Skip navigation and go to main content

Not Disney's 'Mulan' - the Mulan of Chinese tradition

There are a number of traditions concerning the general Hua Mulan. They disagree on when Mulan lived - one version said she served the Sui dynasty (589-618 CE), another record put her exploits at the beginning of the Tang dynasty (618), and yet a third account placed her during the reign of Emperor Xiaowen (467-499) of the Northern Wei dynasty.1 All accounts agree that she was a northerner.

The Northern Wei date is considered somewhat more credible because the Ballad of Mulan referred to Mulan's Emperor as 'khan'. 'Khan' is not an indigenous Chinese word. It came from the nomads on China's northern frontier. The Imperial House of Northern Wei were not native Han Chinese, but of Xianbei heritage. The Wei dynasty was established by a tribe of the Xianbei ethnic group, one of the many minority races which had armed conflicts with, and at times ruled over, the majority Han Chinese (not to be confusd with 'Hun'). But Xiaowen, the fifth ruler of the Xianbei dynasty, aggressively pursued an assimilationist policy, encouraging his people, who had already lived long among the Hans, to assimilate into mainstream Chinese culture.2 (Mulan was in all likelihood a Han.) In addition, the locations of Mulan's campaigns seemed to correspond to the battlegrounds of the war between the Wei dynasty and the Rouran people of Mongolia.3 The Rouran and their Xianbei foes have shared ethnic origins, and had an uneven history of alliances and conflicts.4

The various versions of the Mulan tale do not even agree on Mulan's surname - Zhu, Wei and Mulan were used by various writers. The Ming writer Xu Wei put her surname down as Hua and this was the version of the tale that became the most well-known. In Xu's version, Mulan was the middle child in her family. She had an older sister and a younger brother. Her father was a reservist officer.5 Popular tradition holds that Mulan was trained in the arts of war since an early age and already an accomplished martial artist even before joining the army.6 This was highly likely considering it was a common practice for ancient and medieval Chinese military families to train their daughters in the arts of war.

The Ballad of Mulan tells of Mulan's decision to join the draft. Her openness about her decision, and her parents' knowledge of and acceptance of her course of action are in direct opposition to the Mulan story presented by Disney, in which Mulan runs off in secret to her parents' dismay.

The traditional Chinese Mulan oozes a steely confidence unmatched by Disney's weak imitation. Here are a few stanzas of the Ballad of Mulan:7

Mulan sits at the loom,

Yet the shuttle is silent.

The parents hear their daughter sigh.

"What are your thoughts, my child?" they ask

"What are your ponderings?"

"I have no thoughts or ponderings."

"Last night I saw the military roster."

"The Khan is raising a huge army:"

"12 scrolls of soldier's names."

"Father's name is on every one."

"Daddy has no grown son."

"I have no older brother."

"I would like to go to the market to buy a horse and saddle"

"To join the campaign in your stead."

She buys a horse in the North Market.

She buys a saddle in the West Market.

She buys a bridle in the South Market.

She buys a long whip in the East Market.

In the morning she bids farewell to her parents.

In the evening she stands on the banks of the Yellow River.

She does not hear Father and Mother calling for their daughter.

She only hears the roaring of the Yellow River.

She leaves the Yellow River behind her.

She spends the night at the top of Black Mountain.

She does not hear Father and Mother calling for their daughter.

She only hears the war horses of the Hu soldiers neighing.


In the ballad, the enemy Hua Mulan fought were the Hu. Hu is a generic term for the non-Han peoples of China's northern frontier. Hu is not a specific ethnic term and encompasses many groups, including the Huns and the Xianbei (the race from which the emperors of the Northern Wei were descended).

Hua Mulan distinguished herself in battle and was promoted up the ranks. Eventually she became a general known for her brilliant military strategies.8 All through her 12 year military career, no one ever found out that Hua Mulan was a woman.

According to tradition, when the war was over, the emperor asked General Hua what reward "he" would like. General Hua said he had no use for high official posts and only asked for a speedy horse to take him home to his parents. General Hua went home (by that time, she was about thirty years old) and returned to the weaving loom which she left before the war.

It was also said that the Tang authorities posthumously gave Mulan the title "General of Great Filial Piety" and commssioned a statue in her hometown of Yingkuo in Henan province. Every year, on Mulan's birthday, people would visit her shrine to give offerings.9


  1. Chinese Folk Tales: Mulan joins the draft in place of her father
  2. Examining the reasons behind Emperor Xiaowen's Sinification Policy
  3. Chinese Folk Tales: Mulan joins the draft in place of her father
  4. Cultures of the steppes - the Rouran
  5. Chinese Folk Tales: Mulan joins the draft in place of her father
  6. Great Chinese Ladies - Hua Mulan
  7. Chinese Folk Tales: Mulan joins the draft in place of her father
  8. Heroines - Hua Mulan
  9. Heroines - Hua Mulan