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The Legend of Mulan: a Heroine of Ancient China Essay

Hua Mulan (花木蘭) was a legendary heroine from ancient China. She disguised her brother in order to take her father’s place in the army, bravely defending her country and gloriously returning home. Her story comes from a legend, which was passed down and retold over many years, so I still can’t decide whether or not Mulan was a historical person. However, I found that some of the facts in her story are based on historical events that date to the Northern Wei dynasty period (386-534). Mulan is the heroine in the Ballad of Mulan (木蘭辭). At the very beginning of the ballad, Mulan was weaving at her loom room. From the first sentence, “Click, clack. Click, clack,” I know that Mulan was weaving, when suddenly, the sound of loom and shuttle stopped, and instead Mulan sighed, because she saw her father’s name on the army notice. The Emperor was calling for troops. Her father was too old to join the army, and her younger brother was too young, so Mulan decided to go to battle in her father’s place.

Then she went to four markets: east, west, south, and north. According to Chinese tradition, each of the four directions is connected with a different element, namely, wood, metal, fire, and water. The fifth traditional element is earth. Mulan, as a child of the earth, hoped the elements could give her power and courage to overcome difficulties. She took leave of her parents at dawn, and they yelled at her as she left, because they knew she would die if anyone were to find out she was a woman. In the pass, the military camp banned women from entering, so she dressed in her armor as a soldier before she rode off with others, because she could not let people find out her secret. Gradually, she no longer heard her parents’ voices, only the rumbling of the Yellow River. Crossing this, she reached the Black Mountains. Mulan couldn’t hear her parents’ voice any more, only the neighing of enemy’s horses. That was a long march. Time moved fast. Mulan rode ten thousand miles to the battlefield.

She crossed the peaks and passed the mountains like a bird in the battle. Here the ballad tells us that Mulan had fought so many times in battle that she has become superior in martial arts. Life was very hard in the camp, with war drums ringing in the brittle air, and she needed to sleep in the cold air at night. I think she could endure those difficulties because she had a faith in protecting her country and family. The war dragged on, and generals died one after another after in hundreds of battles. Ten years later, the battles ended, and the soldiers returned home. Above, just several sentences described the battles, so did they have victory? I think they must have won in battle, and Mulan took the most important effect, because the Emperor gave her many awards. However, Mulan didn’t accept anything, instead just requesting for a strong camel to carry her back home soon.

Although the Emperor granted Mulan’s request, I keep wondering whether the Emperor knew she was a woman, and would he have still made the same decision if he found out. I know women’s status was very low in ancient China, and they relied on the men to live. When Mulan’s parents heard of their daughter’s return, they came out and welcomed her, because they missed their girl so much. When Mulan’s elder sister and younger brother heard, her elder sister immediately prepared to go out, and younger brother sharpened his knife to slaughter a pig and sheep for a feast in Mulan’s honor. The first thing Mulan did was return to looking like a regular lady when she arrived at home.

Although she had dressed as a man for more than ten years, she still remembered who she was. Her comrades were all surprised when Mulan stepped out to see them. They were startled because they never knew she was a woman, even though they had fought together for twelve years. I don’t know why the comrades didn’t figure out that she was a woman either. I guess Mulan must have lived very carefully in the military camp, because men and women still have differences, such as different physical strength and appearance.

Mulan used a male rabbit and female deer for example. People know the buck likes to hop and leap, while the doe prefers to sit still with its narrow eyes. But in times of danger, how can people tell which is male, and which is female when the two run side by side. Complicated and confusing (撲朔迷離) is a phrase that comes from the Ballad of Mulan to describe something that is complicated and hard to discover.

Passed down from generation to generation, Mulan’s story has made her a widely known folk heroine throughout China, where school children still learn the poem by heart. Her heroism, loyalty to country, and devotion to family inspired many poets, writers, and artists to reproduce her story. In American, an animated film was produced as a Disney cartoon, Mulan, which was based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan. Although that was a similar story with similar plots, the movie made many changes, for example, cutting down some scenes and adding some humor and romance.

In Gao Li’s study about the difference between different cultures (Gao, 2006), she mentioned three differences between Chinese culture and American Culture. I agree with some of her opinions. China is a traditional country with a very long history that informs its culture. In ancient China, because people were affected by Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, they knew and kept their positions well. They usually separated men, who tilled the land, and women who wove the cloth (男耕女織). Because men were considered as superior to woman, woman always followed the Confucian ethics to stay home. This is reflected in the first sentence in the Ballad of Mulan, in which Mulan is just like a traditional girl sitting at her loom and weaving with her shuttle. Moreover, she changed back to the lady’s dress as her first action when she returned home. This means that Mulan knew her place, and she needed to keep to his identity in feudal society.

But Mulan the Disney movie shows a very outgoing girl. She thought she couldn’t be a traditional Chinese girl, who was supposed to be graceful, demure, and quiet. She preferred freedom to cosmetics. This point is very fitting for modern American culture, but families wouldn’t have let Mulan act like that in ancient China. Her mother was busy concerning herself with the details of her future marriage, but she just messed up everything. The matchmaker even said, “You will never bring your family honor!” which really beat Mulan’s heart. When she heard her father needed to join the army again, she knew he would never survive another journey into battle with his old wounds. Finally, she decided to take his father’s place in the army. For the same decision, the legendary Mulan only wanted to be loyal to her country and filial to her parents. Mulan in the movie showed some of the same characteristics, but she wanted more.

In the movie, after people found out she was a woman they left her alone. She said, “I thought I came here to save my father, but maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right.” This is a model that Disney tries to set up: a brave and independent girl. In America, people encourage the equality of men and women, and women can take important positions in society. In the movie, even though Mulan’s secret was uncovered, she didn’t get any punishment, because she saved the Emperor and country. The Emperor even bowed to her in front of his people. Standing before an Emperor in a feudal society, whether you won a big victory or contributed the country a lot you could only be given you various rewards. He would never bow to other people, because that would seem beneath his dignity as the “Son of Heaven.”

That cultural context is totally different from the American idea of equality. We can see, then that the image of Mulan is different in different cultures. Mulan in the Disney movie is close to the modern concepts of equality, so I can feel she was a modern person, but Mulan in the ballad lived a long time ago, and she was more of a historical person, so her thinking would be traditional. I believed that if she were from a modern country, she could have been allowed to contribution more directly to her country, because women’s rights have improved over time.

I am not saying that Disney’s revisions to the image of Mulan are wrong, because I know people will change their ways of thinking due to their culture. Movies still need some elements of entertainment to attract an audience. I can tell that the Disney Mulan was more acceptable for American given its box office success. In any case, even if the two Mulans come from different eras, they are still both remembered by people now.

Works Cited:

* Book
1. Lee, Jeanne M. The Song of Mu Lan. Hong Kong: Blaze I. P. I., 1995. 2. Marsoli, Lisa A. Disney’s Mulan Classic Storybook. USA: Disney Enterprises, Inc. 1998. * Internet
1. Wikipedia. Hua Mulan. Nov. 10. 2010. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Nov. 21. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hua_Mulan>. 2. Yuan, Jack. Ballad of Mulan. Apr. 22. 2010. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Nov. 21. 2010. <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ballad_of_Mulan>. 3. Wikipedia. Mulan. Nov. 12. 2010. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Nov. 21. 2010. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mulan_%281998_film%29>. 4. Gao L. “A Study on Chinese and American Cultural Differences through the Comparison of Ode of Mulan and the Movie Mulan”. Journal of Huaihua University. Mar. 2006. <http://www.cqvip.com/onlineread/onlineread.asp?ID=21886545&SUID=EGBNBFDH DNCBCOPIBOLGEMCBCDOIPNFP >


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