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Mulan in Real Life: Chinese Women Soldiers and Feminism

melal's picture

   The military has been traditionally defined as a masculine institution; actually it may be the most prototypically masculine one of all social institutions. Therefore, whenever women soldiers appear in public, they seem to be standout since people tend to think that for women to participate, either the military has to be perceived as transform to make it more compatible with how women are, or women have to be perceived as changing in ways that make them more suited for military service. Many changes have occurred in the past several decades. This period has witnessed a mushrooming of attention to women’s contribution to the army. More and more women soldiers are allowed to actually fight on the frontline or engage in violent and dangerous tasks. It seems that society started to recognize female’s ability as protectors of their countries, giving them space to choose whatever they want, including stepping on battlefields. Many people perceive this phenomenon as a huge progress of feminism, while others cast doubts on it. Interested in this issue, I would like to focus on female soldiers, especially Chinese women soldiers, in my webevent.

   Though hundreds of wars and uprisings have occurred in China during its more than 5,000 years of history, only occasionally have Chinese women been recorded as participants in wars. According to mainland Chinese scholars, the whole Chinese history can be divided into three periods—five thousand years ago to A.D. 1840; the Post Opium War time period—1840 to 1949; and the Modern time period—1949 to present (Li, 1992). After presenting historical facts of these three periods, an analysis of women soldiers in each of the three time periods and its correlations with feminism will be provided in this webevent.

 Ancient Period

   Nineteen historical women warriors are identified for the ancient period (Li, 1994). All nineteen are either commanders of armies or leaders of peasant uprisings. The first women general, Hao Fu, appeared about 3200 years ago. One oracle inscription carved on animal bones describes her as a commanding marshal of over 13,000 soldiers. But the most famous women generals were Liang Yu Qin and Hong Yu Liang (Bao, 1979). Qin is known for her many victories in both national defense and suppression of internal uprisings. The last emperor of the Ming Dynasty wrote several poems to praise her. Liang is known for fighting at the side of her husband in many battles. In 1130, her husband’s troops engaged the enemy in a major campaign at ta place called Gold Mountain along the Yang Zi River. Liang beat the battle drum and used flag lights to guide the army. She was not afraid of being killed by the enemies’ arrows and stones, and eventually their 8,000 troops defeated the enemy 10,000. Until today, the story “beat battle drum at Golden Mountain, (Ji Gu Zhan Jin Shan) is still used to mobilize Chinese women for national self-defense. Besides women who fight for their nationalities or countries, there are many women who play an important role in leading peasant uprisings. Mu Lu and Shuo Zhen Chen are great examples of women leaders of peasant uprisings (Chen, 1979).

   Among all Chinese women soldiers in ancient period, Mulan probably is the one that has attracted the widest range of attention. No matter how she is educated or where she is raised, every Chinese girl knows Mulan. Mulan is the earliest legendary women warrior in Chinese culture and was recently verified by various scholars as real women living during the Han Dynasty (Li, 1994). The courageous peasant girl disguised herself as a man and took her ailing father's place in the emperor's army. After fighting in the army for 12 years, she declined the appointment bestowed on her by the emperor and went back home. Inspired by Mulan’s deed, Disney released a movie Mulan in 1998 and was well-received by critics and the public, grossing $304 million, earning Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. More importantly, Mulan, as a representative of ancient Chinese women in wars, reflects perfectly the powerfulness and the powerlessness of Chinese women soldiers at the time. I would like to discover the “feminist” and “non-feminist” perspectives in Mulan’s story, and then to expand them to all Chinese ancient women’s stories.

   To start with, Mulan has a strong mind and great determination, which is often essential factors of success. It’s much more challenging for a woman to make up her mind to live a military life, however Mulan stayed in the military for twelve years, which shows her strong will power. Next, Mulan is portrayed as an intelligent girl who used her brain to think. Her military life was miserable at the beginning but later due to her strong will and intelligence, she saved the army. According to the Disney movie, Mulan received training together with other soldiers, though she could not exceed them in terms of physical power, she stands out from her men peers in terms of intelligence. Based on these two facts, we can conclude that female are capable of power, and making a good use of power—as Mulan successfully saved her country. Considering about the deeply-rooted patriarchy in Chinese ancient society, such plot definitely can be regarded as feminist.

    Despite the power Mulan possesses, her story actually illustrates more female powerlessness than powerfulness. Mulan acquires her power and success through cross-dressing, making the feminist perspective presented above fragile. In this context, cross-dressing is a means of empowerment, because only through disguised as a man could Mulan show her own capacity and achieve her own goal. However, cross-dressing itself is a controversial issue with double sides, which shows the powerlessness of female. It is interesting that male cross-dressing is usually considered differently from female cross-dressing. The male-to-female cross-dressing is often perceived as either comedic or a form of punishment; while female-to-male is usually used by female to achieve some goals unattainable as female (Zhang, 2010). Cross-dressing is a gendered behavior which represents the difference and inequality between the two genders. Only by disguising as a man can Mulan achieve her goal, thus, cross-dressing implies the powerless status of female. Secondly, the emperor offered Mulan the position of prime minister. This is a great opportunity to pursue a public career in which she may possibly do something to change the lives of other women, but she refused this change. Therefore her heroic deed was destined to be temporary and didn’t impose any change on the society as a whole. We can see in the movie that though Mulan feel the oppression imposed on female, she accepted it and didn’t challenge the status quo even when she was given the opportunity. Even outstanding heroines reaffirmed the patriarchy social status, let alone ordinary female.

Mulan cuts her hair so she can look like a man

   To sum up, Mulan’s story depicts a society in which female are powerless. On the one hand, as a woman soldier, Mulan broke the socially constructed gender order, saved her country by using her intelligence and determination. On the other hand, however, such feminist deed is based on a non-feminist means—cross-dressing, which requires her to sacrifice part of her female identity in exchange for power. Also, such feminist is ultimately temporary without any impact on the society, since she herself also perpetuated the unequal gender rule and has neither desire nor courage to break it.

   The co-existence of feminist and non-feminist factors in Mulan’s story can be seen in all women warriors in the ancient time period of China. All of them are regarded as heroic combatants as Mulan. Bravery, strong mastery of martial art, and unique intelligence are common characters of these heroines. However, I found that there is a common pattern of the ancient heroines’ participation in military operations, which definitely undermines the feminist factor in their stories. In almost all of their stories, a key male family member with military commanding status is absent, dead, or disabled or has been involved in the same uprising as the woman warrior. For example, Mu Lu, one of the great female leaders of peasant uprisings mentioned previously, took part in military operations to bring revenge on a bad country governor who had wrongly executed her son. Xun, at the age of thirteen, breaks out of the encirclement to get the relief troops because her father has to remain in command of the defense and her scholarly brothers does not have skills in the martial arts. Princess Ping Yang raises an army and joins her father’s uprising to keep her whole family from being executed by the emperor in power. Women leaders of peasant uprisings fight shoulder to shoulder with their male family members. All of the women generals have highly positioned male family members (Huang, 1991).

   Therefore, I think that the popularity of historical account of Chinese women soldiers, far from being an indicator of feminism, actually shows the deeply-rooted patriarchal structure and feudal culture in ancient China. Because either the means used to gain their military power—cross-dressing, or the context of gaining their military power—the incapability of men relatives for warfare, is ties to male.

Post Opium War Time Period, 1840-1949

    Women warriors were very active during this time period. In the Tai Ping Tian Guo Movement (1850-1868), China’s largest and longest peasant uprising, thousands of women officers and soldiers engaged in a wide range of military services. In the early years of the Chinese communist movement (1927-1935), women again served in large numbers in a wide range of combat and noncombat military roles. About 3000 women are recorded as participating in the thirteen-month Long March of over 12,500 kilometers in 1934-35. The 2000-member women’s independence Brigade, a logistical unit, carried the machines and equipment necessary for keeping the Red Army supplied. The 32 women soldiers in the first front Army who were the wives of such leaders as Mao Ze Dong and Zhou En Lai and the women who served as ministers of the Soviets in various providences survived in the Long March. The period following the Long March from 1935 to 1945 is known as the Yan An and was time of recuperation and reorganization of the Red Army. It was during this period that women were relegated to support functions (Chen, 1991). The few women remaining in the Red Army were joined by thousands of young anti-Japanese women in noncombat auxiliary roles of nursing, communications, administration, propaganda and logistics. Many received training in political, medical or art schools at Yan An and participated actively in economic production. This pattern of mobilizing women in auxiliary support roles continues through the Liberation War period (1945-1949), during which the part of the army becomes the people’s Liberation Army (PLA).

   One major character of this time period is the number of movies and performances that focus on female identities, especially female warriors, boosted dramatically. A major reason is that the oppression of women in traditional China was a widespread issue that Mao Zedong sought to eliminate during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960's and 1970's. For example, in the movie The Red Detachment of Women (1961), the protagonist is portrayed to be a very bold and determined character throughout the movie. It is clear that she is keen on fighting back against the injustice inflicted upon her, and even urges her fellow bondmaid sisters to join in the struggle against the tyrant –but could this be feminist?

A Poster of The Red Detachment of Women

   In order to emphasize and encourage the aspiration for sexual liberation and emancipation during the Cultural Revolution, the masculinity of the female characters is obvious. Different from the ancient period, in which women were masculinized in terms of dressing, the masculinity of women in the Post Opium War period was showed by the lack of feminine roles. It is not hard for us to see that Ching-Hua, the protagonist of The Red Detachment of Women, was never given the identity of a mother nor a wife or a daughter. This lack of these feminine roles which normally serve to comprise the female identity furthered the desexualization of women, emphasized the direct efforts of the revolution to strip the female characters of any clearly feminine traits, roles and weaknesses. Femininity appears to be rejected and disregarded in favor of masculinity, such concept undermines the very ideal and principle of feminism. I think underlying this desire and tactic, is not truly feminism but rather a rejection of womanhood, as the characters are portrayed to strive towards masculinity. However, compare to ancient Chinese women warriors, there is something compellingly "feminine" about the solidarity of women who have all suffered various fates under a tyrannical, patriarchal society, and their efforts to fight back collectively as a whole. We can also see that actions and aims of women to join the army in this period are more independent of men. This signifies the impossibility of the absolute destruction and rejection of femininity—no matter how much effort goes into the de-sexualization of women and the incorporation of masculinity to mask any perceived weaknesses of femininity, there will always be the inherent feminine traits that exuberate a beauty of their own, unique to the female sphere.

Modern Times, 1949-Now

   Chinese women comprise about 7.5 percent of total military personnel in the PLA (Xinhua net, 2008). Though most women soldiers still serve in traditional women roles or in military support positions, more women soldiers appear on positions that involved dangerous tasks. In 2009, the first batch of female jet fighter pilots, aged 21 to 24, graduated after 44 months of training (China news, 2009). There are also women serve in Marine Corps, Special Forces, drug criminal police, etc.  At the same time, women soldiers began to appear in public through mass media more often. During the 60th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China military parade, the marching group formed by female soldiers caught much attention. All of the women soldiers were marching in short miniskirts and white leather boots through Tiananmen Square. The group of female soldiers consists of troops from the army, the navy and the air force, which makes it the biggest marching group in the modern history of military parades anywhere in the world. According to China’s state channel, CCTV, the requirement for female participation in the commemorating parade was being “brave, beautiful and elegant” altered from being just “brave”(alifeinasuitcase, 2011).

Women in the 60th Anniversary Parades

   Clearly, this is a huge progress compare to the cross-dressing in ancient time period and the absence of female roles in the Post Opium War period. Women soldiers are encouraged to show their femininity, and from the scale of the marching we can see that the nation is intended to let its people and the whole world know the more about Chinese women soldiers. But before we give our applause for the rise of feminism in the army, probably we should take a look at the method of conscription of women adopted by Beijing in 2009 at first.

   The selection process included physical tests and interviews. In the interview part, candidates are valued based on their body images, abilities of language expression and art talents. The method immediately caught a wide range of discussion after being releasing (, 2009). When being asked why interview was not a requirement for male candidates, one official answered: “It's impossible to interview so many male soldiers in just two months. There are so many of them!” (Global Times, 2009) In my opinion, determining women’s eligibilities of being soldiers based on their appearances and talents denies their inner values. Such discrimination regards women in the military as tools of pleasing men, or, in other words, as potential objects of sex desire of men, which therefore emphasizes traditional gender norms.

   On the other hand, the motives of women candidates to join the army are also worth discussing. Serving in the military enjoys high popularity among young Chinese women because it opens opportunities for education and training, better jobs in the future, possible residence in cities, and higher status in society. In recent years, the number of people applying to join the army has rapidly increased – partly because of the benefits and welfare system in the army. According to this year's regulations, these benefits include a pension of more than 4,000 Yuan ($601) every year for families of those who volunteer to join the army - and a loan of 50,000 to 1 million Yuan ($7,515 to $150,319) for veterans who want to start their own business. Bai Yansong, a well-known talk show host with China Central Television, or CCTV, questioned the motives of the applicants. “Do they apply to protect the country, or do they just want to get the money? You know – the most common answer of the motive of joining the army was the longing for the cool female soldiers in the parade. This is not convincing” (Global Times, 2010).

   From above, we can see that though in modern times women soldiers have more space to show their femininity and become more independent from men, neither motives of the administrations of the army nor those of the applicants is feminist-directed.

   However, I asked myself, even if women were treated in an absolutely equal way as men in the military, even if they didn’t have to sacrifice their femininity in order to be soldiers, even their decisions of joining the army were totally independent of their male family members and material interests, can the deed of becoming women soldiers be feminist? According to bell hooks, the goal of feminism is to eliminate sexism and patriarchy, which requires the ending of violence against women (hooks, 2000). If we want to challenge the wrong system, then there is no reason for women to conduct violence and join the system. But the question here is that, women soldiers are fighting for protect collective interests, such as their countries and people, rather than merely for individual interests. I think in order to solve this paradox, the relationship between nationalism and feminism—whether they are compatible, should be considered.

Works Cited

All-China Women’s Federations. Study Materials for he History of the Women’s Moment. Beijing, 1986.

Bao, Jialin, ed. Collected Works on the History of Chinese Women. Tai Pei: Mu Tong Publishers, 1979

“Beijing Change Policy for Conscription.”, 2009. Web. May 3, 2012. <>

Chen, Dongyuan. A history of Chinese Women’s Life. Tai Pei: Shang Wu Publisher, 1975.

Chen Mingfu. Zhong Guo Li Dai Nu Bing [Women Warriors in Chinese History]. Beijing: Chinese Women Publisher, 1991

“Female soldiers to form biggest marching group in national day parade.”, 24 September, 2009. Web. 8 May, 2012. <>

“First batch of China's female jet fighter pilots to debut at National Day parade.” Window of China, April 2, 2009. Web. <>

Hooks, Bell. Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge, MA: South End, 2000. Print.

Huang, Canzhang. “Mulan Hua.” People’e Daily Abroad, April 10, 1991.

Jiang, Tao. Zhong Guo Chuan Qi [Chinese Legnd] Vol. 15.22 Lie Nu Zhuan [Women Biography]. Taipei: Zhuang Yan Publisher, 1996.

Li, Xiaolin. “Chinese Women Soldiers: A History of 5000 Years.” Social Education. February, 1994. p.67-71. Print.

“Talent competition banned for conscription of women.” Global Times, 14 October, 2010. Web. 4 May, 2012. <>

picture#1: Mulan cuts her hair so that she can look like a man. <>

picture#2: A poster of The Red Detachment of Women, 1996. <>

picture#3: Women Soldiers in The 60th Anniversary of the Founding of the People’s Republic of China military parade. <>


yandere_chan's picture

The cross-dressing part was

The cross-dressing part was necessary, because it was illegal to for her to join. That’s just historical facts. There is no “deep symbolism” of her “abandoning her femininity”. In fact in the movie you can see how she tried to act “like a man” and completely failed, and her mannerism and behaviour returns to what she was before. The whole point is the sociefy doesn’t let her do what she wants, so she found a loophole (cros-dressing) to get around that barrier so she can prove she can do it, and the she revealed herself to be a girl, breaking the notion that girls can’t be a soldier.

She didn’t magically changed into another person when she is in different cloths. Actually quite from the movie “You trusted me as Ping, why is Mulan different”. And did you just ignore the whole ending of the movie? Mulan climbed up the pulled in the place dressed like a girl, with her male comrades cross-dressing as girls, then fought and killed the villain in a dress, as a girl.

Seriously it’s like you didn’t watch the movie at all. It’s message is the complete opposite of what you are making it to be. A criticism based on cherry-picked details isn’t a valid criticism.

WongHC's picture


There are a lot of information, but it is quite long for little kids to read

mona's picture

proof of authenticity

i would appreciate this as well :I'm doing a project for school about the accuracy of Mulan and I was wondering if you can link me the URL of the website where you got proof of Mulan being real. If its a book can you tell me the author and title."

Serendip Visitor's picture


I'm doing a project for school about the accuracy of Mulan and I was wondering if you can link me the URL of the website where you got proof of Mulan being real. If its a book can you tell me the author and title.