The Legend of Fa Mulan


The story of Fa Mulan is one that has been told throughout the ages to teach children about obedience and the bringing of honor to the family.  The ancient ballad from China, the Disney movie Mulan, and the story “White Tigers” from Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, all tell the same story in uniquely different ways.  The similarities and differences throughout these three works reflect the conflicting and changing roles of women in society. 

The ballad of Mulan from ancient China, despite the revolutionary idea of a woman hiding her identity and distinguishing herself in battle to protect her father, has a traditional outlook on the role of women.  The song opens with the sound of weaving and Mulan sighing before the loom.  This depicts Mulan’s role as a daughter of the family, participating in proper womanly activities.  To emphasize the conventional view of the time that women were less important than men, Mulan is called Daughter throughout the song rather than by her given name.  Names are vitally important in recognizing a person but because she is a woman, she is demoted to a title and her name is rarely granted to her. 

While her identity is hidden as a man, she is able to win great renown on the battlefield.  She is unable to show her true self because in the eyes of the other men, even her fame and glory would not forgive the fact that she is a woman.  However, when she returns home, her family receives her with great joy and deference.  Her accomplishments may not have brought her any recognition but she has brought honor to her family by sacrificing herself for the betterment of others.  Honor and obedience is a virtue respected above all.  However, she is still not given the same status as men because she is forced to transform back into a woman with “cloudlike hair” and “flower powder.”  The other men are “amazed and perplexed” and do not grant her the same respect as when they believed her to be a man though they are the same person.  This ballad, since it was written during a time when women did not have equal roles in society, is skewed to show the traditional role of women as being inferior to men.

“White Tigers” is full of conflicting views on the roles of women and reflect the time of turmoil and uncertainty as perspectives and ideas began to shift in the 1970’s.  In this version of the story, Mulan’s Fate is to become a warrior and the Gods have ordained it from her birth.  She is obviously favored because she is given the chance to become a great warrior rather than a wife and slave to men.  However, within her own family, she is still deemed unimportant because she is so easily let go and forgotten by her relatives.  They do not show grief at Mulan’s disappearance because daughters are not important to the family.  Though her family is mired in the traditional view, her new mentors, the old man and woman are far from conventional.  They treat her as they would they would treat their own son.  She is trained in the arts of observation, fighting, and intuition.  She demonstrates the strength of will that women possess with her determination to succeed and her ability to pass the test even when the challenge seems insurmountable.  The old man and woman repeatedly assure her of her worth, telling her that she is not an amateur like the man they saw in the water gourd. 

During her absence, her family marries her to a young man of the village.  While it shows that her family has not forgotten her, it also depicts the traditional treatment of daughters of the family.  The men decide whom she will wed, and she has absolutely no say in the matter.  When she finally returns home after her long absence, she is honored like a son.  People are willing to follow her and other families give up their sons to join her army.  However, they only do so because they do not know she is a woman.  Throughout her campaign, she cannot reveal her identity because “Chinese executed women who disguised themselves as soldiers or students, no matter how bravely they fought or how high they scored on examinations” (39).  This reverts back to the old way of thinking, that woman are somehow fundamentally inferior to men.  Despite this limitation, she demonstrates her tenacity and her ability to adapt.  When she is pregnant, she is able to overcome that obstacle and continue to lead and to fight.  She only hides from battle once and overcomes the pain and hardship of birth with nary a complaint.  The story ends on a very hopeful note because the women who were once cowering and bound to the evil baron overcome their innate upbringing and learn to live their own life as traveling swordswoman.  Throughout this story, women are praised and given positions equal to men then brought back to the lowly and traditional school of thought.  The changes wrought during the tumultuous 70’s are a reflection of the ups and downs present in this story.

The Disney movie Mulan was made in 1998 and begins to depict the modern view of the independent woman in American society.  Mulan is obviously not the traditional and subservient daughter usually found in ancient Chinese families.  She blunders at her chores, does not know how to properly wave a fan and recite poetry, or gracefully pour tea.  The modern Chinese teenager would also be a bumbling idiot when it comes to the womanly arts, very much like Mulan except that it is no longer necessary for girls to have those skills.  Mulan’s determination to prove herself and to discover her identity is an accurate picture of the feelings of many young women today.  Women in this age are struggling to define themselves and to prove their worth in a world that is still getting used to equality for both genders.  During the training, she seems to attract trouble at every turn but is the first to distinguish herself over the others. 

Despite her innate disadvantages as a woman – being physically weaker and unused to physical activity – her sheer tenacity is what allows her to rise up over the men.  In addition, after her initial trial, she becomes the best of the best, proving herself once and again to be equal or surpassing men on the battlefield.  Ironically, in saving her captain and taking a bodily wound, the others discover her identity and throw her out of the army.  The decision, is by no means unanimous though.  The friends she has made while under the pseudonym Ping are still true to her and still respect her despite being a woman.  Unfortunately, there are always bigots and male chauvinists in the world, represented by the counselor in the movie, who cannot accept that women are equals in every aspect to men.  Though the ending is typical Disney, it is fitting to the direction that the world is moving in.  The backwards thinkers are gradually disappearing and women are being accepted into positions of power.  This movie symbolizes that women are a powerful force to contend with in the future.

The fundamental story behind Fa Mulan, the woman who becomes a warrior, is the same for all three versions.  The subtle differences of the novel and movie from the original legend reflect the thinking of the age in which the work was created.  The idea of what the perfect is daughter is remains the same because the setting is ancient China but how Mulan fits that role is vastly different in each story.  In the first, she is the ideal Chinese daughter which is fitting because that is what people expected and accepted in those days.  Mulan has very unconventional childhood as a trainee of two spirit mentors and in the movie, she is a person that a young woman in the present can relate to.  She has a hard time fulfilling the duties that her family expects of her, just as teenagers often chafe under their parents guiding hand, and suffers an identity crisis: an internal conflict of who she is, who she wants to be, and what her family wants for her.  The hidden identity is an important aspect in all three works because it symbolizes the hardships and suppression that women have universally suffered under.  Even in the ancient legend, the poet recognizes that women are not only what they appear to be on the surface.  Though she may seem like the perfectly obedient girl, she has her own thoughts and feelings hidden behind a façade.  In the second work, Mulan is not utterly alone in her struggle because her husband is privy to her secret.  A husband, however, is traditionally dominant over the wife, so even though she can share her fears and emotions, a man is still in control of her life.  The movie gives Mulan a rejected ancestral guardian for a confidant so together they are learning and struggling to prove themselves.  There is no power play of domination between them because they are both low on the social ladder and helping each other move up. 

Finally, the resolution of each story provides very different perspectives on the outlook of women’s lives in the future.  In the first work, Mulan returns home and throws off the warrior persona and reverts to the meek woman.  Society was not going to change in ancient China to accommodate a woman who rose above her place.  In the second work, Mulan becomes a legend, but she is a legend because of her filial obedience and honor of her father, the dominant male figure in the family.  Though she is famous in all of China and influences many woman for the better, she chooses to return home and bear sons to her husband.  During the time in which this novel was written, women were very divided as to what role they should play: an independent, self-motivated working woman, or the traditional housewife who cooked and took care of the children.  As in the story, women were versatile and could change between warrior and mother.  The movie shows Mulan being offered a place on the Emperor’s counsel at the expense of a man.  In today’s society, more women are stepping into positions of political and commercial power and are influencing the world in significant ways. 

Each novel shows a unique perspective on the role of woman in society.  Each work reflects the view of that particular time period and the differences found in the works are due to the idiosyncrasies of society during that time.  The evolution of the Mulan story also represents the shifting from subjugation to power for women in the last two millennia.  Stories are passed through the generations and subtly change and shift with each retelling.  The ideals of heroism, courage, and determination will never change but the details specific to time periods will continue to accommodate the views of society.  The altering of tales like Mulan are representative of the development of the human race.  Because of stories that embody our highest principles, human beings are capable of perpetual self-improvement and the upholding of the integrity of our society.