How is Mulan, an ancient woman warrior of Mongolia, identified as Chinese?

Mulan

The world had not heard about the legendary Chinese woman warrior Mulan until 1998, when the Disney’s animated a film about  her deeds. The film grossed more than $ 300 million worldwide and nominated for Golden Globe and Oscar. After that the story of Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight for China’s emperor, has become one of the best known and most beloved narratives worldwide.

Mulan’s film begins with the fact that the Huns, who are led by the ruthless Shan Yu, invade Han China while breaching the Great Wall. The Chinese emperor opts for a massive military mobilization with conscription notices that require one man from each family to join the Chinese army. Fa Mulan’s elderly father Fa Zhou, who is the only man in her family and a veteran, comes to a situation to represent his family in the war. As Mulan worries about her father’s weakening health, she decides to plot a perfect strategy.

Taking her father’s old armor and cutting her long hair, she disguises herself as a man and enlists instead of her father. Reporting to the training camp, Mulan is able to pass as a man and under the command of Captain Li Shang, she become a well-trained warrior.

In the end of the film, Mulan defeats Shan Yu, the leader of the Huns in a single battle. Thus, the Emperor praises her and the assembled man of the city for saving them and bows to her in an unprecedented honor. While she accepts the crest of the Emperor and the sword of Shan Yu as a gift, she politely declines his offer to become an advisor. Instead, she asks to return her family. After returning home, Mulan presents those gifts to her father, and he overjoys to have his daughter back safely. Having enamored with Mulan, Captain Shang arrives in order to give her helmet as an excuse. So, he accepts the family’s invitation to stay for a dinner…

The forthcoming live-action adaptation of this touching story is delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and seems to break the success of the animated film after released. Tha date is known as July 24, 2020.

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Unfortunately, these Disney films are too far from the original Ballad of Mulan. In the films, Shang Yu is the name of the main villain, but also the name of the rulers of the Hunnu Empire (the Huns or Xiongnu) of proto-Mongols. Moreover, the historic setting of Ballad of Mulan happens in the Northern Wei Empire, but the Hunnu Empire ceased to exist at that time.

As for Northern Wei Empire, it was founded by the Tabgach (Tuoba) clan of the proto-Mongolian Sumbe (Xianbei), which ruled northern China from 386 to 535 AD. Described as a “part of an era of political turbulence and an intense social and cultural change”, the Northern Wei Empire is particularly noted as unifying northern China in 439: it was also a period of intensive introduction of foreign religions, such as Buddhism.

During the heyday of this empire in the northern part, another proto-Mongolian Nirun Khaganate (Rouran) emerged in power and began to threaten its borders. According to historical chronicles, these two states fought among themselves more than twenty times.

The Ballad of Mulan starts as she is worried, sitting in her loom, by the decree to serve in the army to defend the Tabgach realm from Rouran invaders. Her father is old and weak, and her younger brother is a child. So she decides to take his place and bids farewell to her parents, who support her.

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She was skilled in fighting, has been taught martial arts, sword fighting, and archery by the time she enlisted in the army. After twelve years of fighting, the army returns and warriors are rewarded. Mulan turns down an official post, and asks only for a camel to carry her home. She greets in a full of joy by her family. Mulan meets her comrades in her old clothes and they are shocked that they have not realized that she was a woman for the last 12 years in army.

Likewise other Asian cultures, Chinese culture is occupied by patriarchy. In the development of Chinese poetry, the patriotic image of Mulan glorifies a warrior as a contrary to Confucian philosophy and takes an equal position with a man for the first time. During the Northern Wei war against the Rouran, she went to fight for her country.

The Ballad of Mulan was first transcribed in the Musical Records of Old and New anthology of 568, which has not been preserved today. The earliest extant text of the poem comes from 12th century anthology known as the Music BureauCollection. The author, Guo Maoqian, explicitly mentions the Musical Records of Old and New as his source for the poem. According to his assumptions, an unknown author from North Wei could write a ballad in the 5th century.

昨夜見軍帖
可汗大點兵
軍書十二卷
卷卷有爺名

Last night I saw the army notices,
The Khan is calling for a great force.
The army register is in twelve scrolls,
and the every scroll has Father’s name.

… 將軍百戰死
壯士十年歸
歸來見天子
天子坐明堂

Generals die in a hundred battles,
Strong warriors return after ten years.
On her return, she sees the Son of Heaven,

The Son of Heaven sits in the ceremonial hall.

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It is the two couplets of the ballad. It says, the ruler is called Khan in Mongolian, but not Huangdì in Chinese. In addition, the ruler is respectfully called the son of heaven, as it is customary among the Mongols from the immemorial time.

Therefore, it is not surprising that many researchers, including those from China, believed that Mulan was the daughter of an old Mongolian soldier of Northern Wai Empire.

During the Taihe period (477–499) of Emperor Xiaowen, Chinese advisers admitted to court had instituted sweeping reforms and introduced changes that eventually led the dynasty to move its capital from Datong to Luoyang in 494. The Tabgach renamed themselves as Yuan, the Han people surname, as a part of systematic Sinification. Towards the end of the dynasty, there was a significant internal dissension which resulted in a split into Eastern Wei and Western Wei. 

In the late Ming era, a playwriter Xu Wei (d. 1593) dramatized the tale of “The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place”, 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 became popular and developed as a folk tale among the Chinese people on a same level as the legend of a tragic love story of a couple, the Butterfly Lovers, set in the Eastern Jin dynasty (265–420 AD).

A New scientific article tells of anthropologist Christine Lee from California State Universityin Los Angeles and her colleague Yahaira Gonzalez spending several years collecting data from China and Mongolia. They re-examined 29 skeletons from ancient Mongolian burial sites looking for arthritis, trauma, and musculoskeletal markers, including three Xianbei (Sumbe) women skeletons, two of which were potentially female warriors. This conclusion was drawn after Lee and Gonzalez studied the marks left on bones, where the muscles attached were comparable to warrior skeletons, indicating that these two woman also “practiced archery.”

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According to Lee, certain role of a woman might be expanded in regards to the increasing political instability and social violence, which shadowed the centuries following the collapse of China’s Han Dynasty in 220 AD. In contrast to these two possible women warriors, the skeletal remains of three Turkic women had no signs of shoulder muscles, which revealed they didn’t practice archery.

This once again proves that the ancient Mongol women were as skilled and fearless warriors as Mulan.

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