Why the ever-evolving legend of Mulan has stood the test of time
'It leaves enough space for other people to add details [and] elaborate,' says Lan Dong
Lan Dong can remember memorizing the legend of Mulan as a young girl in school.
As an adult, and professor of English at the University of Illinois Springfield, she has studied the many ways the story has morphed and evolved throughout the years.
The story, originally known as the Ballad of Mulan, dates back roughly 1,500 years, to some time between the 4th and 6th centuries. It centers around a young woman who disguises herself as a man in order to take her father's place in the army and has been told and retold countless times and ways.
"That's one of the reasons her story enjoys such long-lasting popularity," said Dong, author of Mulan's Legend and Legacy in China and the United States.
"It's because just like a lot of the traditional tales, it's very flexible. It creates a framework; it leaves enough space for other people to add details [and] elaborate," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
Some have interpreted Mulan's narrative as a transgender allegory, though there's debate about whether that was the story's original intent. Dong has found evidence that the story was used as a "symbol for nationalism" during the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s.
"Generally speaking, they use her as a symbol for nationalism to help boost people's spirit in fighting against the invasion," she said.
Perhaps the most famous interpretation comes from Disney in their 1998 animated film Mulan. On Friday, Disney released a live-action remake of that film on their streaming service following a six-month delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The  film is very different compared to the ballad. I think the film is very fun to watch. There [are] elements of humour," Dong said.
"The film really emphasized the coming of age, a young woman trying to figure out her place in the world. So her journey really shifted to sort of searching for herself and, in the process, she also brings honour to her family. That's different compared to what the ballad has."
Transgressive narrative 'justified'
In the original ballad, which is just a little over 300 words, Mulan disguises herself as a man in order to take her father's place in the army and bring "honour" to her family. After several successful years in the military, she returns home and reveals her true self to the other warriors.
"Serving together with her for years, none of them knew she's a woman," Dong explained.
Some have speculated that Mulan was based on an historical figure, but Dong says there isn't any evidence linking Mulan to a specific time or place. However, some regions in China have claimed her as their own.
"I visited one of them years ago when I was doing research. I tried to talk to some of the locals while we were there. They actually get offended if you mention there are other places also claiming to be her hometown," she said.
Dong adds that it's "reasonable" to conclude that "real people" and "real events" inspired the character's creation.
While the story's themes are considered transgressive, Dong argues that Mulan's actions are "justified" and "balanced." While Mulan breaks rules disguising herself as a man, "she does it to save her father," Dong explained.
"At the end, this transgression is mitigated … And not just returns home, but also returns to her role as a young woman," she added.
"In that sense, she breaks the rule, but she's not very threatening to the social structure. She's not going out to change the social norm."
Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Rachel Levy-McLaughlin.