Disney made her famous with a feature movie. But who is this brave Chinese warrior woman?
The story of Mulan is traced back to a poem told during the Tang Dynasty, around 600 AD. Over the years, that poem has changed and grew, much like the poetry of Homer and his Odyssey and Illiad. The story was past from mother to her children. And even today, it is taught in schools and one of the many poems that Chinese students learn and memorize during the early years of their education.
Mulan has also gone by the name Fa Mu Lan, or Hua Mu Lan. Her name translates roughly to "the magnolia flower". As the Chinese poem goes, there are invaders from the North and the Emperor calls for every family to send their eldest son to fight the invaders. Mulan's family did not have a son old enough to fight. Thus, her elderly father would have to have answered the call. So in an act of bravery, Mulan disguises herself as a man and joins the forces. They fight for over 10 years and when they return, the Emperor thanks each of them by granting them wealth, title and land. When he comes to Mulan, she requests only one thing, a camel that she might journey back home safely. When she returns home, she discards her warrior's outfit and puts back on her silks to become a woman again. This surprises her companions but they realize that when in peaceful times, it is easy to tell a man from a woman, but when there's a call to arms, everyone fights equally hard.
There are several different versions of this story. Some, more modern ones, have made it into a love story where she falls in love with one of the other warriors and when she returns, marries him. Each, however, speak to the same themes:
- War affects everyone, not just the men.
- When necessary, a woman can fight just as hard as a man
- Bravery and dedication to the family will be rewarded
Over the years, the introduction of Mulan to the Western world has drawn parrallels to Joan of Arc. While the story of a Warrior Woman is very similar, there are some distinct differences to note.
The first and most prominent in my mind is that Mulan was not persecuted for her disguise as a man. In fact, she was honored and revered for it. There was no calling her a heretic for her act and she did not face humiliation for assuming the role of a man. Some historians who have studied the text of Mulan believe that the Chinese story actually tries to emphasis how easily Mulan transitioned back into the life of a woman. That, in some ways she was even relieved to resume her role of wearing silks once again.
Joan of Arc is most noted for her following the call of God. Mulan existed in China in a time before Christianity or Judaism had much influence in the Eastern world. Her reasons for going into battle are much more humble. She wished to serve her father, her country, and save face for their family. It's a self-sacrifice that resonates in many of the ancient Chinese literature.
Finally, Joan of Arc is said to have led the men to victory. By the poem, Mulan took on a subtler role, simply serving as one of the many warriors that fought for the Emperor and survived.
Regardless of the differences, both stories tell of how woman can be as fierce warriors as men, even in ancient times. Mulan has been a part of the Chinese culture for over 2000 years and it will continue to enthrall generations to come.