of keeping my thoughts organized I’m going to seperate the different versions like this: When I’m talking about Disney’s Mulan I’ll simply refer to her as such. When I’m talking about Mulan from the old legends, which is every version I’ve read that is dated prior to Disney’s release (1998), I’ll refer to her as “Legend Mulan” or “Mulan from the Legends.”

The story is the same. Girl’s family has to fork over a male to fight an invading army. In one version it’s simply “barbarians”, in another it’s an army of bandits led by a guy named “Leopard Skin”, in another it’s the Huns, and this is the version Disney went with as well.

The big difference is in Mulan’s motives and her attitude. In some versions, Mulan is a filial daughter forced into circumstances by her duty to her father; in others, she is a ferociously patriotic fighter willing to risk her life for her country, where so few men will.

Disney’s Mulan follows the filial daughter paradigm. What separates her from the legends is that this Mulan comes off as a wild, reckless slacker and a constant disappointment to her parents. In spite of her lack of proper etiquette  her father dotes on her, and has kept her on a very long leash (Chinese fathers tend to not do that, even with sons). She wants to “honor the Fa family” but she doesn’t exactly know how. She knows her role in the scheme of things, it’s just not in her to play it. What social convention wants from her and what she wants for herself are two very different things and there is no compromise. She wants much more than this provincial life… oops… that’s a whole other blog post.

If Legend Mulan actually needed a matchmaker, she would have memorized this nonsense long before her scheduled appointment.

Mulan from the legends is a proper Chinese woman in every way shape and form. In every version I’ve read (which is five) she wears the makeup, the silk dresses, she weaves and makes tea and takes good care of her family. Legend Mulan knew her role in Chinese society, and didn’t have a problem with it.

Nowhere in the Mulan legends that I read is there a matchmaker. She doesn’t need one. She’s a well bred lady and pretty to boot.

In one version she’s betrothed to her next door neighbor, Mr. Wang, before she joins the army. In another she marries Mr. Wang as soon as she returns home, and in another she falls in love with another officer in the army and marries him when the fighting is done and assumes her role, subordinate to her husband (whom she outranked in the army). The point is, yeah, there’s no matchmaker in any version I’ve seen except Disney’s.

I think Disney was just trying to establish the setting of the story, and the conditions under which Mulan lived and what was expected of her. I personally love the song, and the whole matchmaker scene. The idea was to make you sympathize with her, and it succeeds with aplomb.

One would assume to pull off a scheme like dressing like a man, Mulan would have to have some mannish qualities. In every version I’ve read, “he looks like a chick” is a common line  in all of them, and her beauty before she joins the army is remarkable.

“That guy is strangely enchanting, almost as if he were a woman. I really don’t know where he learned his military arts; how he manages to defeat the enemy is really puzzling.” ~Mulan Joins the Army (1939)

How Chien-Po doesn’t figure out Mulan’s secret right here has, and always will, astound me.

So how does she get away with it for 12 whole years?  Mulan the soldier uses the bathroom out of sight of her messmates, which they take as a sign of class or shame.  He either is too polite to defecate in front of them, or he has a teeny-weeny… you get the picture.

It’s not how Mulan looks; it’s what she does and how she does it. When Mulan was dressed like a man, her bravery in battle, the way she asserted herself, her leadership abilities and go-getter attitude were accepted without question as a man’s virtues. If Legend Mulan was this beautiful girl dressed like a man and had acted the way Disney Mulan did, the jig would be up pretty fast. No matter how beautiful Mulan in disguise looked to her fellow soldiers, bottom line, this soldier kicks so much ass… It doesn’t even enter their brains to question her gender. He may look like a woman, but he’s tougher than all of us. He can’t actually be a woman. Not possible.  Inconceivable! 

“Hah! I see you have a sword! I have one too! They’re very manly!” ~Disney’s Mulan (1998)

That training montage in the Disney version, you know” “let’s get down to business”, and how hard it was for Mulan to train for war in the beginning? Remember, she couldn’t fight, she couldn’t use a staff, she couldn’t shoot an arrow worth a damn and couldn’t snatch fish out of the river…

Legend Mulan, had none of those problems. Legend Mulan would not look at her reflection in a stream and sing “who’s that girl I see”?

Mulan from the early legends, all of them, would look at that stream and sing “I’m too sexy for my shirt, too sexy for my shirt…” and then she’d take it off and go put her father’s armor on and practice her archery or something.

Legend Mulan knew exactly who she was and was proud of it. If Shang had shot an arrow to the top of a pole, tied two weights around her arms and told her to retrieve the arrow, she would have chopped that pole down with her bare hand, picked the arrow up off the ground, and handed it to him with a smirk.

While throughout the first act of the movie, Disney’s Mulan lacked confidence in herself and skill and general enthusiasm for what she was doing, Mulan from the legends exuded confidence to the point of arrogance. She was a proficient martial artist from day one. Pick your version of the tale, it’s the same story. In one version she teaches herself kung fu by sneak peeking into her father books and journals, in another her father taught her, and in another her grandfather taught her. The bottom line is Mulan can fight, well.


“This sword!

How long it’s been since I’ve drawn it,

I’ve got to say, I thought it would be difficult

Hoisting it up and giving it a whirl—

Well, it’s just like old times.

Why aren’t my hands sore with pain,

Used as they are to threading the loom’s shuttle?” ~The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of Her Father

 

Another huge difference between Legend Mulan and Disney’s Mulan is rank. In one version when Mulan joins the army she’s taking her father’s place literary and she is instantly given the command of 500 men. There’s no boot camp for any version of Mulan except Disney’s. But let’s not bash Disney’s Mulan.

Where Legend Mulan did not have much of a struggle, Disney’s Mulan suffered embarrassment after embarrassment and had to reach deep within herself to succeed. It was a much tougher journey for Dinsey’s Mulan. If you want my opinion, Disney’s Mulan is much more engaging.

“You shouldn’t have to go! There are plenty of young men to fight for China!” ~Disney’s Mulan (1998)

When Disney’s Mulan finds out that her elderly and damn-near crippled father has to report to the army, she pitches a fit about how unfair it is. Disney’s Mulan rails against her government and resists conforming to it’s laws and conventions with all of her effort.

I’m not slamming her. The Han Dynasty was no joke. If you stepped out of line it could get you killed even if you’re a male, but if you’re female it’s worse. You can’t blame a modern-day Mulan for resenting it.

When Disney’s Mulan takes her father’s sword, cuts her hair and dresses up in daddy’s armor, it’s an act of defiance— defiance of the law and her father’s wish (and society’s expectations) for her to know her place. It’s also a loving daughter trying to save her father’s life.

Legend Mulan is acting out of filial piety too, but also out of patriotism. Her motives are not the same as Disney’s Mulan’s. Legend Mulan’s concern isn’t that they are ordering her father to fight, that’s perfectly fair. It’s that he’s too old to perform his duty. But someone has to go, right? China is in danger of invasion, and the Fa family has to represent and do their part for their country. Her brother can’t and her sister, another proper Chinese girl, damn sure isn’t going to dress like a man (or is too young depending on the version you’re reading).

Disney’s Mulan has no younger brother to speak of, but either as a ridiculous coincidence or a hat-tip to the legends, Disney gave Mulan a pet dog named “Little Brother”.

I’m going to back up for a second. Some of you are probably thinking, “wait, Mulan has a brother? WTF then?”

Yes. The Mulan from the legends has a younger brother named Yao’er, which is where I believe Disney got the name of one of Mulan’s companions in the army, Yao (King of the Rock).  I expect Disney didn’t bother with a brother or sister since they really don’t impact the story, and why take the trouble to develop, animate and voice a character that you don’t need?

He’s too young to fight. However after Mulan serves for 12 years and returns home, in one version, he is ready, willing and able to step up and take over for Mulan.

In one version of Mulan the officer handing out conscription notices, has a conversation with Mulan’s father about how old he is and the response is “send someone else then.” But at no time does the officer say that Mulan’s father has to go, only that someone from the family does.

 

Enter The Dragon

 “Did I hear someone ask for a miricle!? Lemme hear ya say ahhh!!” ~Disney’s Mulan

Who is Mushu? He’s the token animal sidekick one expects from a Disney film. Is there a dragon named Mushu in any of the older Mulan stories? No. And here is one thing I’ll slam Disney for, which is being formulaic. Let me explain.

Most characters in Chinese folklore have plenty of help from the paranormal and/or supernatural. In one story a heroine named Meng Jiangü destroys The Great Wall with her tears of grief at the news of her husband’s Death. In another, two thwarted lovers named Zhu Yingtai and Liang Shanbo are transformed into butterflies after their deaths so that they can be together forever. There are a lot of examples but I think I made my point with two. It was as formulaic for Chinese folk tales to have elements of magic and divine intervention as it is for Disney to use cute little animal sidekicks.

What set Mulan apart from a lot of folklore in China is this: She puts on her father’s armor and assumes a male identity to go to war. That’s it. The simplicity and feasibility of it is what made it compelling and even revolutionary. Here, transformation isn’t about sorcery or ghostly ancestors or Godly assistance; it’s about the deliberate and basic action of changing clothes. What made Mulan an especially unique character in Chinese folklore was that Mulan did not, even once, ask for or need supernatural assistance.

Disney kind of missed the bus on that one. Mushu serves his purpose well in the film, and this weaker, more vulnerable Mulan needed the help. I still think having Mulan’s ancestors come to life and send a little dragon to help her is somewhat dismissive and disrespectful to the legends. Part of what made Mulan great in those old stories is that she did not need anyone’s help.

So where did Mushu come from?

In the 1903 play “Mulan Joins the Army”, while Mulan’s brother and sister are both disqualified from joining the army, there is one other male in Mulan’s immediate family who does qualify, her cousin. Problem is, he’s a blowhard. He’s all sizzle and no steak. He knows martial arts and hates the Huns alright, and he’ll go all over town talking about how much he hates them, and if the Huns ever show their face, he’ll make them sorry. But when the officers show up with orders of conscription, he cowers and whines and begs his uncle, Mulan’s father, not to send him to war. He’s such a little bitch about it, Mulan decides to go in his place as well as her father’s. She’ll use his name as her alias, and that name is, wait for it, Mu Shu.

“Dear uncle! Dear Uncle! You, you, you have to come up with some secret scheme, because I desperately cling to this miserable life of mine! Please go and bribe that officer and ask him for mercy! Give him some gold and silver so he will go on his way!” ~Mulan Joins the Army (1903)

I bet you all thought that the little dragon was named after the Chinese pork dish, right? Yeah, so did I. When I stumbled over Mu Shu in “Mulan Joins the Army” it put a smile on my face. It’s like Disney’s dissing the whole non-supernatural angle, and at the same time showing respect for the Mulan stories that came before theirs. I love little things like that.

So all throughout this play, Mulan’s alias in the army is Hua Mu Shu. It gets pretty confusing when you’re reading it, because you keep seeing that little red dragon and hearing Eddie Murphy’s voice when you’re reading Mulan’s dialogue.

“I’ve got a name, and it a boy’s name too.” ~ Disney’s Mulan (1998)

Let’s take a minute to talk about Mulan’s varied aliases. In one version, she’s Hua Hu (her father’s name). In another one she’s just Hua Mulan, no alias and no one cares. She’s all like, “That’s my name, it’s just a thing, let’s move on.”

In a little side note, there’s a version of Mulan in a hundred-chapter collection called “Historical Romance of the Sui and Tang” (1675)  where Mulan is half Turkish and her name in that one is Zhu Mulan. At the end of that one Mulan commits suicide. :(

Of course we all know the alias Mushu gives her in the Disney film: Fa Ping. And Fa Ping is the coolest one if you ask me.

Again, I believe that this is Disney tying itself to the the previous stories. In “The Female Mulan Joins The Army In Place of Her Father (I’m sure that name sounds way cooler in Chinese)“ Mulan’s superior officer is a general named Xin Ping.

In another Mulan tale back to the Quianlong period (1736-1795 AD) called “A Couple of Hares”, again her superior officer is Commander In Chief Xin Ping.

And on top of having this direct link to several previous versions of the Mulan tale, Wikipedia tells me that “Fa Ping” is also a Chinese pun. She takes the name “Fa Ping”, which sounds identical to “huāpíng”, meaning both a literal “flowerpot” and figurative “eye candy”. Whether or not Chinese audiences roared with laughter at that, I know not.

I’m given to understand that the Chinese weren’t especially happy with Disney’s Mulan.

“A sigh, a sigh, and then again a sigh—” ~Poem of Mulan

In another little side note, China was getting ready to cut Disney off for being involved in the movie “Kundun” which didn’t paint the Chinese in a very good light. A big reason Disney made Mulan was to repair that relationship. And it worked. So the Chinese can’t have hated it that much.

Captain Li Shang

 “You fight good.” ~ Disney’s Mulan (1998)

There isn’t much romancing going on in the older Mulan tales (though in a couple there is) and it’s not like she needs a drill sergeant.  In the several versions I have read there is no Captain Li Shang.

I think Disney created a love interest for her, because if there has to be a cute little animal sidekick there has to be a Prince Charming.

Speaking for myself, it helps me sleep better knowing that Mulan made a love connection after that fiasco with the matchmaker.

In most of these old stories Mulan has no love interest because she’s a proper Chinese woman and is already promised to her next door neighbor, Mr. Wang.

In “A Couple of Hares”, the bad guy, Leopard Skin, has a younger sister who falls in love with Mulan (disguised as a man) and is willing to betray her brother for the opportunity to marry the handsome officer. Suffice it to say, it put Mulan in a really tough spot.

If there is one character who corresponds to Shang in my research, it’s a guy name Liu Yuandu. He appears in “Mulan Joins the Army” (1939). Mulan and Yuandu meet on the road en route to the army camp to enlist.

Most versions don’t broach romance, though in “Mulan Joins the Army” (1939), Mulan does fall in love with one of her subordinates. The feeling is mutual, and quite frustrating for her beau, since he thinks he’s in love with a man.

Yuandu is impressed how the male Mulan handles himself against a pair of bullies, also on their way to join up. Their names are Ying and Han, and I believe they are the inspiration for Mulan’s buddies Yao and Ling in the Disney version. As time goes on they grow to respect and admire Legend Mulan, just as Yao and Ling do in Disney’s Mulan. They all serve together for over a decade and form a bond. Yuandu starts to have feelings for his superior officer that he can’t quite understand. Man Mulan looks like a woman, and he revs Yuandu’s engine.

But how can he be a woman? He’s too damn good at waging war. Nice ass though. I’d like to cup that ass in my… dammit! That wasn’t in the script. I made that up. :D

Anyway, toward the end of the script they drop some hints that maybe Yuandu figured out that Mulan is really a woman and is keeping quiet about it, but it’s hard to tell if that’s really the case. Long story short, Mulan and Yuandu, after respectfully declining the emperor’s offer to grant them positions in his court, go home and get married.

Where they got Li Shang from, I have only one guess and it’s a stretch. Mulan’s home town is called Shangyi village. I told you it’s a stretch.

Chi Fu

 ”I knew there was something wrong with you! A woman; treacherous snake!” ~ Disney’s Mulan (1998)

 Like Li Shang, there is no Chi Fu. He’s barely worth mentioning here except that he’s a reminder in Disney’s Mulan, if she is discovered to be a woman in disguise, she’ll be executed. It stands to reason that he’d be there making things difficult. During the Han Dynasty, palace eunuchs were always sticking their nose into politics, and being a general pain. And because Chi Fu had no “equipment”, so to speak, he would have an extreme hatred of women. I watch a lot of kung fu movies, and trust me, the eunuchs always hate women.

Also, it turns out that in Chinese “Chifu” means “to bully”. The sad fact is that there isn’t anyone that fits Chi Fu’s particular role in any of the stuff I’ve read. He’s a great character to hate, and I personally have no objections to the character. He’s tough on the chicks but the soldiers in Mulan’s platoon have zero respect for him. I like that.

The only character who comes close in my limited research is a character in “Mulan Joins the Army” (1939)  simply called Military Commander, and he’s always throwing monkey wrenches into Mulan’s plans, and putting himself between Mulan and their Marshal, trying suspiciously hard to make sure nothing gets done about the barbarian invaders. Of course it turns out that the barbarians are bribing him to do this.

But there is no legal axe hanging over Mulan’s head in the legends; nothing that says she’s going to be killed if the army finds out she’s a woman. If Mulan’s mom and dad are worried about the law finding her out, they don’t say anything.

And they know.

In the legends, Mulan doesn’t sneak off into the rainy night like Disney’s Mulan. She steps right up and says, “Dad, I’m going shopping for some equipment for the road and for battle. When I get back, have your armor ready, because I’m taking it. Oh, and your sword too. Sharpen that bad boy up, because your little girl is going to pretend to be a man, and fight in your place.”

I’m paraphrasing, by the way.

So, Mulan’s father’s like, “Are you sure? War’s no joke.”

And she’s like “Am I smiling, dad?”

And he’s like, “Okay then, I’ll get my armor out of storage; I’m 6’2″ and you’re 5-foot-nothing, but we’ll plop you right in there, no worries.”

Actually there is some argument about it. Mulan convinces them though, and her cousin Mu Shu is only too happy. If there is any fear of Mulan getting killed, it’s not by getting caught, it’s from taking a sword to the face  in battle. But that’s honorable, so there’s the good thing.

The biggest fear her parents have, her mother especially, is that if Mulan’s messmates find out she’s a woman, she’ll be raped. Is that such a big bad because Mulan will be violated, traumatized and mentally scarred for life? No. If she gets herself raped, her virginity is over and out. No one wants to marry damaged goods. Gotta love those ancient Chinese.

Shan-Yu

 “I tire of your arrogance old man! Bow to me!” ~Disney’s Mulan (1998)

 When I first saw Disney’s Mulan and took a look at what the great country of China was up against, I was like “Why is everybody panicking? It’s just a friggin’ horde.” But after researching the legends I learned things aren’t a simple as that.

So where to begin?

Okay… There are a lot of different versions of the villains in the legends. You got your bandits, your barbarians,  your Turks, your Huns…it all depends on when the story is taking place.  So let’s just stick with where Disney went with it, which is the Huns.

It’s a good choice too. It combines many elements of the legends. When you think of Huns, you think of marauding hordes of barbaric bandits, which isn’t entirely true, but this guy named Attila kind of made them look much worse than they really were.  The point is you have a combination of several different kinds of bad guys in one army. “Huns” is also easy to say; a lot easier than what the Chinese actually called them, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

Still… who’s afraid of the big bad Huns? I mean really. This is China we’re talking about. They have Shaolin Monks, dude. They have 36 Chambers of death, flying guillotines and The Wu Tang Clan. They have every species of kung fu ass kickerey behind that wall you can think of. Ever see “Crippled Masters”? Kill all of the perfectly healthy martial artists, and they still have paraplegics who can bring the pain. Surely they can handle a nomadic band of barbarian raiders, right?

Some could argue that the Huns had a legitimate axe to grind with the Emperor. The Chinese had been expanding into theirs and other tribes’ territory like it was free.

Well, we have to look at the period, and since we know that it’s Huns and they penetrated the Great Wall with, like no  resistance at all, it’s probably the bottom quarter of the Han dynasty. Things are going tough for the government . Morale is low and bureaucratic eunuchs have mucked things up for the emperor so bad that the government barely functions. Crops are bad, and what few crops they can produce is being stolen by barbarian raiders.

Warriors outside the wall are pissed because China had expanded onto their territory (including the Huns’) for centuries and then they build a giant wall there. Now China is low on soldiers (because they have to deal with raids all over the place, constantly) the country is vulnerable.

The Huns are looking at Northern China like it’s a big, giant pork bun and they want a bite.

Now, here’s where I smile at Disney. See, the Huns called themselves ”Huns”. It means “humans”. Human is not what the Chinese called them.

The Chinese called them, Xiongnu, pronounced “Shong-noo“. Sound familiar? It gets better.

The Xiongnu stemmed from the Siberian branch of the Mongolian race (which explains why Shan-Yu looks more like Genghis Khan than Attila). They first hit the scene in China around the 5th century BC. Their constant raids prompted North China to get to work on the Great Wall. They became an even bigger threat after the 3rd century BC, when they formed a tribal confederation under a single ruler. Now, I couldn’t find that ruler’s name, but I did find out what their title for him was. The ruler of the Xiongnu was called “The Shanyu”.

You gotta love that. You’re smiling. :D

Disney gave this Hun villain a name using the title of the Hun ruler rather than complicate things. Don’t make it his title, make it the guy’s name. Incidentally, the meaning of Shanyu is the rough equivalent of the Chinese emperor’s designation as The Tianzi, “Son of Heaven”.

I can’t say there are many differences between Shan-Yu, and Leopard Skin, or “Barbarians”. In “Mulan Joins the Army” (1903) the bad guy is called “The Khan” and the only difference between him and Shan-Yu is what a giant coward The Khan is.

“In front of us there is nowhere we can go, and behind us the enemy comes in hot pursuit, so where can we flee for safety?” ~Mulan Joins the Army” (1903)

I like Shan-Yu, the way he looks. He looks bad ass. But I’m unsure of his motives. The bad guys in the legends make their priority pretty clear: “We want to raid villages and steal s(beep)t!”

 Shan-Yu seems to just want to stick it to the Emperor for building the Great Wall, like it came prefabricated and they just plunked it down there. It took several hundred years to build that thing. That’s many lifetimes. They were building that wall before Shan-Yu was born. His whole life they were building that wall! How is that a challenge to Shan-Yu’s strength?  Don’t get me started. I have bones to pick, but I’ll save it for the podcast.

Only a Disney warlord would get a mountain dropped on his head, that’s all I’m saying.

“How can you miss!? He was three feet in front of you!” ~Disney’s Mulan (1998)

All of the legends agree, Mulan is the hero of China. It’s her strategy, her tactics and her courage under duress that wins a decisive victory against, whoever, and ends the conflict/war.  The legends aren’t very specific. She rides, she fights, she wins and next thing you know the emperor is offering her goodies, which she turns down.

Legend Mulan would have crossed swords, where Disney’s Mulan is a more strategic fighter and uses the terrain. It’s nice and clean, the way Disney likes it.

Disney gives more detail about how Mulan defeats the invaders than the five legends I’ve read, and some of the others I’ve only read summaries of. However, while Disney’s Mulan wins the battle by shooting a cannon at a mountain overloaded with ice, starting an avalanche that buries the enemy army, Legend Mulan gets bloody.

There aren’t specifics but it’s made clear. Legend Mulan wades into battle with her troops and takes lives. And that’s yet another difference between her and Disney’s Mulan.

Legend Mulan is a leader of men. In some versions she’s the commander, the captain, even the marshal, but when the final battle comes, it’s her orders that win the day. Disney’s Mulan is just some E-1 grunt who took a crazy shot and got lucky, probably because of that cricket.

The Big Reveal

Legend Mulan gets some acclaim, but not the whole Forbidden City bowing to her. In fact, in “Mulan Joins the Army” (1903) Mu Shu gets all the credit. Doesn’t that cream your corn?

So both Legend and Disney’s Mulan are victorious. Disney Emperor offers Mulan a position as his council, regardless of the fact that she’s a woman. The glass ceiling is busted! Yaaaay! A victory for Chinese women everywhere!

And Mulan turns it down.

Here she is, maybe the first woman ever to work in the Emperor’s inner circle and no, she’d rather raise chickens, and have her dog feed them. Way to impress your ancestors Mulan. Enjoy the medal and the weird shaped sword.

Legend Emperor offers Mulan appointments, riches, lands (because he thinks Mulan is a man). Mulan only asks for a horse (or a camel depending on what you’re reading) so she could make it home safely and she is praised for her filial loyalty and patriotism. When she returns home, after hugging her father, and after her mother makes sure she’s still a virgin, she greets her siblings and immediately goes to her room, takes off her armor, gets her hair and makeup did, comes out looking finer than a painted rose and is all like, “Okay I’m ready to get married!” 

Her war buddies show up and find out she’s a woman. Do they start slathering for the rape? Are they angry? Do they feel betrayed? Do they demand an explanation?

No.

“Would the first woman to work directly for the Emperor bring more honor to the Fa family or would this crap? Whatever. Go see your mom, she wants to check your hymen. Mr. Wang is waiting.”

They’re surprised, but there are no recriminations.  In “Mulan Joins the Army” (1939), I imagine that Liu Yuandu is just relieved that he’s not gay. In that story, he marries Mulan right then and there because Mulan’s mom says it’s an auspicious night, and they might make her a grandson. I think she’s just getting the show on the road, it’s been 12 years after all.

In a little sidenote, in “The Story of the Loyal, Filial, and Heroic Mulan”, maybe dating from as far back as the 18th Century AD, the Emperor Tang Taizong offers Mulan titles. When she reveals to him that she is a woman, Taizong makes her a princess, and she returns home to raise her brothers.

Now, if you’re thinking why didn’t Disney do that? It’s a fair question. I mean she is in the Disney Princess™ line, and there are many who don’t think she should be. Honestly if I watched the end of Mulan, and the Emperor made her a princess I’d be like: “Gyaaaah! They just did that to justify making her a Disney Princess™ so they can milk it for all the money they can! Bah!” , and I doubt I’d be alone.

If you need more reason why Disney thought it best not to go that route (if they considered it at all): The Emperor Taizong repeatedly entreats Mulan to return to the capital, she refuses again. Eventually, some eunuch gets into Taizong’s ear and he falls prey to gossip. He summons Mulan for the third time, but this time he’s out to have her whacked. Mulan refuses again, and underscores her sincerity by committing suicide. :(

Yeah.

So anyway,  what I was saying before, is NO ONE cares that she was pretending to be a man, and got away with it for 12 years. No one says “Woah, you would have been executed if you were caught.” Because way back in the day, like before the Northern Wei period (386—533 AD), the point of the story was not a message of feminine equality, though that seems to be the case, and it’s certainly what modern Chinese women are taking from it these days (and no one’s blaming them).

However, Mulan, back in the day, was not intended to be any kind of role model for women. She had filial piety, and patriotism down cold, but they weren’t trying to influence women with her story. Mulan was a reverse-psychology role model for men.

It wasn’t a tale saying “Neener-neener!  I’m a girl and I can do this stuff too!” it was more like: “If a woman can do this, what’s your excuse?” It was a call for men to be more patriotic and filial, because here’s a woman, who let’s face it, has the s(beep)t end of the stick day in and day out yet still is more dutiful to her family and loyal to her country than men? How can you fail where a woman succeeds?

That’s not a message mothers would thank Disney for telling their kids.

But the Mulan story is pliant. It is always changing, and Mulan the character changes with it. She may not have been a role model then, in fact there is nothing that says that Mulan was the huge heroine back then that she is today. She raised some eyebrows, rattled some cages, disappeared for a while, made a comeback, and each time she fades and returns, she is more in tune with the times.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post as much as I enjoyed putting it together. I hope you listen to the next Episode of The DisGeek Podcast (Episode 46) when Daniel, Tommy, Chris, Jay and I discuss it in a little more detail. If you have any questions or comments do post what you have to say, and maybe it’ll come up in our discussion. Thanks for taking the time!

~Paul

Bibliography

Print

Fuhai, Huang (Translator). “Song of Mulan”. Shanghai, People’s Fine Arts Publishing House (March 1, 2010)
Kwa, Shiami & Idema, Wilt, L. “Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts”. Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing Co. (September 1, 2010)

Film

Mulan, Dir. Barry Cook, Dir. Tony Bancroft, Buena Vista Pictures 1998
Hua Mulan, Dir. Jingle Ma, Dir. Wei Dong, Beijing Poly-bona Film Publishing Company 2009

World Wide Web

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hua_Mulan “Hua Mulan”
http://history.cultural-china.com/en/48History11639.html Cultural China “Hua Mulan”
http://dettoldisney.wordpress.com/2011/11/18/mulan-vs-the-legend-of-hua-mulan/ Disney – The Dettol of Storytelling? “Mulan vs. The Legend of Mulan”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xiongnu “Xiongnu”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chanyu “Chanyu”
http://hare.bio.miami.edu/hun/xiang.html Krempels D.M. 1998 “The True Story of Shan Yu”
http://asianhistory.about.com/od/glossarytz/g/xiongnuglos.htm Szczepanski, Kallie. “Who Were the Xiongnu?”

 

 

Comments

  1. Wow? I Love Walt Disney’s Mulan And I Enjoyed A Good Story About Mulan And How She
    Joined The Imperial Army Disguising Herself As A Soldier To Take Her Injured Father’s Pl
    ace in The Army And So, The Movie is Good And Lots of Good Songs Such As Honor To Us
    All, Reflection, I’ll Make A Man Out of You And Girls Worthing Fighting For And I Loved T
    he Good Movie And I Like The Sequel Better Because The Story Takes Place After The Ori
    ginal Movie “Mulan” And Reunited Old Friends From The Previous Film! Thanks! Posted A
    s Anonymous Date 5/13/2013 Time 12:45pm.

    PS OH, I Really Love The Voice Talents Behind The Character In “Disney’s Mulan” And
    Big Thumbs Up For Ming Na Because She’s The Voice of Mulan In The Original Film
    And The Second Film Whom She Returned To Reprise Her Role As Mulan!

  2. geek mulan… I hate it!!!!!!!!

  3. shadowhammer123 says:

    I notice that you say Li Shang has no apparent origin – I think he must have SOME origin of some sort, as the same year Disney’s Mulan came out, a somewhat cruddy version of the tale, ‘The Legend of Mu-lan’ was done by Slam Gold (It’s actually on youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1MfluJCiHY ) and in this is a soldier who turns out to be a dragon whose name is ‘Chang Li’ I could be mistaken, but I think the CH and SH sounds are very similar in Cantonese, if not the same. The similarity of the names suggest a common origin, although what I’m not sure.