The story of Mulan, a young woman who disguises herself as a man to fight for the Chinese emperor, has become one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the world, thanks in no small part to Disney. The 1998 animated movie of The Mouse House, Mulan, grossed $304 million worldwide and earned Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. The upcoming live-action version – delayed due to the pandemic – looks set to surpass that feat when it finally releases. (It is currently scheduled for July 24, 2020.)
For a long time, Mulan was thought to be based on real female warriors of the Xianbei, an ancient nomadic people of modern Mongolia and northeastern China. Now anthropologists believe they have found physical evidence of such warrior women in skeletal remains found in that region.
The Chinese legend of Mulan first appears in several ancient texts and was eventually transcribed into a folk song, “The Ballad of Hua Mulan,” sometime in the sixth century. It tells the story of a young woman in the Northern Wei era spanning 386-536 CE, although some details were added later, around 620 CE, during the Tang Dynasty. She takes her father’s place when each family must supply one man to serve in the Emperor’s army. Hua Mulan serves 12 years and none of her fellow soldiers ever suspect her true gender. Later versions of the legend appeared in the late Ming dynasty, followed by a 1593 play by Xu Wei, and the Sui Tang Romance, a 17th century tragic novel by Chu Renhuo. In it, Mulan has a younger sister and ties to a fellow female warrior named Xianniang.
Christine Lee is an anthropologist at California State University in Los Angeles, specializing in the East Asia region. She had hosted an entire symposium at the now-cancelled (thanks, coronavirus!) conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists called “The Hidden Lives of Women,” examining archaeological evidence of skeletal remains in hopes of getting a more accurate picture of the historical roles of women. “Historically, archeology was a very male-dominated field,” Lee told Ars, resulting in a potentially biased traditional (women and mothers) interpretation of what women’s lives were like.
Lee’s own contribution to the symposium focused on female warriors, in particular the nomadic women who lived north of the Great Wall of China thousands of years ago. The Xiongnu lived in the region 2200 years ago, but were displaced by the Xianbei 1850 years ago. The Xianbei, in turn, were expelled by Turkic peoples around 1470 years ago.
Lee is well versed in the ancient poems, songs, and legends that celebrate the exploits of warrior wives, including The ballad of Mulan† Even written records from the later Khitan period (around 900 CE) and the subsequent medieval Mongol period mention queens having their own armies. “I thought, if there are all those stories, why has no one ever found these women?” she said. ‘Just because no one was looking. I thought it was time to look.’
During her years of fieldwork, Lee has collected a lot of data from China and Mongolia. Together with colleague Yahaira Gonzalez, she reexamined skeletons from 29 ancient Mongolian cemeteries for evidence of arthritis, trauma and certain musculoskeletal markers. Per new scientist†
Three of the skeletons were of Xianbei women – and two were potential warriors. Lee and Gonzalez came to this conclusion, in part because of the nature of the marks on the bones where the muscles were once attached. The markings are larger when the muscle was used heavily, and the pattern of markings on both women’s skeletons suggests they had routinely trained the muscles that someone on horseback would use. There was also evidence that they practiced archery.
This was a pleasant surprise for Lee. “It’s a small sample size, just 29 funerals, and there are two women that fit the bill,” she said. ‘That’s actually a lot. I didn’t expect to find one.’ This greater role for certain women may be related to the political instability of the time, marred by outbreaks of violence for several hundred years after the collapse of China’s Han dynasty in 220 CE. In contrast, the skeletons of three Turkish women showed no evidence of archery and only minimal signs of horseback riding.
Lee found no evidence of trauma, but this may be because the remains likely belonged to elite class members, based on their presence in the burial mounds, which are more like graves, some 20-30 feet deep with several chambers. “It may be that the elite weren’t actually allowed to go into hand-to-hand combat at the time,” Lee said, as other skeletons from China and Mongolia show signs of fighting.
List image by Christine Lee