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Dark Side of the Moon: Was Mulan Who We Thought She Was?

Source: Los Angeles Times

Is the outrage behind the new ‘Mulan’ movie justified? Who is Mulan exactly, anyway? Writer Po Chien takes you on a historical, linguistical deep dive to find out the answer.

The new Mulan movie has turned into kind of a disaster, sparking much criticism and controversy especially in the Chinese market for its cast, narrative changes, and culturally alienating portrayal of “qi”.

Lest we forget, however, the original Mulan too was full of its own share of controversy.

A Turkish Nationalist party once complained against the 1998 animated film "Mulan" for portraying the Hun-Turks in a bad light. This view, however, is very odd considering that, as crazy as it sounds, Mulan was not Chinese as we know it.

Who is Mulan? What is the background to the war she fought in? Is Mulan even her name at all? Let's get down to business and figure out the mysteries surrounding this beloved character.

Reflection: from the Mirrors of Literature

Our current understanding of Mulan, with its setting in the North and South Dynasties around 400-500 AD, depends largely on literary works and oral traditions. The oldest of these is found in gujinyuelu - compilation of songs past and present - titled "The Ballad of Mulan".

Different from the movie, however, is that the Ballad included several odd details.

Image source:

(Image: Copy of Yuefushiji, a Song Dynasty collection of Han Chinese chamber music. The Ballad of Mulan is known as one of the “Two Pillars of Chamber Music”.)

Looking through the Ballad, the title of “emperor” seems inconsistently used. When the Ballad describes the conscription, it mentions that "the Qaghan/Khan calls for troops". However, after the war, the Ballad mentions that Mulan went to visit the "Son of Heaven" instead. The Son of Heaven is the Han people's emperor, while the Khan is usually associated with Turks or Mongolians. So which one is Mulan: Han or Mongolian?

Mulan's call to arms was likewise fishy: she ran to the four major markets to purchase, respectively, a steed, a saddle pad, a bridle, and a whip.

The Han were an agrarian society: they farmed on flat plains and fed mostly off of grains. As such, most of the Chinese army were heavily armoured infantry, and only generals or experienced soldiers were likely to be on mounts. Why, then, was a recruit like Mulan buying supplies for a horse instead of infantry armour?

At this point, one might be tempted to conclude that Mulan must have been a member of a Turco-Mongolian Steppe tribe, who fought on horsebacks and called their emperors “Khans”. Yet this too raises some questions. To these nomads, supplies such as cloth, grains, and other resources abundant in the plains usually came from trading or trafficking across the borders, which the Great Wall greatly impeded. Why then would Mulan be operating a loom in the opening scene of the Ballad if Steppes did not weave?

To sum up our issues, Mulan was a woman weaving in what were the plains of Northern Wei Empire, who was conscripted as a rider for the Khan. The modern equivalent of that statement would be "Tom is an American who went to NS as a suicide bomber in for the Tsar" - Tom must have either been misunderstood, misrepresented, or mad. After the academia pulled their heads together, they eventually found a perfectly rational explanation. Mulan was, in fact, from a Turco-Mongolian Steppe tribe. But before we get into the origins of these people and unravel the mystery, let us take a closer look at her name.

Make a Man out of…Flowers?

A Chinese-speaker would likely conclude that the name must refer to the magnolia flower, called “Mu Lan” in Mandarin Chinese. Mulan was naturally given the surname “Fa” in the Disney version - Fa being “flower” in Cantonese.

The flower first appeared in poet Qu Yuan's magnum opus, “Lisao”, around 200-300 BC. While the identity of Qu Yuan's flower is not known for certain, the word -lan is known to refer to orchids. Singapore's national flower is the "Vanda Miss Joaquim-lan" (zhuojinwandai-lan). The orchid represents the fragrance of a young maiden, such as heroine Lanzhi in The Peacock flies Southwards, an ancient Chinese romantic tragedy.

If were to be active back in the West Jin era (which precedes Mulan's story), there would be an uptick in orchid-related names in the Han regions and its neighbours.

(Image: Artistic depiction of the Tuoba during the schism between the Steppe

tribes in the Three Kingdoms period (predating Mulan).

Mulan came from a Turkic tribe now known as the Tuoba/Tabyach people. Their enemies in the battle were discovered to be a historically related tribe called the Rouran/Ruanruan people. These are the neighbours who also started naming people as Mulan. However, while the Han language portrays Mulan as feminine, the Tuoba people had a very different view of the name.


(Image:Statue of Mu-rong Huang, one of the many generals in the Touba tribe with the surname Mu-rong – transliterated to Chinese from ‘Mulan’.)

Meet General Huang - the fiercest Tuoba warrior in all of the tribes of his generation. It was said that either his "style" or his surname was Mulan.

Style, or zi, is the name given to someone upon adulthood by a close relative. Confucius’ "style" was Zhong Ni. Sun Yat-Sen's actual name was Sun Wen, Yat-Sen being his style. Now imagine going to the battlefield and hearing about the enemy, "General Buttercup". I sure hope they had diapers back then.

So Mulan in Altaic languages must obviously have meant something else apart from femininity. Scholars figured that Mulan, or muk-lân as it were pronounced in middle Chinese, would have been a transliteration of Pulan, which was pronounced either b’uk-lân or b’uok-lân.

Specifically, Louis Bazin gave a few possible contenders to what Pulan could have meant. Several hot contenders for the true meaning of General Huang Mulan’s name were boq - "excrement", buq - “bad temper,” and boγ - “bag for clothes” – which might make sense if it were customary to give negatively connotated names to ward off bad spirits, as was popular in certain cultures such as the Ainu people of Japan. More likely, however, is that Pulan referred to an animal, a known trend in Turco-Mongolian tribesPulan could then have meant “elk”, “stag”, “moose” or “deer,” which would vindicate Huang’s naming choices. The craziest but likeliest meaning however, as scholar Chen Sanping would argue would instead be - get this - "unicorn".


(Image: Qilin statue at Beijing’s Summer Palace.)

I know, it's crazy. Stay with me here: Qilin, a mythical Chinese cosmic deer/horse beast, was inspired by the Old Turkic kälän, or Kirin as seen on Japanese beer cans today.

Legend has it that when great people were born, a kälän would show up, as was the case for Confucius' alleged birth myth. Apparently these cosmic unicorns were especially commonly sighted during the Tuoba-ruled Wei Kingdom.

Later on in the Ming Dynasties, the Qilin became a symbol of the highest military ranking. The Qilin robe became representative of unparalleled talent and authority.

To give a quick sum up of our account so far: Mulan came from an ancient nomadic kingdom closely related to the people of Turkey today, which makes the Turkish nationalists’ claims pretty ironic. We also found out that Mulan is, in objective scientific fact, a badass warrior name and not referring to a flower, though to reach there we had to entertain the rather unique alternative meanings such as “sh*tbag” and “laundry pile”.

What we have yet to establish, though, is: Why did Mulan weave even though she was a horseback nomad? Why did the Ballad call the Khan a Son of Heaven? And why was the Ballad even written in the first place? Is the legend of Mulan whitewashed by history to suit Victor’s Justice? To no credit for the new Mulan remake, maybe the issue of cultural appropriation of this specific legend predates the horrors of modern white cinema far longer than we initially imagined.


Unfortunately, I will have to leave the details of those questions to the next part. Researching for this topic proved to be more complicated than I originally anticipated for sure.

I have always wondered how Mulan's friends failed to realise her gender when the name sounded so obviously feminine. If my BMT buddy were named Jasmine I would be more than suspicious, but if Jasmine meant "fire-breathing nine-headed dragon" in Dothraki, and if he happens to be Dothraki, I suppose it would all make sense.

So there you go, Mulan is a macho Turco-Mongolian lady named after a cosmic elk-unicorn thing. If this has been interesting for you, stay tuned for part two, where we explore the backdrop of the Sixteen-Kingdoms era, the Thirty-Six Steppe tribes, and the nuances of Chinese identity of yore.

This piece heavily references the following book chapter by Chen Sanping. Do give it a read if you want to delve deeper into the linguistics!

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