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New Discovery May Historically Validate Disney’s Mulan Story

In 1998, Disney fans tired of princess stories and not yet addicted to Nemo and Frozen were attracted to “Mulan,” the story of a young Chinese girl who joins the army disguised as a man to protect her country from the invading Huns and save her ailing father from being conscripted. (Spoiler alert … like you can’t figure out what’s going to happen – it’s a Disney movie!) Mulan eventually helps save the emperor and the country and ends up being romanced by the head of the army. Not your typical Disney animated film, it managed to do well because it’s a good story … a story based on the Ballad of Mulan, an epic poem about a fictional female warrior set in the Northern Wei era (386–536) who … OK, you know the rest.

Hua Mulan was often believed to be based on the Xianbei, nomadic female warriors who claimed to have emerged from a sacred cave and settled in northern China at about the right time. Now, an anthropologist focusing on females in ancient history claims she’s found physical evidence of female warriors, one of who could be the real Mulan or her inspiration.

Mulan as depicted in the album Gathering Gems of Beauty

“Ancient remains found in the Mongolian steppe suggest that the story of the female warrior Mulan may have been inspired by real Xianbei women who rode horseback and probably also used bows and arrows.”

New Scientist and Ancient Origins attribute the discovery to California State University anthropologist Christine Lee, who was scheduled to present her findings in a lecture titled “The Hidden Lives of Women” and the pandemic-postponed American Association of Physical Anthropologists conference. Lee and colleague Yahaira Gonzalez examined 29 skeletons from ancient Mongolian burial sites, including three women. The skeletons were from the Xianbei, a nomadic group that settled in northern China in the Northern Wei era. Lee scanned the skeletons for arthritis, trauma, and musculoskeletal markers – telltale evidence of warriors.

“Three of the skeletons belonged to Xianbei women—and two were potentially warriors. Lee and Gonzalez reached this conclusion partly due to the nature of marks left on the bones where muscles once attached. The marks are larger if the muscle was heavily used, and the pattern of marks on both women’s skeletons suggests they had routinely worked the muscles someone on horseback would use. There were also indications that they practiced archery.”

That’s not quite “Drop the mic and move the Ballad of Mulan to the non-fiction shelf” evidence, but it’s pretty strong, especially since there were two in a small sample of 29. There was no sign of the Disney Mulan’s dragon friend Mushu or directions to the sacred cave that the ancestors of the legendary Xianbei female warriors were said to have come from, but it’s still an interesting find and fulfills Lee’s mission to find more historical evidence of women leaders in ancient times.

While Disney animation has moved back to the more profitable princesses and toys, a new live-action Mulan movie from Disney was scheduled to be released in March but has been delayed until July.

Let’s hope the theaters are reopened by then and we don’t need masks anymore. How do you eat popcorn while wearing a mask?

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Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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