There is a beloved legend about a young warrior woman called Mulan. She lived during the Northern and Southern dynasties (420-589 CE). In Chinese family relationships, respect, obedience, and care for one’s parents and the elderly (or filial piety) are considered a special feature within the nation’s cultural history and customs, and Mulan fitted the bill flawlessly. This ancient legend is about a deep and extraordinary bond between an aging father and his young daughter.
A symbol of filial piety
In war-torn China, during the Northern Wei era, the Northern and Southern dynasties were always battling for power. According to legend, an elderly couple lived in a country village near the border with their three children, their eldest was Mulan. By the time she had reached her teens, Mulan had excelled at learning martial arts and mastered all the traditional Chinese handicrafts.
One morning, by decree of the emperor, it was announced in the village that the country was preparing for war. Huns were threatening the emperor’s rule and one man from each family in the province was commanded to sign up for military duty.
Mulan’s family name was Huā (meaning “flower”) and when it was called out, Mulan’s father was compelled to go and join the army. Mulan and her family were terribly anxious. He was old and frail, and they were scared that he would not make it back home. Mulan thought hard and made a plan.
Mulan the warrior
Mulan bought a horse and went to find her father’s military uniform. She donned herself in the heavy armor and cut off her long black hair tied it in a high bun and with tears in her eyes, she bid her family goodbye silently and fled from her home under the cover of night on her steed. With her father’s sword slung across her chest, she rode away and no one saw her again for many years.
In ancient China, men were generally seen as a woman’s superior. It was unheard of that a woman would even dare to deem herself a man’s equal. But Mulan’s only thought was for her father. She did not become a warrior for any other reason but out of love for him and a sense of loyalty to her motherland, and, of course, because she was capable.
In the 12 years that Mulan served in the military, she fought many battles for her country and had incredible victories. Surprisingly, no one ever uncovered her secret.
Disney’s animated Mulan
In the animated Disney version of Mulan, there are a couple of humorous adaptations of the story. She’s accompanied by a pet dragon, speaks fluent English, and her gender becomes known to some of the soldiers. And guess what? They were actually quite fine with it!
According to the Ballad of Mulan, an ancient poem that was written in the 6th century, it’s only after she returns back home from the war that her gender is revealed.
After 12 years of heroic combat, Mulan received high honors from the emperor for her valor. Mulan’s superior, General Xiu Ping, offered her an official post in the court but Mulan declined his magnanimous offer. Instead, she requested the fastest steed to take her home.
More than anything, it was her father whom she wanted to see. And when she did, there was no more holding back her tears. And Mulan’s father was at peace at last. After being welcomed home by her family and the entire village. Mulan went to her family home, threw off her uniform, and put on her traditional garment which she had embroidered with fine silk thread so long ago. She placed a flower in her hair and smiled to herself.
The soldiers who had accompanied her were shocked. What? Was this the same person who fought bravely by their side for 12 years?
Hua Mulan is the essence of filial piety. She was fearless in shielding her father from the ravages of war, she fought for her country with amazing dignity and courage.
This is why Mulan’s story is still loved and has been retold countless times by Chinese people.