Friday’s Fairy Tales: The Ballad of Hua Mulan


“Father has no grown-up son, Mu-lan has no elder brother. I want to buy a saddle and horse, And serve in the army in Father’s place.”

(Frankel  1976; The Ballad of Mulan)

In this week’s edition of “Friday’s Fairytales”, I decided to branch out a little bit from the familiarity of Western tales, and explore my favourite Disney movie: Mulan, and it’s origins. Unfortunatley, as this tale does not fall under western folklore, I don’t actually have a textbook copy of it, so I will be relying entirely on the interwebs for my information.

For those who don’t know, the tale of Mulan is more of a “legend” than a fairytale. The definitive difference between these two terms is as follows:-

“Fairytale” – Noun.

  1. A story about fairies; told to amuse children.

  2. An interesting but highly implausible story; often told as an excuse.

“Legend”- Noun.

  1. A nonhistorical or unverifiable story handed down by tradition from earlier times and popularly accepted as historical.

  2. The body of stories of this kind, especially as they relate to a particular people, group or clan”


So for example, while Thumbelina and Rumplestiltskin are traditional fairytales…Mulan is more akin to  the British legend of “King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table”, in the way that it is accepted that the character actually existed and is not fictional.

The Story?

Actually, the origins of Hua Mulan are not that of a regular story, but rather that of an ancient poem, known as “The Ballad of Mulan” (or 木蘭辭 , in chinese). In the poem:

  • Mulan is concerned for her father’s welfare, as one male from each family is called upon to serve in the Chinese army.

  • Her younger brother is too young and her father is too old.

  • She decides to be a badass and takes her father’s place, and bids farewell to her parents.

  • So unlike the Disney movie, they actually let her go!

  • She fought for twelve years and gained high merit.

  • Mulan turns down an official post and asks for a horse to take her home.

  • Her family welcomes her home with open arms.

  • She dresses like a girl again and when she meets up with her army buds, she gives them the fright of their life since they never guessed she was a woman in the whole 12 years they knew her.

For those curious, there is an English translation of the full ballad available here:

Origins/Backstory: from Wikipedia

There are some mixed opinions about the historical settings of Hua Mulan’s timeline. According to one source, she is placed in the North Wei dynasty (386-536), another says she was around the time of the Tang dynasty (620).

Sadly the original work of this poem no longer exists. Instead the sources for the knowledge of this poem, comes from an anthology collected by Guo Maoqian during the 11th-12th century, which compiles lyrics, songs and poems. It was only in around 1593 that there came a dramatisation named “The Female Mulan” written in two acts, by Xu Wei, which added to the traditional poem.

Later on the character of Mulan was written into a historical romance named “Sui Tang Yanyi”, which was written by Chu Renhuo in the 17th century.

The Ballad of Hua Mulan is one of the first poems in Chinese history to support the notion of gender equality. Despite the original text disappearing, the story is well known through Chinese history and well loved.

Alternative Endings?:

In the historical romance “Sui Tang Yanyi”, Mulan meets a rather sad fate, which is unsual and not seen in any of the other reincarnations of the Ballad.

  • During her service, Mulan met with the Princess, who upon discovering she was female, became BFFs with.

  • The Princess’ father is defeated in the war, and in an act to spare his life, the Princess and Mulan present themselves to be executed in his place.

  • This act of “filial piety” wins the Emporer’s reprive. Mulan is given money to provide for her family and the Princess is given wedding funds since she had promised herself to be engaged to the General.

  • Mulan returns home, and is devastated to discover that during her twelve years service, her father has died and her mother has re-married.

  • Furthermore the bad guy of the story has summoned her to be his concubine.

  • Rather than accepting that fate, Mulan decides to commit suicide.

  • She sends her little sister on an errand she herself was going to run, to deliver a letter from the Princess to her fiancé General, the little sister dresses up as a man to make this delievery but is discovered and “it arouses her recipient’s amorous attention”.

  • And…Mulan kills herself. Because “Even a half-Chinese woman would prefer death by her own hand to serving a foreign ruler” (Mulan’s heritage is one of mixed opinions, in this novel, her father is actually of a different tribe).

Fun Fact:

There is a crater on Venus named after her! “Hua Mulan”


  1. The Wild Orchid: A Retelling of the Ballad of Mulan (Once Upon a Time Series)– Cameron Dokey. The only re-telling I have read so far, and I loved it! Highly recommend!

  2. The Woman Warrior– Maxine Hong Kingston, this looks to be an anthology of various chinese myths and legends and has some mixed reviews. Apparently this is what led to the Disney adaptation.

  3. China’s Bravest Girl: The Legend of Hua Mu Lan– Charlie Chin, Tomie Arai- a Children’s picture book.

  4. Throne of Jade– Naomi Novik, shows passing salutes to Mulan, by claiming that the Chinese aircorps are all female captains and their dragons following in Mulan’s footsteps

  5. The Ballad of Mulan– Song Nan Zhang, published in 1998, I am led to believe this version is basically a publication of the original text (as close as can be) so people have the basic story set out- must get a copy of this myself!


Obviously the Disney one and the lesser known 2009 adaptation, which is a pretty long film but it’s so good!

mul2    mul3

Discussion Questions- The questions are slightly different this week! I answer these questions myself every week, feel free to answer them yourselves in the comments in any way you want!

Do you prefer Fairy tales or Legends?

I have a greater general knowledge of fairy tales but I do find myself wanting to learn more about legends, simply because they have a sort of gravity that fairy tales do not. They were “Real”, at least to some extent, and stooped in history and culture. The immediate legends I can think of are limited to King Arthur; Saint George and the Dragon, and Joan of Arc. But I’d love to know more. Similar to knowing more mythology as well.

What do you like or dislike about the Legend of Hua Mulan?

I remember opening a present on my birthday in 1998 to find a VHS copy of Mulan. I watched it immediately and I fell in love with it. I think it is the one disney film I literally wore the tape out of. I had always been a tomboy myself. I was not raised to be very girly. I didn’t really wear dresses or pink, or have any dolls as such- our priorities were a little different because our main concern was my mother’s health and her constant hospital visits. Nobody ever really showed me how to wear make up or even tell me that I should want to wear the stuff. I didn’t know how to even apply make up until I was about twenty. Whereas most of my friends knew how to apply and were wearing mascara and eye liner by the time they were thirteen! (I kid you not!).

 There is, of course, nothing wrong with being raised to be girly or ultra feminine. But the problem around being raised with  harsh “Gender Roles” is that sometimes, they are harmful and very limiting. A little girl should not be told all she can expect to be when she grows up is a secretary or a nurse, when she wants to be a CEO or a Doctor. Just like a little boy should not be told all he can be when he grows up is a Doctor, when he might actually want to be a Nurse.

But what I found growing up is that there were very few female characters in literature and film who I could relate to. We are taught that a female cannot be successful without getting a “makeover” in the movie, which means straightening curly hair and losing the glasses (aka everything I am, thanks Hollywood). We are taught that even the superheroes who happen to be female can’t seem to shoot a gun without striking some bizarre pose which looks inhumanly possible while flaunting either their breasts or backside (thank you Hawk-eye Initiative, you are hilarious and painful at the same time!)

While most little girls wanted to be dancers, pop stars or models, I wanted to be a vet, then a marine biologist, and then I finally settled on my long-term dream of becoming a police officer. Honestly? I think Mulan is what spurred that dream on and cemented it.

Mulan was the first exposure I’d had to the idea of a woman being accepted into a very masculine occupation, being able to do the job just as well as the male colleagues. It was the first time, next to my parents being wonderful and never saying “You can’t do this” (they always said “you can do whatever you set your mind to”), that I saw something in the media showing this message of gender equality (and the issues around it). Even better, it was specifically marketed towards children-allowing millions of young girls like me to think “Hey- why couldn’t I do  that?”

If you read the original text (linked to under the summary), do you feel the Disney movie and/or the 2009 movie did the Ballad justice?

Reading the original text, I do feel that both film interpretations of the film do a decent job and stay quite close to the original story. Obviously, the 2009 version is a lot more detailed and serious, but they both hold their own and deal with the issues within the tale well.

Mulan has long been praised for being a strong role model for girls. What other literary/Real-life females do you think are good role models for young girls?

Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale, Emily Pankhurst, Eleanor of Acquitaine, Marie Curie and Amelia Earhart are the first names which flew into my mind.

Readers: Is there a specific tale you would like me to discuss/analyse in the future?

Next Week’s Friday Fairytale: “Cinderella”- as requested by Annette/ Booknerderie! I will be using my trusty Andrew Lang Blue Fairy book as my source.


14 thoughts on “Friday’s Fairy Tales: The Ballad of Hua Mulan

  1. *claps* AWESOME POST!!! Great choice. I love the contrast of heaviness between legends and fairy tales. Legends hold so much more weight, IMO, due to the fact that they were (or feel as though) based on real people. Anywho, great job Andie!!

  2. arianrhod123 says:

    I love Mulan’s story so much, although I didn’t know that much about the original. The Disney film is amazing though – it’s probably one of my favourites. But now I definitely feel like reading a retelling of Mulan. Great post!

    • thebookheap says:

      Highly recommend Wild Orchid by Cameron Dokey! I ordered my copy of #5 The Ballad of Mulan today, bwahaha. So excited to own it, the artwork looks stunning!

      • arianrhod123 says:

        I’m pretty sure my to-read list is turning into just a list of fairy tale retelling at the moment!

        I just looked at the copy of The Ballad of Mulan, and the artwork is amazing. I’ll admit, I’m jealous 😀

      • thebookheap says:

        Haha I decided to let myself buy a copy despite the fact I should’ve waited til the end of the month, oops~

        Fairytales retellings are so popular at the moment!

  3. Great post. I really am loving Fairytale Friday’s, learning so much more about the tales I thought I knew. I really like Mulan, had no idea it was based on a poem. Disney’s version seems kind of tame that she only seemed to be at war for a few weeks/months rather then the 12 years. I’m not a fan of the Sui Tang Yanyi ending, so sad that she committed suicide. I think I’m going to stay away from that version. However the Wild Orchid re-telling looks great. Will definitely be checking that one out! 😦
    Yeay! Cinderella! Does the original have little mice and birds that sew like the disney film? Haha 🙂

    • thebookheap says:

      Awh brilliant! That’s the point of this feature after all! I’m glad a few people are enjoying it and it isn’t just me waffling on for no reason!

      I was really surprised when I first learnt that she was at war for 12 years! I think it’s interesting that there was such an imaginitive re-telling quite early on (century-wise) but yeah, I’m not a fan of that ending either! Wild Orchid, ugh feels, I really enjoyed it!

      All I know about the original tale of cinderella so far is that her original slippers were made of fur, not glass (it got mistranslated), and the stepmother cuts of her daughter’s toes and heels in an attempt to make their feet fit the slipper- ugh, fur and blood- not a pretty mixture!

      • Ewww, that’s kinda gross. What a harsh mother! I don’t think I’m going to like that version. Haha
        Not a book re-telling, but have you seen the film Ever After with Drew Barrymore in? Such a nice Cinderella film adaptation 🙂

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