According to Chinese legend, there was a female warrior named Hua Mulan who joined the army to fight in place of her father. Mulan was reputed to be a very brave woman who disguised herself as a man and fought in combat for 12 years. She has become an iconic heroine in Chinese and western cultures alike. The legend of Mulan is similar to several other female characters that dressed as men to fight in battle. These include Joan of Arc and the princess Eowyn from Lord of the Rings.
The story of Mulan was first recounted in a poem called The Battle of Mulan. It was written somewhere around 500 – 600 A.D., before the Tang Dynasty was founded. A copy of the poem’s text was later recorded in a musical collection during the 12th century and has been subsequently passed down through popular culture to today.
It is not known whether Mulan was a real or fictional character. Scholars have deliberated her existence for centuries, but no one has been able to determine if she actually lived. Nonetheless, her story has become a parable, as it sets forth many honored aspects of Chinese culture, such as filial piety (devotion to one’s elders), bravery and modesty (shown through Mulan’s character, when she declines rewards from the emperor in favor of returning home to her family).
According to the story, the young Mulan sees that her father has been conscripted into the army. Having no older brothers, she decides to dress as a man and goes to war in his place. She spends more than 10 years fighting alongside other male soldiers. Later, the emperor offers her a government post, but she turns it down saying that she would prefer to return home and see her family. At the end of the poem, Mulan finally reveals her female identity to her army comrades, who are shocked to see her as a woman. They set off together as symbolic male and female rabbits, running side by side as equals.
The original poem is composed of five-character phrases, though the lines do not always have equal numbers of syllables. Another feature of the ballad is the heavy use of onomatopoeia to describe specific sounds. For instance, the splish-splash of the Yellow River and the “jiu jiu” of the military horses neighing are shown through repetitious words that sound like the things they are describing.
Over the centuries, the poem has been adapted in a variety of ways. During the Ming Dynasty, it was expanded into a novel. One Ming scholar also wrote a play based on the poem, entitling Mulan with the surname Hua. Most recently, Disney made an animated film, titled Mulan (1998) that was loosely based on the story of Hua Mulan.