At least, we think that’s what her name is. No one can really agree on what her real name is, or when she lived…or where…or who she fought or …well, you get the point. Let’s just say that what we know is legend. She was probably living between 400-600AD, but that’s really just a guess.
Most scholars tend to maybe kind of think that perhaps she could have been possibly in the Han Dynasty. The Han was the second dynasty after the first Qin dynasty that was started by the slightly insane dragon emperor. The Han dynasty was started by a rebel general Liu Bang who was a certifiable BAMF. (there’s a club for serious butt kickers. They have a card and everything. Charles Martel, Belisarius and Ghengis Khan are all members. They meet on Tuesdays.)
Speaking of Khans, in the “original” poem of Mulan, the emperor was refereed to as a khan, which implies he was a foreign ruler, possibly one of the semi-independent kings that ruled under the Han emperor. Also, most scholars tend to think that Mulan was from the northern provinces and her enemies were barbarians from the Mongolian region.
Well, when empires get invaded by barbarian hordes, its usually a pretty big crisis so the emperor/khan called every family to send a soldier to their army. Mulan’s father was once an officer in their equivalent of a national guard. This suggests that she was somewhat well off, like a landed aristocracy. However, her father was too old. She had an older sister that was married and a brother that was much too young. However they were a patriotic family and instead of whining and complaining and occupying random cities, they wanted to do their duty. The father was a military man and had trained Mulan in the arts of warfare. I was surprised to find that this was actually fairly common at this time. So, aside from learning slow dances, how to put on make up and do her hair, she was learning how to kick butt. Sword fighting, archery, hunting etc.
Well, Mulan’s father didn’t like the idea of his daughter running off to join the army, not to mention women couldn’t be in the army anyways. So she dressed as a man and fought a duel with her father without him knowing who she was. She won and then revealed who she was. Convinced that she was tough enough, he let her join the army. She joined as a low ranking officer, equivalent of our “butter bars” in the modern army.
Now let me explain a few things of the Chinese army at this time.
The Chinese army at this time was a very well organized military. Units weren’t mixed so a soldier would be in a crossbow unit or a spear unit. The different groups would be positioned to support the front lines wherever they were needed. They had drums and gongs to tell the soldiers what to do and when.
They had cavalry as well, but like the Romans it was light cavalry without the stirrup. (not yet anyway.)
So, this is the military Mulan joins. Apparently she was also really good at it because she rose through the ranks fairly quickly and eventually became a general. The whole time no one had a clue that she was a woman. She fought for 12 years and at the end she went before the emperor and all the officers and soldiers were offered rewards. She refused money and lands and only asked for a ride back home…a very fast ride home. There were two reasons she wanted to go home in a hurry. One: she wanted to go home and put her feet up. Two: one of the other generals was looking to marry her off to his daughter. That could have been pretty awkward.
So this general sends one of his general buddies to go find Mulan at home. When he arrives he’s greeted by a woman. I’m sure it was highly awkward. Well, the marriage idea was off to say the least, but then that general proposes to her! (at least in some tellings of it.) Wait a second….how did they fight for twelve years, become good friends and live in camps and NOT know that she was a woman? Well, my hypothesis is this. One, she probably had her own tent. Two. She wore her armor and helmet everywhere. Three. Didn’t take a lot of baths…at least nearby the others. Four. She took disguise lessons from Lon Chaney.
The great thing about this story was that it showed the virtues the Chinese valued. It showed her patriotism and selflessness of serving her country and it showed her humility in not asking or accepting a reward. Also, it showed the value of learning to kick butt.