We all know the story of Disney's 1998 animated classic Mulan. Girl goes to war in place of her father, overcomes adversity, kicks ass, takes names, becomes a hero and falls in love. It's a beautiful tale and a pretty open and shut case. But did you know that Mulan is rumored to be based on a real person?
The original story of Mulan comes from the Chinese tale the Ballad of Mulan. While the real-life Mulan was speculated to have lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (386CE–536CE) her story was first transcribed in the 6th century. Although the poem is great in itself, it's also pretty short and lacking in detail.
Since Mulan's story has become one of epic and near-mythical proportions, there have been countless retellings and additions to her story. The version we are most familiar with today, and the model for Disney's version, likely stems from Xu Wei's play The Heroine Mulan Joins the Army in Place of her Father (1368-1644).
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While Disney's version of the young warrior was awesome and empowering for girls everywhere - myself included - the original story of Hua Mulan (by which I mean the play) shows that she was even cooler than Disney let on.
With that, here are the differences between the source material and the Disney version:
She was a highly skilled warrior
Probably the biggest difference between the Disney movie and the source material is that Mulan had to learn to fight. A large portion of the film was spent showing Shang Li teaching Mulan how not to die on the battlefield. How could anyone forget that lovely training montage set to "I'll Make a Man Out of You?"
In the play, Mulan grew up as a tomboy with her father teaching her to fight at a young age. By the time she enlisted in the Chinese army, she already knew martial arts, how to wield a sword, and how to competently use a bow and arrow. Sorry, Shang Li, but maybe she could teach you a thing or two about how to be a man.
Her family dynamic was totally different
In the film, Mulan isn't really great at anything when we first meet her. She's deemed undatable by the town matchmaker because she lacks the skills that would make her marriage material. Her family is visibly disappointed by this fact which causes Mulan to basically hate the person she is and the woman she can't seem to become.
Part of the reason why Mulan goes to war in the first place is to prove her worth and redeem herself to seemingly dishonored family. If she can't make it as a woman, then maybe she can as a man.
In the poem, Mulan is honest with her parents about wanting to go to war. She puts down her womanly duty of weaving, goes out and buys a horse, saddle, and bridle and off she goes!
Although her parents are bummed that Mulan will be away fighting in the war, it just seems like the most natural decision for her to go in place of her father or little brother (yes, she has a little brother in the poem as well not just a dog named "Little Brother"). They're kind of like "Bye, we'll miss you!" but there's definitely no dramatic scene of her leaving in the dead of night.
She was super confident from the start
Remember the song "Reflections?" Well the real Mulan never had any issues with her identity or coming to terms with herself as a person. Being the badass that she was, and the pride of her family from the start, she never suffered the internal struggle that our Mulan did.
Sure, she may have and we just don't know about it, but by all accounts she seemed pretty comfortable with who she was as a woman, warrior, and person. Mulan could fight like a man, but weave and embroider like a woman. Really, she could do it all. I think that's almost a better story than the one we grew up with!
She does have some self-doubt at the very end of the play for completely non-war related reasons, but we'll get to that later.
She didn't have any sidekicks
Sorry, Disney fans, while we all loved the addition of her sassy horse and "lucky" cricket pals, Mulan didn't have any anthropomorphic animal friends helping her along the way. Sadly, there also isn't a peanut gallery of goofy, spectral ancestors.
And as for Mushu, arguably the best character in the movie, there was no small, red dragon sent by her ancestors for protection and comic relief. Although I doubt that any of this will come as a huge shock to any of you.
There was no big gender reveal
Just when our movie Mulan is fitting in with her fellow soldiers and everything seems to be going well, she becomes injured and it's revealed that she was a woman the whole time *gasp*! She's then shunned by Li Shang and all of her army friends. I mean, he almost kills her for her transgressions against the empire!
It's not until she saves the whole damn empire that everyone accepts her for the awesome person she's been the whole time.
When movie Mulan returns home to her proud family a war hero, she goes on to shirk gender norms and teach other young girls in China how to be equally cool. A pretty good turnout for everyone, but not what really happened.
In the play, Mulan's only request upon returning from battle was to go home to be with her family. It wasn't until she was home that she voluntarily revealed her gender to her brothers in arms.
Mulan took off her armor and put on her everyday women's clothes and everyone was kind of like "Hey, that's pretty cool!" and everyone was totally okay with it. Then she picked back up where she left off with her weaving.
Mulan was in the army much longer than we thought
How long do you think the war took in the movie? Maybe a year or two? They don't really make it clear, but whatever the timeline it doesn't even come close to the play in which Mulan spent 12 YEARS away from home.
Believe it or not, Mulan was able to fight in the army for over a decade without anyone ever finding out she was a woman. Just how she kept that on the downlow for that long is a mystery to me. Just really private showers and bathroom breaks, I guess?
In the 12 years that she was away, her parents managed to set her up with a husband. It's only when she's faced with marrying a random man (sorry, not Shang) that she begins to question herself.
Her perspective eventually did change throughout the course of the play, but only at the very end did our self-assured Mulan have trouble deciding what she wants her role in society to be.
Although Disney took a lot of creative liberties with Mulan's story, I think their adaptation of the legend was still fantastic. They found a way to make it resonate with young audiences and empower its viewers. Not to mention they added the lovely romantic element between Mulan and Shang *swoon*.
With news that Disney will be making a live-action version of Mulan's story, I hope that they rely less on the success of the animated feature and pull more from Xu Wei's play. This could be the perfect opportunity for Disney to show us more accurate and badass version of Mulan. But that's just my opinion!