With the popularity of Frozen I thought it would be a good idea to take a step back and look at one of the most badass Disney Princesses out there: Mulan.
Is she real?
Well, unfortunately the only “proof” we have that she existed was an ancient Chinese ballad/poem that we think was written sometime between 386 and 533 A.D. (Wei Dynasty).
Since it is a folk tale, there are countless interpretations of the story. In simplistic terms you can say it’s China’s version of the story of the fall of Troy.
No one knows if it really happened, but it’s a nice story with a moral lesson.
So what is the Legend of Mulan trying to teach us?
Like any good folk tale, the story of Mulan is meant to impart an important moral lesson. In this case, honor your family and your country, preferably at the same time. Not everyone will have the courage to join a war to save their father, but it does make it clear what the values were at the time.
The original poem has an obvious sexist tinge to it that isn’t as present in the Disney movie, which is a good thing. For one, Mulan’s name is rarely used in the poem. She is referred to as “daughter” most of the time. The story also opens with her weaving and ends with her doing similar female approved activities, returning to her role as female of the household.
This wouldn’t have upset as much if it weren’t for the fact that she supposedly spent 12 years in the army without being caught – yes, 12 years and was only discovered because her old army buddies came to visit her later. You would have thought that she would have had issues with re-adapting to female life, but it was as if she were unchanged by the experience.
I don’t know about Mulan, but when I hang around guys a lot I develop similar mannerisms and habits – as you would with any group of friends. So, excuse me as I suspend my disbelief for a second.
That being said, in the legend, Mulan is already versed in martial arts and horseback riding thanks to her father. So she didn’t really need to be whipped into shape like in the Disney version, but it did produce a kickass song!
Of course, this is meant to tell little girls that you can bring honor to your family, as long as you go back to your assigned gender roles once you’re done.
I think the big draw of the Disney movie is that it gives a positive role model for young girls without being preachy. Mulan chooses to go to war to protect her father, but she also grows as a person through this experience.
The poem is obviously revolutionary, telling the story of a girl who disguises herself as a boy and is successful, but the character feels fairly static. A vessel to teach a moral lesson. It’s a common storytelling tool from the past, mostly because this was the only way to really ram in a point. Most people wouldn’t have had enough education to be able to read so ballads were an effective way to spread stories and create popular culture.
In the end, I hope it’s true and if it’s not…