In China many centuries ago, a legend was born. This is her story.
Long, long ago, a soldier named Hua returned home from war and planted a lily magnolia tree in his front garden. In the tree’s tenth year, white-and-pink flowers blossomed and Hua’s wife gave birth to a baby girl. They named her Mulan, after the Chinese word for this beautiful flower.
The years passed and Mulan grew into a strong and brave young woman. When she wasn’t helping out by washing clothes and weaving baskets, she loved to spend time outside with her father. Mulan had a knack for taming wild horses, and she was quick to learn many styles of martial arts, including swordplay and fighting with a lance.
“You never know when you might need to defend yourself and your family,” her father told her.
One day, in the marketplace, Mulan noticed a poster on a wall. It said that the Imperial Court was going to war, and each household had to send one man to fight.
When Mulan saw her father’s name on the list, her heart almost broke in two. Her father had been a fine soldier in his youth, but old age and illness meant that he was no longer able to fight. She knew that if he went to war he would die on the battlefield.
Mulan, however, was fit and strong as a bison. Her body was flexible, she had excellent stamina and her senses were finely tuned. While training with her father, she had learned to fight blindfolded and with one hand behind her back. Mastering the sword had come easily to her, and shooting arrows at a target was one of her favourite pastimes.
Mulan knew there was only one thing she could do to save her father’s life.
She confided her plan to her younger sister.
“I will take his place. My skills are equal to those of any man.”
“But Baba will never let you go instead of him!” her sister exclaimed.
“Then it shall be our secret,” said Mulan.
“Someone will notice you’re a girl,” said her sister. “Look at your long hair! Look at your pretty make-up!”
“Don’t worry,” Mulan replied. “I know just what to do.”
Mulan tied her long hair up on top of her head. She carefully removed her make-up. She set her own clothes to one side, then put on her father’s old armour, piece by piece.
Her sister watched in wonder as Mulan transformed into a soldier before her eyes.
Mulan felt different, too, standing there in her father’s armour. Its metal protection made her feel courageous, as though she could defeat any army.
“You look like a man!” her sister said.
“I do,” said Mulan. “But that’s not really what matters. What matters is what’s within.” She patted her chest. “In here is the heart of a warrior. Clothes do not tell you who the person is inside.”
Crying, Mulan’s little sister hugged her goodbye. “I will tell Mother and Father what you have done. I will tell them that you’ll come home safely. They will be so proud.”
Mulan took the sword that had belonged to her father and to his father and to his father before him. She galloped away on a strong horse that she had tamed that summer.
She rode with a group of men from the nearby towns who were also on their way to join the army. They crossed the fast-flowing Yellow River, riding hard towards their destiny.
When they reached the spot where the army waited, Mulan signed her father’s name on the contract.
“You will sleep over there,” said the soldier who took her contract, hardly glancing at her. She was just another young man in an army of thousands.
She smiled as she lay down in her bed that night. Her disguise was working.
The next day, the army rode off to fight the invaders. Each day, Mulan fought bravely. Each night, she ate and shared sleeping quarters with her comrades, telling stories of her homeland but never once revealing her true identity. With each battle she fought, her courage grew – and so too did her reputation. She soon rose through the ranks to become a general and led thousands of men in many battles.
During one of the fiercest battles, Mulan spotted one of her soldiers in the distance. He was trapped in a valley, surrounded by the enemy. Mulan dug in her spurs and charged on her horse towards him. With her sword raised high, she fought off a dozen men. She lifted the man on to her horse, and together they rode to safety.
Time after time, the soldiers hailed the mighty general as the hero they had all been waiting for. Tales of Mulan’s bravery and courage spread through the ranks, but not one single person guessed her secret.
For twelve long years, Mulan served in the army in her father’s place.
Mulan’s younger sister worried that her sister had been killed – or, worse, that her true identity had been discovered. She was terribly afraid that Mulan would be punished if anyone found out, but no one ever suspected a thing.
After the war ended and the invaders were driven away, Mulan was brought before the Emperor.
“I have the honour of offering you the position of Commander of the Imperial Army,” the Emperor told Mulan.
Bowing, she replied, “Thank you, Your Highness. “However, my only wish is for a swift horse to take me back to my village.”
“Are you sure?” the Emperor asked. “Is there nothing you desire?”
“Only to see my family again,” Mulan replied.
The Emperor granted Mulan’s wish, and she rode back to her childhood home. When she spotted her family in the distance, she saw that her parents had grey hair and her little sister was now a woman.
“I am home,” Mulan declared. She took off the armour that had protected her in battle, and hidden her true identity, and changed into her old robes. Her father cried with joy as she returned the ancestral sword to its rightful spot over the fireplace, and thanked her for fighting in his stead.
Mulan’s parents and her sister were delighted to see the medals she had won, and they longed to hear the stories of her battles. To celebrate her eldest daughter’s return, Mulan’s mother served a magnificent feast for the entire village.
Some months later, a group of men from Mulan’s regiment came to visit their old general. Their faces filled with surprise as Mulan greeted them in her pretty dress and make-up. “My name is Mulan, but you knew me as your general,” she said. “I led you in battle, but now I’ve come home and I don’t need my armour anymore.”
The soldiers laughed at themselves. How had they never realized their general’s secret? Then they bowed in respect to the woman who had saved their lives and their country.