How Mulan’s Image Evolved Throughout Chinese History

Let us talk about the latest Mulan movie.

And no, I am not going to talk about how ridiculous the movie is. How the ancestral phoenix has been compared to a kite, the Rourans to the Dothrakis, the emperor to Fu Manchu and our very heroine Fa Mulan to a mutant superhero who belongs to Professor X’s Institute (of Marvel fame) instead of to, I don’t know, a fantasyland called ancient China. Except, of course, that the so-called fantasyland reeks badly of last-century Orientalism mingled with a whiff of the Salem witch trials.

And I am not going to talk about how awkward the costumes look. How the character development arc is basically unneeded when you enter the scene with superpowers. How a mute phoenix represents Chinese ancestral beliefs no better than a talking dragon. How loose flowing hair with beach waves is not a mark of ancient Chinese femininity. Or how qi, a life-force permeating the entire universe, is reduced to some gendered thing just so Disney could spin a feminist tale out of it.

Instead, let us talk about something that is less controversial. About the fact that Mulan has a sword with the words ‘Loyal, Brave, True’ on one face and ‘Filial’ on the reverse. That, along with Christina Aguilera’s song of the same title, is Disney’s attempt at a closer representation of the original ballad.

Except that it is not.

Now is the time to look at the ballad itself. It starts with a scene of Mulan — not skidding on roof tiles before her aghast neighbours — seated idle at her loom. She sighs heavily. Dad has been called to serve in the army. There’s no adult male to take his place.

Alright then, I’ll go.

The ballad is as simple as that. There’s no grand declarations of filial piety. No sentiments of serving king and country. Just an ordinary girl faced with an impossible task. A family crisis, calling for action. Her father was in no state to serve — death is a foregone conclusion. And without the breadwinner, how would her family survive?

The poem proceeds with an almost disinterest in the machinations of war. Mulan bids her parents farewell. She sets up camp by the Yellow River. The river gushes in her ear. She hears not the calls of her parents. She is far, far away from home.

The troops cover a great distance. Their armour glint in the cold winter’s light. Ten years pass in a flash. Some experienced generals die. Some survive.

Mulan is one of the lucky ones.

She stands before the Khan. He dishes out rewards for his soldiers. Positions at court? Military titles?

No. Give me a fast camel. I want to go home.

At the city gates, dad and mom wait. They have aged. They lean on each other for support. Younger brother has grown up. Elder sister is as lovely as ever.

It is so good to be home. One might imagine Mulan’s sigh of relief as she puts on her civilian clothes. It is over. Peace has been restored — for goodness knows how long.

In fact, Mulan’s era was one of the most tumultuous in Chinese history. Wars were continually fought. Against the Rouran in the north, against the ethnic Han regimes in the south. Territories lost and reclaimed. Boundaries reestablished. Kingdoms rise and fall. Civilisations wiped out forever from existence.

And in the midst of it, there were just a group of women, desperately trying to survive.

They belonged to the upper classes. Had times been good, they would be cloistered in their rooms, secluded from the world, secure in their wealth and their place in society. They may have counselled their sons. Do some embroidery. Stroll around gardens and recite poetry. The men of the family would have protected them from harm. Or at least, they might have proceeded as Confucius would have envisioned.

Confucius envisioned a world in which everyone knew their place. That everyone would be filial to their parents at home and loyal to their superiors abroad. A society in which filial piety and loyalty, dual images of each other, would work together in some mysterious harmony to guarantee order and stability.

Except that the Han dynasty and its Confucianist convictions had long been overthrown. And in times of chaos, women had to do what they had to do.
Avenge their father while their male relatives sat in despair? Check.Train a retinue of maidservants for self-defense? Check. Break through enemy lines to save a town from starvation? Check.

It was during these times when we hear such stories of remarkable women who were skilled in martial arts, and actually used their talents for good. The stories all ran along a similar thread. A crisis has struck. The men of the family were either absent or weak. Some woman takes matters into her own hands. She crosses moral boundaries. Ultimately, she achieves victory, and is forgiven for whatever transgression committed.

Mulan’s story may seem one-of-a-kind when read in isolation. However, when seen in this light, against the multitude of stories featuring women and their attempts at survival, we see a common thread. And we come to realise that it is very much a product of the times. That no story is possible in a vacuum. Historical and material conditions have to come together to make a story possible. And in a way, Mulan, if she existed at all, is one of the many women who temporarily took the place of men to defend themselves and their family. It does not make her story any less exceptional. Rather, it gives us context, and we can understand Mulan’s motivations better yet.

So how did Mulan’s story become one of filial piety and loyalty?

Let us fast forward to the middle of the Tang Dynasty. The empire has been unified. The mighty Tang stretches deep into the West while firming its grip over China proper. Each year, the Silk Road brings in foreign traders and a vibrant, international culture.

Under this grand facade, things were coming apart. The An Lushan rebellion greatly weakened the empire’s might. An emperor was reinstated, but regional warlords still held power. How might a declining kingdom recall loyalty among its former subjects?

Now, there was a certain Wei Yuanfu, court official, loyal subject to the old Tang emperors. The shifting political climate would not have escaped his keen eyes. And, perhaps coincidentally, he penned a poem about Mulan.

It is an unremarkable piece of work in the rich repository that was Tang poetry. It neither had literary merit nor was it very novel. It reads very much like a rephrase of Mulan’s original ballad, except for the four concluding lines.
“Could there be officials/With a heart like Mulan’s/Both filial and loyal/Deserving of everlasting fame”

We know that Mulan had been revered as some semi-deity by the common people of Tang Dynasty. A temple was dedicated to her. It may have been a tourist hotspot of sorts. The famed poet Du Mu was known to have visited, and commemorated his trip with a dedication to Mulan. Still, it was the first time, at least in written history, that anyone had made the dual themes of filial piety and loyalty from Mulan’s story explicit.

Now, as it must be reminded, Mulan’s poem never framed her enlistment as an act of filial piety. And if her actions could be somehow construed as a filial self-sacrifice, it would take a leap of imagination to infer her loyalty to her sovereign. If anything, it was more like a by-product of her actions, rather than a motivation for her enlistment.

Casting that aside, Wei Yuanfu’s claim must have made so much sense to the Tang Dynasty literati. Of course Mulan was both filial and loyal. Wasn’t this something that our very own emperor Tang Xuanzong recommended in his commentary of the “Book of Filial Piety”? Convert your filial piety to your father into loyalty for your sovereign. And oh, most conveniently, loyalty should always come before filial piety.

Tang Xuanzong’s admonishments and Wei Yuanfu’s burning loyalty did little to save the Tang Dynasty from its inevitable demise. China was plunged once again into chaos, but not for long. In a matter of half a century, the Chinese found a new master in the Song emperors, and all was well again. For the time being.

The Song loved Mulan. They unquestioningly accepted the Tang dynasty’s designation of her as some figurehead of the filial piety-loyalty duality (that’s quite a mouthful, but I am sticking with it). And Mulan was made more popular than ever, thanks to development of moveable type printing. Which meant stories about heroes and heroines of yore could be circulated among the masses. And at the same time, literature became secularised, and stories like Mulan’s could be enjoyed by all.

And the people needed it. The Song Dynasty flourished for over a century, before a humiliating invasion by the Jin. The emperor and his dad were taken hostage, a sizeable chunk of the territory lost, and the elites migrated to the south. As time passed, and as generals fought in futility to regain lost lands, the people began to turn to another mode of solace. Stories in which brave heroes and heroines fought to defend their homeland. Mulan was one of them. She was worshipped, and revered, to the extent that no one quite thought to question certain glaring gaps in her story.

Where did she learn how to fight?
How did she conceal her identity for so long?
How did her parents feel about her leaving?

It was a century later when the Ming dynasty came along. Mulan had become a staple figure in Chinese imagination. But the Ming playwrights and novel writers were scratching their heads over the blank pages they had to fill. The original ballad gave hardly any details about these questions at all. Sure, it made for a very succinct read, very appropriate for a poem. But those moviegoers and novel readers had to be filled in with more details. They wanted to see some good action, some suspense. Perhaps a bit of humour, thrown in here and there.

In other words, the perfect goddess Mulan of filial piety-loyalty fame had to be pulled down from her pedestal. To be reworked, infused with flesh and blood, emotions, and very human concerns. She had to be made relatable in a way that would meet the expectations of her time. For example, her feet. Ming dynasty women had bound feet. As historically inaccurate as it was, a Ming dynasty audience could not imagine a time when women ran freely on unbounded feet.

So the playwright (among other things) Xu Wei gave her a pair of bound feet (which she unbounded), an opportunity to declare her purity (another fixation of Ming dynasty minds), and a heroic scene in which she captured the leader of the enemy alive. And not to mention, the perfect match to complete her story in a very satisfactory manner.

Xu Wei’s retelling caught on. And from then onwards, every single retelling of Mulan twisted her story in ways fan fiction authors would be familiar with. One story had her become sworn sisters with a fellow female warrior. In another, Mulan had a woman fall in love with her. (The woman later became Mulan’s co-wife).

In a number of retellings, Mulan’s relationship with her parents are explored. They protest, weep, beg and faint as they deal with the multitude of emotions that arise upon hearing of Mulan’s decision. It is very much unlike the stoicism implied by the ballad. Then again, given the ballad’s brevity, we cannot really know.

Now, the strong, weapon-bearing, family-protecting women embodied in Mulan’s ballad were a thing of the past. Apart from the occasional female warrior, many women would expect to spend their lives within the confines of their homes. But some women of the Ming and Qing dynasty had a new weapon — the pen. Female literacy was at an all-time high in the Qing dynasty. Over 3000 women had works published in their name — ten times the number in all the previous dynasties added up together. Their influence was such that a new genre catering to women writers and readers was born. It was a mixture of lyrical and prosaic form, and they became a medium in which women gave voice to their inner thoughts.

Mulan inspired some of these works. A recurring theme features women who’d cross dress out of desperation, but ends up with public recognition. And unlike the Mulan who tosses away her accolades to return to the private sphere, these new ‘Mulans’ do not give up their hard-won recognition so easily.

Perhaps these character archetypes were a foil for the hidden ambitions of these talented writers.

If I were given the chance, if I were a man, no — if I could dress and look and act like one, perhaps I could make something of myself.

Perhaps I could ace the imperial exams. Perhaps I could shine in public service.

But I am a woman, and a woman cannot make something of herself. She has to stay at home and mind the in-laws — but she can write.

Maybe someday things will change.

Maybe some day my granddaughter will pick this story up and see the desire written between the lines.

Perhaps she will go out there and prove herself.

Perhaps, she will no longer have to dress like a man.