Hua Mulan (Chinese: 花木蘭) is a legendary woman warrior from the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420–589) of China who was originally described in a ballad known as the Ballad of Mulan (Chinese: 木蘭辭). In the ballad, Hua Mulan takes her aged father’s place in the army. She fought for twelve years and gained high merit, but she refused any reward and retired to her hometown instead.
The historical setting of Hua Mulan is uncertain. Over a thousand years later, Xu Wei’s play from the Ming places her in the Northern Wei (386–536), whereas the Qing dynasty Sui Tang Romance has her active around the founding of the Tang c. 620. In 621, the founder of the Tang dynasty was victorious over Wang Shichong and Dou Jiande, the latter of which was the father of Xianniang, another female warrior who became Mulan’s blood sister in the Sui Tang Romance. The novel is consistent with earlier texts as it describes Mulan’s father as stemming from the people of the Northern Wei.
The Hua Mulan crater on Venus is named after her.
The Ballad of Mulan was first transcribed in the Musical Records of Old and New (Chinese: 古今樂錄) in the 6th century, the century before the founding of the Tang dynasty. The original work no longer exists and the original text of this poem comes from another work known as the Music Bureau Collection (Chinese: 樂府詩), an anthology of lyrics, songs and poems compiled by Guo Maoqian during the 11th or 12th century. The author explicitly mentions the Musical Records of Old and New as his source for the poem. As a ballad, the lines do not necessarily have equal numbers of syllables. The poem consists of 31 couplets, and is mostly composed of five-character phrases, with a few extending to seven or nine.
There was no treatment of the legend since the two 12th century poems, until in the late Ming, playwright Xu Wei (d. 1593) dramatized the tale as “The Female Mulan” (雌木蘭 or, more fully, “The Heroine Mulan Goes to War in Her Father’s Place” (Chinese: 雌木蘭替父從軍), in two acts.
Later, the character of Mulan was incorporated into the Sui-Tang Romance, a historical novel written by Chu Renhuo in the 17th century, early in the Qing dynasty.
Over time, the story of Hua Mulan rose in popularity as a folk tale among the Chinese people on the same level as the Butterfly Lovers.