Eastern Mythology and the Hero Archetype

Oil painting on silk, "Hua Mulan Goes to ...

Oil painting on silk, “Hua Mulan Goes to War” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the study of humanity and culture, myths help us understand the beliefs and behaviors of a culture through the study of the archetypes and rituals expressed in their literature.  Myths are often ancient legends that began through oral tradition; stories passed from generation to generation through music, dance, and tales of great ancestors and powerful deities (Dong, 2011, Janaro & Altshuler, 2012).  When studying the myths, folklore, fairytales and fables of a civilization it is important to analyze them within the context of their time and culture in order to prevent making inaccurate judgments about a society.  Many civilizations around the world share similar archetypes; however, the meaning behind these themes can be very different (Janaro & Altshuler, 2012).  These differences are most clearly seen in the contrast between Eastern and Western mythologies.

“The Ballad of Mulan” is an ancient Chinese poem that tells the tale of a brave, filial young girl who defies societal norms by dressing like a man in order to join the army to save her aging father’s life.  Mulan’s story begins with news of a war and a call for Mulan’s father to join the fight.  Fearing her father’s certain death, Mulan resolves to take his place in the army.  Disguised as a man, Mulan spends 10 years fighting in the war, ultimately bringing victory and honor to her country and family.  She is escorted home by her troops, where, after 12 years, she finally reveals to her companions that she is in fact a woman.

Mulan offers her stunned comrades just one explanation:

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? (Frankel, 1976).

Mulan has become an important mythological character in many cultures and various lessons have been derived through the legend’s retelling across cultures.  A modern American perspective on the story reflects the ideas of feminism and equality that American woman have worked so hard to achieve.  “Anything you can do, I can do better” is also highlighted in Disney’s 1998 animated movie about the Chinese heroine and the sardonic song I’ll Make a Man out of You (Coats & Bancroft & Cook, 1998).  While these are popular Western interpretations of the female hero archetype, they do not accurately denote the morals and norms of Chinese culture throughout history.

When analyzed in the context of its time and culture, The Ballad of Mulan tells the story of a filial daughter dutifully protecting her father’s life and honor (Dong, 2011).  While both Eastern and Western thought indeed designate Mulan as a mythic hero, the reasons for this entitlement differ greatly between the two philosophies.  Western interpretations believe a hero to be a young adult who has left home to accomplish great deeds; which is indeed what Mulan did.  However, Eastern philosophy regards Mulan as a hero for the sacrifice she made for her father’s life and her devotion to protecting his honor throughout the war by disguising her identity.  Where Western thought views Mulan as a female to be celebrated for crossing gender lines and proving women can be as powerful as their male counterparts, Eastern philosophy diminishes this alteration in gender roles (Janaro & Altshuler, 2012).  In Mulan’s speech to her troops, she notes the differences between male and female rabbits, but points out that in the midst of a skirmish, gender becomes indistinguishable and irrelevant.

Myths and narratives have served as historical records and moral guides for behavior all over the world for thousands of years.  Narratives serve as effective tools in teaching societal morals and norms.  Children learn valuable lessons through the fairytales and fables they hear throughout their young lives.  The lessons taught by these stories pervade the adolescent and adult psyche, guiding morals and behaviors throughout the lifespan (Janaro & Altshuler, 2012).  Narratives also evoke critical thinking and require the reader or listener to interpret the moral lessons and apply them to daily life.  Structured rules about what is “good” and “bad” limit the thought people put into their beliefs and behavior.  This lack of thought diminishes the human capacity for reasoning and logical thought when complicated issues arise in real life and the options are not as black and white as the “good” and “bad” rules that were dictated (Janaro & Altshuler, 2012).

Myths are universal; every culture, past and present, has its own mythology and folklore.  The details of the stories and the lessons they teach are varied, but there are still many commonalities, even between cultures that never had contact with each other (Janaro & Altshuler, 2012).  Mythic archetypes like the hero are shared in every culture and serve to tie the human race together as a whole; in turn, making the myth a mythic archetype in and of itself.


Coats, P.  (Producer) & Bancroft, T. & Cook, B. (Directors).  (1998).  Mulan.  [Motion Picture].  United States: Walt Disney.

Dong, L. (2011). Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu/books/9781592139729

Frankel, H.  (1976).  The Flowering Plum and the Palace Lady: Interpretations of Chinese Poetry.  Yale University Press: Retrieved from http://www.chinapage.com/mulan.html

Janaro, R. and Altshuler, T.. (2012).  The Art of Being Human.  New York, NY: Pearson Education Inc.


One thought on “Eastern Mythology and the Hero Archetype

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