Study Guide for Mulan

School Assemblies Tales of Ambition and Dreaming Big > Study Guide > The Story of Mulan

MuLan and the Emporer shadow puppet

"The Story of Mulan" is one of the stories that toured (2012-2013). This page is for teachers to use to extend the learning experience. The activities on this page are story specific and are designed as follow-up to the performance. Also see the Study Guide Main Page for activities to prepare your students for the show in general.

On this page: Cast of Characters | Synopsis | Language Arts | Chinese History & Culture | Fine Arts

Cast of Characters:

Mulan imagining battle

Mulan, Emperor's Servant - Kimberly

Mulan's Father with a long beard

Father, Soldier, Emperor - Dennis

Mulan's coworkers played by kids contoling puppets.

Puppet Weavers and Mulan's Army - local guest stars and Dennis

Music and script by Dennis; sets and costumes by Kimberly; props by Dennis and Kimberly.

Related Reading

Text: Song of Mu Lan

Our own script was inspired by the original Sixth Century "Song of Mu Lan". Here is an English translation:

Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,
Mu-lan weaves, facing the door.
You don't hear the shuttle's sound,
You only hear Daughter's sighs.
They ask Daughter who's in her heart,
They ask Daughter who's on her mind.
"No one is on Daughter's heart,
No one is on Daughter's mind.
Last night I saw the draft posters,
The Khan 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,
Mu-lan has no elder brother.
I want to buy a saddle and horse,
And serve in the army in Father's place."

In the East Market she buys a spirited horse,
In the West Market she buys a saddle,
In the South Market she buys a bridle,
In the North Market she buys a long whip.
At dawn she takes leave of Father and Mother,
In the evening camps on the Yellow River's bank.

She doesn't hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears the Yellow River's flowing water cry tsien tsien.
At dawn she takes leave of the Yellow River,
In the evening she arrives at Black Mountain.
She doesn't hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears Mount Yen's nomad horses cry tsiu tsiu.
She goes ten thousand miles on the business of war,
She crosses passes and mountains like flying.
Northern gusts carry the rattle of army pots,
Chilly light shines on iron armor.
Generals die in a hundred battles,
Stout soldiers return after ten years.

On her return she sees the Son of Heaven,
The Son of Heaven sits in the Splendid Hall.
He gives out promotions in twelve ranks
And prizes of a hundred thousand and more.
The Khan asks her what she desires.
"Mu-lan has no use for a minister's post.
I wish to ride a swift mount
To take me back to my home."

When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming
They go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.
When Elder Sister hears Younger Sister is coming
She fixes her rouge, facing the door.
When Little Brother hears Elder Sister is coming
He whets the knife, quick quick, for pig and sheep.
"I open the door to my east chamber,
I sit on my couch in the west room,
I take off my wartime gown
And put on my old-time clothes."
Facing the window she fixes her cloudlike hair,
Hanging up a mirror she dabs on yellow flower powder
She goes out the door and sees her comrades.
Her comrades are all amazed and perplexed.
Traveling together for twelve years
They didn't know Mu-lan was a girl.
"The he-hare's feet go hop and skip,
The she-hare's eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground, How can they tell if I am he or she?"

From:The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry By Han H. Frankel, Yale University Press, 1976.

Common Core State Standards:

Reading Literature Standards: RL.K.5, RL.1.6, RL.1.10, RL.2.2, RL.2.4, RL.2.6, RL.2.9, RL.2.10, RL.3.6, RL.3.10, RL.4.5, RL.4.6, RL.4.10, RL.5.10, RL.6.7, RL.6.9, RL.6.10, RL.7.4, RL.7.7

Reading Foundation Skills Standards: RF.3.3, RF.4.4, RF.5.4

Speaking and Listening Standard: SL.6.2


Mu Lan takes place in the Fifth Century, when China was under invasion by the barbaric Huns. The Chinese army needs all the men it can muster to fight off the enemy, so it is recruiting one from every household. In the household of Mu Lan, a teenage girl, the only man is her father, who is too sickly to fight. Knowing that his pride and sense of duty will compel him to go anyway, and fearing for his life, she conceals the draft notice from him and disguises herself as a man, going to war in his stead.

Life in the army is very difficult, especially for a young girl, but she quickly adapts and develops battle skills that get her promoted to command and enable her to lead the troops to victory. Afterward, she meets with the Emperor, who rewards her greatly and agrees to send her back home to her village.

Upon arrival back home, she removes her soldier's attire and puts her feminine clothing back on. Her fellow soldiers are astonished to learn that their commanding officer is a woman.

Common Core State Standards:

Reading Literature Standards: RL.K.2, RL.K.3, RL.1.1, RL.1.2, RL.1.3, RL.2.2, RL.3.2, RL.4.2, RL.4.3, RL.5.2, RL.5.3, RL.6.1, RL.8.2

Writing Standards: W.K.3, W.1.3, W.2.3, W.3.3, W.4.3, W.5.3

Speaking and Listening Standards: SL.K.2, SL.K.4, SL.1.4, SL.2.2, SL.2.4, SL.2.6, SL.3.4, SL.3.6, SL.4.2, SL.4.4, SL.5.2, SL.5.4

Language Arts


the length of time between a person's birth and becoming an adult; about 20 years
Son of Heaven
(mentioned in the text of “Song of Mu Lan”) - the Emperor
Common Core State Standards:

Reading Literature Standards RL.K.4, RL.3.4, RL.4.4, RL.5.4, RL.6.4, RL.7.4

Language Standards: L.K.5, L.K.6, L.1.5, L.2.4, L.2.5, L.3.4, L.3.5, L.3.6, L.4.4, L.4.5, L.5.4, L.5.5

Topics to Discuss

  1. Why is Mu Lan daydreaming instead of working at the beginning of the story?
  2. Mu Lan is obviously the hero (or heroine) of the story. Does the story have a villain?
  3. Why is Mu Lan willing to risk her life?
  4. Why would Mu Lan's small size make it harder for her to be a soldier? Are there ways it also might help her be a good solider?
  5. Mu Lan's name has a translation: “wood orchid” or “magnolia”. Can you think of any names in English that also mean something?
Common Core State Standards:

Reading Literature Standards: RL.K.1, RL.K.2, RL.K.3, RL.1.1, RL.1.2, RL.2.1, RL.2.2, RL.2.3, RL.2.10, RL.3.1, RL.3.2, RL.4.2, RL.5.2, RL.6.1, RL.7.2, RL.8.2

Speaking and Listening Standards: SL.K.2, SL.1.2, SL.2.6, SL.3.1, SL.3.2, SL.3.4, SL.3.6, SL.4.1, SL.5.1, SL.6.1, SL.7.1, SL.7.2, SL.8.1

History and Culture

Mu Lan has been a popular story for many centuries. It was originally a poem/ song in China that was first written down sometime in the 6 th Century. The story was set during the presumably recent attempt by the Huns, a barbaric nomadic tribe, to invade China. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) the story was written into a novel. Since then, it has been adapted many times for stage and screen -- most notably by Disney in 1998 (many cinematic versions of the story already had been made in China).

Traditional Chinese culture emphasized strong family bonds and respect for parents and elders, even extending to revering them after their death. It was common for large extended families to live together in one household. Boys were valued more highly than girls, so it would have been an especially impressive feat for Mu Lan to serve as a soldier. But since the Chinese placed a high emphasis on honor, sometimes valuing it more than life itself, it is entirely believable that she might have been inspired to try this in order to spare her father.

Common Core State Standards:
Reading Literature Standards: RL.K.1, RL.1.1, RL.1.2, RL.2.1, RL.2.2, RL.3.1, RL.3.2, RL.4.2, RL.5.2, RL.6.2, RL.7.2, RL.8.2

The Female Warrior Motif

Mu Lan is one of many, many, many stories and legends throughout history that have centered on the character of a female warrior. Almost every culture has had a mythology that has included at least one war-waging goddess or heroine (the ancient Greeks told of a whole tribe of them, the Amazons). Many countries also have traditions about female warriors that are, or may be, based upon true events: most famously, there was Joan of Arc in France. Others include Maria Rosa in Brazil, the Trung Sisters in Vietnam, and Boudica in Great Britain. And of course Mu Lan, which also might be based on a real character.

In most of these tales, as in Mu Lan, the female warrior disguises herself as a man. In the U.S., the folk ballad "Cruel War" (which dates back at least to the Civil War, and possibly to the Revolutionary War) seems to have been inspired by this tradition. It tells of a woman whose sweetheart is about to go away to war, and she wants to don men's clothing and go along with him.

Suggested activity: Read the poem and comments about Boudicca (or Boudica) at In what ways is this story like Mu Lan? How is it different?

Common Core State Standards:

Reading Literature Standards: RL.K.5, RL.K.9, RL.1.9, RL.1.10, RL.4.9, RL.6.9, RL.7.2, RL.8.2

Reading Foundation Standards: RL.3.4, RL.4.4, RL.5.4

Speaking and Listening Standards: SL.3.2, SL.6.2

Lan in Chinese Characters

Chinese Characters and Compound Words

The name Mu Lan, as we point out in our show, means literally "wood orchid" which is the Chinese name for magnolia. (Some versions of the story are called "Hua Mu Lan", where "Hua", meaning flower, is supposed to be her family name.) Notice that the written character Mu 木 resembles a tree -- which is, in fact, another of its meanings. Many Chinese characters are derived from pictograms, similar to hieroglyphics. For example, 人 means person. Others are based on ideograms, meaning that they represent more abstract ideas. For instance, 下 means below. Note that the "Lan" in Mu Lan's name can be written either 兰 or 蘭. The second version, which we use in our production, is the traditional way. The first is the modern simplified version. In 1956, the People's Republic of China produced a list of thousands of simplified Chinese characters in order to boost literacy. These are most comonly used today for the Chinese written language, except in Hong Kong.

Using the combination of “wood” and “orchid” to mean magnolia is an example of a compound word. What other names of things can you think of that are compound words? (e.g., suitcase, airport, breakfast, baseball, blackboard, highlight)

Common Core State Standards:

Reading Literature Standards: RL.K.4, RL.3.4, RL.4.4, RL.5.4, RL.6.4, RL.8.4

Language Standards: L.2.5, L.3.5, L.4.4, L.4.5, L.5.4, L.5.5

Fine Arts

Notice that different performance idioms are used for the different scenes in Mu Lan. One scene is like a little opera or musical, because we sing the whole thing. Another is like a pantomime because we act out the scene without any spoken dialogue. And in three of the scenes, we make use of puppets alongside the performers. The puppets operated by the volunteers are modeled after traditional Chinese puppets that are still very popular in China. We also use shadow puppets, which have along history in many countries, especially in Asia.

There is evidence that the art of Chinese puppetry developed from the practice of burying clay or wooden figures with the dead. Some of these figures were quite lifelike, and eventually they were crafted with movable joints. After that, someone realized that they were too entertaining to use only for people who were too dead to appreciate them, and so they were used to entertain the living.

Most of the early Chinese puppets were activated by flowing water rather than by human hands. Some were even activated by fireworks. All of them, however activated, appear to have had a great deal of flexibility and expressive ability. These puppets were used first to enact fairy tales and legends, and then later for stories of all types. Eventually puppeteers developed puppets operated by rods such as those we use in our production.

In the mid-Twentieth Century, the art of puppetry in China began to achieve a new level of recognition with the establishment of professional touring puppet troupes, puppetry festivals and awards, and government funding.

According to legend, shadow puppetry originated more than 2000 years ago when an emperor was mourning the death of a woman he loved. When one of his officials saw children playing with dolls that cast shadows on the wall, he hit upon the idea of having a doll made in the likeness of the deceased woman and entertaining the emperor with it by having its shadows projected on a screen. It sounds like a scheme that could have cost him his head; but instead the emperor was pleased. And shadow puppets were born. (But wherever and however they were invented, they also have a long tradition in Indonesia, India, Greece, Nepal and Turkey.)

The first Chinese shadow puppets were made of paper, but later they were constructed from the hides of animals. (The Chinese term for shadow puppet, pi ying, means “shadows of hides”. But note that audiences are actually seeing silhouettes rather than shadows. ) They can be extremely intricate, with one puppet requiring as many as 3000 cuts to create. Some of them, in the hands of an operator with years of training, can move their heads, mouths, hands, knees and waists. Some shadow puppets are also painted in colors that are transmitted onto the screen. The performance also often include elaborate scenery and props.

Typically, a shadow puppet troupe consists of five people, one of whom operates all the puppets. Three are musicians and one provides the voices for all the characters – traditionally singing the lines rather than just speaking them.


How does the use of puppets affect the mood of the performance?

Common Core State Standards:

Reading Literature Standards: RL.5.7, RL.6.7, RL.7.7