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You don’t meet a girl like this every dynasty

The Chinese myth of the warrior Mulan has been told across the world for centuries. It is a tale of a woman who takes her fathers place to fight in the army to save his life. Mulan has been in plays, books and films, including a Disney cartoon that has been remade and will be released soon. There are statues of her and she even has a crater on Venus named after her. The world clearly loves Mulan and her story. Although the main parts of her tale stay pretty much the same, some parts of the story have changed over time. So who is Mulan? To find out, let’s get down to business.

Bronze statue of Mulan and her father

This statue of Mulan and her father is in Xinxiang, China.

Who is this girl I see?

Although it would be great to say that Mulan was a real person, unfortunately she was not. Even her name changed over time. In the earliest stories she is simply known as Mulan, which means ‘magnolia’ (a type of flower). In the 16th century, she was given a surname ‘Hua’ (which means flower).

Even though there are lots of magical and exciting Chinese legends, Mulan is by far the most known in Britain. Why? It probably has something to do with the Disney film. It has characters such as Mushu, Li Shang and a lucky cricket that are all fun to watch and laugh with. But none of these were in the original tales, so we may have to forget about the dragon.

A stylised red dragon drawing

A red dragon is often considered a symbol of good fortune. Perhaps this is why Mushu the dragon is red in the 1998 Disney film.

So how old is the tale of Mulan?

The first mention of this heroic warrior comes from ‘The Ballad of Mulan’ or ‘Mulan Shi’, which was written in the 5th or 6th century we believe. There is no solid evidence for this date. The ballad was included in a text called the ‘Musical Records of Old and New’. This text no longer exists unfortunately. The story was then rewritten by Wei Yuanfu and included in the ‘Music Bureau Collection’, which was put together by Guo Maoquin in the 11th or 12th century. After this, there were lots of different films, plays, poems, artwork and literature created based on the story.

Painting of Mulan from the 18th cenutry

This painting from the 18th century is of Mulan. © The Trustees of the British Museum/(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

So what are the differences in her story from version to version?

So, the story of Mulan has her go off to fight in an army. But who is it that she is fighting? In most versions of the story, it is a bandit leader called Leopard Skin. He sounds terrifying. In the Disney film Mulan is a pretty useless soldier at the start. However in most versions, Mulan is shown as being a good fighter from the beginning as she had been training with her father for a long time. She even becomes a general in these versions. After the war and the defeat of Leopard Skin, Mulan is offered gifts as a reward. She is offered money and special positions but turns them all down to go home to her family. Some versions have a love interest for Mulan, but some do not.

So what is the moral of her story?

Today, Mulan is known across the world as a strong female role-model. She proves that women have the ability to do anything a man can do if given the chance. But was this always the moral of the story? Nope. The original message was about honour and loyalty to the state and to your family. As time has passed, the message has changed to suit the audience. Who knows what the message of her story will be in the next 900 years!

Other fun things to do

Download the Mulan Fun Activity Pack (pdf, 2MB) to dive even further into Mulan’s world. Then read all about incredible weapons from China. Do not forget to learn the BSL and Makaton for ‘family’, this will help you tell the story of Mulan to your family and friends. Finally, watch the story telling of Mulan and the adventure that made her famous.

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