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The legend of Hua Mulan: that's behind Disney's real-life film

Since Disney's cartoon "Mulan" was released in 1998, the adventure of the young warrior has been one of the most popular Disney films. The House of Mouse is bringing its Chinese heroine back to the screen with the current real-life version. Did you know that the story is based on an ancient ballad?

Whether Mulan really existed is controversial. What is certain is that no other heroine enjoys greater popularity in China. And: New editions of the material were usually published in the Middle Kingdom when the country was in turmoil or threatened in any other way. There is a reason for that.

Mulan is that old already

The story of Disney's "Mulan" goes back to an old Chinese ballad. Presumably, the "Ballad of Mulan" was initially only passed on orally. Individual formulations in the ballad suggest that it was written between 386 and 533 AD, at the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty. So the story is more than 1,400 years old.

The earliest surviving written version of the "Ballad of Mulan" dates from the 12th century. It can be found in the "Collected Works of the Music Bureau" ("Yuefu Shiji") by Guo Maoqian. Guo himself emphasizes in his book that he took over the ballad from a work of the 6th century.

Various new editions followed over the years. The legend of Hua Mulan was adapted several times as a play, poem, novel and later also as a film, whereby the time frame was partially shifted backwards.

Not always with a happy ending

The earlier versions of Mulan, contrary to the Disney version, do not always have a happy ending. In a version of the ballad from 1695 ("Romance of Sui and Tang") Mulan is captured. Their offer to sacrifice themselves for the lives of their soldiers, however, impresses the enemy king so much that in the end he gives Mulan the freedom.

Once at home, however, the warrior must find that her beloved father has died and her mother has remarried. Mulan is to be married to the Khan as a concubine - and takes his own life to avoid this fate.

Your story should give hope

It is noticeable that many versions of the "Ballad of Mulan" came out in times of crisis - such as the novel "Fierce and Filial" by Zhang Shaoxian, which was published in 1850, at a time when the ruling Qing dynasty was both affected by internal unrest and was threatened by external threats. The 1939 film "Hua Mu Lan" coincided with the war between China and Japan.

The reason: The figure of Mulan is considered a symbol of bravery, a sense of duty and devotion to family and fatherland in China. Her story was intended to reassure readers and viewers by showing that even the most adverse of circumstances can be overcome in the end. Yet Mulan never threatens the existing order. Despite breaking the norms, she does so for a valid reason - and ends up settling back into her predetermined role.

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In "Mulan 2" they even get married. Image: © Disney 2020

Mulan vs. Deadpool ?!

From 1998 at the latest, the West has also increasingly taken on the story of the combative heroine. Though Disney delivered the most famous adaptation of the fabric to date, the House of Mouse is far from the only source of Mulan action.

The makers of Marvel are likely to have used the material most unusually: In "Deadpool Killustrated" (2013), Mulan and other literary characters have to take on the Merc with a Mouth. He's gone nuts - even more than usual - and tries to kill classic novel characters like Tom Sawyer and Gulliver. To prevent this, Sherlock Holmes recruited the helpers Mulan, Beowulf, Nathaniel Bumppo and Dr. Watson.

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Whaaaas ?! Should I take on Deadpool? Image: © Disney 2018

Creative freedom: This is what distinguishes the cartoon from the ballad

Disney's "Mulan" from 1998 takes up the central elements of the ballad, which can also be found in all other versions of the story: a girl dresses up as a boy in order to go to war instead of her father. In the end, the young woman contributes significantly to the victory over the enemies, returns home as a celebrated heroine and takes on her female role again.

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After successfully rescuing China, Mulan returns home dutifully in Disney's version of the story. Image: © Facebook / WaltDisneyMulan 2016

But: The House of Mouse has allowed itself creative freedom in some rather weighty points. It starts with Mulan sneaking away in the cartoon to join the army. It is different in the ballad (and most of the other Chinese adaptations): Here Mulan's parents know about their plans and even accompany their daughter to the edge of the village when they say goodbye.

In addition, in most of the earlier versions of the story, Mulan is described as a skilled fighter even before answering the emperor's call. According to this, she is said to have been a well-trained sword and martial arts fighter before training in the army, as well as a talented archer. Unlike in Disney's cartoon adaptation, in which Mulan drives Captain Li Shang to despair at first before she turns into a fighter.

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Before Mulan does so well, it takes a bit of a run-up in the 1998 Disney film. Image: © © DISNEY ENTERPRISES, INC. 2017

Time is relative ...

While the campaign against the Huns in the 1998 cartoon goes quickly over the stage, the literary Mulan had to prove herself on the battlefield much longer. In most versions of the story, Mulan does not return to her family for around twelve years - as a highly respected war hero with the rank of general. In some versions of the story, the secret of their true gender is revealed only after their return, in others even before they are on the battlefield.

There are also differences between animation and template in Mulan's family circumstances. In the ballad, Mulan has a little brother who is too young to join the army instead of his father. In Disney's cartoon it becomes Mulan's dog, which she calls "little brother". In the upcoming real-life version, the House of Mouse is giving its heroine a little sister instead.

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The Hua family has grown in the real-life version. Image: © Youtube / Disney Germany 2019

"Mulan" 2020: Much closer to the original

Speaking of live action. Here Disney seems to have stuck a lot closer to the literary model for its heroine. Or more precisely: viewers can look forward to a new mixture of cartoon story and ballad. The film company has also made use of the Chinese film genre of wuxia.

It starts with obvious adjustments (R.I.P. Mushu and Cri-Kee), but also continues down to the details. Most of the versions of the ballad of Mulan begin with Mulan sitting at the loom and lamenting the fate that forces her father into renewed military service. Mulan (Liu Yifei) can also be seen in the new real-life version working on the loom with her mother and sister. Everyday domestic life, as it was typical in China at the time, is being discussed much more strongly than it was in 1998.

While Mulan remains a little soldier in Disney's cartoon adaptation - of course, even a folk heroine won't become a general in a few weeks' time - in the real-life version she actually waves for promotion. It is questionable whether it will be enough to become a general as in the ballad. Mulan's armor in the trailer doesn't look like a low rank by any means.

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It doesn't look like a little soldier anymore. Image: © Disney 2019

As far as the enemies are concerned, Disney stays closer to the original this time. In the cartoon, Mulan and her comrades fought against the Huns, in the ballad either northern invaders or specifically the nomadic people of the Rourans are mentioned. In the real-life version, Mulan and her comrades now have to deal with "northern invaders", true to the original. From a visual point of view, the hosts of Bori Khan (Jason Scott Lee) could easily be Rourans.

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The northern invaders turned out to be pretty grim in the real-life version as well. Image: © Disney 2019

As a concession to the popular Chinese wuxia film genre, Disney's new "Mulan" film features some gravity-defying battle scenes. The film studio is also introducing a new villain: the witch Xianniang (Gong Li), who can transform into a hawk and who stands by Bori Khan. Neither of these have anything to do with the original ballad, but should definitely benefit the movie's action record.

Fun fact: the leading actress changes sides

Liu Yifei, who plays Mulan in Disney's new real-life film, was allowed to deal with the subject of the mythical folk heroine in 2009. In the Chinese real-life film "Mulan - Legend of a Warrior", however, the actress was seen as the princess of the enemy Rourans. For the second attempt, Liu now changes sides.

After multiple changes in dates, "Mulan" will be available on Disney + from September 4, 2020 for an extra charge.