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Better than the Fiercest Soldier: Hua Mulan

Updated on March 25, 2016

HUa Mulan and Her Father

Hua Mulan and Her Father
Hua Mulan and Her Father | Source

Cross-Dressing Hero

Better Than the Fiercest Soldier: Hua Mulan

If your elderly father was ordered to go to war, do you think you could take his place?

Even if you were a girl, and the army had a strict rule—so strict that to defy it meant death—refusing to allow women to fight?

That’s exactly what the legendary Hua (Fa) Mulan of China did. Alleged to have been born sometime around the year 400, Mulan was the daughter of a general of the Northern Wei tribe. As the daughter of a general, Mulan was highly skilled in martial arts, practicing with many various weapons and becoming expert at horse riding as well. This wasn’t to prepare her for war; girls were often expected to learn martial arts to defend themselves, and to pass on the family martial legacy. Girls and women could be fighters, but they couldn’t be soldiers. Any who tried and were caught were put to death.

One day envoys arrived from the king’s palace with grave announcements; China was going to war against the barbarous nomadic tribes of the north, and one male member of every family was expected to join the army. The only eligible male in Mulan’s family was her aging father, and everyone knew that he would stand no chance fighting in another war. Mulan refused to let him leave. Her father, both amused and annoyed, demanded to know what other alternative they had—Mulan had no brothers (according to some variations of the legend, she had a younger sister and baby brother), and it would bring great dishonor to the family if they did not produce a warrior to fight. What did she suggest they do?

Mulan replied that it was simple: she’d go in her father’s stead.

Her family was shocked by the idea. Mulan was a woman! She would never be allowed into the army! Mulan held fast, saying that she would disguise herself as a man, and, since she could fight as well as any man, no one would ever suspect her of actually being a woman. Her father flatly refused to allow such a crazy scheme, and his determined daughter challenged him to a sword duel, saying that if he won then he could go to war, but if he lost she would go instead.

Her father lost.

Cutting her hair, binding her breasts and donning her father’s armor, Mulan joined the army, claiming to be General Hua’s son. For twelve years she fought in the front lines, and her martial skills impressed the chief commanding officer—so much in fact that he actually offered Mulan his daughter’s hand in marriage! Evading marriage as deftly as she evaded swords and spears, Mulan returned home a hero.

Hua Mulan’s story has been immortalized in ballads, poems, movies and plays that have been retold for centuries, mixing so much legend into her life that no one can say with certainty whether she actually existed. Whether she did or not, Mulan has become a national hero of China, and her traditional Mulan play concludes at the end, “compared to the fiercest soldiers, she was still better.”

Hua Mulan works referenced:

Warrior Women, by David E. Jones

The Real Story of Mulan,

Hua Mulan



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