Enlarge /. Skeletal remains from a husband / wife funeral (woman is on the left). Airagiin Gozgor site, Orkhon province, Mongolia.
The story of Mulan, a young woman disguised as a man to fight for China's emperor, has become one of the most famous and popular stories in the world, not least thanks to Disney. The 1998 animated film, Mulan, grossed $ 304 million worldwide and received Golden Globe and Oscar nominations. The upcoming live action version – delayed due to the pandemic – appears to outperform this performance when it is finally released. (It is currently scheduled for July 24, 2020.)
It has long been believed that Mulan was based on actual female warriors of the Xianbei, an ancient nomadic people from what is now Mongolia and northeast China. Now anthropologists believe that they have found physical evidence of such warriors in skeletal remains found in this region.
The Chinese legend of Mulan first appears in several old texts and eventually becomes a folk song, "The Ballad of Hua Mulan", which is transcribed sometime in the sixth century. It tells the story of a young woman in the northern Wei era between AD 386 and 536, although some details were added later, around AD 620, during the Tang Dynasty. She takes her father's place when every family has to provide a man to serve in the Emperor's army. Hua Mulan has served for 12 years without one of her fellow soldiers ever suspecting her true gender. Later versions of the legend appeared in the late Ming dynasty, followed by a play by Xu Wei from 1593 and Sui Tang Romance, a tragic novel by Chu Renhuo from the 17th century. In it, Mulan has a younger sister and is connected to a warrior named Xianniang.
Christine Lee is an anthropologist at California State University in Los Angeles and specializes in the East Asia region. She had organized a full symposium at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists' recently canceled (thanks, Coronavirus!) Conference, entitled "The Hidden Lives of Women", which examined archaeological evidence from skeletal remains to get a more accurate picture of historical roles to be obtained from women. "Historically, archeology has been a very male-dominated area," Lee told Ars, leading to a potentially biased traditional interpretation (wives and mothers) of women's lives.
<img alt = "Disney’s upcoming Mulan The live action feature is based on the famous Chinese legend. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/mulan13-640×427.jpg "width =" 640 "height =" 427 "srcset =" https: //cdn.arstechnica .net / wp-content / uploads / 2019/12 / mulan13.jpg 2x”/>Enlarge /. Disney's upcoming Mulan live action feature is based on the famous Chinese legend.
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Lee's own contribution to the symposium focused on female warriors, especially nomadic women who lived north of the Great Wall thousands of years ago. The Xiongnu lived in the region 2200 years ago, only to be driven out by the Xianbei about 1850 years ago. The Xianbei, in turn, were driven out by Turkish population groups about 1470 years ago.
Lee is familiar with the old poems, songs, and legends that celebrate the exploits of rumored warriors, including The Ballad of Mulan. Even written records from the later Khitan period (around 900 AD) and the subsequent medieval Mongolian period mention queens who had their own armies. "I thought, if there are all these stories, why has nobody ever found these women?" She said. "It's only because nobody was looking. I thought it was time to look."
Lee has gathered a lot of data from China and Mongolia during her years of field work. Together with colleague Yahaira Gonzalez, she re-examined skeletons from 29 ancient Mongolian burial sites for signs of arthritis, trauma and certain musculoskeletal markers. Per new scientist:
Three of the skeletons belonged to Xianbei women – and two were potential warriors. Lee and Gonzalez came to this conclusion, in part because of the type of marks on the bones that were once muscles. The markings are larger when the muscle is under heavy use, and the marking pattern on the skeletons of both women indicates that they 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, only 29 burials, and there are two women who fit the bill," she said. "That's actually a lot. I wasn't expecting to find any." This expanded role for certain women could be related to the political instability of the period, which was characterized by violence erupting for several hundred years after the collapse of the Han Dynasty in China in 220 AD. In contrast, the skeletons of three Turkish women showed no evidence of archery and minimal signs of riding.
Lee found no evidence of trauma, but this could be because the remains were likely to belong to elite-class members based on their presence in the burial mounds, which are more like graves, about 20 to 30 feet deep with different rooms. "The elite may not have been allowed to engage in close combat at this point," Lee said, as other skeletons from China and Mongolia show signs of being in combat.