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Mulan the Warrioress 

Illustration of Mulan in woodblock reprinting of New Poems and Pictures of One Hundred Beauties (c. 1800).

 

Hua Mulan – Legendary Chinese Heroine

Hua Mulan (Traditional Chinese: 花木蘭; Simplified Chinese: 花木兰; pinyin: Huā Mùlán) is a legendary, possibly real, folk heroine. Mulan dates back to the Northern and Southern dynasties period (Traditional Chinese: 南北朝; pinyin: Nán-Běi Cháo; 420–589 AD) of China's history. Mulan is the most admired of historical Chinese heroines.

The first literary record of Mulan is the Ballad of Mulan (Traditional Chinese: 木兰辞; pinyin: Mùlán Cí), a folk song possibly dating to the Northern Wei Dynasty (北魏朝; Pinyin: Běi Wèi Cháo; 386–584 AD). The dynasty ruled northern China. It was founded by the Tuoba clan, also called the Taugast or Tabgach (Traditional Chinese: 拓拔; Middle Chinese: tʰak-bɛt; Old Turkic: 𐱃𐰉𐰍𐰲; Transliteration: Tabγač) of the Xianbei (/ʃjɛnˈbeɪ/; Traditional Chinese: 鮮卑; pinyin: Xiānbēi). The Xianbei were an ancient nomad people who once roamed the eastern Eurasian steppes that now comprise Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, and Northeastern China. Though the Northern Wei underwent significant sinicization, they were called "Plaited Barbarians" (索虜 suolu) by writers of the Southern dynasties, who viewed themselves as the upholders of Chinese culture. The Northern Wei ruled during a time of political upheaval and extreme social and cultural change. Foreign ideas like Buddhism became firmly established in northern China during this time.

Mulan Painting

18th century painting of Mulan displayed in the British Museum

The Ballad of Mulan was compiled in the Musical Records of Old and New, an anthology of books and songs, by the monk Zhijiang (智匠) in the Southern Chen dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 陳朝; Simplified Chinese: 陈朝; pinyin: Chén Cháo; 557–589), the fourth and last of the Southern Dynasties in China. The earliest existing text of the poem is found in an 11th or 12th century anthology called the Music Bureau Collection (Traditional Chinese: 樂府; Simplified Chinese: 乐府; Hanyu pinyin: Yuèfǔ). Its author, Guo Maoqian (Chinese: 郭茂倩; Pinyin: Guō Màoqiàn; Wade–Giles: Kuo Mao-ch'ien), specifically mentions the Musical Records of Old and New as his reference source for the poem. A later adaptation written about 620 depicts Mulan as being active during the founding of the Tang Dynasty (Traditional Chinese; 唐朝; pinyin: Táng Cháo; 618–690, 705–907). Mulan's story is taken up in several later works like the 17th century Qing Dynasty (Traditional Chinese: 清朝; pinyin: Qīngcháo; 1644–1912) historical novel Romance of Sui and Tang (隋唐演義; 隋唐演义; Suí Táng Yǎnyì; Sui T'ang Yen-I) by Chu Renhuo (褚人獲). A Qing Dynasty stage adaptation was by playwright Xu Wei (Traditional Chinese: 徐渭; Pinyin: Xú Wèi; Wade–Giles: Hsü Wei, 1521–1593) short titled The Female Mulan or The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father's Place. The play dramatized Mulan's story in two acts. Mulan's story has inspired numerous modern day stage, screen, television, literary, and video game adaptations as well. The 1998 animated Walt Disney film Mulan was a worldwide box office hit. The 2020 Disney live action Mulan remake less so.

Different versions of the poem give the heroine different family names. The Musical Records of Old and New states that Mulan's family name is unknown and implies Mulan is her family name. Since the Ballad of Mulan is set during the Northern Wei Dynasty, there exists the possibility that Mulan was not Han Chinese but was Xianbei instead and used a compound surname that had more than one character. The name Mulan may have been sinified version of the Xianbei word "umran," which means prosperous.

Later literary works like Female Mulan (女花木蘭) say her family name is Zhu (朱) and the Sui Tang Romance (隋唐浪漫) says it is Wei (魏). Other surnames attributed to her include Han (韓) and Ren (任). The surname Hua (花; Huā; "flower"), which was used by Xu Wei, has become the most popular in recent times because of its poetic meaning in Chinese. Her first name literally means "magnolia" (木蘭).

Mulan

Yan Xiyuan (Traditional Chinese: 燕西園 ; Pinyin: Yàn Xīyuán; 1787–1804), a member of the Chinese literati class during the Qing Dynasty, included Mulan in One Hundred Beauties, a compilation of women in Chinese folklore. Debate about Mulan's historicity exists because she is not mentioned in Exemplary Women, a compilation of biographies of prominent women during the Northern Wei Dynasty.

The historical setting of many versions of the Ballad of Mulan is considered to be the Northern Wei's military campaigns against nomadic Rouran (Chinese: 柔然; Pinyin: Róurán) tribes of Proto-Mongol stock on the northern borders. The story contains many geographic and cultural references that are attributed to the Northern Wei Dynasty. When the Tuoba Xianbei rulers became partially sinified as they settled in northern China, they adopted the Chinese dynasty name "Wei" and changed their family name from "Tuoba" to "Yuan." They also relocated their capital from Pingcheng, present day Datong, Shanxi Province in the northern edge of Imperial China to Luoyang, south of the Yellow River, in the Central Plain, China's traditional heartland. The Northern Wei emperors were called both by the sacred Chinese honorific "Son of Heaven" and by "Khagan," the Turkish/Mongolian title for leader of nomadic kingdoms. The Ballad of Mulan calls the ruler by both titles. The Northern Wei also adopted Imperial Chinese governing institutions. The position of shangshulang (尚書郎) offered by the Khagan to Mulan is a ministerial post within the shangshusheng (尚書省), the highest body of executive power beneath the ruler. The position offer shows that Mulan was trained in both martial arts and literary arts and that she was able to function as a civilian official responsible for issuing and interpreting written government orders.

Mulan Gathering Gems of Beauty

Qing Dynasty Painting of Mulan

The Xianbei also maintained certain nomadic traditions, which included Xianbei women being skilled horse riders. The Ballad of Mulan likely mirrored the status and roles of nomadic women.

The Northen Wei Dynasty was engaged in extended military campaigns against the Rouran nomads, who routinely looted and pillaged the northern Chinese frontier. The Northern Wei viewed the Rouran as part of the uncivilized Běidí (北狄 )"Northern Barbarians" and disparaged them with the name Ruanruan or "wriggling worms." In the Book of Wei, the Northern Wei Dynasty's official history, Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei ((北)魏太武帝, 408–452), personal name Tuoba Tao (拓拔燾), Xianbei name Büri(佛貍), undertook a military campaign in 429 against the Rouran by advancing on the Black Mountain and then heading northward towards the Yanran Mountain. Both locations are mentioned in the Ballad of Mulan. The Black Mountain is present day Shahu Mountain (殺虎山), located southeast of modern-day Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. Yan Mountain, the short for Yanran Mountain (燕然山), is part of the present day Khangai Mountains of central Mongolia. The Northern Wei rulers worked to guard their northern frontier by establishing a series of Six Frontier Towns (Traditional Chinese: 六鎮; Simplified Chinese: 六镇), also known as Northern Frontier Towns (北镇) in the Hetao region (Chinese: 河套; Pinyin: Hétào; lit. "river loop") in northwestern China. The Hetao region is a C-shaped area in northwestern China comprising a number of flood plains stretching from the banks of the northern half of the Ordos Loop, a large northern rectangular bend of the Yellow River that forms the river's whole middle section.

The general outline of the Ballad of Mulan is as follows:

Mulan is working at her loom when a conscription notice with her father's name arrives. The Emperor/Khagan is mobilizing an army for a campaign against Rouran invaders. Mulan sighs as her father is elderly and her younger brother is but a boy, so she decides to disguise herself as a man and serve in her father's place. She purchases an excellent steed from the eastern market, a saddle and stirrups from the western market, bridle and reins from the southern market, and a long riding crop from the northern market.

Mulan Enlisting

Mulan Enlisting

Mulan bids her family farewell in the morning and rides for the Black Mountain. She encamps by the Yellow River in the evening, where she hears the sounds of the Rouran cavalry in the Yan Mountains. She flies across ten thousand li (Chinese unit of distance of about 0.3 mile (0.5 km)). The tone of the sentry gong pierces the cold night air, and moonlight glints off her metal armor. A hundred battles are fought, and generals are slain.

Mulan riding to war

Mulan Riding to War

When the campaign ends after twelve years, Mulan and her sturdy veteran comrades march to the capital where they meet the Son of Heaven in his splendid palace. He offers promotions and rich prizes to Mulan and her fellow soldiers who have rendered meritorious service to the kingdom. He offers Mulan the high-ranking post of shangshulang in the central government and asks what she desires. Mulan declines the post and requests only a fast horse she can use to ride home.

Warrioress Mulan

Mulan at War

Mulan's parents welcome her outside their town when they learn of her return. Her older sister dons a fine dress. Her younger brother sharpens the knife for sheep and pigs. Mulan goes to her room, where she removes her tabard (sleeveless short coat) and changes into her old clothing. She combs her hair by her window and stands before her mirror to fasten golden yellow flowers. Her comrades are shocked to learn she is a woman.

Mulan tells her comrades the metaphor: "The male hare has heavy front paws. The female hare tends to squint. But when they are running side-by-side close to the ground, who can tell me which is male or female?"

Mulan's story is part of Chinese school textbooks. She has had schools, railway stations, and hotels named after her. There exists a Hua Mulan militia troop in Yucheng County in east Henan Province (虞城县, 河南) in Central China, a Hua Mulan Martial Arts Association, and a Hua Mulan troupe of dragon dancers and drummers in Shangqiu City (商丘市) in Henan Province. Obeisance is paid to Mulan at grand temple fairs on her birthday, which is set on the eighth day of the fourth month on the traditional Chinese lunar calendar.

The figure of Hua Mulan is a part of China's tradition of female martial artists. Men and women can learn the practical techniques and culture of the Shaolin monks and nuns in martial arts classes offered by the Michigan Shaolin Wugong Temple.

 

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