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Is Mulan A True Story? Answered by a native Chinese

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A Ballad in The 500s China

Everyone knows that Mulan is an old Chinese tale. But is it just a story? Or is Mulan real? Having grown up in China, I learned the ballad of Mulan in 7th grade. Just like you, I had wondered if this brave and extraordinary young woman ever existed in real history. 

The question still evokes a lot of discussions, but just like the Homeric epics Iliad and Odyssey, Mulan is thought to be loosely based on some facts.

Wikisource summarizes it well:

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The “Ballad of Mulan” is a folk song from Northern Dynasties China; it recounts the story of Mulan, a girl who goes to war in place of her father. The pseudo-historical personage of Mulan probably lived in the fifth century, when the Toba, who dominated northern China, was engaged in a long war with the Rouran on their northern frontier. It is thought the ballad was collected into an anthology of yuefu in the mid-sixth century and later popularized during the Tang dynasty.

The ballad of Mulan is pretty short in ancient Chinese, here is a picture of it written in Chinese:

I’ll Forget My Own Name Before I Forget The First Line of Mulan

I had to recite the ballad of Mulan when I was around 14, and I will never forget the first line of this ballad. Why? Cause it sounds like this: “Gee gee foo gee gee, Mulan done who zhi”. Just to be clear, Mandarin does not normally sound like this. Because technically, it’s not Mandarin, it’s ancient Chinese. I’m no linguist, but just to put things in perspective, the level of difference between Mandarin and ancient Chinese is similar to the difference between Latin and English. 

(Here is a video about ancient Chinese pronunciations from one of my favorite YouTube channel NativeLang.) 

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How Close Is The Disney Version of Mulan?

I rewatched the 1998 animated Mulan and found some very interesting tweaks of the story.

  • At the very beginning of the movie, Mulan has a little puppy she called “little brother.” Funny enough, in the ballad, Mulan did have a little brother, and guess what? He’s a real boy!

  • There are so many mentions in the movie where the characters refer to their country as “China”. I don’t want to dig into this too much, otherwise, we would be here all day. Just note this: “China” in Chinese is “中国”. The literal meaning of the word is “middle country”. It has appeared in ancient scripts but was used more as an adjective or indication of a geographical area. In ancient Chinese history, countries are more often named as “dynasties”. No one called their country China until very recently.
  • The ballad only focuses on Mulan disguising herself and going to war in place of her father. Then returning after 10 years. The romance, ancestors, Mushu dragon, the “perfect bride” concept, are all added to the story by the movie creators. It did make the story a lot more exciting and complete. The Chinese have made TV shows that also included romance. Although I have to say, the story is definitely Americanized. Or should I say, Hollywoodized? For one thing, Chinese dragons don’t sound like Eddie Murphy at all. 🙂

 I found a translation of the ballad of Mulan that is pretty literal if you are interested. 

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