Most of us who were of a certain age in the 90s remember very well the story of Mulan, the legendary warrior who takes the place of her elderly father in the fight against the Hun invaders.

Disney’s 36th animated film, like the previous 35, was populated with whimsical characters (who can forget Eddie Murphy as the dragon Mushu) and memorable musical numbers.

But what most people don’t know is that the story of Mulan is not new. The original tale of the young farm girl who, against all odds, successfully fought against the invading Huns, dates back more than a thousand years.

And while the 1998 film marked the childhood of an entire generation, the real story is far darker and more somber than most people realize. So let’s talk history today, let’s dive far back into the past, and uncover the real Hua Mulan.

It All Began As A Poem

The poem that originated the legend was composed during the 6th century. Unfortunately, the collection of songs to which the poem originally belonged has been lost and this has sparked a centuries-long debate about the historicity of our beloved girl-warrior.

The Poem of Mulan

Further complicating the issue is the fact that there are various other sources that develop the story of Hua Mulan with varying degrees of divergence.

Although the Disney classic animated film places Fa Mulan in the Han dynasty, the film is guilty of a number of anachronisms, such as visiting the Forbidden City, that differ from the original poem.

Another example of differences between the original version and Disney’s kid-friendly reimagining is the fact that Hua Mulan was an only child, while the original story speaks of her various younger brothers and sisters.

Those who argue that Mulan is a character of pure fiction suggest her story may have been inspired by the life of Army General Fu Hao. One of the many wives of Emperor Wu Ding, Fu Hao served as both military general and high priestess during the Shang Dynasty. Fu Hao led numerous military campaigns against the Tu-Fang, Yi, Quian, and Ba tribes.

Fu Hao is remembered as the greatest and most powerful military general of her time and for that reason, she is believed by some to be the inspiration for Mulan.

However, the 6th-century poem is not the only source giving credence to the historical figure of Hua Mulan. Many years later, a far more detailed version was written and in that tale, we find the darkest and starkest differences between real life and Disney make-believe.

The Romance Of Hua Mulan

In the year 1695, famed writer Chu Renhuo wrote his extensive  Romance of the Sui and Tang, which provided extensive new details in the story of Mulan.

Chu Renhuo’s tale of Mulan starts under Heshana Khan’s reign during the Western Turkic Khaganate, and one of the primary differences between it and the 6th-century poem, not to mention the Disney version, is its tragic ending.

Chinese Statue

After learning that her father died during her years at war and that her widowed mother had remarried another man, Hua Mulan was heartbroken. Her heartbreak was only the beginning of her misery, as soon after Khan ordered her to return to the palace to become one of his concubines.

In a desperate and haunting attempt to preserve some dignity and autonomy in her life, Hua Mulan tragically commits suicide. Her last words, written in a letter she wrote to her Fiance, were, “I am a woman, I have been through war and I have done enough. Now I want to be with my father.”

Before her death, Hua Mulan asked her sister to deliver the letter. In a curious case of history repeating itself, Mulan’s sister was forced to disguise herself as a man only to be discovered by her superior, who swiftly fell in love with her.

Interestingly, this part of the tale, where her sister delivers the letter and is discovered in the process, is very similar to the events of the Disney movie. It is quite possible that the folks at Disney decided to juxtapose this part of the story over Mulan’s narrative in order to lighten the mood and create a romantic plotline to entice viewers.

The Ballad of Mulan

Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,

Mu-lan weaves, facing the door.

You don’t hear the shuttle’s sound,

You only hear Daughter’s sighs.

They ask Daughter who’s in her heart,

They ask Daughter who’s on her mind.

“No one is on Daughter’s heart,

No one is on Daughter’s mind.

Last night I saw the draft posters,

The Khan is calling many troops,

The army list is in twelve scrolls,

On every scroll, there’s Father’s name.

Father has no grown-up son,

Mulan has no elder brother.

I want to buy a saddle and horse,

And serve in the army in Father’s place.”

In the East Market, she buys a spirited horse,

In the West Market, she buys a saddle,

In the South Market, she buys a bridle,

In the North Market, she buys a long whip.

At dawn, she takes leave of Father and Mother,

In the evening camps on the Yellow River’s bank.

She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,

She only hears the Yellow River’s flowing water cry tsien tsien.

At dawn, she takes leave of the Yellow River,

In the evening she arrives at Black Mountain.

She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,

She only hears Mount Yen’s nomad horses cry tsiu tsiu.

She goes ten thousand miles on the business of war,

She crosses passes and mountains like flying.

Northern gusts carry the rattle of army pots,

Chilly light shines on iron armor.

Generals die in a hundred battles,

Stout soldiers return after ten years.

On her return, she sees the Son of Heaven,

The Son of Heaven sits in the Splendid Hall.

He gives out promotions in twelve ranks

And prizes of a hundred thousand and more.

The Khan asks her what she desires.

“Mulan has no use for a minister’s post.

I wish to ride a swift mount

To take me back to my home.”

When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming

They go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.

When Elder Sister hears Younger Sister is coming

She fixes her rouge, facing the door.

When Little Brother hears Elder Sister is coming

He whets the knife, quick quick, for pig and sheep.

“I open the door to my east chamber,

I sit on my couch in the west room,

I take off my wartime gown

And put on my old-time clothes.”

Facing the window she fixes her cloudlike hair,

Hanging up a mirror she dabs on yellow flower powder

She goes out of the door and sees her comrades.

Her comrades are all amazed and perplexed.

Traveling together for twelve years

They didn’t know Mulan was a girl.

“The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip,

The she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled.

Two hares running side by side close to the ground,

How can they tell if I am he or she?”

Her Name Was Hua Mulan

By donning men’s clothing and joining the ranks of her own free will, Hua Mulan became a powerful example of the true depth of Love and Loyalty.

Mulan’s sacrifice, for it cannot be called otherwise, lasted more than a decade, and never during this time was she inspired by fame or praise. Only the love towards her father, towards her family, kept her moving forward through the savage battlefields of China.

Her undeniable courage, her steadfast ability to resist adversity and her disinterested attitude towards fame and fortune, transformed her into a woman of legend.

Today, more than a thousand years have passed since Hua Mulan did what she did, yet her life remains exemplary and will remain so for thousands of years more.