Mulan: The Journey From Ancient Tale to Disney Blockbuster

MulanIn our blog series on the historic origins of Disney films, we’ve found that being literary archaeologists pays off. Digging into these films reveals layer upon layer of historic events and tales from all over the globe, each serving as inspiration for the next generation of storytellers, and culminating in the present-day retellings that we now experience at the movies.

Disney’s Mulan, which came out in 1998, is based on one of the most enduring folktales in the world. According to legend, Mulan was a young Chinese woman who went to war in place of her father, fighting for 12 years before retiring with high honors from the Chinese military, the secret of her true identity still intact.

A panel from "The Ballad of Mulan."

A panel from “The Ballad of Mulan.”

The legend was originally transcribed in “The Ballad of Mulan” over a thousand years ago by an unknown author in an anthology that has since been lost to history. The ballad, which is just 31 couplets, describes Mulan’s successful military career during which she concealed her gender from her fellow soldiers. She ultimately leads a battle that wins the war and is honored by the emperor. Offered a cash reward and a high post in the army, she asks instead to return to her parents. When she arrives home, she simply puts on her traditional feminine garments, dabs on some makeup and takes up life as a woman again.[1]

In the 11th or 12th century, the story of Mulan was documented in another anthology, the Collected Works of the Music Bureau, compiled by Guo Maoqian.Here it appears as both a poem and a song, with the story lines slightly tweaked. It was the first of the many permutations that the tale would undergo.[2]

A woman whose feet are bound according to the Chinese tradition. Image courtesy of Okinawa Soba on Flickr.

A woman whose feet are bound according to the Chinese tradition. Image courtesy of Okinawa Soba on Flickr.

Mulan was left untouched for nearly five hundred years after the Collected Works of the Music Bureau. She next made an appearance on stage in the popular 16th-century drama by Xu Wei, The Female Mulan Replaces Her Father in the Military. Taking many liberties with the original folktale, the drama was designed for maximum entertainment value. The play is full of plot twists, songs (Chinese dramas in this period resembled what we consider operas), a fictional bandit named Leopard Skin whom Mulan vanquishes in battle, and a scene in which Mulan unbinds her feet as she prepares to join the army – which would have been titillating for male members of the audience, as the Chinese considered a woman’s foot to be an erotic body part.[3] (Foot-binding was a traditional practice of women in ancient China, although not in the region Mulan is typically said to be from. Xu Wei, however, was not bothered by such historical inaccuracies.)

Mulan bidding her parents farewell. From Chu Renhuo.

Mulan bidding her parents farewell. From Chu Renhuo’s Sui Tang Yanyi.

After Xu Wei’s play, adaptations of the Mulan story proliferated. Another popular retelling was the 17th-century historical romance novel Sui Tang Yanyi by Chu Renhuo. In this version, Mulan meets with an unhappy end, committing suicide when, after long and faithful service in the army, she is summoned to be the concubine of a Turkish khan. Renhuo’s novel portrays Mulan as a fierce loyalist rather than a daughter motivated by the desire to protect her aging father. An early advocate for women’s rights, Renhuo has Mulan declare that her reason for going to war is that male warriors are incompetent: “Feeling ashamed that there were not many loyal subjects and filial sons among men, I decided to take the risk to dress myself as a man.”[4]

Despite the changing roles Mulan’s character has been required to play over the last thousand years, she has always been portrayed as a woman of strength and talent. Mulan has been the subject of poetry, dramas, films, television series and video games. She even has a crater on Venus named after her.[5]

The “Song of Mulan” by Wei Yuanfu, written in the 11-12th century and included in Maoqian’s anthology, has an ending that foreshadowed the tale’s enduring appeal:

If in this world the hearts of officials and sons
Could display the same principled virtue as Mulan’s,
Their loyalty and filiality would be unbroken;
Their fame would last through the ages—how could it be destroyed?[6]

Mulan’s fame has certainly lasted through the ages—her animated character in Disney’s film is one of her latest reincarnations. While the medium through which we tell her story changes, and the plot itself is open to artistic revision, the subversive message of female empowerment has remained at the legend’s heart these thousand years.



[2] Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts. 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Negotiating Masculinities in Late Imperial China. 2006.


[6] Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts. 2010.

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Celebrate Germany’s World Cup Win with Ancient Sauerkraut

Kiszona_kapustaIn honor of Germany’s World Cup win last Sunday, we’re featuring a truly German food:  sauerkraut! The recipe this week is Never Enough Pork Beer-Braised Sauerkraut and it is perfect for a hearty, German feast. You might be surprised to find however, that sauerkraut did not originate in Germany or anywhere in Europe. Its roots grow out of the East. Continue reading

Exploring LegacyQuest 2014! Building a 21st Century Soccer Stadium Using Tips From 1st Century Rome

LegacyQuest large logo blue borderThis week’s featured video is from The Baldwin School in Pennsylvania and received an Honorable Mention. Viewers are taken to a modern construction site where the architectural features of the past are shown to inspire the present. The ingenious film was created by middle school students Margaret, Emma (Karly), Charisma and Paige with the help and inspiration of their teacher, Preston Bannard. Continue reading

One Museum’s Quest to Preserve Niger’s Precious Cultural Heritage

Boubou Hama National Museum

Boubou Hama National Museum

Niger does not get a lot of press when it comes to the protection of its cultural heritage. Often it is overshadowed by news about antiquities from its neighbor to the south, Nigeria, and the restitution of the Benin Bronzes taken from that region. However, the people of Niger are proud of their heritage and want to protect and preserve it. One man in particular, Maki Garba from the Boubou Hama National Museum, contacted AntiquityNOW, eager to share the work that’s being done at the museum to ensure that Niger’s past is not lost. Continue reading

Bon Appetit Wednesday! Bacon Pemmican: A Modern Twist on Ancient Native American Jerky

Preparing pemmican.

Preparing pemmican.

Summer road trips are a family tradition this time of year.  But along with the fun comes mile after mile and hour after hour in close quarters. Even experienced travelers can become quite frazzled. That’s why it’s important to pack lots of food and snacks to keep everyone happy. One of the best traveling foods is jerky.  Yes, you heard that right. Full of flavor and nutrition, jerky is easy to pack and won’t spoil in those hot summer temperatures. This year, why not make your own delicious jerky as the Native Americans have done for thousands of years. Pemmican, a dried meat recipe that also sustained the Canadian fur traders in North America, is all natural and has ancient roots, but this recipe gives it a whole new twist by using bacon instead of beef or buffalo. Continue reading

Exploring LegacyQuest 2014! Time Travel: Greek and Roman Architecture

LegacyQuest large logo blue borderThis week we’re featuring another video from a group of students who received an Honorable Mention for their excellent filmmaking efforts. This entry from The Baldwin School in Pennsylvania takes us back in time to Ancient Greece and then fast forwards to Ancient Rome before returning us to the present day, comparing and contrasting architecture throughout the journey. It was created by middle school students Armina, Gloria, Jordyn and Vivienne (Vivi) with the help of their teacher, Jeannette Keshishian. Continue reading

The Archaeology Channel Announces TAC Video News Now Available on Comcast

TAC snipThe Archaeology Channel has announced that TAC Video News is now available on cable television in Western Oregon and Western Washington via Comcast OnDemand. TAC is a program of Archaeological Legacy Institute (ALI), an independent, nonprofit research and education corporation.  ALI partners with AntiquityNOW in co-sponsoring LegacyQuest, the International Children’s Film and Video Festival.

Rick Pettigrew, president of Archaeological Legacy Institute, had this to say about the Comcast venture: Continue reading

AntiquityNOW Wishes You a Happy and Safe Fourth of July!

fourth fireworksPlanning on enjoying fireworks? Read our blog post, “The History of Fireworks: Celebrating Life’s Moments in Color, Light and Sound,” to learn more about the history of fireworks!

Or, if you have kids or students, check out our annotated Kids’ Blog, “Boom! Pow! Whizzz!: The History of Fireworks,” packed with fun facts and great activities!


The Influence of Ancient War Monuments on Their Modern Equivalents Part I: Ancient Rome

Yasukuni Shrine, Japan.

Yasukuni Shrine, Japan.

When one wanders through any major city in our day and age, it is possible to cast one’s eyes over various monuments of war erected by the city, such as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the al-Shaheed Monument in Baghdad and the Yasukuni Shrine in Japan. However, when gazing over these war monuments, one does not instantly think of the influences of earlier times and creations that were integral to their design. This article, the first in a two-part series, will consider ancient Roman influence on the construction of two specific modern war monuments.[1] Continue reading