When watching a cartoon like Disney’s Mulan, my kids are fairly confident that things like the ancestors’ spirits, talking dragon and lucky cricket never really happened. When I press further, they’re hesitant about the rest of the story too. Movies are, by default, fiction in the eyes of my eight- and four-year-old, so why would Mulan be any different? As it turns out they’re both right and wrong about this— as far as anyone can prove, Fa Mulan never existed outside of folklore. However, the core premise of a woman disguising herself as a man to fight in the army seems to have been repeated in history often enough to make the story very easy to believe.
Disney didn’t invent the story of Mulan, although their version is definitely different from how she’s been represented in Chinese ballads and storytelling. Every version starts with the idea that Mulan wants to take her father’s place in the Chinese emperor’s army, the context and reactions to that choice diverge immediately. Whereas the Disney cartoon is based around a teenager who feels like she doesn’t fit society’s image of a woman secretly donning her father’s armor, a Ming Dynasty ballad by Xu Wei called The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of her Father is based around a girl who is comfortable with the idea of staying at home and sewing, but was also explicitly trained by her father to be a fighter as she grew up. She hides her sex from the army when she joins, but convinces her parents that her enlistment is the only sensible option for the family if they want to fulfill their duties to the emperor. She does unbind her feet to make this transition, but while planning to rebind them once she returns home. It’s a very different approach to gender roles than a modern audience might expect.
Incentives for enlistment
Of course, gender expectations have long been rigid enough to block women from enlisting under their own identities for most of recorded history. Even without a real Mulan to point to, many other women have fought under assumed male identities, usually to stay closer to a brother or husband, escape an abusive family, earn more money than a woman would otherwise have access to or, as in the Chinese ballad, fulfill a sense of duty and patriotism.
Elisa Servenius dressed as a Swedish man to fight in the Finnish War of 1808 in order to remain close to her husband, who was also a soldier. He went missing in 1809, but Servenius continued to serve, partially so that she could try to find her lost spouse. Having been captured, Mr. Servenius was released in 1810, and the two were reunited.
Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock signed up with the American Confederate Army to follow in her husband’s footsteps towards defecting to the Union Army. William Blalock purposely enlisted in a company he figured would be sent to the Virginia border so that he could flee north more easily. He didn’t realize that his wife, after cutting her hair and adopting the name Sam, would attempt the same strategy. It didn’t work for either Blalock as intended, and both had to simply flee north after getting medical discharges. In the end, they both joined the Union Army, fighting in raids in the Appalachian Mountains.
In a reversal from Mulan’s reverence for her father, Sarah Emma Edmonson joined the Union Army in 1861 to avoid her father. She’d fled her native Canada in 1857, starting a new life first as Sarah Edmonds, then later as Franklin Thompson. As “Thompson,” Edmonds enlisted and took on a number of roles in the war, from hospital attendant to spy to battlefield courier. While she managed to survive a broken leg and other injuries, she felt the need to desert the army when she came down with malaria, lest her disguise be revealed while hospitalized.
Earning, and claiming, income
Edmonds’ desertion raises the issue of how secretive these women had to be, and what the consequences were once their sex was found out. From the records we have, Disney actually suggested more severe penalties than anyone actually faced. Their version of Mulan feared not only the disapproval of her parents, but also execution by the state of the army discovered that she was a woman. Even the Ming Dynasty version has Mulan’s friends immediate embrace her identity once she reveals a 12-year deception, and nobody in the story worries about an execution in the slightest. While not every woman was able to leave the armed services on quite so favorable terms, multiple women did manage to receive pensions for their status as veterans.
In Edmonds’ case, her desertion did work to preserve her secret identity. Once she recovered, she worked as a nurse, but also wrote about her time in the Union Army. She even managed to get her alter-ego’s desertion charges cleared in order to claim her pension in 1884.
Mary Lacy posed as a 19 year-old-boy named “William Chandler” to join the British Navy in 1759. She was a successful sailor and shipwright, at least until rheumatism force her to stop working in 1771. Still, she did manage to not only earn a pension, but also receive it under her original identity, Mary Lacy.
Jennie Hodgers adopted the name Albert Cashier to fight in the American Civil War. She managed to keep her identity secret not only throughout the war, but even afterwards, as she chose to keep her male identity for the rest of her life. Not only did she receive the pension she earned under her new name, but also lived in a soldiers’ rest home in Illinois. The staff there did eventually discover her secret, but they never disrupted her life by making it public.
Consequences when caught
Not every woman managed to control their identity this well though. As in Disney’s Mulan, injury and illness that required medical treatment would, understandably, expose people’s secrets. Some were temporarily detained (sometimes to be guarded by another woman posing as a man!) while others were just sent home. In the case of Dorothy Lawrence, the British Army was more concerned with how easily she’d faked her way to the front lines of World War I. After confirming that she wasn’t a spy, the biggest concern was to make sure her story didn’t get out and embarrass the Army, or encourage more women would attempt the same feat Lawrence had. Luckily for the top brass, the multiple versions of Mulan weren’t in wide circulation at in England at the time.
Source: Mulan vs. The Legend of Hua Mulan, Disneyfied, or Disney Tried?