Exploring The Historical (In)accuracy of Mulan on its 25th Anniversary

Part of the Disney Renaissance saw the release of Mulan in 1998: a gorgeous animated film that told the tale of a woman heading into battle against the Huns in a time of war in China. Featuring the voice talents of Ming-Na Wen and Eddie Murphy, this adventure takes the viewer on a wondrous journey through the culture and feelings of the time. It depicts elements of drama, comedy, action and suspense, in a way that Disney animation is well known for. It captures an aesthetic and ambience that breathes life into the world and creates real weight and depth in the dilemmas of the protagonists.

The question for today, however, lies in whether Mulan is an accurate portrayal of history and culture in China, or whether Disney has amalgamated aspects of cultural generalisation and historical inaccuracy to deliver its tale. Let’s take a look.

Based on the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, who supposedly living in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534AD) and whose live was recounted in the “Ballad of Mulan”, the animation takes the core story of impersonation, yet the source material and animated depictions differ greatly. For example, the clothing represented by Disney depicts a style far more modern in appearance than that of Hua Mulan’s time period. The film depicts hair and clothing reminiscent of the Ming Dynasty, roughly 1000 years later. The time period of Disney’s Mulan was rather a more autonomous for era or women as opposed to that of Hua Mulan. Again, its subject matter fits in more so with later neo-confuscianist beliefs of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Notably, the inclusion of Mushu, the talking dragon, is of course a far cry from the original legend, opting to delve into fantastical comedy relief, absent from the 2020 adaptation. The cultural representation in Mulan incorporates aspects of martial arts, tradition and ceremony but in an often-stereotyped amalgamation of visuals, that may draw from other east Asian cultures rather than the one intended. Shan-Yu, a fictional Hun was defeated at the end of the film through the use of a rocket, first used in the 12th century for combat, again providing inaccuracy. In the original ballad, Mulan gets away with her impersonation for far longer than that of the film: twelve years in fact. It is the small, or sometimes, big things, such as these that draw the attention away from the plot and into larger historical holes.


Or does it? The interesting aspect of the tale of Disney’s Mulan is that it draws inspiration from legend, and manages to weave a compelling narrative that captures audiences in a way that brings out emotions within them. Sure, the film provide inaccuracies, but in doing so, it provides thematic strength; a depiction of a strong female protagonist; a thrilling action and adventure story; and musical numbers that remain stuck in one’s head years after the fact.

It looks at gender equality, bravery and compassion. It is important to recognise the artistic significance of Mulan whilst keeping it apart from the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of the tale. We should recognise its cultural accessibility for western audiences and see that the liberties taken were an attempt to showcase and spur interest in Chinese culture through entertainment rather than act as a historical documentary on the legend of Hua Mulan.

If you haven’t had the chance to see the animated version of Mulan and explore the world it has to offer, then there is no better time, as it hits a milestone twenty-fifth anniversary this year.

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