Here’s Mulan’s Actual Story, Minus Disney’s Liberties

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Credit: Disney, Wikimedia Commons

Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan may be turning 25 today, but the original, possibly true story behind the beloved Disney Princess stretches back to at least the 12th century. The story of Mulan and all her iterations have grown from a relatively simple poem called The Ballad of Mulan, thought to have originated as a word-of-mouth folk tale. Time notes that Mulan’s story most likely takes place in the fourth or fifth century of ancient China because of references to the “Northern Wei dynasty, which lasted from the fourth through the early sixth centuries.”

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Credit: Disney

Compared to the inflated and magically altered modern-day versions of the story, the poem itself is very direct and almost bare bones. In a handful of stanzas, it states that Mulan is currently unfulfilled in the current social duties set for women. Her father has been drafted, and she wants to take his spot in the war. She saddles up, leaving home to travel far for a barbaric war. Many die in many battles, and the soldiers return after ten years.

The Khan (emperor) handsomely rewards them, but all Mulan wants is to go home. Her family jubilantly welcomes her home, and when she returns to her female clothes, her comrades are very surprised she is a woman. The poem ends: “But when the two rabbits run side by side/ How can you tell the female from the male?”

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Credit: Disney

There truly is very little emotion expressed, her father’s age and physical state are not mentioned, and Mulan has an older sister and little brother. Unfortunately, Mushu and Shang Li aren’t mentioned – inventions solely of Disney magic. Time notes that the poem is a very direct comment on gender roles and Mulan “getting the job done.” It was uncommon for a story to be named after a female character at this time, so The Ballad of Mulan “reflects the respected status that women held in [Chinese] nomadic societies.”

While many people hold in their hearts that heroine Mulan was a real person at one time, there is no evidence substantiating that fact. As the story was borrowed and told over centuries, the specific Chinese culture Mulan belongs to has changed many times. The popular Chinese folktale eventually was developed in plays, tragic (she kills herself) novels, and used as a national identity during Chinese political struggles in 1939.

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Credit: Disney

While Disney’s 1998 animated film Mulan is a fan-favorite classic, the 2020 live-action adaptation left a lot to be desired. Audiences complained of cultural inaccuracies and also didn’t feel nearly as connected to the leading lady. As far as the animated version goes, the original Fa Mulan certainly didn’t sing or have Eddie Murphy as a talking dragon sidekick. There is also no mention of any sort of a love interest like Li Shang.

While Mulan’s original poem is obviously not as colorful or entertaining as the Disney musical, it is one Disney Princess origin story that doesn’t include grotesque violence and bloody plot points…ironically, despite its war focussed storyline. If you’re looking for that, check out Hans Christian Anderson’s original works and some Grimm Fairytales.

About Lana Porter

Lana has never lost a Disney Trivia night. Maybe it’s the hundreds of times she’s been to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, her love for Disney’s ’90’s era hand-animated musicals, or the fact that she’s often likened to cartoon characters, but Disney and its magic have a special place in her heart. Her favorite Disney experiences include the EPCOT Food and Wine Festival, eating Mickey Bars on the PeopleMover, and crying during the Magic Kingdom fireworks show. One day she hopes to be chosen as the rebel spy on Star Tours. When Lana isn’t Park Hopping, she’s at home reading books of all topics, watching her favs on Disney+, or snuggling her two cats, which she swears are not named after Disney characters. She loves surprising people with her knowledge of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but admits she is still catching up with Star Wars. She is happy to combine her excitement for writing with her love for Disney-style storytelling and share what she can with the world!