Mulan is arguably the best Disney princess ever. She's smart, reliable, a good fighter and doesn't need any man. If anything, her man needs her. Without her, he'd have died on a number of occasions. Her villain, on the other hand tends to not get a lot of recognition. Mainly because he dies at the end, but the other reason is because people generally just did not like him.
There are many reasons to hate Shan Yu. For me, it was always his eyes. Some people don't like the gnarly claws on his hands. Others might not be a fan of those teeth. Maybe it's his pet falcon (which I sure hope it isn't because that is one cool sidekick). But I think the general consensus is that he's a sociopath.
Now, for those of you looking to argue this (because who doesn't love a good argument) here's the definition of a sociopath from Merriam-Webster:
It is impossible to argue that Shan Yu is not a sociopath, if we're going to look at the definition.
But really, this guy is messed up. He decided to take on all of China for FUN! Who does that? What normal human being does that?
Okay, don't believe me? Here's a direct quote from the movie:
The Emperor will stop you.
Stop me? He invited me. By building his wall, he challenged my strength. Well, i'm here to play his game. Tell your Emperor to send his strongest armies. I'm ready.
Did you catch? He called it a game. And that he's ready for it. If that's not messed up, I don't know what is. He's a pretty common villain. At least, in your common action movie. A big, strong guy with big, strong men who idolize him despite his sociopathy. It's sick.
Shan Yu is pretty surface value
I know I'm supposed to be analyzing this guy, but I just can't find much to analyze. He's not much more than a sociopath. His men followed him with such loyalty that even when Mulan took out the entire Hun army minus Shan Yu and five others, they stuck by him. Now that either means they're all sociopaths or Shan Yu was a great leader. Which, is understandable. Sociopaths are able to mask their lack of emotions with a great amount of charisma which is how he was able to command such a loyal, blood-thirsty army.
But I mean, anyone could see that from watching the movie and having a basic understanding of how a sociopath worked. Not much analysis done.
Hoping to find answers, I did some research on the Huns themselves.
What's interesting is that the Huns don't really fully appear until the 4th century along the borders of Europe. Mulan takes place during the Han Dynasty. Which occurs from 206 BC-220 AD with a brief break from 9 AD-23 AD with the Xin Dynasty (This information is all from Wikipedia).
So, there's no way that this could really actually be the Huns if we're looking at history as a whole. It's more than likely that Shan Yu is a part of Xiongnu who migrated out of the Mongolian region during the time of the Han dynasty.
So what does that mean for our not so beloved Shan Yu?
Well it might just mean he's one of the first Huns ever. Like ever, ever.
Being the first Hun, he's pretty impressive. I mean, look at him. This guy could single handedly take out all of China. Okay, that's probably a stretch. But he does a number on the Emperor's palace swiping at the pillars and seamlessly destroying them with one strike.
He easily could've taken down China. proven to the Emperor that he was the best of the best. And had he, we would've seen the Huns much sooner than we did. Rome may not have fallen. Atilla may not have risen to power.
So, today, we're not going to analyze Shan Yu, because he really is an awful human being. We're going to talk about his shortcomings. Correction, shortcoming.
Despite being a sociopath - an obvious issue - Shan Yu really only had one problem. And it didn't have anything to do with himself, really. It was Mulan.
In ancient Asia, specifically during this time period, women were seen as inferior (I know, shocker). Women weren't allowed into the army. They were meant to stay at home and watch after the children. For the Huns, this was probably more so. Their lives revolved around fighting and doing dastardly deeds and whatnot. Women just couldn't do that sort of stuff.
Or so they thought. Mulan clearly can do everything a man can do and then some. She's the reason China made it through the Hun attack. Why? Because no one else thought like her.
If that doesn't make sense, look at it this way
Shan Yu is huge. His fighting style and attacks are based largely in strength. Speed is not his forte. He's never needed it. I'm not discrediting his brain because he's clearly a bit of a genius if he was able to so easily surprise all of China on a number of fronts. But he's never had to think that someone is bigger or stronger than he is.
Mulan, on the other hand, is small. And not just short, she's just teeny. She has to rely on more than strength. She has to rely on her wit and her speed. She has to be able to think on her feet. If something doesn't work out for her because she's not big enough or strong enough, she has to find another way.
Shan Yu never had this issue. Most of the men in the movie have not had this issue. Chi Fu never dealt with a woman in the army. Li Shang was the top of his class and is clearly stronger than most. Yao, though small, could probably beat anyone up. Chien Po is just huge. 'Nuff said. Ling may not have been able to break that stone block originally, but he built himself up to do it. Because that his bit of pride. Fa Zhou was just gonna push through an old war injury to bring his family armor. And the Emperor's solution to Shan Yu's presence was more soldier - which, yeah it worked, but there are better ideas.
Shan Yu's one and only shortcoming is that he did not have the foresight, experience or knowledge to be able to think like someone who was small. He, like everyone else, thought size was everything.
Shan Yu is a villain. There's no two ways about it. I can't, no matter how hard I try, look at him any other way. I can't find any redeemable quality for the guy.
Side note: Chien Po is the strongest man alive. He is able to lift eight men (sorry, seven men one woman), a horse, a dragon and a cricket. That weighs approximately 2,200 pounds or 1000 kg.