The Legend of Mulan 花木兰 – University of Copenhagen

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06 September 2019

The Legend of Mulan 花木兰

[Chinese version below, 以下是中文版]

By Aishan Deng, Student, Center for Danish Studies, Beijing Foreign Studies University. 

The story of Mulan is a Chinese folk legend. There have been written numerous versions of the tale focusing on different aspects, such as the dynasty, her hometown or family. The only constant is the character of Mulan, who undoubtedly is one of the most legendary women ancient China. One of the editions, “XiaoLie Jiangjun Cixiang Bianzheng Ji” (孝烈将军祠像辨证记), from the Yuan-Dynasty, describes Mulan as a female general who is both obedient, just and unyielding. In other words, Mulan is living a genuine life. She lived in the northern Wei-dynasty (386-534 AD), which is the equivalent to the late Roman Empire in the West.

Westerners are also very fond of Mulan. In 1998 Disney spent two whole years, 100 mil. USD, and employed more than 700 artists to create the animated movie Mulanthat had the very first Chinese female protagonist displayed on the bright Disney-screen. Compared to the tales of Snow-white and Cinderella where the female protagonists seek for a prince or loved one, Mulan is unique in the way that Mulan is far more self-conscious than any other princess. In this way, Mulan fundamentally turns the model for all previous Disney-princess movies upside-down.

In the film, Mulan is a super heroine who pursued individual freedom. In the battlefield she used the power of avalanches to defeat the strong Mongolian enemies. Mulan lived in a freer environment. She was reluctant to repress her nature to follow the “Three Obediences and Four Virtues” (三从四德). She dared to ride in the street, and oppose her father at the dinner table to make a decision to sign up for war. She finally realised her motivation: to break the shackles of the traditional views and to live up to her own values.

Moreover, the storyline and the narrative structure of Mulan also follows the Disney formula: Mulan’s failure in the matchmaking ceremony brought shame to the family, and disguised as a man, Mulan replaced her father in the army without permission, she rescued Captain Li Xiang, aided  the Chinese military, saved the emperor. At the end, she triumphed, returned home, and harvested love, all of with characterise a typical Disney “happily ever after”-ending.

The character of Mulan known by the Chinese originates from the ballad of Mulan ”Mulan Ci” (木兰辞) from the Chinese textbooks. It is a poem that almost all Chinese people can recite by heart, and it paints the picture of Mulan as the bravest heroine in all of Chinese poetry. "Mulan Ci” is generally speaking constructed in a narrative way with hardly any idioms, but with an exciting and open ending that lets the reader use his or her own imagination.

The Disney Mulan is filled with comedy and has a relaxed atmosphere, while the Chinese version is in the spirit of something tragic and lonely. "On the northern air comes the sentry’s gong, cold moonlight shines on her coat of steel",  which sets off the hardships of march and mercilessness of wars. This makes a distinct comparison with the scene of her returning home, taking off her battle cloak and putting on old-time dress, adjusting her wispy hair and makeup by the mirror. 

We cannot capture accurately Mulan’s character based on the poem. This ambiguous figure almost gather all the traditional virtues. In the beginning, deep sigh can be heard among the sounds of the loom and shuttle, that is from Mulan who is worrying about her father. She left home as a teenage girl for a responsibility she felt in her bones, which represents her filial piety and loyalty to the country. Enduring the hardship of hiding her identity for so many years, and surviving from the cruel battlefield, she is bound to be brave and dexterous. At the end of the ballad, Mulan resigned her seat in the cabinet and returned home. It showed both her ignorance of fame and desire for a quiet life.

I recently watched a teaser for the Mulan live-action movie by Disney. The Mulan character, played by Liu Yifei, radiate both tenderness and heroism, and with sharp, upwards slanting eyebrows reaching all the way to her hairline, she really is Mulan, the eastern beauty.

The story of Mulan is a story about women’s self-development and self-consciousness. Furthermore, Mulan is also a cultural symbol, the meaning of which is constantly updated. The influence of Mulan reaches further than just the Venus-meteorite named after her, she has also made into the toyshops, where little children can now buy the yellow-skinned doll. And not to forget, Mulan has provided the Western world with a new image of Asian faces and Asian women.

No matter how the story changes, as I see it, Mulan will always be fortunate. With a false identity, she was capable of living a different life than other women in that period of time. This “all-or-nothing”-choice enabled her to escape far away from her village, water the horse by the Yellow River, cross mountaintops and passes, and achieve her goals. From to the two thousand yearlong feudal societies, the names shining bright in the annals almost solely belong to men. The only exception is Mulan, she is Chinese heroine that arouse the people’s pride. She was brave enough to make a decision and live that very life that other women didn’t even dare think of.

In the end, love is nothing but an old legend, and the willow trees in the Yumen-Pass, the lonely smoke rising in the desert, and the settling sun the scenery that the eye rarely catches a glimpse of.


作者: 邓爱山,学生,北京外国语大学,丹麦研究中心.

木兰的传说是中国的民间传说,关于花木兰所处的朝代、家籍都有很多版本,不过她无疑是中国古代最具传奇色彩的女性之一。其中,元朝《孝烈将军祠像辨证记》文献里有记载,称木兰是将军,是一个孝义刚烈的女子,也就是说木兰是真实存在的。而她所处的年代是北魏,相当于西方的罗马帝国后期时代。 

西方人也很喜欢花木兰,1998年迪士尼耗资1亿美金,用了700多位艺术家,耗时两年打造动画长片《Mulan》,这可是第一位中国女性主角登上迪士尼荧幕。比起白雪公主、灰姑娘得到王子和心上人的故事,花木兰显然颠覆了之前所有的迪士尼公主形象,比任何一个公主都更有自我意识。 

电影中的木兰是个带有个人主义色彩的超级英雄,战场上她巧妙地制造雪崩来打败匈奴,以一敌千。她的成长环境也相对轻松:可以不用遵守三从四德,可以骑着马横冲直撞地在街上走,可以在言语上顶撞父亲。最后,她意识到她做这一切也许不是为了父亲,而是为了打破传统观念的束缚,证明自己的价值。

动画片木兰的情节设置和叙述方式也贴近迪士尼的套路:木兰在相亲会上的失败令家族蒙羞偷偷代替父亲从军发现自我拯救皇帝和人民得到认可,回到家中并且收获爱情。结局是典型的迪士尼式圆满:他们(木兰和李翔)永远幸福地生活下去

中国人熟知的花木兰来自课本里的《木兰辞》,几乎人人都会背,是中国诗歌中最勇敢的女英雄的故事。《木兰辞》以讲故事的方式,寥寥数语,构建了故事的大概,结局留个悬念,让人们自行想象。 

迪士尼的影片木兰极富喜剧色彩,基调轻松活泼,而《木兰辞》中却流露着无可名状的悲凉和孤寂。北国的寒风中传来打更声,清冷的月光照射着战士的铠甲(原句:朔气传金柝,寒光照铁衣),烘托出行军的艰辛与战争的沉重。这与十二年后,木兰回到家中,脱去战袍,换上女子服饰,对镜理妆的场景形成鲜明对比。

我们从《木兰辞》中无法精准地捕捉木兰的个性,这个模糊的身影大概集所有传统美德于一身。一开始,机杼声中隐隐传来木兰的叹息,那是她在为父亲的困境而忧心。木兰代父从军,体现了她的孝顺以及忠君爱国的品质。不远万里奔赴沙场,飞度重重山隘,历尽磨难在刀光剑影中活了下来,木兰英勇又机敏。谢绝皇帝的赏赐,辞官回乡,她身上又有几分淡泊名利的高洁气质了。

最近看了迪士尼放出的真人版预告,刘亦菲的花木兰兼有柔情和英姿,她的造型剑眉斜飞入鬓,应该是个具有东方美的木兰。 

花木兰的故事是一个女性自我成长,自我意识觉醒的故事,木兰在今天也是一个不断更新意义的文化符号,花木兰的影响力,不仅可以拥有以她命名的金星陨石,不仅让走进玩具店的小女孩买到一只黄皮肤的娃娃,更能让西方世界重新审视亚洲面孔和亚洲女性。 

无论故事怎么改版,在我的眼里,她都是幸运的。以一个伪造的身份,过上了和那个时代其他女子不一样的生活。这个她孤注一掷的选择,让她得以逃离庭院深深,饮马黄河,飞度关山,建功立业。封建社会两千年,史册里熠熠闪光的大多都是男子的名字。唯有花木兰,她是中国的女英雄。她敢一横心,头也不回地走下去,活出别的女子不敢想的样子。

毕竟,爱情不过是古老传说,而玉门关的杨柳,大漠的孤烟,长河落日才是不可多得的风景。