50: Mulan

No one expects Disney’s Mulan to be very historically accurate, but let’s take a few moments to learn more about the real story behind the movie.

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Episode Transcript

If you’re a fan of musicals, you probably know her name. At the very least, you’d recognize her face. To say Lea Salonga has had a successful career is quite an understatement.

Her career began in the 1980s as she performed classic musicals such as The King and I, Annie, Fiddler on the Roof and even one musical we’ve covered here on the podcast, The Sound of Music.

Lea’s career really took off when, in 1989, she was chosen to play the lead role in Miss Saigon at London’s West End. Miss Saigon would go on to win numerous awards, including a Tony Award for Lea as the Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical in 1991.

Hot off her Tony Award, Disney picked Lea to be the singing voice of their latest princess, Jasmine, in 1992’s Aladdin.

Six years later, she’d return to play another Disney princess. This time as the singing voice of Mulan.

Work on the movie Mulan began in 1994 by the team inside Disney known as Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida. This idea for this team, which consisted of about 50 people when it was set up in 1989, was mostly to focus on creating cartoon shorts and help out other teams.

The team did such a great job on some of their projects, including help on other full-length features like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, that Disney bigwigs decided to let them take a crack at a full-length feature.

With a budget of $90 million when it was released in 1998, Mulan was the most expensive film with a Disney princess to date. Of course, at the time there were no official Disney princesses—those were instituted in 2000 after Disney’s head of consumer products, Andy Mooney, launched the Disney Princess line.

No one really expects an animated film to be entirely accurate to history, but just how accurate was Mulan?

The true story behind Mulan

Our story today begins by setting some expectations, because not much is known about the real Mulan. Her story is one that has passed from generation to generation and is more legend at this point than known history. Perhaps the most prominent of these being either the song known as Ballad of Mulan or an ancient play known as Sui Tang Romance.

According to the movie, her name is Fa Mulan, while the Ballad of Mulan calls her Hua Mulan. Special thanks to Kelly, who pointed out that Hua and Fa are actually the same name—both meaning “flower.” The difference is that Hua is the Mandarin pronunciation while Fa is Cantonese.

Mulan lived somewhere in an eighty year period on either side of the year 500 during a period in history where the country we think of today as China was split into two dynasties. They were aptly referred to as the Northern and Southern Dynasties because, well, one of them was geographically northern while the other was to the south.

Many historians place Mulan as living in the northern of these, referred to as the Northern Wei, which was located just south of modern-day Mongolia in modern-day China.

Although the Sui Tang Romance play place her about a hundred years later, around the year 620, as the Tang dynasty was beginning around the same area.

The movie begins as we see soldiers of the Hun army climbing over the Great Wall, something no one thought possible.

While I don’t think it’ll come as much of a surprise to learn that pretty much everything here, and really throughout most of the film, is made up, there are some elements of truth as a backdrop to the story.

For example, most historians believe the construction on the Great Wall could’ve began as early as the Qin dynasty in the year 206 BC. The initial purpose for the wall was, as the movie implies, to keep the Huns out.

To the best of our knowledge, the Huns never crossed the Great Wall around the time of Mulan. And they weren’t the evil, ninja-like characters we see in the movie. We don’t ever really know the reason why they’re attacking in the film, but the idea is clear that they’re the bad guys.

In truth the Huns weren’t really the big, bad guys the movie makes it seem. Well, they had enemies so they were bad guys to some people, sure, but everyone is someone else’s bad guy.

The Huns were a nomadic people, living in what’s now Mongolia. They made a name for themselves throughout history by raiding quite a lot of other civilizations. One of these, as the movie implies, were the Chinese. But they weren’t the only civilizations to be raided by the Huns, perhaps just the most convenient due to geographical location.

Throughout history, we have evidence to suggest Huns would raid India and Persia, that’s modern-day Iran, and even as far west as Germany and France in Europe. They were able to roam so far and be successful in their raids thanks to a technology that no one else had at the time—stirrups. Using stirrups, Huns mounted on horseback could stabilize themselves much better than other cavalry at the time. This let them do things other cavalry couldn’t do, most notably striking with a quick succession of arrows that had deadly accuracy.

If you’ve heard of the Huns, it’s probably because of their most famous leader, Attila the Hun. While this story isn’t about Attila, it’s worth pointing out that Attila most likely wasn’t alive during Mulan’s lifetime. Even though we’re not entirely sure when Mulan actually lived, we know Attila was most likely born around 406 and he died on his one of his wedding nights in the year 453.

That’s at least a couple decades before Mulan was supposedly alive. Although, since we can’t really prove Mulan’s timetable one way or another, there’s always the possibility these two legends of history were alive at the same time. But it’s not likely.

This is important to the story of Mulan, though, because after Attila died, his sons quarreled over the Hunnish empire. It didn’t take long after his death for the Huns to break apart—their raiding of various civilizations came back to bite them when they couldn’t withhold peace within their own ranks.

So it’s very possible the Huns weren’t even around during the time of Mulan. That would, of course, cast even further historical doubt on the plot in the film.

Back in the movie, another major plot point comes into play with Fa Mulan being set up for marriage.

We do know that arranged marriages began as a custom in China somewhere between the year 400 and 200 BC. So while we don’t know for sure if Mulan was arranged to be married with a matchmaker like the movie shows, it’s very likely to have happened.

The next major plot point we see in the movie is something else that’s very likely to have happened. That is when Mulan takes the place for her father in the Imperial Chinese Army to fight off the Huns.

Well, as we learned, it’s not likely the Huns were around during Mulan’s time. Instead, it’s much more likely Mulan fought against another nomadic group of people known as Xianbei.

The Xianbei people lived in what’s now eastern Mongolia and Northeast China, but were one of the largest nomadic peoples during the Chinese Han Dynasty. Of course, this history could be an entire podcast in and of itself, but for the purposes of our story it’s important to know the Xianbei people would eventually establish the Tang dynasty we learned about earlier in the Northern Wei region, where Mulan was believed to have lived.

She did, however, take her father’s place in the army. At least, that’s the legend. According to the legend, Mulan joined the army to fight the Tang dynasty, who was trying to take over all of China.

She didn’t sneak out in the middle of the night like the movie shows. She did so because her father was elderly, and her brother was too young. So she went in their stead, and received her parent’s support as they bade her farewell.

So while Mulan did join the Army, there’s not much to lead us to believe what we saw in the movie with Mulan fighting the Huns was accurate.

But still, joining the Army was enough of a reason for us to know who Mulan was even now—thousands of years later. It wasn’t a common thing to do and it was something, like the movie shows, Mulan had to dress up as a man to do.

Although, in the movie, Mulan’s father, Fa Zhou, doesn’t have any sons. Only Mulan. Here again we have a similar variation in accounts between Hua and Fa, the Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations of the word “flower.” Of course, I think that there’s some variations in the pronunciations that have survived over the generations with such an ancient story makes perfect sense…at least to me.

In either case, according to the legends, Mulan’s father actually had two daughters and an infant son at the time.

In the movie, after Mulan joins the army she’s seen as a bumbling soldier. That’s not true. Even though she had to dress up like a man to be accepted into the Army, she knew how to fight. She was already quite skilled with a bow and arrow, the sword and at martial arts.

Back in the movie, as Mulan is fighting the Huns it’s her quick thinking that helps her take out the Hun army by shooting a cannon off into a mountain. The ensuing avalanche engulfs the Huns, nearly killing Mulan in the process as she’s cut by the big bad guy in the film.

Unfortunately, we don’t have many details about the specific battles Mulan fought in. We already know Mulan wasn’t fighting the Huns, but still, as best as we can tell, all of this was made up for the movie.

As the story goes, she spent about 12 years in the Imperial Army, as she fought for Heshana Khan. He was the Khan, or Emperor, of the Western Turkic Khaganate that battled the Tang dynasty. At some point during this time, Mulan and some other soldiers are cut off. It’s here when a warrior princess named Xianniang found out Mulan is a woman.

Xianniang was so excited to find another woman warrior, the two women became sworn sisters and fought alongside each other for the remainder of the war.

In the movie, things end as many Disney movies do, on a happily ever after note. As you can probably guess, that’s quite different than what really happened.

Although different legends tell different tales of what happened to Mulan after her 12 years in the Army. According to one, Mulan was offered a high-ranking position in the Army. She politely turned this down, instead deciding to return home to her family and living out the rest of her life in peace.

Yet another legend is much more sad as it claimed Mulan returned to a broken home. While she was away, her father passed and her mother had remarried to another man. Instead of being offered a position in the Army, Mulan was forced to become the concubine of the Khan. She refused this fate, instead taking her own life.

In the end, like many other legends throughout history, we just don’t know much about the real Mulan. We don’t even really know for sure if she was a real person or just a name that was passed from generation to generation, with each generation adding more to the story.

I thought it’d be fitting to close out this episode by reading the lyrics to the song that tells the tale of Mulan. This is the Ballad of Mulan, written by an unknown author at some point in either the fifth or sixth century and, of course, as translated to English.

Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,
Mulan weaves, facing the door.
You don’t hear the shuttle’s sound,
You only hear Daughter’s sighs.
They ask Daughter who’s in her heart,
They ask Daughter who’s on her mind.
“No one is on Daughter’s heart,
No one is on Daughter’s mind.
Last night I saw the draft posters,
The Khan is calling many troops,
The army list is in twelve scrolls,
On every scroll there’s Father’s name.
Father has no grown-up son,
Mulan has no elder brother
I want to buy a saddle and horse,
And serve in the army in Father’s place.”

In the East Market she buys a spirited horse,
In the West Market she buys a saddle,
In the South Market she buys a bridle,
In the North Market she buys a long whip.
At dawn she takes leave of Father and Mother,
In the evening camps on the Yellow River’s bank.
She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears the Yellow River’s flowing water cry tsien tsien.

At dawn she takes leave of the Yellow River,
In the evening she arrives at Black Mountain.
She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears Mount Yen’s nomad horses cry tsiu tsiu.
She goes ten thousand miles on the business of war,
She crosses passes and mountains like flying.
Northern gusts carry the rattle of army pots,
Chilly light shines on iron armor.
General die in a hundred battles,
Stout soldiers return after ten years.

On her return she sees the Son of Heaven,
The Son of Heaven sits in the Splendid Hall.
He gives out promotions in twelve ranks
And prizes of a hundred thousand and more.
The Khan asks her what she desires.
“Mulan has no use for a minister’s post.
I wish to ride a swift mount
To take me back to my home.”

When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming
They go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.
When Elder Sister hears Younger Sister is coming
She fixes her rouge, facing the door.
When Little Brother hears Elder Sister is coming
He whets the knife, quick quick, for pig and sheep.
“I open the door to my east chamber,
I sit on my couch in the west room,
I take off my wartime gown
And put on my old-time clothes.”
Facing the window she fixes her cloudlike hair,
Hanging up a mirror she dabs on yellow flower powder
She goes out the door and sees her comrades.
Her comrades are all amazed and perplexed.
Traveling together for twelve years
They didn’t know Mulan was a girl.
“The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip,
The she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground, How can they tell if I am he or she?”

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