Who is Mulan?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Mulan is the heroine of the Ballad of Mulan, an ancient Chinese poem first recorded in the 6th century CE. Though this text is lost, it is mentioned as the source in a 12th century text including the poem. Mulan dresses as a man to take her aged father's place in the army and distinguishes herself on the battlefield. Her story was also the subject of a 1998 Disney film.

The story of Mulan was the subject of a 1998 Disney film by the same name.
The story of Mulan was the subject of a 1998 Disney film by the same name.

The original story of Mulan, as a poem intended to be sung, does not offer much in the way of historical details. The story is simple. Mulan enlists in the army after seeing her father's name on the registers, since there are no men of an appropriate age to fight in her family. After Mulan becomes a celebrated warrior and her term of service ends, the Emperor offers her a government position, but she declines, asking instead for a camel to help her on the trip home. Later, her battle colleagues visit her home and discover her true gender. The final image of the poem is a male and a female hare running side by side, accompanied by the observation that they are impossible to tell apart.

A crater on the planet Venus is named after Mulan.
A crater on the planet Venus is named after Mulan.

Chinese histories written later in the medieval period discuss the historical character of Mulan, but details are disparate. An early source places Mulan in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534), while another places her at the end of the Sui Dynasty (581-619). Her surname, not mentioned in the poem, is alternately given as Zhu, Wei, and Hua. Hua Mulan, the name used in the 16th century scholar Xu Wei's play inspired by the story, is the best known variant. The Disney version uses Fa, the Cantonese pronunciation of the same character that represents Hua in Mandarin.

The Chinese mascot for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup was based on Mulan.
The Chinese mascot for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup was based on Mulan.

The story of Mulan has captured the imagination of many over the years and has become the subject of plays and books both inside and outside China. She is a popular symbol of the strong, resourceful woman. The Chinese mascot for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup is based on Mulan, and a crater on the planet Venus is named after her.

A map of China.
A map of China.
Mulan asked for nothing but a camel to help her on her trip home.
Mulan asked for nothing but a camel to help her on her trip home.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


@suntan12 - I agree about Mulan being a great influence on girls to go for what they want and to make sure that they are strong too. I worry a bit though about the perception that you would have to deceive everyone into thinking you are someone you're not in order to get approval though.

I know that historically Mulan would have had no choice but to disguise herself as a man to be in the army, and she was clever and brave for doing so, but nowadays the idea of someone becoming something they're not just to prove yourself seems a bit sad. I hope no one really thinks that using a disguise is a good way to get recognition for your achievements. Though I guess we all do this a little bit in our society, with our power suits and plastic surgery.


I always loved the character Mulan, especially as Disney adopted her. I really enjoyed seeing a female character switch gender roles to pursue a career that she really wanted. This particular idea of gender switching through disguise has been a plot device that you will see in a lot of modern movies.

One of my favorites that follows the Mulan gender switch storyline is ‘She's the Man’, a 2006 movie about a girl who transforms herself into a male so she can continue to play soccer despite her parents disapproval.

I wonder how many of these movies are directly inspired by Mulan and which are just going with a neat plot device that works?


@SunnySkys- I agree and I think that the Mulan soundtrack really appeals to the themes of the movie. For example, in the Mulan lyrics for the song “Reflections” sung by Christina Aguilera, you really get the full meaning of the movie by just listening to the words in this song.

All of the songs in the Mulan soundtrack create a depiction of a strong heroine which really sends a positive message to kids especially young girls because they learn that women can be strong too.

I love this movie because it does send a strong positive message of being yourself and accepting who you are.


@SZapper - I agree, the Disney Mulan movie was great. Until I read this article I had no idea their Mulan character was based on Chinese folklore. I should have guessed though, because most Disney movies are based on folktales or fairy tales.

I always found it very interesting how Disney went about making those stories more kid-friendly. Traditionally, some of those stories don't end very happily after all. For example, in the Hans Christian Andersen tale of "The Little Mermaid" the mermaid and the prince don't marry after all. In the end the mermaid throws herself back into the sea and turns into foam on top of the water. Definitely not very kid friendly!

It seems like the Mulan movie stuck a little bit more closely to the traditional tale of Mulan though.


I really loved the Disney film Mulan. I think it did a lot to bring Disney into the modern era, so to speak. Most of the female characters in traditional Disney movies are usually portrayed as weak and helpless. They pretty much always need a man to rescue them. Not Mulan though!


1) Can you give the exact year in which the story of Mulan occurred eg. the story of Pocahontas occurred in 1607?

2) Mulan belonged to which state of China eg. Pocahontas belonged to Virginia state of USA?

3) There was a talking dragon in the Disney film Mulan. But did it really exist?

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