So, for the second installment in my Grisly Disney series, let’s talk about Mulan.
According to Disney, she begins as an insecure young woman who would never be a perfect wife and bring honour to her family. She’s deemed undateable by the town matchmaker, and doesn’t really have any noticeable skills.
When the Emperor begins enlisting men for the war, Mulan takes her father’s conscription and runs away in the dead of night to join the army, in a desperate attempt to save him from the horrors of war and bring honour to her family as a man, since she was told she could not as a woman.
Once in the army camps, she has to learn to fight, because, well, she couldn’t even pour a cup of tea without creating a small flood on the table, so what good would she be with weapons?! Anyway, to cut a long story short, she learns to fight, and goes to war with her lucky cricket and a tiny dragon called Mushu, who enlists himself to protect her when he accidentally destroys the Great Stone Dragon, a protector sent by Mulan’s ancestors. She’s accepted by the soldiers until she is injured and it’s revealed she is a *gasp* WOMAN.
She should be killed there and then for transgressions against the Empire, but since she saved the General’s son, Li Shang, he doesn’t kill her – just leaves her alone in the snow to die. It’s only when she completes the small task of saving the whole of China that her former army friends accept her.
The original story of Mulan
Granted, Disney’s retelling isn’t quite as fluffy as other Disney stories, but it’s still pretty different to the original source material. The first record of Mulan was in The Ballad of Mulan, which showed her as a legendary female warrior around in 420-589 in the Southern and Northern dynasties period. However, over a thousand years later, playwright Xu Wei places her in the Ming dynasty in the two-act play The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place (catchy title, huh?!), and later still, Chu Renhuo’s Sui-Tang Romance places her at the inception of the Tang dynasty.
So what exactly is Mulan’s original story? Well, the first record we have of her is in The Ballad of Mulan, which starts with Mulan weaving at her loom, worried because she knows her old, weak father is about to be called to serve in the army. Her younger brother is just a child (yep, she had an actual brother originally, not a dog called Little Brother like she did in the Disney version!), so she decides to take her father’s place in the army.
Her parents support her decision, and since she’s not only handy on the loom but also with sword-fighting, archery and martial arts, she kicks ass for 12 years in the army before returning home. There’s no specified time frame for Mulan’s time in the army in the Disney version, but it certainly doesn’t look like anywhere near 12 years.
When they arrive home, the warriors are rewarded, and Mulan turns down an official post, asking only for a swift horse to carry her home to her family, who greet her with joy. After that, Mulan dresses in her own clothes and meets her comrades, who are shocked to discover she’s a woman. (How she pulled this off for 12 years, I’ll never know – but then again, she was a kick ass warrior and an expert weaver, so this is probably child’s play for her). However, unlike Disney’s version, the revelation that she’s a woman doesn’t affect their friendship.
The second appearance of Mulan
Now, the poem Mulan first appears in is pretty short, so it’s likely that Disney used The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place as their inspiration, since the two-part play pads out her story a little more.
What we know for sure is that Disney definitely didn’t use too much of Sui Tang Romance as source material. Don’t let the title put you off; it’s pretty dark and definitely doesn’t have the same feel-good factor Disney’s retelling has.
According to Sui Tang Romance, there’s a similar situation at the start – Heshana Khan wants to wage war in alliance with the emergent Tang dynasty, which was set to conquer all of China, and Mulan’s dad, with only two daughters and a young son, will be conscripted into the army.
Mulan crossdresses and enlists on behalf of her father, but she ends up being intercepted by the Xia king Dou Jiande, and questioned by the king’s warrior daughter, Princess Xianniang. Delighted to discover Mulan is a fellow female warrior, they become sworn sisters, or “lao tong”. It’s from here that things start to go downhill.
Xianniang’s father is vanquished for siding with the enemy of the Tang dynasty and therefore the Khan, and Mulan and her sworn sister, with knives in their mouths, surrender themselves to be executed in the place of the king. The act of filial piety, a Confucian philosophy based on the virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders and ancestors, wins the respect and reprieve of the Emperor, and Mulan is given money to provide for her parents, whilst Xianniang is given wedding funds as she confessed she had promised herself to General Luo Cheng (sound familiar? Perhaps the inspiration for Li Shang, the General’s son in Disney’s version).
(Side note: the novel, Dou Jiande lives on as a monk, but in reality, he was executed. However, despite him being a real person, there are no records to prove Mulan ever actually existed).
Happily ever after?
Mulan journeys back to her homeland, with plans to relocate with her parents to the Xianniang’s old capital of Leshou. However, when she arrives at home, she is devastated to discover that her father had died years before and her mother had remarried. To make matters worse, Mulan is summoned by the Khan to the palace to become his concubine – basically, a woman who lives with a man but accepts a lesser status. I’m not sure exactly why the Khan subjects her to this – perhaps her decision to give her life for an enemy of the Khan was something he couldn’t forgive, and he wanted to belittle her by showing that despite establishing herself as a warrior, he would ultimately always have the power. Either way, this fate, on top of the discovery that her father is dead, is too much for Mulan to take.
Rather than live that way, Mulan commits suicide. Her final words are:
“I’m a girl, I have been through war and have done enough. I now want to be with my father.”
Woah. Intense, right? I can see why Disney didn’t end their retelling in this way. Yet despite this, I still have a total morbid curiosity for the original tales behind our favourite Disney stories.
What do you think? Would you rather Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan focussed on their 1998 retelling, or went a little darker and incorporated some of the grislier parts of Mulan’s story from hundreds and hundreds of years ago? Let me know in the comments!