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Loose leaf tea warrior girl: The real historical figure of Mulan

Loose leaf tea warrior girl: The real historical figure of Mulan

There is a scene in the wildly popular 1998 Disney kids action animation Mulan, where the eponymous main character disguises herself as a man. The reason? To take her aging father’s place in his callup to serve his state during a time of war. Mulan then spends the rest of the film fighting bravely, proving that women warriors are just as courageous and noble as men. Sounds like the stuff of fiction, right? Wrong! Many historians point to the fact that there is enough evidence in the historical record to prove that Mulan was a real figure. And even if she wasn’t, there were other fierce female warriors in Chinese history who could match it with the men when it came to warfare. Oh, and they were loose leaf tea-drinking badasses.

Origins

The tale of the real-life Mulan comes to us from sometime between 380 and 580 CE. We first see her appear in the annals of history in the Ballad of Mulan. A song that was most likely written during a period of invasion when the borders of the Tuoba people of the Northern Wei was frequently being invaded by the Hun (Xiongnu) people. In the ballad, Hua Mulan states:

Last night I saw the draft posters,

The Khan (Emperor) is calling many troops,

The army list is in twelve scrolls,

On every scroll there’s Father’s name.

Father has no grown‑up son,

Mulan has no elder brother.

I want to buy a saddle and horse,

And serve in the army in Father’s place.

The ballad describes who Mulan “goes ten thousand miles on the business of war”, which lasts for 10 years. When the war is over, the Khan tries to promote Mulan for her meritorious service. However, she says she only wants “to ride a swift mount” to take her to her home. After traveling home in the company of other troops from her town, she removes her armor and fixes her hair and make-up. To the amazement of her brothers-in-arms, Mulan appears before everyone as a woman. She has just successfully fought in and survived a brutal war, whilst dressed as a man, for over a decade. The ballad ends with the verse, “Two hares running side by side close to the ground / How can they tell if I am he or she?” And with that, the battle for women’s rights in ancient China is born.

Truth

Truth in history is a somewhat convoluted matter. Notwithstanding, there are enough accurate historical references in the Ballad of Mulan to indicate her story has some basis. What we know for a fact is that in 429 CE, Emperor Taiwu of the Northern Wei launched an expedition against the Xiongu. This occurred in what is now Mongolia. This history is backed up in the Book of Wei, written between 551 and 554 CE. The Book of Wei recounts the expedition launched in 429. It also includes references to the Black and Yanran Mountains, which are located in Mongolia and also mentioned in the Ballad of Mulan.

So, it seems the ballad contains enough accurate historical information to be based in fact. And even if Mulan was not a real person (we say she was!) there were certainly enough actual female badass warriors in Chinese history that kicked ass and drank tea.

Loose leaf tea-drinking and the (female) warrior mindset

We know how important loose leaf tea is within the history of China. Indeed, according to the historical records when Emperor Wu of the Zhou dynasty conquered the Shang, tea entered and spread through much of central China in about 1057 BCE, as a tribute from the conquered southwestern kingdom. Since transporting the tea took a very long time, the fresh leaves had to be processed into dried loose leaf tea to survive the journey.

To the Tuoba people of the Northern Wei, tea drinking became a very rich part of their daily lives. At this time in history, tea was widely seen as “pure”. The people whom Mulan belonged to valued loose leaf tea greatly and connected it with helping to harmonize their inner world. Tea began to take on the connotation of the warrior mindset.

And it’s that warrior mindset that we see in the story of the real Mulan: never giving up in the face of much adversity. Not only did Mulan have to fight a war as a replacement to protect her aging father, but she also had to fight against stereotypes of women. She had to prove to everyone around her that women are just as capable on the battlefield as men. Something the US Army took a long time to acknowledge. And we can just imagine Mulan sipping a delicious blend at the end of another day’s hard toil, readying herself to do it all again tomorrow. Preparing her warrior mindset to never give in, but to show the world who’s boss.

 

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