Daughter, Warrior, Woman: The Evolution of Hua Mulan

In the first part of my Mulan article, I discussed what the Disney animation meant for the Chinese in China, as well as for global audiences; looked at the initial trailer of the new live action film and talked about what I hope to see in it. To understand Mulan’s significance as a cultural icon fully, we need to go to her origins and see how she evolved. I will focusing on two relatively recent film adaptations that have made the greatest impact around the world (China included), so we could see where Mulan is culturally, particularly in terms of her representation in cinema, just before a new major work comes out.

Hua Mulan originated from a legend told in The Ballad of Mulan (Mulan Ci), a folk song from the Northern Wei Dynasty (4th to 6th century CE), a time of great battles and power struggles between the 16 dynasties of the north, before unification under the Sui and Tang. There is a lot of debate over the historical existence of Mulan, and where she came from Hubei, Henan and Shaanxi are the main contestants, though some believe she may have been of xianbei (a northern nomadic tribe) ethnicity.  There are five main parts to her story – the filial daughter at home, Mulan goes to war in her father’s place, 12 years on the battlefield, victory and honours at Court, and the proud return home. Throughout history, different versions of Mulan’s tale have created many variations of each of these parts, depending on the themes they aimed to explore, and the zeitgeist.

The concept of xiao (filiality) is the key theme of the original folk song. Mulan goes to war because her brother is too young to be a solider. Her long and hard military campaign is described rather perfunctorily, with the emphasis on Mulan’s yearning to see her parents again. When Mulan is offered an official’s post at the imperial court as a recognition for her contributions, she declines and asks for permission to go home and look after her family. The model of the Good Offspring.

By the time of the Song of Mulan, possibly written by Wei Yuanpu in the Tang dynasty- several centuries after the original (and compiled by Guo Maoqian his Collected Yuefu Poetry), the story had evolved. Mulan’s zhong (loyalty to one’s country and family) and yong (bravery) both as an excellent fighter and military strategist, are celebrated alongside the quality of xiao. During the Tang period the legend of Hua Mulan spread far and wide, and became a favourite of the literati. Bai Juyi, Du Mu and Xu Ning romanticised her in their poetry, full of admiration for her battle bravery and daring disguise.

Writers of the Song and Yuan eras borrowed Mulan’s story for their own ends, the former praising her courage to express their discontent at rulers of Southern Song and show up their weak stance against the invading Jin, while the latter made her into the Model of Chastity, adding lienü (woman who dies for her honour) to her list of virtues.

The first dramatisation of Mulan’s tale came from the Ming playwright Xu Wei, in his zaju “Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place”. Xu’s portrayal of Mulan marks a new stage in her evolution. He presents her as an educated and ambitious young woman, and fills in the gaps in the original with vivid details of the character’s practical experiences of dressing like a man, giving her emotions and a personal life, adding more dimensions to the story. But at the end, Mulan marries a scholar and returns to a life in the home.

Another interesting reinterpretation is the Yong En’s Qing Dynasty chuanqi novella  “The Double Hare Tale”, the name of which takes inspiration from the well-known description of the pair of rabbits at the end of the Ballad of Mulan, and which indicates its unique angle. In this story, Mulan’s father is ordered to lead a campaign against the Heishan rebel Baozipi, and she takes her elderly father’s place. Mulan succeeds on the battlefield with her courage, wisdom and the help of the rebel’s half-sister. A unique twist to story is the courting scenes. Both brother and sister fall for Mulan’s androgynous beauty and try to marry her/him. Baozipi’s feelings are a nod to male homosexual desire which was considered fashionable among the elite at the time and therefore relatively culturally acceptable.

Mulan makes an appearance in a full-length novel in Chu Renhuo’s “Heroes of the Sui and Tang”, a fictionalised account of heroes from the eponymous historical periods. It was literary fashion of the time to drop cameos of celebrities and popular literary characters into fictional accounts of history. During a rescue mission, Mulan is captured by another lady general, duxianniang, who takes her to the Tang court to arrange for her father’s release. The two eventually come to appreciate what they have in common and become sworn sisters.  Here comes the downer again – in the end, they marry the same man (polygamy for men was common in traditional Chinese society).

Stories of the deeds of heroes were popular during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, figures of legend and historical personages usually have one novelisation in print at a given time. Mulan had two. And not just featured in or part of, but as the protagonist. One of these was Zhang Shaoxian’s Qing zhanghui novel, “The Wondrous Tale of the Filial and Honourable Woman of Northern Wei”, which takes the storyline of the Heishan bandit revolt. Zhang not only gives Mulan the full heroic treatment with a series of gripping and triumphant battle anecdotes, but also continues what Xu Wei had began, fleshes her out with inner feelings and writes about her as a woman.

The second novel, “The Tale of the Loyal, Filial, Brave and Honourable Wonder Woman” (author unknown), presents another unique branch in the representation of Mulan, adding the supernatural and a Daoist flavour into the mix. Unable to beget a son, the Zhu family make offerings at the temple on Mount Mulan, after which the gods visit Mr Zhu in his dreams, informing him that his wife would bear a daughter, but don’t be disappointed, because she’s the fleshly vessel of an immortal. When war breaks out, Zhu is summoned to command the army but falls ill. Knowing that his daughter is an immortal, Zhu has no qualms about sending her into battle, but still dresses her up as a man. Supernatural elements spice up the rest of the story, as Mulan is nearly foiled by someone else’s disguise, a thousand-year-old fox spirit turning into her military advisor and then her parents, to try and deceive her into surrendering.

Largely speaking, the evolution of Hua Mulan before the 20th century is one that has reinforced the values of family, honour and gender in traditional Chinese society. This is because the most authors (with the exception of a few Tang poets and the female writer Li Qizhao) were the upholders of these values, the literati elite or ambitious scholars. No matter what a fantastic warrior Mulan is written to be, in most of these retellings, she either returns to the domestic realm, or kills herself to keep her chastity.  Nevertheless, Hua Mulan had become a household name, developed a rich heritage and a 6th part to her story, the love interest. She has gained a personality, emotions, become an immortal, broken hearts with her beauty, met kindred spirits and acquired immense battle prowess to rival, or even best, her male counterparts. She possessed the perfect ingredients for a cultural icon of Modernity.

In modern China, Mulan’s story was first introduced to the silver screen in 1926, with Mei Lanfang, one of China’s greatest theatrical performers, in the lead role. Interestingly, Mei is best known for his female jingju (peking opera roles) and here, he plays a woman disguised as a man. The 1927 film “Hua Mulan” directed by Li Pingqian and starring 1920s screen siren Hu Shan gave the character a rich emotional existence, while the 1951 yuju (Henan opera), staring Chang Xiangyu reached a very wide audience. In the second half of the twentieth century, adaptations of Mulan’s story multiplied, with at least two TV series or films every decade from the 1980s, and actresses from other Chinese speaking regions also taking up the mantle. The two films that made the most profound impact on Chinese as well as global audiences, are Yue Feng’s 1964 huangmei opera “Lady General Hua Mulan”, starring Ivy Ling Po; and Ma Chucheng’s 2009 “Hua Mulan” starring Zhao Wei.

In the 1960s, Shaw Brothers Studios had a cinematic empire that stretched across south-east Asia, and it was also Runrun Shaw’s intention to bring Chinese films to English-speaking audiences. “Lady General Hua Mulan” was brought to the US just a year following its original Asian release. Ivy Ling Po, who had played China’s other famous cross-dressing heroine, Zhu Yingtai in the box-office breaking “Love Eterne”, reprises her gender-bending role and brought immense success to this film, winning the 11th Asia Pacific Film Festival’s Best Actress Award.

The tale of Hua Mulan is one that has been suited to musical form from the beginning. In a story in which disguise is central and appearance isn’t what it seems, songs are a great way for characters to express their inner feelings. Balancing out the battle scenes, music also serves as vehicle for heightened emotional expression needed in a war story. Huangmei was one of the most popular styles in China, that is, when opera was a still a prevalent musical form. Even though the film was made decades ago, with a cinematic language very much of its time, not to mention a much older musical form, I still found the music pleasant, and the message of the film incredibly relevant.

At first, our heroine’s back story seems to pretty much keep to the original ballad. The Hua family takes great pride in their history of military contributions to the crown. When the news of unrest and conscriptions come, Mulan’s elderly father is sick with asthma, and her brother too young to be a soldier. Mulan offers to go in their place, a suggestion her father dismisses for her lack of ability, her mother joins in, adding that no woman has ever gone to war. Mulan confidently challenges them and points out that as a matter of fact, she’s a better fighter than him. It’s this scene that pretty much sets the tone for the entire film.

Shaw Studios output reflected the feminist movement of the 1960s that became global and challenged conventional social and cultural roles of women, a theme on which, this 1964 retelling of the Hua Mulan is very much focussed, having its heroine engaged in feminist discourse in many scenes. This Mulan is given an older sister, whose conventional feminine behaviour provides an effective contrast to her own deviant views. She persuades the women in the family to help her in her quest, and they do. Dressed as a man Mulan confronts her father.
When the country is at war, don’t you think it’s right for men and women to come forward to defend the country?

This father proves incredibly open-minded, he eventually recognises that Mulan’s kungfu skills do indeed, excel his own, and bestows on her the honour of the Hua family spear. On their way to join the army, Mulan and her cousin are joined by fellow conscripts. After a night of drinking, the casual misogyny comes out – wives have the easier time staying at home and must be watched for their promiscuity. Mulan doesn’t take any of it, pointing out that the army relies on women, feeds on the harvests from their farm work and wears the uniforms they weave.
You better watch out what you say, all our mothers too are someone’s wives.

As a fellow woman, Lady General Hua Mulan is a joy to watch. Ivy Ling Po, a head shorter than most of the other actors, exudes Presence. She’s a perfect natural as the boyish hero but effortlessly switches back into a coy young woman, and between two singing voices. Mulan comes out on top in the enrolment trials, rises through the ranks during the campaign and returns home victorious. When her comrades-in-arms come to visit, the revelation of her real gender only multiplies their admiration and respect in for her as a warrior and military leader. They apologise for their misogyny, whilst General Li praises all the intelligent women throughout history.
All the men in the army, none is as good as you.

All in all, the film is an unequivocal affirmation of women, of their importance, capabilities, intelligence and equality to men, and a even celebration of their abilities to surpass them, impressive views even in today’s gender political climate. The film isn’t lacking in the exploration of Mulan’s emotional progress either. Three times during the film, the dialogue between she and General Li is set to the variation on a famous love song “The Wandering Songstress”. Mulan is characteristically bold and proactive about her feelings to Li and this in itself is an uprooting of conventional passive female behavioural norms. Aside from setting off a trend in cross-dressing during its time, “Lady General Hua Mulan” resonated with a generation of audiences, women no longer content with their places in the domestic sphere.

It’s been said that the most moving of Mulans is Zhao Wei’s portrayal in the Jingle Ma’s 2009 film, also one of the darkest of retellings. The decade before had been a time of economic recession and social awakening. China’s first indie filmmakers had began to represent the marginalised, explore mental realm of characters further and the darker side of society. The barren, earth-filled landscapes of Mulan’s home and the battlefields offset only by patches of red and green under the soldiers’ armour, indicate a post-Zhang Yimou/Chen Kaige work the harsh message of which matches its palette. Aptly for its time, Mulan is a now single child whose mother died when she was young. Despite his ill health, Mulan’s father accepts the conscription to fight the invading Rouran tribe. Knowing that he wouldn’t permit her to do so, Mulan leaves for the army before he could stop her.

Hua Mulan’s story was born out of a worn-torn era. The long and hard military campaign is a staple of her story arc, but a lot of adaptations have tended to focus on the great fights. Whereas the destructiveness and cruelty of war, a problem the world became very aware of in the 1990s and 2000s, is given full exploration in this retelling. Wentai discovers Mulan’s real gender quite early on in story. Harsh reality rather than gender is the insurmountable element in this film. As a child, Mulan beats up bullies, only to find her father apologising to their families. The battlefield is presented as a great equalising force. Heart broken by the number of comrades she’d lost over the years, confined to barren lands and unable to see the benefits of winning, Mulan has no choice but to keep going. When she is ambushed, she has to watch her closest friends and comrades die rather than sacrifice the majority of her troops, a trauma that would be weigh equally heavily on a man or a woman.

Doing the right thing, no matter how hard, is a major theme of this film, inherited from Mulan’s traditional representation. The film is subtitled “The Rise of a Warrior”, and therein lies its unique angle. Just being good at fighting isn’t enough for war. None of the real obstacles faced by this Mulan are physical. We see her grow emotionally and mentally through the film, into a warrior, see her making an error of judgement that costs the lives of many, see her hit rock bottom and find true independence.

Just when you’re starting to think that Wentai is mentoring Mulan a little bit too much, a plot twist reaffirms our heroine’s agency. After Prince Modu murders his father the Rouran king, and continues the war, Mulan appeals to the Rouran princess in secret, revealing her own disguise and convincing the princess that even as a woman, she could determine her own fate, and bring peace to both their lands. A bloody battle fought by men for years, is ended in a civilised conversation between two women. Zhao Wei, who’s made a career out of acting spunky women, can also play understated and stoic, she combines the two to excellent effect. Released in 2009 in China the rest of Asia, and in the following two years elsewhere, other actresses considered for the Mulan role which includes Michelle Yeoh and Liu Yifei, indicates the weight the Chinese had placed on this film.

Hua Mulan began the dramatic trope of the cross-dressing female heroine in China, a trope that is now popularly known in the West as “Samus is a girl”. Her legend has evolved over a millennium and a half. 20th century cinematic works that have been influential in China as well as internationally have drawn from China’s rich Mulan heritage. “Lady General Hua Mulan” portrays her as a warrior that excels her fellow soldiers, a theme that saw its origins in the Tang era Song of Mulan. “Hua Mulan: Rise of a Warrior” bears similarities to the Heishan storyline from “The Double Hare Tale” and put emphasis on the exploration of Mulan’s inner feelings, something initiated by Xu Wei in the Ming era and expanded upon by Qing writers. The new Disney live action film not only inherits from its animated predecessor that made Mulan into an international feminist icon, but also draws from a branch of her story that germinated in Chu Renhuo’s Heroes of Sui and Tang.

Mulan continues to evolve. Hubei, Henan and Shaanxi have developed their own vibrant local Mulan cultures that are still thriving today. She has been the subject of a cyberpunk comic, and brought to the stage as a ballet in cities across China over the last decade, just to name a few. Contemporary China is only just beginning to discover what Hua Mulan means to its people. This October, on national day, the country will bring out its own animated film about this icon. Director Liao Guanghua was inspired by the beauty of Disney animation as a child and was determined to make his own version of Mulan. He has reached back to Mulan’s traditional representation, but will be exploring the character’s feelings and desires as a person. He likens his Mulan to his female contemporaries, smart professional women who think independently and aren’t restrained by convention.

Compared to the massive output on Mulan throughout history, female authors have been few and far between, with Li Qingzhao being one of the very few female classical writers who’ve written about this character. This has improved somewhat in the 20th century, with at least some women in the director’s seat of China’s domestic film and TV output, the ballet and of course, this new film. I hope there will be more women taking agency in the evolution of Mulan as we head further into the 21st century.

(The above translation of the Ballad of Mulan is taken from “The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry”, by Han H. Frankel 1976)


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