Chinese Culture in Mulan

“I know I twisted something…” – Mushu

…but fear not, for Disney did a pretty good job at giving the world a feel for the Chinese culture. Sure, there are some changes, but if I wanted complete accuracy I’d watch something like National Geographic. That said, I still went and looked up some stuff anyway, mostly to satisfy my own curiosity. This just scratches the surface–for more details go to the library or look at China-related webpages.

Comments, corrections, additions? E-mail me! More will come when I get the time.

The Setting

Mulan might have been a real person (there certainly have been real-life women warriors in Chinese history), but which region she came from and which dynasty she lived is open to debate. (Click here for more detail.) She has risen to truly legendary status.

Mulan’s origins most likely arose as a merger between the Tuoba (Toba) clan of the Xianbei culture and the Han Chinese. The Tuoba, whom originated from the far northeast, managed to conquer and rule northern China during the Northern Wei Dynasty (AD 386-534) despite being vastly outnumbered. Although some of the military aspects of Xianbei culture remained, the new rulers began adopted Chinese customs to maintain control over their subjects. Just as society became a blend of two cultures, Mulan is both a dutiful Chinese daughter and an accomplished soldier.

Obviously, the exact time and place in China where Mulan is set in an imaginary dynasty in an imaginary part of China, based on real customs and lands. Artistically, the film is influenced by artwork from the Han and Tang Dynasties. Judging from the technology and costumes, Disney’s Mulan would be set much later than the Northern Wei Dynasty.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall is a legacy from the Qin (Ch’in) Dynasty. The Qin emperor was the first emperor of China and ordered the Wall’s construction. (The project really consisted of building long segments to link older individual walls built by previous kingdoms.) Unfortunately, the Great Wall required huge sums of money and huge numbers of forced laborers to build it, thus making it a highly unpopular project. Since then, the Wall has undergone numerous reconstructions and repair work.

The Wall did have some real military value, however. Horses couldn’t easily get over the 20-foot-high wall, and passes through the Wall were heavily guarded. When watchmen on patrol spotted trouble, they could signal from the towers.

The Falcon

The Khitan Mongols, who united most of Mongolia and in 936 conquered part of north China, loved hunting. One Chinese painting, “Kublai Khan Goes Hunting,” depicts several Mongols ready for a hunt, with birds of prey perched on their shoulders.

The Huns

Just who were the Huns, anyway?

Around Mulan’s time, the Huns were an Asiatic group which were invading Europe. (At least that’s what one dictionary says.) But let me back up for a moment. The Huns, as they are called in the movie (and correctly), are actually what the western world calls the Mongols. Originally established in the Lake Baikal area of what was the USSR, they started trouncing their neighbors a few centuries before Christ. In doing so, they drove a lot of tribes westward toward Europe, one of which came to be called the Huns (the confusion begins) by European historians. This tribe reached Europe a few centuries after Christ and, under Attila, more or less made things unpleasant for the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, the real Huns (Mongols) expanded slowly, building up giant nomadic tribes that eventually swept southward through China. (Contributed by Joey Kusnick.)

This dictionary also says that the word Hun (hun) is used to mean an outside invader. (In the Chinese opera film The Lady General Hua Mu-Lan, the Chinese army battles a group simply known as “the barbarians.”) I think the second definition is a safer choice in this case.


“Disney did a very good job of portraying the horses in a style similar to the artwork of the time. They also did their homework regarding the bits, bridles, saddles, and harness, which look like the artwork commonly seen from that period. It is interesting to note that they show the saddles of the Imperial army, and Khan, with stirrups. Stirrups were indeed invented at that time period, but they were invented by the Huns, who were not shown with stirrups in the movie! The Huns are shown, correctly, riding Mongolian ponies, a direct descendant of the Prewalski’s horse, a primitive breed: short, stocky, and dun or bay in color with a stand-up Roman style mane. However, I do wonder where the Imperial army got their horses, much bigger and more refined. They would have had to be imported from elsewhere in the world, perhaps the Middle East, where the Arabian horse was bred. All of the army’s horses were white/grey! There is no breed of horse in China that would have produced such coloration and size. Perhaps the Emperor bred imported horses for his own use. Arabians are commonly white, so that is a possibility. I doubt that many rural families actually owned a horse as fine as Khan, though of course we know that as the hero of the movie he had to be special!”

Thanks to Kristen Fowler for all this!

A Girl’s Life

Girls rarely received much formal education in ancient China. They were trained in household duties such as cooking, weaving, embroidery, and taking care of family members. Good training in these skills was an asset in arranging a girl’s marriage.

The amount of freedom and education women received also depended on the philosophies and laws present in the dynasty she lived. Before the Song Dynasty, for instance, women from some wealthy families were well educated and enjoyed outdoor sports such as polo.


Rice (known as “fan” in Mandarin) is a staple in the Asian diet and eaten with side dishes of vegetables and meat. It can be prepared in various ways (all of which taste good ), including the watery porridge we see Mushu serving in the film (though the bacon and eggs seemed pretty American to me). Two interesting e-mails I received on this topic:

“Notice the grain of rice Mulan makes stand up with her chopsticks at the beginning of the film? And how it falls down? It shouldn’t do that. The way Chinese cook rice, a lot of water is used and the rice is all puffed up and sticky. For one, it would end up stuck on the chopsticks and even if she managed to avoid that, the grain of rice would stay standing or fall down very slowly.” (Contributed by Suz.)

“I can never remember who eats the short grain and who eats the long grain rice, but the Japanese rice (as cooked) is usually the stickier, as you describe, but Cantonese usually cook the rice so that the grains often do not stick together. That’s why the Japanese can pick up a ‘bite’ of rice from the rice bowl, while Cantonese often bring the bowl up to their mouth and push the rice into their mouth. I am Cantonese, so that was the kind of rice we ate growing up, but later, I switched to ‘Japanese’ rice (probably when we started using a rice cooker) which comes out stickier. I don’t know about other areas of China.” (Contributed by Jeffrey Y. Sue.)

“When Mulan is writing her notes for the Matchmaker’s, her rice bowl had her chopsticks standing straight up, which indicates that it is an offering to the ancestors and would not be eaten. If she was going to eat it, she should have put the chopsticks across the rim of the bowl. If I was her, I would use that rice for good luck instead of eating. She needs it!:) (Contributed by ajohn!)

Honoring Ancestors

This continues to be a revered part of Chinese culture. The ancestors’ spirits are believed to give advice and guidance to the living, so it is important to keep the spirits happy with proper monuments and offerings.

The Fa temple has a number of stone tablets, but stone tablets are reserved for grave sites. Tablets used for worshipping ancestors at home are made of wood. (Contributed by Y.T. Tsai.)

The Family Unit

Although some Chinese households included many extended family members, the basic household consisted of grandparents, the eldest married son, and his wife and children.

What’s in a Name?

The most common format for a Chinese name is a one character surname and a two character given name, in that order. Fa (Hua) Mu-Lan is in this form. Mulan is the only person in the film to be given a full three character name. Everyone else has either one or two character names. Some Chinese people do have only one character for their given name, but in real life that’s not very common. There are also a few two-character Chinese surnames, but again they are not very common. An e-mail on this subject:

“These days it’s quite true that most Chinese people have three-character names. However, I don’t think this was necessarily so in the earlier dynasties. For instance, in Three Kingdoms, which takes place right after the Han Dynasty, every character (who didn’t have a two-character surname) had a two-character name: surname + identifying name (e.g., Liu Bei). Also, the naming system seemed to be applied most strictly to males, so it didn’t seem too unusual to me that the soldiers in Mulan had two-character names. Females had it weirder, it seems. Commoners often got descriptive names (not even really formal identifying names, but more like a descriptive nickname), and often times their surnames would be disregarded along the way; they would say ‘so-and-so from the fill-in-the-blank family.’ Women of class were often just referred to as ‘Lady surname,’ with no reference to an identifying name.” (Contributed by Jeffrey Chen.)

Mulan’s mother is called Fa Li in the movie. In China after a girl marries she is still called by her maiden name by her friends and family, though legally she is known as Mrs. (husband’s surname). If I remember correctly only one of the matchmaker’s helpers addresses Fa Li by name–so it might depend on how well she knows Mulan’s mom.

Many Chinese names have meanings, with blessings and positive adjectives being common. Examples would be “prosperous,” “lucky,” “ambitious,” “high achievement,” “youthfulness,” “strength,” and so on. Some names are based on objects, such as jade or various flowers. The translations for some of the characters’ names in Mulan are here. (Contributions by Herman Chang and Suz.)

The Lucky Cricket

I haven’t found anything on this. 🙁 I do know that crickets have been depicted in Chinese artwork, but I have no idea why they are considered lucky. (Is this a regional thing? Several Chinese people I know hadn’t heard of this superstition.) I have heard of crickets being kept in cages. Also, two crickets put together will fight, which was a form of entertainment. (Contribution by Yee Cai Goh.)

“If I remember correctly, crickets were kept in wicker cages by students and such who like to sing to them while they worked. Although I cannot remember either how they are lucky, they are at least special in this way. 🙂 I’ve seen some of the crickets they sell on the streets in China, and let me say, they are HUGE!!!! :)” (Contributed by “R”)

Chinese Music

Chinese music is normally set in pentatonic scales, which means there are only 5 notes in a scale, unlike the convetional 7, or the full scale of 12 notes. Much of “Honor to Us All” and some of “A Girl Worth Fighting For” is in a pentatonic scale, but the rest mostly in a full scale.

It is a pity there is so sparse use of Chinese musical instruments, because if properly used it can create very special effects and atmospheres. Only the di, a Chinese bamboo flute was used more prominently. It is that reedy, trembling sound that you hear quite often in the score by Goldsmith. The gu-zheng, a kind of horizontal Chinese harp, can also be heard very sparingly. Here are some of the places I’ve heard them more prominently:

Track 7: [04:30] – there is a short, comical little phrase here with the di which sounds like birds chirping. I think it’s a sort of Cri-Kee theme.
Track 9: [04:05] – another short di phrase.
Track 10: [00:33][00:48][00:54][01:21] – there are glissando effects with the gu-zheng at all these parts, but very little only.
Track 2: you can also hear a very short part with the gu-zheng after Lea sings the last word, “inside…” and the gu-zheng comes on very softly, very short.

The di is also extensively featured in “Honor To Us All,” “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” and a bit of “Reflection.”

Thanks to Dennis Lee for all this!

“And a great hairdo”

One thing that distinguished the Chinese from the “barbarians” was that the Chinese kept their hair tied neatly in a bun while outsiders let their hair fly freely, like ghosts. Both Chinese men and women tied back their hair, pulling it back from their faces. Notice in the film that this rule holds true for all the characters except Mulan, who can be seen with her hair down in several scenes. Fa Li’s hairstyle is a Tang or Song Dynasty style, but many of the women have Japanese-style hairdos. (From what I understand Chinese women didn’t have hair flairing out at the sides.) (Contributions by Dennis Lee & Yee Cai Goh.)


While getting ready for the matchmaker, Mulan shows off her strategy in the Chinese board game. I’ve been told this is xiangqi, which is a form of chess. I got an e-mail saying that the game was weiqi, but this seems unlikely:

“Weiqi (‘Go’) would have required her to pick up a pip from a bin and place it somewhere on the board, a la Othello. However, she clearly moved a piece from one position to another. Besides, the grid on the board was definitely a Chinese Chess board :-)”

Now whether the move was legal is another question…

Contributed by Paul English and Jeffrey Chen.


In general. “The costumes are quite accurate. I think they resemble costumes from the Tang or Song Dynasty. Some people commented that they looked a bit Japanese, but that was because the Tang costumes influenced Japanese fashion at that time very much.

The Chinese collar (shirtfront) is folded left over right (LoR) for both men and women. (For Western clothes, males wear LoR and females wear right over left (RoL).) In Mulan, this is correct for every costume for every character *except* Mulan’s last costume, the one used to disguise as a concubine, is worn RoL! Strictly speaking, this is wrong. Some tribes in China, and during some Dynasties, certain positions in court and certain personalities, wear it RoL. In Japan (which is not China but this is interesting anyway), they only dress people RoL when they are dead.” (Contributed by Dennis Lee.)

The Emperor’s clothes. Just as purple is the color for European royalty, yellow was worn by the Chinese royalty.

Earrings. “The earrings Mulan wore to the matchmaker are way too modern. Notice how she pulled them right off after getting home? Does that mean those are clip earrings? I don’t believe that clip earrings were invented until this century. In ancient China, all earrings were pierce earrings. In one version of the story, Mulan had to lie to cover up why she had pierced earlobes. I guess the writers just decided to omit the pierced earlobes altogether by having her wear clip earrings.” (Posted to rec.arts.disney.animation by Jas.)

Armor. The soldiers’ armor is based on a style from the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) known as lamellar armor. The leather shoes are based on footwear from the Qin Dynasty (second century BC). Chinese soldiers really wore boots, but shoes were used in the film to provide contrast with the boot-wearing Huns.

Makeup. According to character designer Chen-Yi Chang, women made up their faces by applying white powder and rouge from the Sui and Tang Dynasties and the Five Dynasties era. This form of appearance was common through the Qing Dynasty. Today it is mostly seen in Chinese opera and also often worn by Japanese geishas. (Information from Sinorama, August 1999 issue.)

“Like a lotus blossom soft and pale…”

The lotus, a beautiful flower which grows out of muddy water, is a symbol of purity and cleaniness. Many Chinese paintings and sculptures will depict a goddess (usually the goddess of mercy, Kuan-yin) standing on this blossom.

“Beads of jade for beauty…”

Jade is a precious and beautiful gem (as a harder substance it is known as emerald) and can be considered a charm to ward off evil.

“Each a perfect porcelain doll”

Porcelain was invented in China sometime during the Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279).

The Matchmaker

Girls were married at age 16 or as soon afterwards as possible. Marriages were arranged by the parents of the prospective bride and groom, usually with the help of a go-between. The bride and groom themselves had no say in the matter and sometimes did not even meet until the wedding day. In some villages there *were* matchmakers who were responsible for making sure the young man and woman (sometimes even babies! if they were wealthy people, a betrothal) were suitably matched for each other (background, birthdays, etc). (Contribution by Debbie Chang.)

The First Ancestor’s Staff

The staff the First Ancestor wields is shaped somewhat like a Chinese scepter with the curved end. The First Ancestor was designed to be very grand and regal, so this seems appropriate. Scepters originated as backscratchers (so I’ve been told), but later were decorated and personalized for the owner and eventually lost their purpose to help get rid of that irritating itch.


While dragons in Western literature tend to be enormous, stocky, and terrifying lizards, the snakelike Chinese dragons are good, powerful, wise, and noble creatures. They are also water elementals. Wingless and sinewy, they live in the clouds or on the bottom of the ocean and NEVER breath fire. In fact, they bring rain. That Mushu manages to spit out a modest fireball is impossible. (Then again, he is an incense *burner*…)

In Chinese painting and porcelin, a dragon’s rank is determined by the number of toes on its feet. A dragon with five toes per foot is the Emperor’s emblem. Dragons used by ministers or temples have four toes per foot, and the common person’s dragons have three toes on each foot. (Since Mushu has four fingers on his front paws and two on his back, I guess that averages out to three per foot.) Another thing to look for is whether the dragon is looking at you. Non-royal dragons will have a right or left profile, but the emperor’s dragon will have two eyes. (With contributions by Dale Hwang and Y.T. Tsai.)

Mushu’s Demotion

Mushu’s demotion reminds me of another famous Chinese tale, Journey to the West, also known as the Monkey King stories. While Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy are the three famous disciples of the priest, there is also a fourth disciple. This fourth disciple was a Dragon Prince who was disrespectful to his father. He becomes the horse for the priest. (Maybe this explains the animosity between Mushu and Khan?)

The Chinese Zodiac

The guardians in the Fa family temple are the Chinese zodiac. These animals are part of a 12 year cycle. In the film we see the tiger, rabbit, monkey and dragon. The full zodiac is the rat, tiger, ox, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and boar.


Paper was invented by the Chinese around 200 BC and came to widespread use by AD 200. In addition to its use for writing and painting, paper was used for making lanterns, umbrellas, and fans. Incidentally, Mulan is reading the list of feminine virtues off a scroll made of bamboo strips in her first scene, but these scrolls became obsolete after paper was invented. Maybe she had a really old copy… (Contribution by Dennis Lee.)

Mushu’s Newspaper

As the Ancestors squabble, Mushu picks up a newspaper and starts reading. There are five characters heading the paper, but so far only “Beijing” has been translated for sure. The rest of the words don’t seem to make sense…the best guess so far has been “Beijing Military News.” (Contributed by Tangming Fong.)

“Come chant with me…”

Some interesting info on Chien-Po’s chant with Yao:

“Chien-Po says, ‘Ah mo ah mi toh fu…’ It’s actually, ‘Ah mi twoh foh.’ (This is just my phonetic spelling, I’m not using pinyin or anything like that) It means something to the effect of ‘God help me.'” (Contributed by Suz.)

“While ‘ami to fu’ is the more common saying, Buddhist priests, when chanting in front of the Buddha, would say ‘namor ami tofu.'” (Contributed by Susan Cheng.)

“When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time with Japanese friends who were Buddhists. Chien-Po seems to be saying, ‘Amida Butsu’. I remember the Buddhist chant as ‘Namu Amida Butsu’. I think this is from the original language spoken by Buddha and the early Buddhists (in India) and not Japanese. In Hawaii, there are a lot of Buddhists, and there is often a chuckle in the theater when Chien-Po is chanting because I think they recognize it also.” (Contributed by Jeffrey Y. Sue.)

“‘Namu Amida Butsu’ is the chant used by Shin Buddhism in Japan. It’s called the ‘nembutsu.’ It means (loosely) ‘I pray to you Infinite Light (or Eternal Light).’ Shin Buddhism became popular (though it existed earlier, I think) in Japan in the late 12th through mid-13th century. It is often referred to as the ‘Pure Land’ School. Its popularity was influenced to some degree by Christianity and, of course, a particular form of Buddhism that came to Japan via China via India. The Indian term would have been ‘Amithaba Buddha’ not ‘Amida Buddha’ (this is Japanese). Shin Buddhism is the most popular Japanese form of Buddhism.” (Contributed by C.S. BigTrees.)

Tai Chi

Ling does Tai Chi at the second day of training camp. (This is before Mulan comes over and they start picking on her again.) Tai Chi is a form of meditative exercise. (Contributed by Suz.)

Martial Arts

The martial arts models for Mulan and for Captain Shang are a woman and man from a martial arts school in Orlando. The school is the Wah Lum Praying Mantis School. The woman is Mimi Chan (daughter of the grandmaster) and the man is George Kee. (Contributed by Michael Booker.)

Mimi Chan and George Kee

Chi Fu’s Picture

In the lower right hand corner of the picture of Chi Fu shaking the Emperor’s hand there is a single Chinese character, “zhun.” It means “permit or allow,” and was used by Barry Cook and Tony Bancroft to approve character model sheets.

Ling’s Poster

The three Chinese characters at the beginning of the ink and brush sequence in “A Girl Worth Fighting For” translate to “Moong Xiang Nu” – “Dream Girl.” (Translated by Dennis Lee.)

The Law Against Girls in the Army

I’m not sure if there really was a law like this. However, in the film version The Lady General Hua Mu-Lan and in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior the law does exist, and breaking it is punishable by death.


Invented during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), probably around the year 800, gunpowder was quickly put to use. The Chinese developed some crude mortars and cannons but ultimately preferred rocketry and exploding grenades. Rockets were used in the Song Dynasty to defend against Mongolian invaders. Oh yes, gunpowder was used for fireworks as well.

It’s been pointed out that the poem came at least 200 years before the gunpowder came along, so the soldiers shouldn’t be using cannons and stuff…but hey, it’s a movie.


Mushu can be seen toasting a Chinese dumpling (called jiao zhi and also commonly known as potstickers) over a campfire.

The Middle Kingdom

“My children, heaven smiles down upon the Middle Kingdom,” the Emperor says. The name for China in Mandarin is Zhong Guo (Chung Kuo). Zhong = middle or center; guo = country or kingdom. The name implies that China is the center of the universe (or at least that’s what the ancient Chinese thought…)

Contributed by “ShdwRlm”

Lion Statues

During the battle at the palace where Captain Shang and his men are trying to pound the door in with one of the stone lions, both lions are holding a ball. This is incorrect. The one they left standing should have a lion cub under its paw because it is female. The lion they were using as a ram is supposed to have a ball because it is male. The ball represents the world, so that the women take care of the children and the men take care of the world.

Sexist, huh? (Contributed by August Paul Yang.)

Chinese Words on the Rocket

Written prominently on the rocket are the characters “wei xian” which means “danger.” However, this is written in the simplified Chinese characters (which originated a mere 40 years ago) and not the traditional characters. Oops.

Slightly above “wei xian” are some more Chinese characters which translate to “The Big Bamboo.” This is the name of a bar in Kissimmee, Florida where some of the Mulan crew hung out. (Contributed by Tangming Fong and John Sun.)

“Uh, Mulan…You fight good.”

Shang is at a loss for words. What should he say to a girl like Mulan? In ancient China there was generally not a lot of interaction between unmarried men and women. Marriages were arranged by parents or matchmakers (based more on similiar family backgrounds than romantic interest). There’s no prolonged courtship of any kind. There were strict rules in the whole proposing and marrying process.

Shang more than likely would have no experience in talking to an unmarried young woman like Mulan. He knew how to talk to her when she’s Ping, but not when she’s Mulan. (Posted to rec.arts.disney.animation by Jas.)

Hugging the Emperor

“Is she allowed to do that?”

In real life, the answer would have been no. The common people kept a respectful distance between themselves and the Emperor (who usually was surrounded by bodyguards and other officials). I think at one point Disney did not have Mulan hugging the Emperor, but this was changed to reflect Mulan’s impulsive, warm personality.

Chinese Words in the Credits

The words in the credits translate as

Thanks to Tangming Fong for this list!

This page hosted by Geocities. Created July 26, 1998. Updated July 20, 2004.
Information also provided from the books The Horizon History of China by C. Fitzgerald and The Land and People of China by J. Major.
Back to the Mulan FAQ.