The topic of Disney’s Mulan came up in a conversation between the informant and me, and the informant told me that she knew the story the movie was based on. We later met to talk about it and other Chinese stories, and I recorded the conversation for collection purposes.
Informant: The setting is a very very long time ago, in the dynasty of which the name I do not know. There was, um, this family, Mulan’s family, and she doesn’t have a brother, or, um, an older brother or a younger brother. The only man in her family was her father. And… The dynasty went to war with another country. So the emperor gave out a draft for all the laymen to come to the army. And since Mulan’s family did not have any, uh, males other than her father, her father was kind of like required to go to the army. But, um, Mulan’s father was very old, and Mulan was worried that if her father went, he wouldn’t be able to, like, he would never come back. So instead, she disguised as a man and went into the army by herself. And this is actually a very, uh, rare act in ancient China, because women at that time were expected to be gentle and soft and weak. But, um, she did this, and then, um, joined the army, and I don’t think anybody discovered that she was actually a woman. And she fought the war, and reputedly she got safely back home. So that was nice. And you would think that in ancient China, those who worshiped gentleness and kindness would criticize her actions, but she actually wasn’t criticized. And that’s because this brave act of hers displayed, um, filial piety and a lot of love for her father, and that was like a more important value for women, to be loyal and pious to their family. So, that’s the end of the story.
“The Story of Mulan” upholds loyalty to one’s family as a more important priority than staying consistent with societal expectations regarding one’s behavior. The story also focuses on a female character who defies gender roles and portrays her positively. It also includes elements of identity concealment and deception through Mulan’s disguising herself as a man. The poem Ballad of Mulan is regarded as the first instance the character appeared in print. Mulan also appears in modern works such as the 1998 film Mulan by Walt Disney Pictures and the television show Once Upon a Time, which airs on ABC. Mulan’s character has remained popular for centuries, and knowledge of her story has spread far beyond its origins in China.