Hua Mulan (Chinese: 花木蘭) is a legendary woman warrior from the Northern and Southern dynasties period (420–589) of Chinese history, originally described in the Ballad of Mulan (Chinese: 木蘭辭; pinyin: Mùlán cí). In the ballad, Hua Mulan takes her aged father’s place in the army. Mulan fought for twelve years and gained high merit, but she refused any reward and retired to her hometown.
The historic setting of Hua Mulan is in the Northern Wei (386–536). Over a thousand years later, Xu Wei’s play from the Ming dynasty places her in the Northern Wei, whereas the Qing dynasty Sui Tang Romance has her active around the founding of the Tang c. 620. In 621, the founder of the Tang dynasty was victorious over Wang Shichong and Dou Jiande, the latter was the father of Dou Xianniang, another female warrior who became Mulan’s laotong in the Sui Tang Romance.
The Hua Mulan crater on Venus is named after her.
The Ballad of Mulan was first transcribed in the Musical Records of Old and New (Chinese: 古今樂錄; pinyin: Gǔjīn Yuèlù) in the 6th century. The earliest extant text of the poem comes from an 11th or 12th century anthology known as the Music Bureau Collection (Chinese: 樂府詩; pinyin: Yuèfǔshī). Its author, Guo Maoqian, explicitly mentions the Musical Records of Old and New as his source for the poem. As a ballad, the lines do not necessarily have equal numbers of syllables. The poem consists of 31 couplets, and is mostly composed of five-character phrases, with a few extending to seven or nine.
There was no treatment of the legend since the two 12th century poems, until in the late Ming, playwright Xu Wei (d. 1593) dramatized the tale as “The Female Mulan” (雌木蘭 or, more fully, “The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place” (Chinese: 雌木蘭替父從軍; pinyin: Cí-Mùlán Tì Fù Cóngjūn), in two acts.
Later, the character of Mulan was incorporated into the Sui-Tang Romance, a historical novel written by Chu Renhuo in the 17th century, early in the Qing dynasty.
Over time, the story of Hua Mulan rose in popularity as a folk tale among the Chinese people on the same level as the Butterfly Lovers.
In Chinese, mùlán refers to the magnolia. The heroine of the poem is given different family names in different versions of her story. According to History of Ming, her family name is Zhu (朱), while the History of Qing says it is Wei(魏). The family name 花 (Huā, lit. “flower”), which was introduced by Xu Wei, has become the most popular in recent years in part because of its more poetic meaning.
The story of Hua Mulan is treated more as a legend than a historical person, and her name does not appear in Exemplary Women which is a compilation of biographies of women during the Northern Wei dynasty. Her legend is, however, included in Yan Xiyuan’s One Hundred Beauties which is a compilation of various women in Chinese folklore.
The poem starts with Mulan sitting worriedly at her loom, as one male from each family is called to serve in the army to defend China from invaders. Her father is old and weak, and her younger brother is just a child, so she decides to take his place and bids farewell to her parents, who support her. She is already skilled in fighting, having been taught martial arts, sword fighting, and archery by the time she enlists in the army. After twelve years of fighting, the army returns and the warriors are rewarded. Mulan turns down an official post, and asks only for a swift horse to carry her home. She is greeted with joy by her family. Mulan dons her old clothes and meets her comrades, who are shocked that in their years traveling together, they did not realize that she was a woman. However, this does not change their good friendship.
Sui Tang Romance
Chu Renhuo’s Romance of the Sui and Tang (c. 1675) provides additional backdrops and plot-twists. Here, Mulan lives under the rule of Heshana Khan of the Western Turkic Khaganate. When the Khan agrees to wage war in alliance with the emergent Tang dynasty, which was poised to conquer all of China, Mulan’s father Hua Hu (Chinese: 花弧) fears he will be conscripted into military service since he only has two daughters and an infant son. Mulan crossdresses as a man and enlists in her father’s stead. She is intercepted by the forces of the Xia king Dou Jiande and is brought under questioning by the king’s warrior daughter Xianniang (Chinese: 線娘), who tries to recruit Mulan as a man. Discovering Mulan to be a fellow female warrior, she is so delighted that they become sworn sisters.
In the Sui Tang Romance, Mulan comes to a tragic end, a “detail that cannot be found in any previous legends or stories associated Hua Mulan,” and believed to have been interpolated by the author Chu Renho. Xianniang’s father is vanquished after siding with the enemy of the Tang dynasty, and the two sworn sisters, with knives in their mouths, surrender themselves to be executed in the place of the condemned man. The act of filial piety wins reprieve from Emperor Taizong of Tang and the imperial consort who was birth-mother to the Emperor bestows money to Mulan to provide for her parents and wedding funds for the princess who confessed to having promised herself to general Luó Chéng羅成). (In reality, Dou Jiande was executed, but in the novel he lives on as a monk.)(Chinese:
Mulan is given leave to journey back to her homeland, and once arrangements were made for Mulan’s parents to relocate, it is expected that they will all be living in the princess’s old capital of Leshou (Chinese: 樂壽, modern Xian County, Hebei). Mulan is devastated to discover her father has long died and her mother has remarried. According to the novel, Mulan’s mother was surnamed Yuan (袁) and remarried a man named Wei (魏). Even worse, the Khan has summoned her to the palace to become his concubine.
Rather than to suffer this fate, she commits suicide. But before she dies, she entrusts an errand to her younger sister, Youlan (Chinese: 又蘭), which was to deliver Xianniang’s letter to her fiancé, Luó Chéng. This younger sister dresses as a man to make her delivery, but her disguise is discovered, and it arouses her recipient’s amorous attention.
In the novel, Mulan’s father was from Hebei during the Northern Wei dynasty while her mother was from the Central Plain of China. But “even a Chinese woman would prefer death by her own hand to serving a foreign ruler,” as some commentators have explained this Mulan character’s motive for committing suicide. Mulan’s words before she committed suicide were, “I’m a girl, I have been through war and have done enough. I now want to be with my father.