There is a wonderful traditional legend about a warrior woman called Hua 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. The ancient story of Mulan highlights a tender bond between a father and his daughter.
A symbol of filial piety
In war-torn China, during the Northern Wei era, the Northern and Southern dynasties were battling for power. According to legend, there was an elderly couple who lived in a country village with their three children, one of whom was Mulan. She was a lovely and obedient maiden. By the time Mulan had reached her teens, she had excelled at learning martial arts.
One day, by decree of the emperor, it was announced that the country was preparing for war. Huns were threatening the emperor’s rule again 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. She was devastated. Mulan knew her father was old and frail, and she was afraid that he might not make it back home. She thought hard and made a plan.
Mulan the warrior
Mulan bought a horse and went to get her father’s military uniform. She put them on and cut off her long black hair. With tears in her eyes, Mulan silently bid her family goodbye.
With her father’s sword slung across her chest, she rode out of the village on horseback. No one saw her again for 12 years. Mulan went off to take her father’s place among the other warriors from her province; the young Mulan dressed in a military outfit, disguised as a man.
In ancient China, men were normally seen as a woman’s superior. It was unheard of that a woman would even dare to deem herself a man’s equal. Mulan took her father’s place out of deep 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, a 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 combat, Hua Mulan received honors from the emperor for valor. Her superior, General Xiu Ping, offered her an official post in the court. Mulan declined humbly. Instead, she requested the fastest steed to take her home. She was welcomed home as a heroine receiving a hero’s welcome.
But most of all, it was her father whom she wanted to see. Back at home, Mulan threw off her uniform and put on a beautiful traditional dress embroidered with silk thread. The soldiers who had accompanied her back were shocked when they saw this. Was it possible? Is this really the same person who fought so bravely by their side for 12 years?
Hua Mulan is the essence of filial piety. She fearlessly shielded her father from the ravages of war and fought for her country with amazing dignity and courage. This is why Mulan’s story is still loved and retold countless times by Chinese people.