XXVIII: The Real Disney Princess, Part 2

Our second real-life Disney princess only gets half credit for being a real person because her existence is a little questionable; her story comes from 1500 year old poem, meaning she could have been a real heroine or just a legend.

The Ballad of Mulan existed well before it was first transcribed in the Musical Records of Old and New during the 6th century. Hua Mulan (Disney calls her Fa Mulan) is said to be descended from the Northern Wei people, though her family name may have been Zhu, Wei, Mu, or Hua. “Mulan” itself means “magnolia”, so the family name “Hua” meaning “flower” has become most popularly used. She probably lived during the Northern Wei dynasty (386-536 CE), thought this is debatable. However, all accounts place her living in the Central Plains region of China.

Mulan’s story in the ballad is more or less similar to that in the Disney movie, although the details are different and the ending was changed for dramatic effect. The 31-line poem begins by describing a worried Mulan, upset because one man from each family is being called to serve in the army. Her father is old and ill (not injured, as in the movie) and her brother (who does not exist in the movie) is only a child, so Mulan disguises herself and man and joins the all-male army in his place. She fights for 12 years and rises to a very high rank before the conflict ends and all the soldiers are sent home. Instead of being sent straight home, she is called before the emperor to be offered an official post as a reward for her service; instead she asks only for a fine, swift horse to return her home. All of this is included in the Disney film adaptation. However, the original poem says Mulan is not revealed to be a woman until several days after she returns home, when her comrades come to visit her and find her dressed in women’s clothes instead of her father’s armor. The movie has her revealed as a woman much earlier, after saving her captain and official Disney prince, Li Shang, and being wounded in the process; only after her reveal does she reach the Imperial City, save China, and receive the offer of a high post before returning home and being visited days later by Li Shang.

The Disney movie also contains a few remarkable historical accuracies as well as glaring inaccuracies. The Imperial City, as it is called, is based on the Forbidden City, which was not built until 1420. Only members of the royal family, other high nobility, and their servants were allowed into the city — there never would have been crowds of commoners celebrating a festival in the courtyard as shown in the film. Additionally, the antagonist of the film, Shan Yu, is entirely fictional, but he is said to be a member of the Huns, who were at war with China during the Han-Xiongnu War, which lasted from 133 BCE to 89 CE. This means that the Disney movie has Mulan’s story simultaneously occurring in three different time periods spanning 1500 years, not to mention that she is dressed in the style of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE).

In terms of accuracies, however, the movie does dress the emperor in yellow, which was traditionally the color of the emperor, reserved for only him to wear. They also make mention of the fact that no one is permitted to touch the emperor by having Po apologize before carrying him to safety and the crowd gasping when Mulan embraces the emperor. In reality, touching the emperor could result in a death sentence.

Whether or not she was a real person, Mulan’s story has been an inspiration for centuries. As popular as the tale of the Butterfly Lovers, it was the first China legend to promote gender equality, and Mulan became the quintessential heroine centuries before Joan of Arc was born.

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