True ending of a Hollywood heroine | Sunday Observer

True ending of a Hollywood heroine

21 February, 2021
Mulan 2020 and Mulan 1998 by Disney movies
Mulan 2020 and Mulan 1998 by Disney movies

Hollywood tells us touching tales, some of them are legends from around the world and some from history. One of the greatest legendary warriors comes from the Hollywood movie ‘Mulan’ which was recently adapted to a live action movie as well.

I prefer the 1998 Disney animation Mulan which was a fun-filled movie with voices of Hollywood heavyweights, such as Eddie Murphy and Jackie Chan and songs from artistes, such as Steve Wonder and 98 degrees, Christina Aguilera and Donny Osmond. It became a success around the world, with earning over US $ 304 million and boasted many awards and nominations.

Mulan is famous around the world as a soldier in China during the Northern and Southern dynasties between 420 and 589 AD. Like in the animated and live action movie, she disguised herself as a man and joined the Emperor’s Army so that her father, a sickly veteran conscripted a second time by imperial decree, wouldn’t be killed in combat. It was the law to provide a manfrom each family for battle.

When the Emperor’s officers came and issued the documents to her old father to report for duty on a later date, Mulan cut her hair and disguised herself like a young man and left her household in the morning with his sword, stallion and the documents, something unthinkable for a teenage girl to do. As there were no picture identities at that time, she was accepted as the man from her household without any questions asked. From this beginning, it is an unbelievable story of the courage and actions of a remarkable woman, whose destiny was to follow a path like no other woman of her time.

First known transcription

Historical mention of Mulan dates back to more than 1,500 years ago, when a folk song called ‘The Ballad of Mulan’ was popularised during China’s North Wei Dynasty about this brave young warrior woman. The first known transcription of The Ballad of Mulan comes from the 6th century.

However, the first written records of the poem have been lost to time. But like many stories they morph and evolve, gaining or losing many aspects in the process with centuries in time, even though much of the story remains the same. The movie length feature by Disney in 1998 and 2020 had her save the day, the Emperor’s life, offered a role as an adviser at the palace, which she refuses, and later she returns home to her loving father and builds a romance with General Li Shang.

But, research shows that the reality was far from these Hollywood happy endings, as many historical accounts paint a darker and a cruel ending to this amazing heroine.

The original Mulan story plays out more like a Shakespeare tragedy than a Shakespearean comedy, as most Chinese writers, including the 17th Century Chu Renho had penned the story that is believed to be the closest to true history as well as a musical version, first released in 1695 which had acquired many new plots, characters and twists, such as in Shakespearean plays. But, the ending is just as unbelievable as the beginning in the warrior legend.

The fact remains that Mulan lived during the Wei dynasty, a time when the lifespan of an average person was short and girls were forced to marry when they were very young, a rule imposed by the Government.

Like in many cultures around the world that time, women were seen as servants from birth. If she had not run away and joined the Army to save her father, Mulan would have been trained to obey men, before eventually being married off to a stranger who would become her master. If Mulan’s husband had been rich or powerful, he would also have been within his right to take on a concubine too.

Twelve years of fighting

But it wasn’t until the release of Disney’s 1998 animated movie ’Mulan’ that the woman fighter’s story became known worldwide. In the Chinese legend, however, her identity is never “discovered.”

She spent 12 years fighting bravely alongside a group of male soldiers and was never found out. After being honoured by the emperor and finally returning home, she at least reveals her true identity as Hua Mulan. She was rewarded for her bravery by the Emperor and promoted to the rank of ‘General’ with a position in the palace, but all she wanted was to return home to her family.

The Emperor is said to have granted her wish, just the same as in the movies. But in the real ending, the Emperor is soon overtaken. When she returns to her village, she finds that not only her father had passed away many years ago, but her mother had also remarried. She would have had to remarry, as prospects for women in traditional cultures have always been quite barren.

The heroine becomes distressed at how many changes had occurred during her absence and that her home is no longer the happy place that it once was when her father was alive. The real Mulan doesn’t have any romantic interest like in both the Disney movies. She doesn’t fall in love with the General or anyone else. She seems in reality, the ultimate woman who doesn’t need a man, who had the courage to do what no other woman accomplished during her time.

As she is now an unmarried older woman, after receiving an order from the new Emperor to become his concubine, after being used to such a warrior’s life, rather than face the humiliating fate of becoming a concubine, feeling lonely and misunderstood, the legend says that Mulan, the heroine the world has now fallen in love with, decided to commit suicide.

The first onscreen adaptation of the legend of Mulan was the 1927 silent film ‘Hua Mulan Joins the Army’. A number of film portrayals has been produced since then, but unlike in movies, in almost all historical accounts, Mulan doesn’t get her happy ending. Some accounts even say that her heart was sent to the ousted emperor (Legends from Sui and Tang).

Fiction or reality

While some modern historians disagree with the story of Mulan, calling it fiction, some sources such as the National Taiwan University archives and internet sources linked to their researchmention that an inscription in an ancient memorial erected during the Yuan dynasty states that Mulan served under Emperor Wen of Han, adding how Mulan fought against the Xiongnu, a tribal confederation of Nomadic people.

Ming dynasty historian Zhu Guozhen has written that Mulan served under Emperor Yang of Sui, who was awomaniser and corrupt ruler. Perhaps, he was the second Emperor that was mentioned in most historical accounts inspired by the Ballad of Mulan, who overthrew the more generous Emperor that Mulan served under and forced Mulan to be his concubine.

According to some tales, his tomb was relocated several times due to consecutive lightning strikes and the public believed it was because he was so corrupt and had raped women. Zhu Guozhen describes how Emperor Yang sought to take Mulan as a concubine, but she took her own life to preserve her honour.

Perhaps these two accounts tell the tale of what happened to the heroine at the end, how she had to face a new ruler’s demands and an unforgiving society to an unmarried woman, discarding her as a used coin and forcing her to become a sex slave when she has risen above men for 12 years. Such a depressing stage would force a strong woman, when cornered to a dark end to seek such a sad exit, no matter how brave she had been in front of her enemy, when the war was over and faced with the daily life of society, our lovable heroine had no escape.