The Real Legend Of Mulan Is Darker And More Complicated Than We Realized

When barbarians invaded ancient China, each family sent a warrior to protect their homeland. In the Mulan legend, a young girl volunteers to take her father's place, disguising herself as a man to fight for China. In the earliest version of the Mulan legend, Hua Mulan goes off to battle and fights for 12 years before returning to her family.

Over the centuries, storytellers told and retold the story, adding complicated twists to her tale. In one version of the story, a warrior princess captures Mulan and declares her a barbarian slave. In another, the Turkic khan tries to make Mulan his concubine. In nearly every version, Mulan's story is not a heroic triumph. Instead, it is a tragedy. Many versions of the legend end with Mulan taking her own life.

As for the real life of Mulan, some claim her story is only a legend. However, Hua Mulan has inspired generations of people for centuries - in spite of the tragic elements of her story.

Photo: Hiart / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

  • Mulan Trained As A Warrior For Years Before Going Off To Battle

    Mulan wasn't a novice when she took her father's place in the army. In one of the most popular versions of the Mulan story, by Xu Wei, Mulan trains as a warrior for years before she goes off to battle.

    As a child, Mulan's father teaches her martial arts. So when she takes her father's place in the army, Mulan is already prepared. When she leaves, Mulan vows, "My horse will gallop to win glory in the battle... When I put its bridle, I am a girl of beauty."

  • Before Becoming A General, Mulan Bound Her Feet

    In a play about Mulan's life written between 420 and 589 AD, Hua Mulan removes her foot bindings before going to battle. For centuries, Chinese women bound their feet from a young age, with the goal of shrinking their feet to no more than 4 inches long.

    Although the practice of binding women's feet began after Mulan's era, the play dramatizes Mulan's decision by showing her setting aside the feminine practice to take up the blade. However, because foot binding permanently deformed women's feet, Mulan would have struggled to disguise herself as a warrior, and she certainly wouldn't have earned a promotion to general.

  • Mulan Had A Younger Brother, But He Was Too Young For The Army
    Photo: He Dazi / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mulan Had A Younger Brother, But He Was Too Young For The Army

    Modern retellings of Mulan make her an only child. As a result, when the Chinese army conscripts one man from every family, Mulan's elderly father must serve.

    However, Mulan had a brother. In many versions of the story, Mulan is the oldest child in her family, but she still has a younger sister and a younger brother. In these versions, the younger brother isn't old enough to go to battle.

    To save her father, Mulan decides to take his place. “When I was a child, I was physically strong and pretty clever too," Mulan says. "I used to study both classic literature and martial arts with my father. Now is the time for me to repay him.”

  • Instead Of Sneaking Off To Battle, Mulan Told Her Parents

    In traditional versions of the tale, Mulan doesn't sneak off to battle without telling anyone in her family. Instead, she goes on a shopping trip to buy supplies and lets her parents know what she plans to do:

    In the East Market she buys a steed,
    In the West Market she buys a saddle and saddle blanket,
    In the South Market she buys a bridle,
    In the North Market she buys a long whip.

    Before she leaves, Mulan's mother gives her daughter a gift. “I have also put some needle and thread in your bag," Mulan's mother says, "in case you need them for your armor or uniform.” The tools for needlework represent the feminine virtues Mulan will set aside.

  • Mulan Hid For 12 Years Without Being Discovered
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mulan Hid For 12 Years Without Being Discovered

    In the earliest version of Mulan's story, she successfully disguises herself as a man for 12 years.

    After serving in the army for over a decade, Mulan takes down her hair and puts yellow flower powder on her face. Then she reveals her secret to her comrades:

    Her comrades are all shocked.
    Traveling together for twelve years
    They didn't know Mulan was a girl.

    Other versions of the legend also say that Mulan fought for over a decade before returning home.

  • The Other Soldiers Complained That Mulan Refused To Urinate In Front Of Them

    In many versions of the story, Mulan spends years wearing her disguise and living among soldiers. And even Mulan's mother worries that the soldiers will quickly realize Mulan isn't a man. 

    "But you are a girl," Mulan's mother says. "When you travel with your fellow soldiers for thousands of miles, eating and sleeping together, there comes a moment when your you-know-what comes out. That’s disgraceful."

    Mulan's fellow soldiers also joke that she is different: "This brother Hua is so strange, he never lets us see him sh*t or pee."