It’s not surprising that Mulan is my favorite Disney princess. My favorite female figures of history of have always been warriors, women who defied social norms. I particularly loved the idea that they could defend themselves and exert a power of their own. In a world of Disney princesses who need saving and who are most known for their beauty, Mulan stood out.
But she isn’t really a princess is she? While she’s included in the Disney princess lineup, she wasn’t born into or married to a royal family. She’s not particularly celebrated for her taste in frilly gowns, compassion or a singing voice. Her story is significant because she was a warrior and (by extension) because she did not follow gender expectations. In fact, she spends most of the film in armor. Despite this, I’ve noted that Disney merchandise opts to feature Mulan in beautiful gown instead of armor.
Before I dig all that up further, let’s look at the actual history of Mulan. First, let me assert that there are many tales about Mulan, some conflicting. Mulan’s story enjoyed a popular revival and reimagining in both the 16th and 17th centuries. For the sake of this article, I am focusing on the original “Ballad of Mulan” as recorded in the Music Bureau Collection, which was compiled in the 12th century, long after Mulan was said to have lived.
Her surname and therefore ethnic origins are uncertain, sometimes she is referred to as Hua Mulan, but she could have easily been Zhu Mulan or Xie Mulan. During the period of the Wei Dynasty, a non-Han Chinese group, the “Ballad of Mulan” was written by an unknown author. We’re talking about the 5th or 6th centuries. Whether Mulan existed is also uncertain.
Nonetheless, in a time that male physical might and female beauty permeated stories, Mulan’s tale stands out as quite unique. By disguising herself as a man, she takes her aging father’s place in the army. This part is pretty familiar if you’ve watched the Disney movie. However, according to the song, Mulan’s military term is not a short one, in fact, she spends twelve years campaigning in the Khan’s army. There is a clear connection to filial piety in Mulan’s actions. In order to save her father, she is willing to break with expectations and social conventions. While worth exploration, I would warn against focusing entirely on that element of the ballad. There is much more going on this tale. We are presented with an extraordinary, dualistic existence that discusses gender norms, breaking gender norms, earning of honor and loyalty to a noble philosophy.
Most obviously, Mulan challenges the idea that gender exists in binary, and more importantly that social roles are not necessarily gendered. Mulan’s comrades-in-arms, do not lose respect for her the moment they find out she is female. They are surprised, but after, “traveling together for twelve years,” Mulan remains the same individual they have come to admire, who has proven herself over and over.
The ballad goes on to stress that Mulan embodies elements of both genders, “’I open the door to my east chamber, I sit on my couch in the west room, I take off my wartime gown and put on my old-time clothes.’” If we use traditional Taoist ideology, east corresponds with yang—female and west with yin—male. Mulan accesses her femininity, is open to it, but rests within her masculinity. She opens herself to the yang, but remains rooted in yin, yet chooses to remove the outward symbols of maleness and puts on female. To further stress common duality, the ballad closes with, “’The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip, the she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled. Two hares running side by side close to the ground, how can they tell if I am he or she?”
The ballad seems to want the listener to understand that Mulan is female, but more than that, her actions are not male, that they are instead, simply honorable. The stress of the story focuses on Mulan’s nobility, grace and inner reflection.
In next week’s post, I will further discuss and analyze the ballad with special attention on military camaraderie and about female success in traditionally male spheres of influence. I’ll take a look at how the story of Mulan can give us insight into our own political and social issues. Maybe Mulan will save the today’s world too.
 Klimczak, Natalia. “The Ballad of Hua Mulan: The Legendary Warrior Woman Who Brought Hope to China.” Ancient Origins. http://www.ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ballad-hua-mulan-legendary-warrior-woman-who-brought-hope-china-005084.
 Note, I say “Khan” here, the northern tribe title for a ruler, where the Disney film depicts the “Emperor,” which is a Han-Chinese title. Again, this is a story that does not originate from a Han-Chinese background.