Hua Mulan

The Chinese heroine Hua Mulan is one of the oldest and most enduring examples of a woman who becomes a warrior because of her role as a daughter.

Scholars have argued for centuries over whether or not Mulan was a historical figure. At some level, it doesn’t matter as far as piecing together her story is concerned. The available information about her life is scarce to nonexistent, even by the often-shaky standard of what we know about other women warriors of the ancient world.

Our oldest source for her story is the “Poem of Mulan,” which appears in a twelfth-century poetry anthology compiled by Guo Maoqian, who attributes it to a sixth-century collection that no longer exists. The poem is anonymous, undated, and three hundred words long. A few details, such as the use of the title “khan” rather than “emperor,” suggest the poem dates from the Northern dynasties period (386–581 CE).

For the most part, I chose not to discuss the stories of mythical women warriors, because there are plenty of historical examples to consider. But Mulan is a special case. She is as well known in China as Joan of Arc is in the West. Despite the absence of biographical details in the original source, several regions of China claim her as their own folk heroine.

Mulan’s story is familiar to American audiences thanks to the 1998 Disney film Mulan. But the Walt Disney Company is simply one in a long tradition of Mulan adapters, and by no means the most fanciful in its interpretation. Over a period of 1,500 years, Mulan’s story has been told in Chinese operas, plays, folk tales, and now video games.

While the versions differ in the details, the basic structure of the story remains the same: Threatened by invaders from the north, the emperor (or the khan) conscripted soldiers to defend the country. Because her father was too old to fight and her brother too young, Mulan purchased a horse, weapons, and armor; disguised herself as a man; and joined the army to fulfill the family’s conscription obligation.

The original poem gives us a brief, vivid impression of Mulan’s life as a soldier, but no details:

She did not hear her parents’ voices, calling for their daughter,

She only heard the whinnying of Crimson Mountain’s Hunnish horsemen.

Myriads of mile: she joined the thick of battle,

Crossing the mountain passes as if flying.

Winds from the north transmitted metal rattles,

A freezing light shone on her iron armor.

A hundred battles and the brass were dead;

After ten years the bravest men returned.

This is war from the common soldier’s viewpoint, stripped down to misery and poetry. Later versions of the story fill this space with heroic deeds, gender-problematic romances, and, in the Disney version, a smart-mouthed dragon sidekick.

At the end of their tour of duty, Mulan and her comrades met with the emperor, who offered them honorary ranks, appointments at court, and rewards “counted in the millions.” (In one late version, the emperor discovers her gender and offers to make her his consort. She tells him she would rather die.) Mulan refused everything; all she wanted was a fast horse (or sometimes a camel) to take her home. Once there, she went into the house and put on a woman’s clothing and makeup. When she came back out, her army buddies were flabbergasted by the truth. During the ten (or sometimes twelve) years she served in the army, none of her fellow soldiers suspected she was a woman.

In Mulan’s story, the link between being a daughter and becoming a soldier is direct and irrefutable. Chinese readers/listeners/viewers would understand her action as an extreme act of filial piety. In fact, in one version of the story she receives the posthumous title Filial-Staunchness. Filial piety—respect for and obedience to one’s parents—is the foundation on which Confucian society stands. Children are loyal to their parents. Wives are loyal to their husbands. Subjects are loyal to the ruler. The ruler is loyal to the kingdom itself. If everyone performs their duties to those above them in the hierarchy, society flourishes. If duties are not faithfully performed, chaos reigns, the emperor loses the mandate of heaven, and dynasties fall. It is an alien concept for those of us who grew up in a culture defined in terms of rights rather than social duties. But it is as powerful a fundamental social principle as “all men are created equal.”

Seen through this lens, Mulan became a warrior in order to protect her father, her family, and the social order as a whole. She preserved society’s norms by stepping outside them.

Warrior daughters fought for a variety of reasons. Some, like Mulan, fought to preserve their society. Some fought to overturn it. Some fought simply to escape the narrow framework of what society expected of women. But whatever their reasons, most historical warrior daughters shared one common characteristic: they went to war as a result of their relationships with their fathers.

The warrior daughter is not an obvious outcome of the father-daughter relationship in most traditional societies, in which the male head of the family, extended or nuclear, exercised political, social, and economic power over other family members. While the details varied in different times and places, the basic outlines of the roles of fathers and daughters are remarkably consistent across those preindustrial societies for which data exists. Marriageable daughters were the ultimate trade good of the gift economy—an idea that survives in residual form in the ritual of “giving away” the bride. Royal families exchanged daughters to cement power alliances or to establish peace between hostile nations. (In medieval England, such women were called “peace-weavers.”) Wealthy merchants, cattle farmers, and plantation owners exchanged daughters to seal business alliances, consolidate holdings, or gain access to new markets. Well-to-do peasants and their urban counterparts included their daughters in the complex economic calculus that drove the exchange and/or acquisition of land, cattle, or other property. Whether payments took the form of a dowry, in which a bride brought goods or money into the marriage, or a bride-price, in which the groom’s family paid the bride’s family for a bride, at base these transactions treated women as commodities to be exchanged/given/taken/traded, based on their potential to produce children, food, status, connections, or domestic services. In such societies, daughters were more apt to be “daddy’s little asset” than “daddy’s little girl.” Even in places where the literal exchange of a daughter was a thing of the past, her legal identity was often an extension of her relationship first with her father and then with her husband. (As late as 1972, tennis star Billie Jean King could not get a credit card without the signature of her husband—an unemployed law student.)

By comparison, in traditional societies, past and present, sons have value in and of themselves. Families needed sons to carry on the name, the family business, the dynasty. (Henry VIII of England, who married and remarried in his desire to father a male heir, is perhaps the most famous example of how far this perceived need could drive a man.) Men desired sons to perform religious rites in honor of ancestors, or carry on blood feuds to avenge a family’s honor, or inherit the family farm.

In the absence of a son, a daughter could be used to “purchase” a son-in-law to serve as his successor. Or a nephew, cousin, or brother could step into the role that would otherwise be filled by a son. But in some cases, the lack of a son opened up opportunities for daughters. The chance to receive an education. To inherit a business. To inherit a kingdom. In extreme cases, a son-shaped hole allowed, or forced, a woman to step outside her expected roles and go to war in place of her father, by the side of her father, or in emulation of her father.


Several hundred years after Hua Mulan, or perhaps a generation or two depending on which date you accept for the “Poem of Mulan,” a woman warrior led a rebel army against the Chinese empire on her father’s behalf and helped found the Tang dynasty, which is considered China’s cultural and artistic golden age.

Princess Pingyang (ca. 598–623 CE) took up arms in the reign of the Emperor Yangdi, second (and last) emperor of the Sui dynasty.

Yangdi took the throne in 604, after assassinating his father and older brother. By 613, his ambitious and expensive imperial projects—including building the Grand Canal, expanding the Great Wall, creating a secondary capital in the western empire, and launching repeated military expeditions into Vietnam, Tibet, Central Asia, and Korea—made him unpopular with peasants and nobles alike. Disastrous military expeditions in 612 and 613 against the kingdom of Koguryo, in what is now North Korea and southern Manchuria, were two foreign wars too many for China’s overburdened, overtaxed citizens. Peasants rose in revolt across the empire. The revolt soon spread to members of the aristocracy, many of whom controlled large personal armies. By 615, every province of the empire was in turmoil and the imperial army was engaged on a dozen fronts.

While his generals battled to contain the rebels, the emperor purged his government of any nobles whose loyalty he questioned. Pingyang’s father, Li Yuan, was one of the nobles the emperor feared most. Li Yuan was a successful general and a powerful warlord. He controlled the region of modern Shanxi, a strong tactical position from which to attack the Sui capitals at Chang’an and Lo-Yang. That was sufficient reason for the beleaguered emperor to suspect treason, but the main reason the emperor feared him was less rational. In 614, a ballad that predicted the next emperor would be named Li became popular throughout China. In 615, a soothsayer took up the thread and warned Yangdi that someone named Li would soon become emperor. In 617, the increasingly paranoid emperor began to execute people with the Li surname—a step that ensured the prophecy was fulfilled. After Yangdi ordered the execution of another high-ranking general named Li, Li Yuan decided his best chance of survival was rebellion. He sent secret messengers to his son and to Pingyang’s husband, Cai Shao, asking them to join forces with him to overthrow the emperor.

Li Yuan did not ask for help from Pingyang. He got it anyway.

Pingyang and her husband lived in the primary Sui capital, Chang’an, where Cai Shao was head of the Sui dynasty equivalent of the Secret Service, responsible for protecting the crown prince. When he received Li Yuan’s message asking for his help, Cai Shao hesitated. On the one hand, he feared taking Pingyang with him would cause suspicions in the royal court and end the rebellion before it began. On the other hand, he feared that if he left Pingyang behind she would be in danger once the emperor learned he had joined the rebellion. Pingyang, however, had no doubts about what they should do. She told her husband to join her father. She could take care of herself.

After Cai Shao left to join forces with her father, Pingyang fled to her family’s estate in Shanxi. She found the region suffering from a severe drought and widespread starvation, which the imperial officials were either unwilling or unable to alleviate. She fed the starving from the family granaries, then sold what remained. With the family’s wealth turned into hard cash, she assembled an army. Members of the families she had fed were the first recruits who joined what came to be called the Army of the Lady. After arming her newly formed peasant force, she made alliances with groups of dissidents, bandits, and neighboring warlords, one of whom brought a personal army of ten thousand troops to fight under Pingyang’s banner. Eventually she commanded a force of seventy thousand.

Dynastic histories emphasize that Pingyang kept strict discipline over her troops. Unlike many historical military leaders, she forbade looting, pillaging, and rape by her troops and punished offenders with a heavy hand. When her forces took control of a new area, she distributed food to the local people, ensuring they greeted her army as liberators rather than conquerors.

After repeated victories against the emperor’s armies in Shanxi, Pingyang joined up with her father and her husband. Together their forces encircled the Sui capital, which they captured within a year.

Yangdi fled the city and was later killed by his own men. Li Yuan became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty, which would rule China for three hundred years. Her father gave Pingyang the official title of princess, the honorific title zhao, meaning wise, and the military rank of marshal, which gave her the right to military aides and staff. Despite the rank and honors, she retired from military life, presumably because the national crisis had come to an end.

Pingyang does not reappear in the dynastic histories until her death in 623 at the age of twenty-three. According to the official accounts, the struggle to win the throne for her father had exhausted her. Her grief-stricken father, now the Emperor Gaozu, broke with tradition and insisted her funeral procession include a military band and other martial honors. The official in charge of court ceremonies remonstrated with the emperor because a military band at a woman’s funeral was not an accepted practice. The emperor put him in his place, saying, “A military band plays military music; since the princess raised and commanded armies in the past in response to the righteous calls of dynastic change, she earned military merits. . . . The Princess’s achievements matched those of a minister, and she should not be compared to ordinary women. How could her funeral have no military band!” He then increased the size of the band to make his point.

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