The Song of Mulan is a famous ballad about a heroine. In this ballad, this heroine is called Mulan. But nowadays people always call her Hua Mulan. This girl is so famous that Walt Disney produced an animated cartoon in 1998 and a live-action movie in 2020 about her story. Mulan has been an important image of ancient Chinese women.
The Song of Mulan, written by an anonymous poet, is recorded by Guo Maoqian into his book “Collection of Yuefu-Style Poems” (Yuefushiji, 樂府詩集), a collection of thousands of poems. It’s the earliest extant edition of the poem, and the best-known version of Mulan’s story. Guo Maoqian (1041-1099) lived in the Northern Song Dynasty. He sorted the Song of Mulan into the poems of the Liang Dynasty (502-557), but the contents of the poem indicate that Mulan lived in a northern dynasty.
Guo Maoqian also collected another long poem for Mulan, written by Wei Yuanfu. Wei Yuanfu (710-771) was a minister of the Tang Dynasty. The story in his poem is similar to the Song of Mulan but shows a different direction of marching. In the Song of Mulan, the girl’s army fought against a nothern tribe from present-day Mongolian area. But in the poem written by Wei Yuanfu, the girl’s army fought in present-day Qinghai and Gansu.
From the Song of Mulan written by an anonymous poet, we believe that the girl lived in the Northern Wei (386-534) Empire, a country created by a tribe of Sienpi and later ruled the north of China and often fought against its northern neighbor Rouran. However, from the poem written by Wei Yuanfu, the story could be associated with the wars between the Tang Dynasty and its northwest neighbors such as Tubo. Two famous poets, Bai Juyi (772-846) and Du Mu (803-852), also mentioned Mulan fighting as a man in their short poems. At least, the girl Mulan was well-known in the eighth century.
There are some other different arguments about Mulan over the Internet. Many people just copied others’ words and they couldn’t find original documents. Moreover, for Mulan who lived before the eighth century, the arguments from literary works or local records of Ming and Qing Dynasties are not reliable.
Only a stele made in 1334 attracts my attention. The inscription of the stele is named “Statement on Recognition and Correction of Xiaolie-General’s Shrine and Portrait” (孝烈將軍祠像辨正記) The inscription says that Mulan’s family name was Wei (魏). It cites a folk legend about Mulan. It was said that Mulan was very worried about her old father and young brothers and sisters, so when she heard the order of enlistment, she dressed in man’s clothing and took the place of her father for joining army. Mulan was wise and brave, and no one knew she was a woman. After the war, the emperor gave a minister’s position to Mulan for her heroic exploits, but Mulan preferred to return hometown. In her home, she dressed in woman’s clothing, and her battle companions were incredibly surprised. Mulan’s experience became well-known soon. The emperor heard it, and summoned Mulan. He admired the young woman and wanted her to be his concubine. Mulan said, “There isn’t a ritual that a minister becomes the spouse of a monarch.” She swore an oath that she would die for refusing the demand of the emperor. The emperor still forced her, so she killed herself. The emperor was sad over the death of Mulan and gave her a posthumous title “Xiaolie”. “Xiao” (孝) means filial piety, while “Lie” (烈) means heroic achievement.
As for the argument that Mulan’s family name was Hua, it’s from a literary creation of Xu Wei (1521-1593), a famous writer and artist in the Ming Dynasty. He wrote a drama about Mulan and gave her a surname Hua. So, Mulan started to be called Hua Mulan. The image of Hua Mulan has been popular in many operas since then.
In the Song of Mulan, the end of the ballad is that Mulan returned her hometown, dressed in woman’s clothing, and met her battle companions. People prefer to imagine a perfect ending to a person they love. But the real history was always cruel. If the legend cited by the stele’s inscription was true, Mulan was a tragic heroine like Joan of Arc. However, historians in the times that she might live ignored her, so that we don’t know about her exact existence. And we should doubt whether her story was overstated.