Ballad of Mulan
Legend of Mulan has inspired people for thousands of years. She has become a vital part of Chinese culture and storytelling. Who was the real Mulan? Did she really existed or has her legend evolved from many different female soldiers? Let´s find out.
In China, there have been many historically important female warriors and each one of them has integrated into the legend of Mulan. There aren´t any archaeological findings which would prove the existence of the real Mulan but there are lots of literal sources which mention her. A poem called the Ballad of Mulan appeared sometimes between 386 BC and 533 BC during the Northern Wei Dynasty in ancient China. After it´s appearance the Ballad of Mulan has inspired countless amount of artists, musicians, writers and movie makers.
Martial Arts Expert
According to the legend in her youth, Mulan was very much a tomboy. Her mother thought her house chores and her father, who was a former soldier trained her to become a warrior. Mulan became an expert in martial arts. One day 17-year-old Mulan was washing laundry by the river when she overheard that the army was recruiting soldiers. Her father was old and sick and Mulan knew that he would not survive in the battle. She decided to took her father´s place and disguised herself as a man. Her father was not happy with her decision neither he was against it. Her mother was sad and was worried whether she would remain a virgin and would any man be willing to marry her after she would return. Mulan convinced her mother that she would remain untouched.
In the army, Mulan did her best to hide her true identity. She took all the night shifts so that she would not have to sleep in the tent with the other men. Her excellent martial art skills caused jealousy among some other soldiers like Zhang Shaz who always made fun of her. Other soldiers like the chief Jin Yong became good friends with Mulan but none of them knew her big secret.
Jin Yong and Mulan fought in countless battles together and eventually Mulan fell in love with her friend but she had to hide both her feelings and her true identity. After 10 years of service, Mulan was promoted as a general. During a sudden attack by the enemy´s army, Mulan wounded herself in the battle and her real identity was revealed. She had gained the respect of her men who now on respected her even more and Jin Yong realized that he truly loved Mulan.
Greatest of all Heroes
After a great victory in a battle, the emperor himself wanted to reward Mulan but she declined and said that she only wished to return to her village. That what happened Mulan after she left the army is unclear. According to some versions of the story Jin Yong died in the battle and Mulan took her own life to be with him for eternity. In some stories, Mulan returns to her home village where her father has passed away. She does not return to the army but remains in the village and takes traditional woman´s role. However, her experiences from the battlefields come into her dreams. Is she haunted by these dreams or does she secretly wish to return? We do not know. In the romanticized versions of the tale, Mulan and Jin Yong left the army and spent the rest of their lives together.
History of Mulan
Between 400 and 700 BC Chinese were constantly fighting against Mongols and other tribes from the north. War lasted nearly 300 years in different parts of the land. During these hopeless times, stories about courage warriors were well received. Since there isn´t any archaeological evidence which would prove the existence of real Mulan it is more than likely that her character was inspired by one of several Chinese female warriors which have all intertwined into the legend of Mulan.
The character of Mulan still lives strongly today in Chinese pop culture, in games, comics, books and movies. Her legends come back to life when people are looking for reminders of outstanding courage. Most known story version to the western audience is Disney animation from 1998. Disney´s Mulan is in fact quite loyal to the Ballad of Mulan. In China, the story of Mulan has been used to lift up fighting spirit whereas the Disney animation focuses more on the inner growth of the main character. After the appearance of Disney´s Mulan Disney changed the criteria for Disney princesses, when before Disney princess was a character who either married to royalty or had royal blood. Now a leading character who commits an outstanding act of bravery would become a Disney princess. Mulan is the first official Disney princess who is not born into a royal family or marry a royal.
Last verse from the ballad of Mulan
The buck bounds here and there,Whilst the doe has narrow eyes.
But when the two rabbits run side by side,
How can you tell the female from the male?
Finding One´s Identity
The story of Mulan is about finding one´s identity. In many different versions of the story, Mulan wonder´s what makes a hero. Is a woman a hero when she waits for her husband to return from the war? Is a woman a hero when she raises boys to become soldiers? There are times when Mulan questions her own identity and male and female roles are reversed. Is she now a man because she wears an armour and fights in the army? What makes a man and what makes a woman? What makes a true warrior? In China, traditional gender roles have been shifted just within the past 50 years the story of Mulan has given inspiration and courage for all those seeking for their identity and their true purpose.
Disney animated film released back in 1998 and it's Disney classic number 36.
China is in the edge of destruction. Tribes from the north are about to attack and their fearsome leader Shan Yu wants to concur all China. In peaceful Chinese village young Mulan is on her way to meet the matchmaker. Meeting does not go so well and Matchmaker believes that Mulan's is bringing only shame for her family.
Mulan is sad and disappointed for herself. Her father tries to comfort her. At the same time Emperor's console arrives and announces that one man from each family should join the army and defend China and the emperor. Mulan's father Fa Zhou who served in the army in his younger years sees that it is his duty to defend his country. Mulan knows her father is old and sick and he wouldn't survive. Father and daughter have an argument and during the night Mulan cuts her hair and steels her father's armor and joins the army as a man called Ping.
In the morning Mulan's family notices that she is gone. Mulan's grandmother prays family ancestors to protect Mulan. Ancestors decide to send family's guardian stone dragon to protect Mulan. Mushu who used to family's protector dragon, now a cong-player, manages to break the stone dragon. Mushu takes his place and goes after Mulan and hopes that ancestors would forgive him and make him family's protector dragon again.
Mulan also has her lucky cricket Si-Ri to help her. Luck is what Mulan needs since Mushu's advice's aren't always the best ones. Recently promoted Captain Shang want's to make his troops best in all China. In the beginning Mulan gets lot's of new enemies just by being clumsy. Nevertheless she proofs to be tough and talented warrior. Mulan makes friends with three soldiers Yao, Ling and Chien Po. She has a crush on Captain Shang but of course she can not reveal anyone that she is actually a woman.
Mushu get's tired boring life in the army camp. He and Si-Ri decrease a letter where general Li (Shang's father) orders his son and troops to follow him to the mountains. Once they get their it's horrible sight. Huns have killed everyone in the mountain village and there is nothing left from emperors army anymore than Captain Shang and his troops, As they continue their journey they get attack by the Huns. Mulan saves the troops and Captain Shang by lighting a firework that causes a snowfall. She get's wounded and once doctor examines her everyone find out that she is really a woman. Woman in the army is against the law and Shang should kill Mulan then and there. Mulan however saved his life so he spares hers. Troops leave her to the mountains and continue their journey to the forbidden city.
While sitting in the mountains Mulan sees that Huns and their leader Shan Yu are still alive. She travels to the forbidden city to warn Captain Shang. Captain however does not listen to her and Shan Yu manages to kidnap the Emperor. Mulan asks her friends Yao, Ling and Shien Po to dress up as emperors mistresses. Together they fight against huns and Captain Shang manages to save the emperor. Mulan escapes to the roof and fights there with Shan Yu. Mushu lights up fireworks and that is the end of Shan Yu. Mulan and Mush are saved last minute before whole palace is destroyed.
Emperor rewards Mulan and is eternally grateful for her for saving China. He offers Mulan a job as a royal counselor. Mulan doesn't take the offer she just wants to return back home to her family. After touching goodbyes Mulan returns to her home village. She gives emperor's gifts to her father but Fa Zhou is just happy that her daughter has returned home. At the same time Captain Shang comes to return the helmet Mulan forgot. Mulan asks him to stay for dinner and her tactful grandmother asks him to stay for eternity. Mushu is promoted as protector of the Fa's family and movie ends ancestors having a great party.
Disney's Mulan is based on a Chinese poem called Ballad of Mulan from 6th Century.I have a blog text about Ballad of Mulan you can read i Original poem itself is quite short but after the first literal version appeared there has been tons different versions about the legend of Mulan in Chinese literature, theater, art, comics and movies. Disney's Mulan is pretty loyal to the original story of Mulan. Of course in the Disney movie there is lot's of new characters and humor. Still the plot and character descriptions are pretty much the same. Disney had difficulties to get Mulan to Chinese cinema distribution. Few years before Mulan Disney founded movie Kundun that told about the life of Dalai Lama. Tibet's spiritual leader. Kundun was seen as a protest movie against China since Tibet is controlled by Chinese government.
China takes 10 western movies to cinema distribution each year. Surprisingly Mulan made it to Chinese movie theaters. Chinese reviews were very conflicted and film was seeing too much western type of movie about Mulan. Ironically some american extreme-feminists criticized Disney's Mulan for being too submissive female character. Which in my opinion is ridiculous considering that movie takes place in ancient China where women were submissive to men Mulan being the only acceptation. Disney storytellers were historically accurate.
Finding one´s identity
In China Mulan has been a patriotic symbol. Ballad of Mulan is mostly developed around the idea that no matter if you are a man or a woman you can still be heroic and bring glory to your country and family. It is very remarkable as a Chinese poem and really has made a big cultural differences the way it raises questions about gender roles and identity. In a country where traditional roles of women have been shifted just in the past 50 years this is remarkable.
Disney's version is more about finding one's identity and breaking the traditional gender roles. In many ways Mulan was a groundbreaking Disney animation as well since Disney has reputation to be quite conservative studio. Mulan started this whole new generation of active and capable Disney female heroes. We could already see them in Esmeralda in Huntchback of Notre Dame and Megara in Hercules but all these characters shared the screen space with leading men characters. Without Mulan we might not have Merida from Brave and Elsa from Frozen. Disney studios started to make Mulan in 1994. Disney animators were sent to China to research Chinese landscapes, art and architecture. There is also Chinese inventions in the animation such as paper and fireworks. Mulan was premiered in 1998 and it became huge hit. It was financially second successful family-movie of the year Bugs life going ahead.
Leading lady of Mulan is of course Mulan. We get familiar with Mulan's character straight in the beginning when she is writing cheat sheet to her hand. Mulan is very found of her family especially her father. When things don't go as planned with the matchmaker Mulan feels depressed and sad she has brought shame to her family. Mulan is very brave, unselfish and emphatic. There is many reasons why Mulan chooses to go the army. She want's to protect her father. Perhaps after the incident with the matchmaker she doesn't really care anymore about her reputation. In the beginning of the movie Mulan tries adopt the traditional Chinese female role.
When she joins the army that is when she starts breaking the gender role. In the army she finds her confidence and inner strength. With her intelligence she saves all China and it is her emphatic character that she wins soldiers, Emperor and Captain Chang to her side. In the end of the movie Mulan understands that she doesn't need to adopt traditional role of a man or woman. It is enough that she is just herself.
Mulan's father Fa Zhou is a very kind man. In the original poem Ballad of Mulan it was said that Mulan's father raised her like a son. When Mulan decides to take his father's place in the army father doesn't object but he is not happy either. In the Disney animation Mulan doesn't tell her family that she is about to leave. In both versions common thing is the warm respectful relationship between father and daughter.
Fa Zhou is famous character in the army. When he was younger he used to be a soldier. When Mulan can not bring honor to her family as an unmarried woman. Can she bring honor as a man following her father's foot steps? Fa Zhou is kind, foreseeing and wise father who tells Mulan to follow her own path.
Li Shang is recently promoted Captain. He is strict about order and good behavior and he has very good physical appearance (which we can see in the training camp scene). Shang is also emphatic character. This shows up in the scenes where he is with his father the general and in the end of the movie when he goes to see Mulan. We also see his vulnerability when he realizes that his father has died in the attack.
Mushu and the rest of the gang
Mushu brings comical relief to the story. Mushu is a former protector dragon of the Fa's family. Mushu brings intelligent humor to the movie that amuses both children and adults. Mushu wants Mulan to become successful and these two share a special bond. Mulan herself is a bit introvert character and Mushus appearance brings nice balance to the film.
Other funny side-characters are Mulan's not-very-discreet grandmother. Three soldiers Yao, Ling and Shien Po. These three always make me think of three musketeers. Three armybuddies that are closed as brothers. They all like Ping (Mulan) and accept him (her) to their gang. Best thing about these three is their different characteristics. Tiny Yao who has anger control issues, Tall and joking Ling and calm chubby Shien Po who has very Buddha-like appearance.
Shan Yu is the bad guy of the film. He is the fearsome leader of the Huns. He is a cruel man and wants to take over China and sees it as a challenge. He wants to destroy the Emperor. In his eyes Emperor challenged him by starting to build the great wall of China. Shan Yu doesn't feel pity or mercy and kills everyone that are on his way.
Animation and music
Animation style in Mulan is extremely beautiful. Animators put lot's of effort for constant quality and style that reminds Chinese visual art. Computer technique was also used in Mulan especially in scenes with huge crowds but the scenes made with computer blend very well with 2D animation.
In my opinion Mulan is Disney animation with fabulous music.
First song Honor to us all is very humorist and right in the beginning viewer realize what meeting the matchmaker is all about. Second song Reflections in extremely beautiful and fits perfectly for the mood Mulan must be feeling at that moment. Third song I make man out of you is one of my favorite Disney songs of all time.
It shows how Captain Shang manages to create perfect army unit from group of lazy slackers. We can also see how Ping (Mulan) becomes respected part of the team when in the end of the song he (she) climbs to the end of the pole to get the arrow. Fourth song A girl worth fighting for takes place when group is marching towards mountains singing about women. Time to time Mulan says things about women's intelligence and get's weird looks back.
In certain way Mulan is different compared to many other Disney princesses out there. According to her family tree Mulan isn't a princess or a royal for that matter. But term "Disney princess" is very flowing. Basically any Disney female leading character can be categorized as Disney Princess like Jane from Tarzan and Alice of Wonderland are also called "Disney princesses". Which is a bit silly but that's just people stereotyping Disney animations. Mulan does breaks the tradition since we don't see the romance in the movie. We see the beginning of possible romance. We see how Mulan gets very found of Captain Shang but of course pretending to be a man she can not reveal her feelings to him. In the end of the movie Shang comes to Mulan's home village to return her helmet.. well helmet is an excuse to see her again and before that Emperor himself has given him some good advice. It is up to viewers imagination what happens between these two characters.
I think I watched Mulan on video (yes on video!) first time sometimes between 1998-1999. I remember always considered it as a good movie though in my eyes it didn't get to the same level with Disney's renaissance-era animations from the early 90's. But I must admit when I watched Mulan again in my winter break for this blog text, with careful eye of Disney researcher and I also did research about the legend of "real" Mulan at the same time. My appreciation for this film has risen tremendously. If I gave three stars before now it's straight four!
There is great balance between humor and drama in Mulan and neither one get's over the top.
Movie is loyal for it's original source and handles important issues that are relevant in today's world as well.
Mulan's universal theme of finding ones identity touches as all no matter who we are or where we come from.
Artist and Illustrator. Mythology and Folklore enthusiastic. Keen traveler. Comes from Finland. Likes cats, tea, and such.
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