“The Ballad of Mulan,” a 330-word poem about a woman posing as a man to enlist in the military in place of her ailing father, is dated sometime between Wei of the Northern dynasties (386-534) and the Tang dynasty (618-907). Scholars and historians have not been able to settle on its origins or settings. Given that no archaeological evidence corroborates Hua Mulan’s existence, her story may well be folklore. The only certainties are that Mushu and Li Shang had not been part of the Mulan lore for centuries.
Reactions from last summer have cemented the 1998 animated feature as the definitive retelling of “Mulan” in the public consciousness, and the 2020 live-action remake looks to supplant that. But “The Ballad of Mulan” has spawned no fewer than 14 film adaptations — not counting “Mulan II,” Disney’s 2004 direct-to-video animated feature. Most have never been released stateside or even subtitled in English. In fact, a few are so obscure that they don’t come up in an IMDb or Wikipedia search. Of the Chinese Mulan films, only six are readily available on DVD, VCD or streaming sites.
Since her story first graced the big screen in 1926, the folk heroine has, under different interpretations over the course of a century, come to variously emblematize filial piety, patriotism, feminism and, perhaps inadvertently, cultural commodification. Given that Hua Mulan may not be an actual historical figure, faithfulness has seldom been a point of contention in the reworkings of “The Ballad of Mulan” in every form and medium — including literature, music, dance, theater, martial arts and television, as well as film — as expanding on those 330 words necessitates artistic license.
In 1912, Peking opera virtuoso Mei Lanfang adapted the poem for the stage. Mei forged a career performing in drag — as was customary in Chinese opera — although no other female character of his masqueraded as a man. A crew was assembled in 1924 to film five performance numbers from his operas, including “Zoubian” from “Mulan Joins the Army.” Their releases in 1926 marked Hua Mulan’s screen debut. Competing feature-length adaptations of “The Ballad of Mulan” soon followed, arriving in theaters in 1927 and 1928.
Made during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Bu Wancang’s 1939 Chinese drama “Maiden in Armour” (released on DVD as “Hua Mu Lan Joins the Army”) spun the folklore into a patriotic allegory. Embellished to stoke the anti-collaborators sentiment of the moment, the film tacked on a palace-intrigue subplot involving Mulan (played by Nancy Wan-seung Chan) smoking out a traitor and a couple of spies.
Early productions approached “The Ballad of Mulan” lightheartedly, extracting levity from Mulan’s inability to pass convincingly as a man. In “Maiden in Armour,” comrades often teased Mulan for her pale skin, delicate features and small stature. Her rise through the ranks following successive victories caused some grumblings in the camp. Mulan’s brother-in-arms Liu Yuandu (Mei Xi) even persuaded her to dress up as a woman for a covert mission behind enemy lines. Yuandu professed his romantic feelings for Mulan once the war ended, an implication that he had figured out the ruse.
“Lady General Fak Muk-lan,” the 1961 Hong Kong Cantonese opera musical directed by Wong Hok-sing, also took matters lightly. The prospect of Mulan (Fenghuang Nu) cross-dressing to serve the country drew giggles from her younger sister (Chan Ho-kau), who later even playfully flirted with Mulan upon seeing her handsome disguise. Although Mulan was apparently passable, her clumsy traveling companion (Hui Ying-sau) was terrible at keeping a secret and at times came perilously close to blowing her cover.
Over time, the folklore morphed into a parable on gender equality. A case in point was “Hua Mulan,” the 1956 Chinese Yu opera musical co-directed by Liu Guoquan and Zhang Xinshi. The ability of Mulan (Chang Xiangyu) to pass for a man was less of a concern, with her father (Ma Tiande) exhorting her to be more masculine and talk less. When her comrades kvetched about women having it easy during wartime, Mulan spoke up for the women who were busy toiling in the fields and weaving fabric for uniforms back home. She exhibited strategic shrewdness as a general, cleverly thwarting an invader’s sneak attack with a preemptive ambush. Mulan was so passable that her field marshal (Zhao Yiting) tried to play matchmaker between her and his daughter.
Among the film adaptations, the 1964 Hong Kong Huangmei opera musical “Lady General Hua Mu Lan” — directed by Yueh Feng and featuring Ivy Ling Po, the genre’s biggest star — emerged as the most thematically progressive rendering yet. Although it still found comedy in Mulan’s fussing over sleeping arrangements and her zero tolerance for alcohol, the film unequivocally established her martial arts prowess and leadership skills as unmatched by anyone. Anything men could do, Mulan did it better. She schooled men when they disparaged women. Bucking long-standing convention, Mulan here romantically pursued her fellow general, Li Guang (played by Chin Han, whom Ling wound up marrying in real life).
With a touch of meta, “Lady General Hua Mu Lan” referenced the “Butterfly Lovers” legend that dated to the Tang dynasty and revolved around Zhu Yingtai’s pretending to be a man to educate herself while secretly developing an unrequited love for her roommate, Liang Shanbo. Suffice it to say, Barbra Streisand’s “Yentl” reminded the Chinese a lot of this tale.
By contrast, Disney’s 1998 “Mulan,” co-directed by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft, came off as the most regressive iteration of the folklore. Although Mulan became a general in virtually every other adaptation, she was dishonorably discharged in this Disney animation.
The American take whitewashed the tale so liberally that it bordered on cultural appropriation. It seemed almost hellbent on painting ancient China as an oppressive place for women, on the order perhaps of Tudor-era England, with Mulan forbidden to speak unless spoken to, whereas in the 1964 rendition, Mulan’s father (Yang Chih-ching) was solicitous of her opinions. Given that the Huas were a military clan, he charged her to honor the family with victory. Conversely, Disney’s Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na Wen) was pressured to honor the family via marriage.
Jingle Ma’s 2009 Chinese drama “Mulan: Rise of a Warrior,” starring Vicki Zhao, reclaimed the folklore with a corrective narrative. Perhaps the most serious and realistic presentation of “The Ballad of Mulan” thus far, the film went to great lengths to flesh out Mulan’s character, as well as that of the Rouran invaders. Mulan was afforded vulnerability for the first time, which led her commanding officer (Chen Kun) to fake his own death so she could assume his position as general and summon the resolve to lead her troops to victory. In a nod to Disney, the film did show her indulging in the creature comfort of a hot spring bath.
Despite the absences of Mushu and Li Shang, Disney’s new live-action “Mulan,” starring Liu Yifei, does give us deja vu of the 1998 animation. In a rare show of American individualism in this turbidly Orientalist production, Mulan outs herself and supposedly brings shame on everyone. She is expelled just as her animated incarnation was, but — spoiler alert — the emperor (Jet Li) decorates her as an officer in the emperor’s guard — radically, as herself without any male disguise. Hua Mulan surely has come a long way as a woman and a warrior over the course of one century.