Millions of girls around the world met Mulan through the animated film produced by Disney in 1998. However, the legend of this warrior has been embedded in Chinese folklore for centuries, in addition to having a more impressive history than the westernized version … and the original legend does not include dragons.
In the late 90s and after the failure of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Disney turned to the East for its next mass consumption adventure, sending a creative team to soak up all things China.
The narrative basis of the animated classic was The ballad of Mulan, a poem whose first historical record dates from an important anthology of the Imperial Music Office of the eleventh century. In its 62 verses it tells the story of a young Chinese woman who – supposedly – lived between the 4th century and who fought for 12 years in the war disguised as a man.
According to legend, Mulan would have enlisted during a mass recruitment, since the men in his family could not fight: his father was too old and his brother, too young, so he went to the battlefield with the blessing of his family . After winning the war, Mulan rejected an official position in the army, revealed her status as a woman, and returned home to resume a peaceful life. While remaining an extraordinary story, this base was embellished in subsequent versions.
Illustration from the book La balada de Mulan, by Mónica Rodríguez and Francesca Dell’Orto.
Heroines and sisters of blood
It was towards the end of the 16th century that the story of Mulan resurfaced – and was practically consolidated – in Chinese popular culture thanks to the playwright Xu Wei, who wrote the play The heroine Mulan goes to war instead of her father. According to some Western translations, in this version Wei describes Mulan as belonging to a clan of warriors, who trained her in martial arts and weapons handling since she was a child. Here, Mulan’s wish is to return home to marry and live in the traditional role of the women of his time, similar to the fate of the Disney animated character.
This ending, however, contrasts with that of another of the better-known iterations of the character, reconstructed by Chu Renghuo in Sui and Tang Romance (17th century). In Renghuo’s historical novel, Mulan goes to battle and is soon discovered by Xianniang, A warrior princess who becomes his blood sister and they fight together to protect King Dou Jiande and his rebellion against Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty. However, they are defeated and offer to be executed in the king’s place. The emperor spares their lives, but when he returns home, Mulan discovers that his father, for whom he went to war, has died, and that his mother has remarried. Furthermore, the local ruler has called her to be his concubine. Before having to suffer this fate, Mulán decides to commit suicide. Too dark an ending to be taken up by Disney.
Mulan, the Disney animated classic, debuted in 1998 and popularized the legend.
Fa Mulan, the savior of China
The most famous Mulan outside her country is, of course, the protagonist of the eponymous film that this year received the live-action treatment so fashionable at Disney. Directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, The animated classic recovered the premise of the young woman who takes her father’s place in the war and that, after saving China, all she asks is to return home. The difference with other versions, however, is that everything begins as a misfortune for his family. With the help of his two animal friends (the dragon Mushu, her spiritual guardian, and the cricket Cri-Kee), the heroine defeats the Huns, falls in love with her captain in the army and saves China, thus giving honor not only to her home but to her entire country. Although it was not so well received by Chinese audiences – who perceived it as distant from their own folklore and legends – this animated version reached box office success in the West, in addition to forever changing the way Disney would approach its protagonists animated.
Despite the differences between the various iterations of Mulan, both in Chinese folklore and contemporary popular culture, there are character traits that prevail. This essence is what has made Mulan a figure to which the collective imagination returns with some frequency for inspiration. Mulán defies the conventions of his time and is not afraid of death in order to protect the honor of his family and his place of origin. Thanks to her and her different versions, the girls of the world know that you don’t have to be a man to defend your home, your principles and your right to decide your own destiny.
The Mulan Entrance: Where does the legend come from? it was first published in Cinema PREMIERE.