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Literature / The Ballad of Mulan

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The Ballad of Mulan (木蘭辭, Mùlán cí) is a Chinese poem written in (probably) the fifth or sixth century AD. It is the origin of the Mulan character, later known as Hua Mulan.note 

The story opens with Mulan at her loom. She is sad that her father has been drafted and has no grown son to serve in his place. She leaves home to take his place in the army herself. After fighting for ten years, Mulan is honored by the Khannote  and offered a high position, but she turns it down. She then returns home and resumes living the life of an ordinary woman. Seeing this, her old wartime comrades are shocked to discover that she was female all along. The poem ends by asking how you would be able to distinguish between two running rabbits which was male and which was female.note 

Notable adaptations of the story include:

The Ballad of Mulan contains examples of:

  • Action Girl: Mulan, presumably. Her time at war is not described in any detail, but she does get honored by the Khan himself, so she can't have done too badly.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: There is no explicit mention of the time period or what war Mulan is fighting in. Due to the geographic and cultural references, it's traditionally assumed that the poem is set during the Northern Wei dynasty, in which case the war would be fought against the Rouran tribes, whom the Wei regarded as barbarians. By extension, Mulan's ethnicity is very likely to be Xianbei as in Northern Wei, only the Xianbei people could become soldiers. The location reference also tells us that the campaign was the same one Tuoba Buri (AKA Tuoba Tao, posthumously known as Emperor Taiwu of Northern Wei) led against the Rouran Khaganate in 429.
  • Ballad of X: The English title is translated as the "Ballad of Mulan".
  • Barbarian Hero: Mulan, on a technicality. While composed in the Northern Wei, it was first transcribed in the southern Chen dynasty, who saw the Northern Wei as "plaited barbarians" and thus, to them Mulan would have been a barbarian hero by the traditional Han Chinese standards of the Imperial era.
  • The Dutiful Daughter: Mulan is seen as an important historical/legendary figure in traditional Chinese culture for being this and upholding the principles of "filial piety" (孝), as her entire story revolves around this—taking her father's place in the army because he had no sons that were old enough to fight, and declining a position in the Khan's court, while requesting a camel with great endurance to carry her home to her family (a request that the Khan honours).
  • Humble Hero: The Khan offers Mulan a government position for her service but she refuses, desiring to go home and reunite with her family after being away for twelve years.
  • Mounted Combat: Mulan was very likely a cavalry(wo)man, given that the items she bought in preparation were either the horse itself, or various ancillaries such as a bridle and a whip.
  • Nameless Narrative: Aside from Mulan herself, no characters are named.
  • No Woman's Land: Implied. When the army draft is given to her family, Mulan laments that neither her elder father nor younger brother is eligible for war. Then, when she returns back home from the war and resumes her civilian life, her comrades express shock that Mulan is really a woman despite fighting with her for over 12 years.
    • Heroic Lineage is probably a better-fitting trope, given the context of Mulan's homeland of Northern Wei.note 
  • Open-Minded Parent: Contrary to many future adaptations, Mulan's parents support her decision to take her father's place and even help her buy the supplies she needs before heading off to the army.
  • Only One Name: Due to the standards of the day only referring to women by their surname, "Mulan" was her surname and she had no established given name. It was centuries later, during the Ming dynasty, that her surname was first given as "Hua" (or "Fa", in Cantonese pronunciation) by the playwright Xu Wei and her given name became "Mulan". Other sources have given her surname as "Zhu" or "Wei".
  • Samus Is a Girl: The ending, from the perspective of Mulan's comrades.
  • Sweet Polly Oliver: Possibly, a Downplayed Trope or even an Unbuilt Trope. While her comrades are surprised to discover that she's female at the end, there is no explicit mention that Mulan tried to disguise her gender. For all we know, they were just really unobservant.
  • Work Info Title: Would you guess that this is a ballad?