Anyone familiar with the Disney princesses knows Mulan. She is the Chinese soon-to-be princess that just never seemed to fit in. Through her heroics she ends up saving her true love and the empire.
As with many of the princess stories, the real legend of Mulan is much deeper than Disney’s sanitized version. True, there were some aspects of the original story within Disney’s cartoon. But much of the essence and significance of the story was lost to the Westernization of the major themes in the story. Let’s face it, today’s youth probably couldn’t relate to the true story of Mulan, especially not children growing up in a war-free Western civilization.
The true legend of Mulan is actually a ballad, meant to be sung or read as a poem. It doesn’t begin with an awkward young girl trying to fit. Far from it. Mulan is sad to be a dutiful daughter with all the best traits a good daughter could have. Back then that meant she was obedient to her parents, she did her chores, weaves beautiful clothes, and does all things that are expected of her. She doesn’t resent or find herself awkward by these tasks.
Mulan is the eldest daughter of the family. But in traditional Chinese culture, the society is very patriarchal outside of the home. Women run the house, are expected to wed and leave the home to run their husband’s home. Men are the ones that go out into the world and do the work, fight the wars, and rule.
Mulan’s father though is well aged, which is also common in the time. She is said to have many younger sisters and there is reference in the ballad later on to a younger brother. No doubt the brother was either just an infant or not yet born at the start of the story. The story opens with her finding the draft notice from the emperor. All households are to supply a male of the house to fight back the barbarians. With no son of age, the task would fall to her father.
In an ultimate sacrifice, Mulan steals away and joins the army in her father’s place. In such a fashion, she brings honor to her family in ensuring they are represented in the emperor’s army. The ballad states she is away many years, 12 years by the end of the story, 10 years of which were in battle.
There is no lover in the ballad. No man she finds herself falling in love with. Such men were introduced in more modern versions of the story for dramatic effect. In fact, the general that is referenced that Disney has Mulan live happily ever after with is said to have died in the original ballad.
Upon the army’s triumphant return, the emperor showers his troops with many rewards and gifts. But when Mulan was asked what she’d like, she simply wanted to be able to go home. This is yet another example of the selflessness lessons that are being taught within this ballad. To give of oneself and ask nothing in return.
It is not until she returns home and puts back on her woman’s clothing that the men she fought alongside realize she is a woman. The ballad ends with an interesting quote, roughly translated to:
The male rabbit is swifter of foot. The eyes of the female are somewhat smaller. But when the two rabbits run side by side. How can you tell the female from the male?[Wikipedia, Mulan]
She is one of the first Martial Artist recorded in Chinese history. As such, the quote has interesting meaning to many warriors out there. Do not judge your opponent by what you see, such as their gender. Who wins or loses in a battle is all determined upon how they actually perform in the event. When faced with an opponent who is smaller or weaker in appearance, do not simply under estimate them. For they may end up being the one that survives and goes home at the end.