Mulan: the centuries-old legend behind the beloved Disney film

She may have been made globally popular by Disney's 1998 animation, but the story of the Chinese warrior started centuries earlier

This image released by Disney shows Yifei Liu in the title role of "Mulan."  (Jasin Boland/Disney via AP)
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Last week saw the release of Disney's latest live action remake with Mulan, which is now screening at cinemas across the UAE.

In a first for a major Disney blockbuster, the film has been made available on streaming service Disney+ at the same time as its global cinematic release, owing to many cinemas in major markets still being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The film is one of Disney’s most eagerly anticipated live-action remakes, and is set to be one of 2020’s biggest blockbusters.

The story of Mulan was made popular in the late 1990s thanks to Disney’s animated version, which featured the voice work of Ming-Na Wen, Eddie Murphy, Miguel Ferrer and BD Wong in the English version, while Jackie Chan provided the voice of Captain Li Shang for the Chinese dubs of the film.

The film tells the story of a young woman who enlists in the Chinese army to protect her ailing father, hiding her true identity from her fellow soldiers by pretending to be a man.

Unlike in the Disney version of the story, in the 'Ballad of Mulan', it is only after she returns home to her family that her fellow soldiers learn of her true identity as a woman

While Disney may have introduced a generation to the much-loved character – and is about to do so all over again – the legend of Mulan has been told for centuries.

Where does the legend of Mulan come from?

The tale of Mulan can be traced back to the Northern Wei Dynasty during the period between 386 to 535 AD. The first written record of the warrior can be found in a Chinese folk song, recorded in a book of ballads. Mulan, meaning ‘magnolia flower’ in Chinese, was one of 392 Chinese characters to feature in the book.

During this period, it was common for the northern region of Han China to be frequently invaded by the Hun (Xiongnu) people along the northern border. Most of the battles took place between the Black Mountain and Mount Yanran.

"Based on Chinese historical documents, a real war happened between the Northern Wei state and a Mongolic state called Rouran," tourism provider China Highlights states. "In 429, the emperor (khan) of Northern Wei led an army to fight Rouran, which according to the Ballad of Mulan lasted 12 years."

The folktale says Mulan remained a warrior within the army for the full 12 years of the war, excelling in her position thanks to sword skills and martial arts she had previously been taught. Unlike in the Disney version of the story, in the Ballad of Mulan, it is only after she returns home to her family, having turned down all offers of recognition for her role in the victory, that her fellow soldiers learn of her true identity as a woman.

According to China Highlights, the story began to gain traction in China centuries later during the Tang Dynasty, between 618 and 907 AD, when it was widely retold as a common folk story.

The tale was brought to life for the first time centuries later by playwright Xi Wei, who penned a play based on the folk story. The 16th century production, entitled The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father's Place, was acted in two parts, and was the first of many adaptations of the story in the centuries to follow, which have included books, plays, and of course Disney's latest blockbuster.

The legacy of Mulan

While there is no clear-cut answer as to whether Mulan was a real person or a fictional character, her influence on China and the world has been paramount. In China, Mulan has become a byword for heroines and her story is a household tale told to encourage girls to be brave.

In Hubei, generally accepted to be the home town of Mulan, there is a memorial statue dedicated to the warrior, which has long been a visitor draw for fans of the story.

When Disney’s original animated version of Mulan was released in 1998, it grossed $304 million (Dh1.1 billion) at the box office, and quickly won a place as one of its more popular films.

Early reviews of the 2020 live-action remake have been positive, however, given the times in which it is being released, it remains to be seen whether it will emulate the success of the original.