Famous people who may never have existed

Mulan

Disney introduced movie buffs to the legend of Mulan, though she was already a big deal in Chinese literature. The tale of a warrior’s daughter dressing as a man and fighting in her ailing father’s place is a timeless bit of badassery and girl power, and it’s commonly accepted that Mulan was a real person who actually did all these things. But the evidence is scarce to say the least.

The book Chinese Shadow Theatre: History, Popular Religion, and Women Warriors mentions Mulan might’ve been a made-up figure, based in part on Wei Huahu, an actual female warrior from ancient China. It’s unknown, however, if Huahu ever fought in men’s clothing. As for Mulan herself, the earliest known reference to Mushu’s big buddy was in an ancient ballad appropriately titled “The Battle of Mulan.” But the song doesn’t specify when she lived, gives few details of the actual battles she fought, and didn’t give a full name for her outside of “Mulan.” It’s that kind of vagueness that makes you go hmmmm.

Then there’s a text called Lienü zhuan translated as Exemplary Women of Early China, written by Liu Xiang around 18 BC, and packed with over 120 biographies of famous women from ancient China. Mulan, despite supposedly being a major deal, has no biography. Granted, she supposedly lived several hundred years after Xiang first published his book, but there’s a section at the end for “supplemental biographies.” No one has ever added Mulan, even though what she did was quite exemplary indeed.