The Legend of Hua Mulan

The name Hua Mulan has been synonymous with the word “heroine” for hundreds of years in Chinese society and culture. Disney’s 1998 animated film, “Mulan,” brought her name to a wider audience.

A historical figure famous for disguising herself as a man is Hua Mulan. Her name has long been synonymous with the word “heroine”, yet opinions differ as to whether this is her real name. According to Annals of the Ming, her surname is Zhu, while the Annals of the Qing say it is Wei. Xu Wei offers yet another alternative when, in his play, Mulan Joins the Army for Her Father, he gives her the surname Hua. Others using The Ballad of Mulan as their guide have attributed her surname to be Mu.

There is also some confusion concerning her place of origin and the era in which she lived. She is said by some to have come from the Wan County in Hebei, others believed she came from the Shangqiu province in Henan and a third opinion is that she was native of the Liang prefecture in Gansu. One thing seems certain though. Hua Mulan was from the region known as the Central Plains.

Cheng Dachang of the Song Dynasty recorded that Hua Mulan lived during the Sui and the Tang Dynasties. Song Xiangfeng of the Qing Dynasty asserted that she was of Sui origins (AD 581-618) while Yao Ying, also of the Qing Dynasty, believed she was from the time of the Six Dynasties. No record of her achievements appears in official history books prior to the Song times. Stories circulated in China’s Central Plains indicate that she must have lived before the Tang Dynasty.

Both history books and legends do at least agree on one thing – her accomplishments. It is said that Hua Mulan’s father received an order to serve in the army. He had fought before but, by this time, was old and infirm. Hua Mulan knew it was out of the question for her father to go and her only brother was much too young. She decided to disguise herself as a man and take her father’s place.

China’s most famous woman warrior lived and fought in the fifth century AD. Her father was conscripted to go to war, but he was too sick to fight, so Hua Mu-Lan offered to go in his place. Her father rejected the offer, but she insisted. She suggested they have a sword fight and if she won, she’d go. Mu-Lan won the fight.
China’s most famous woman warrior lived and fought in the fifth century AD. Her father was conscripted to go to war, but he was too sick to fight, so Hua Mu-Lan offered to go in his place. Her father rejected the offer, but she insisted. She suggested they have a sword fight and if she won, she’d go. Mu-Lan won the fight.

She cut her hair, put on her father’s armor and joined the emperor’s troops using her father’s name. For over ten years, she fought as a man without her true identity being discovered.  The troops fought in many bloody campaigns before they obtained permission to return home. Her bravery at the front lines and extraordinary fighting skill so impressed her general that he offered this soldier his daughter’s hand in marriage. Somehow, the marriage never took place and Mu-Lan returned home and became herself again. Hua Mulan was summoned to the court by the emperor, who wished to appoint her to high office as a reward for her outstanding service. Hua Mulan declined his offer and accepted a fine horse instead.

Only later, when her former comrades in arms went to visit her, did they learn that she was a woman.  The story of Hua Mulan is well known and has provided much inspiration for poetry, essays, operas and paintings.

A play written in her honor, the Mu-Lan Play ends with the following lines:

She had much fighting ability, and could act the leader. Her body passed through one hundred battles, always at the front, and compared to the fiercest soldiers, she was still better.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

3 responses to “The Legend of Hua Mulan

  • fan of casey

    Joe: In the West we see the Mulan story focused more on the sexual undertones — a gal who lived as a man. In the Far East the story is a famous example of her devotion to her parents and honoring her family's name. That same concern for family is cited why few chinese GLBT come out and instead have fake marriages for social acceptance reasons.

  • Neil Poirer

    Mulan outgrossed two Disney films, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and "Hercules". Among those early ‘90s Disney films, like "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", and "The Lion King", no film could ever take the place of Mulan. Can you imagine? It made $304 million worldwide! Not to mention, the film also won a number of Annie Awards, including the "Best Animated Feature" award.

  • wholewheat

    It is interesting to read the Mulan story from a westerner's angle of view. Another equally famous story named Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai (or Butterfly Lovers) might be more gay than Mulan. It talks about a young lady (Zhu Yingtai) disgusied herself as a gentleman so that she could attend school, where she developed a romantic relationshio with one of her classmates(Liang Shanbo). Now some people (even scholars) suggested that this story was about a gay relationship that has been revised as a straight one. PS: I really like your posts and admire your productivity. One post each day, Jeez!

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