Mulan Armor Analysis 迪士尼 ♢ 木兰盔甲分析

As someone who was a fan of the original 90s Mulan when it first came out, I was quite interested in the new trailer. And frankly, it was a spectacle. For this article I feel I can take some time to gave a brief reflection ○( ^皿^)っ on the trailer and more importantly, analyze the armors that were featured.

One of yours truly's favorite movie posters. She cuts such a striking figure for any audience that's unfamiliar with the source material. The strong jawline of the stallion Khan, and the almost stone- like placid look of Mulan. Really evokes a very serious, grimmer story compared to the typical jovial Disney move posters (even the Beast from Beauty and the Beast was smiling ffs!) Of course my early impression was wrong. The movie ended up being more of a family- friendly comedy wrapped in a strangely ahead- of its time girl power picture. And it was great ヾ(≧▽≦*)o, the music was very atmospheric, and it dealt with inclusion on two fronts with grace and wholesomeness. 

Needless to say it's still one of my favorite Disney flicks, maybe behind the Lion King, but pretty much ahead of every other one from the 90s for me. And despite the anachronisms of Song dynasty armor fighting Huns with gunpowder rockets and fireworks, and in spite of its quirky Americanisms. It...just worked. It was a good bridge between two cultures. Looking back, I really appreciated how it effortlessly gave the world a character worthy of respect. She's stored, treasured deep in our hearts.


Some quick thoughts: The original teaser had some sumptuous bits, including the vibrant Disnesque color palette, the great Tang dynasty film city built by Cheng Kaige. Music wise, the subdued- swelling score was there to just show enough to pique the audience's interests and leave them intrigued. In short, a production on full cylinders shot on locations with Disney's sumptuous presentation and global distribution powers. But I was also worried when I saw the tulou (which were built in southern China between the 15th-20th centuries) being used for Mulan's home. This and the fact that the steppe enemies of Mulan looked like horse riding ninjas.

Music: Mulan (Teaser)

Overall? The new trailer was a huge improvement. Scrolling through the comments I understand that some may have issues with the fact that this piece is not a complete remake, that the distinctively comedic elements and musical elements of the Disney Songs, but I feel that those arguments don't really hold much water. For one, many audiences have complained about the complete predictability of those shot-for-shot remakes.

Aside from a few tonal tweeks here and there we all just knew as we walk into the theater of what to expect. Every, story, beat, and, every, story, beat, after, that. And although I can see 90s kids who are parents now wanting to use it as a vehicle to introduce the good old oldies to their kids. Simply put? The oldies are way better, and are still there. They are timeless classics for a reason. But I feel that this new trailer showed a different possibility.

Namely I was quite surprised at the ton of emotion presented in this trailer. Just like the story of Mulan itself it began with her idyllic life in the countryside and in her family but then, the tone quickly shifts when the imperial soldiers arrive to the village and the father (expertly played by Tzi Ma) -hobbling forward with his crippled leg, then falling before the recruiters. The intimate portrayal of his inability to hold his sword straight and the worried women in the house really hit home the high stake and burdens of soldiery. I feel this was missing from the original Mulan film. NOT the climatic part where Mulan made her decision, nor the part where she cut off her hair and rode out purposely, those were picture perfect, but this trailer made the build up to it even more personal and ominous.

This internalization, of what the family went through was what I had always wanted.  Amazingly, this darker interpretation has given me a keen sense of what I originally had wanted from the original Mulan after seeing its stark poster: a grittier evolution that was more personal and more epic. Most of all, just different and unpredictable enough to be its own thing. The NatGeo looking Simba and Scar, the atrocious fake looking overcast set (that's obviously a set) of Agrabah, I'm looking at you!

May I just say what a giant difference shooting on the actual location makes

As such, I can understand why Disney is phasing some of the profoundly comedic elements of the original from this more dramatic interpretation. And because they are not afraid to tell a completely different version of the story, I think this will be the first live action movie to truly interested me, because it's exploring new grounds rather than just retread everything with a more watered down remake. Not to mention, the moment the score kicked in with Reflections, I'm sold.



Music: (Mulan) Burned Out Village

Before we began with the armors it's important to point out that the movie is not set in the period where the Ballad of Mulan was composed in. The time-frame has been moved from the then Northern Wei dynasty (386–535) to the period of the early Tang dynasty (618–690) Although it was a push forward in several centuries there is some thematic logic in telling this story during the early Tang period. Namely, that both the Northern Wei and the early Tang were locked in a fatal struggle against the steppe nomads from beyond China's northern frontiers. And just like the majority of Northern Wei's history, the early Tang were faced with many repeated invasions from the north by such ferocious peoples. The armor seen in the movie would thus be made to look like early Tang dynasty armors.


Heavy Tang lamellar armor, worn by Mulan. A very common design found through out Central Asia, East Asia, and Tibet. 

Overall, I think the armors shown in the trailer are quite good. But I want to clarify in saying that I mean they are quite good for the period and also comparing to what we usually see in Chinese and western movies that depicts Chinese armors. I also want to clarify that I am only speaking in regards to the armors of the Chinese soldiers, since I am still rather disappointing in the ones fielded by the warriors of the steppes.
A remarkably well preserved Tibetan armor made in the 17-18th century, the core design was still based on the armors of the early Tibetan Empire from a millennia ago that was contemporaneous to the Tang. This type of helmet is constructed of iron plates joined by leather laces. The conical bowl of the helmet bowl consists of four triangular iron segments joined by ribbed external strips with cusped edges, the whole helm was laced together with thongs. In addition, there is a plume finial at the top of the helmet, where a colored horse tail plume could be fastened. The arrangement of the lamellar on the cuirass would protect the wearer's torso, waist, and shoulders from blows from many directions.

This practical design was very commonly fielded in East Asia and Central Asia along with Tibet. The adequate extended shoulder protection combined with the exposed arms allowed for a great degree of flexibility and freedom of movement, and as such was used by cavalrymen for many centuries. As evidenced by the that that even a millennium later it was still made and used in 18th century Tibet.


Reconstructed Tang cavalry armor that bore a similar design silhouette, with lamellar
that protected the neck and the back of the head as well as extended shoulder guards that
extends out and protected the arm of the warrior. The helmet is domed and features a ribbed
design, atop of which is planted a door knob shaped balled finial where the plume 
was fastened. Such helmets were uncovered in northern China along the Tang and Khitan
boarders near Bohai. 


This is perhaps the most striking figure in the entire "Mulan" trailer. And I found myself rather astonished to see it brought to life in a major film production. For one thing, both Chinese and foreign productions simply did not depicts this sort of armor at all. The recruitment officer is dressed in a Sui Dynasty- and early Tang official's armor, though the tradition for these armors dates way back to the 4th century before the founding of the Northern dynasties.The simple breast plated design fitted over an official's robe enjoyed a remarkable long period of longevity in northern China.

 On a technical level, this armor is perhaps the most period accurate armor in respect to how a mid level bureaucrat should look in the early Tang. He wears a breastplate over his official's robes and also carried an official's hat that featured a swooping swallow.

For four centuries, from the period of the Jin and Northern Wei, all the way to the middle of the 7th century, many paintings, murals, and statues depicts northern guards and northern officials dressed in such armors. In fact, although the 2020 "Mulan" takes place some 2-3 centuries after the traditional version set in Northern Wei, during her time, much of the officers and guards would be encased in such armors.

Sui Dynasty two handed swords carried by guards/ military governors. The tradition of carrying these huge two handed steel blades did not end until the early Tang dynasty. Note the chestplate they wore over their robes.

These official's, and courtier's armors came to represent the turbulent and war- like nature of the northern Chinese kingdoms (which gave birth to the Tang dynasty.) Because of the frequency of the conflict in the north and the fact that the northern Chinese kingdoms were often led by a warrior aristocracy, even the scholars, judges and bureaucrats were often dressed as if they were on campaigns. For a closer look at how an official's armor looked, let's refer to a sculpture of an early Tang official, dated to 1st Year of Linde era, Tang dynasty, 664 AD

An early Tang official. For four centuries stretching from the Jin dynasties all the way to the early Tang dynasty, one would frequently unearth figures of civil officials wearing chest plates over their courtly robes. They also carried large two handed steel swords even when they attended courtly affairs. Many guards were similarly dressed, albeit with less elaborate robes.

Two palace guards or court magistrates each garbed in a chestplate armor and each wielding a large two handed blade. Their style of dress reflected the militaristic nature of their eras. The chaotic times of the four centuries of war and political fragmentation have necessitated that even mundane officials be equipped as if they were ready for battle.

Another statue of a magistrate wearing a breastplate over robe. 

Bird- like features. One of the most common type of officials unearthed by the archaeologists featured a swooping sparrow.

Sancai figurine of an official wearing breastplate and swooping sparrow hat.

Over all, it seemed that the production crew paid special attention not only to the silhouette of the figure, but also to the construction of the armor (which featured Tang floral motifs) and even the distinctive pink-  color scheme of this very figurine. 

Although this type of official's armor enjoyed an especially long period of continuity, it's reason- for- existence has always been pegged to the chaos in China. For when the Sui- and later the Tang re-united the fragmented empire into one, with the coming of peace, died the need for officials to be constantly armored in such a way. Eventually these armor were phased out, to be used by frontier officers and gate guards, and later in the dynasty was replaced by other armors.


Another piece of armor that really stood out from the trailer was the armor worn by the Emperor, played by Jet Li. Again it was another one of the cases where I have to pause several times to appreciate the way in which it was constructed. Although I am not sold on the way the pauldron is constructed, they really got above 80% right with this armor. The silhouette, the construction, the layering, even the subdued (but nonetheless gaudy) color scheme and lacing of ornate silk designs) were all very well done. I like that they even took their time in making sure that the straps were very ornate. If you have ever seen a statue in a Chines Buddhist temples- or even in one of the early Japanese Zen temples in Nara and Kyoto, you will notice that many of the grimacing celestial guardians or Lokapala were dressed in this type of armor. 

Elaborate Tang armor: many imperial officers and royal guards wore such elaborate armors, the helmets featured rolled- up extended folds that further protects the helmet. 

Because of the proliferation of such an iconic design in East Asia, such armors were often seen as emblematic of Tang China's armor and (in many mediums) served as a visual shorthand to dress Chinese characters in these armors to show their national origins. This type of armor was fielded from the Sui, the early Tang, and also the high Tang periods. They were worn by many imperial officers, royal guards, and were commonly worn by the elites within the military. Because of their ornate appearance, warriors who wore such armors were commonly depicted across East Asia and murals in western China. 

Several types of helmets from this period all had extended helmet flaps that either swept up or extended out and rolled down. They served as additional armored skirts that further protected the wearer's head from impact. This tradition in Chinese armor design would eventually be phased out after the early Song dynasty, however, the traditional would continue in Japan and became a fixture in the helmet design of early samurais.

 Lokapala (Celestial Guardian) from Yulin Cave 5 in Gansu China. Most of the Tang helmets 
for the high ranking military officers have extended cheek pieces that were phased out in succeeding Chinese dynasties, however, they would become a common fixture for the samurai helmets in Japan.

Another Celestial Guardian from Yulin Cave 25 Maitreya Sutra in China, displaying a guardian with a helmet with prominent winged cheek pieces- for the samurais of the succeeding centuries, namely during the Hein era- they would term such pieces Fukigaeshi.


It was interesting to see Donnie Yen sport the iconic mountain scale armor, or 山文铠 (lit)  "mountain pattern armor," in this movie. For the role he plays in this movie, the bronze gilded armor certainly greatly lends to his stature. The mountain pattern armor is perhaps the most iconic of Chinese armors and it's nice seeing that the production crew have taken great effort to make a decent movie costume for this production. Compared to many very plastic looking ones produced in recent mainland TV productions, which simply featured very plastic- looking boards that had the imprints of the Y shaped "山" upon them, pr Power Ranger looking armors made in "The Great Wall," this is a step up from that. The way they shaded this piece- especially the effort they gave to make it look more worn out with use and dull showed that it's already better than most productions out there. 


Again, I reserve some of my gripe on the way the shoulder pauldron was constructed. Not the animal- head motif design mind you, but the strange fitting of the overlapping leather rims around it. This could also been seen on the rims of the armor's pelvis fauld as well- which made it look like something from an early 2010s fantasy RPG game, where if you have "barbarian" characters their armors would have many such pointless bands of leather wraps that are stapled on to each other but don't serve any function. These elements really stood out from an otherwise decent armor. Decent in the sense that it's a step up from what was force fed to the audiences, it got more than 70% of the design right, and when worn- it conforms around the actor in a logical manner like the armor that it tries to imitate. 

Now I could be nitpicky and pick apart the way the scales are essentially just a flat sheet of imprinted design or that the combination of the glossy leather and dull gilded "metal" still made it look like plastic, but knowing that in typical major productions that the art directors and directors simply don't even pay much attention to the history of the armors at all (Daniel Lee, Tsui Hark, I respect you, but I am looking at both of you and many others like you) the fact that this movie showed a largely period accurate armor that got most of it right is frankly something that you don't even see the majority of the media out there in the last 2 decades. For more information about the mountain pattern armor used in the Tang dynasty, well see an example of a close up of the armor from a statue that was made immediately following the Tang dynasty. 


Song dynasty temple statue, featuring a warrior/ guardian encased in a mountain patterned armor. This type of armor first began to appear in the middle- late period of the Tang dynasty, and by the latter part of the dynasty was frequently depicted on paintings and statues of warriors and guardians. Because no intact pieces of mountain pattern armor have been recovered, there are many theories as to how these armor were constructed. The prevailing theory proposed that many "山" shaped "scales" are interlaced into each other to form a whole mesh, then the sheet of webbed mesh is made into a piece of plate with leather rims, which could act as either pauldron, fauld, or chest plate. 

Though this is heavily deputed among Chinese historians and armor enthusiasts. With many pointing out that the "山" shapes actually create many shallow dips which actually attracts arrows and allows them to be wedged btw the scales, worse, it might guide thrusting spears into those dips, or that the combined interlinked scale- plates is actually extremely rigid thus unable to allow for flexibility and free movement (let alone- not look like the fitting and bulging scale plates show in many statues.) There are even those who suggests that what was deemed "mountain pattern" are simply stylized artistic depiction of chain-mails by Chinese artists. Although on this front, I strongly disagree, since in many of the paintings done by Persian artists after the Mongol conquest they have no problem depicting horsemen in distinctive mountain pattern armor as well as distinctive chainmail armor often on the SAME paintings. 

What is not in dispute, however,  is that like many Chinese armors, the weight of it was hung not only from the shoulders but much of it was alleviated by a tight belt corset that reduced the burden from the wearer's shoulders. After 7 decades of civil war following the Tang dynasty, the Song would have many paintings that featured the mountain pattern armor along with lamellar armor. It would be a very influential design, and was continued for centuries across several dynasties, from the Tang to the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period, the Song dynasty, the Yuan dynasty, and the early Ming dynasty. It was also frequently used by other East Asian states such as Korea, and Vietnam. 

Music: Mulan (Trailer Music)


For the final segment, I just want to point out a shot that really interested me. I am sure for those who are perhaps unfamiliar with Chinese history this shot might look like something that came straight out of an orientalist fantasy movie or an alternate history movie. But no, this extremely wide gate, and also the ridiculously wide avenue behind it actually has a lot of historical basis. The gate depicted in the trailer is the gate of the Tang imperial capital at Chang An. The metropolis was initially constructed by the Sui dynasty but was expanded under the Tang. In time it became the most populous city in the world and one of the largest in terms of its sheer size. 


The metropolis was especially know for its wide avenues, 6 of the main ones were so wide that they were each as wide as modern sports stadiums. To illustrate this point, Chang An during the Tang dynasty was so large that after the city fell in the 10th century, the city of Xi' an, which sprout up from the nearby ruins would not eclipse the size of Chang An until the late 20th century- a full millennium later.

Although the city had many different streets and roads passing between the wards, city blocks, and buildings, there were distinct major roads (lined up with the nine gates of the western, southern, and eastern walls of the city) that were much wider avenues than the others. There were six of these major roads that divided the city into nine distinct gridded sectors. For more details about Tang dynasty Chang An, please refer to the long coverage of Tang Chang An here, and here. Thank you. 

Wide shot of Chang An's main avenue and the gate house surrounding it. Streets and roads of these widths allowed for efficient fire breaks in the city of Chang An. For example, in 843, a large fire consumed 4,000 homes, warehouses, and other buildings in the East Market, yet the rest of the city was at a safe distance from the blaze (which was largely quarantined in East Central Chang An). Above: Note the size of pedestrians marked with a red circle. 


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Moo shu pork (also spelled mù xū ròu, moo shi pork, mu shu or mu xu pork) is a dish of northern Chinese origin, possibly originating from Shandong. It is believed to have first appeared on the menus of Chinese restaurants in the United States in the late 1960s, and has since then become a staple of American Chinese cuisine.

In its traditional Chinese version, moo shu pork (木须肉 / mùxūròu) consists of sliced pork tenderloin, cucumber, and scrambled eggs, stir fried in sesame or peanut oil together with bite-sized cuttings of wood ear mushrooms (black fungus) and enokitake mushrooms. The dish is seasoned with minced ginger and garlic, scallions, soy sauce, and rice cooking wine (usually huangjiu). Dragon not included. 


Der said…
I'm surprised people would doubt the existence of 'mountain scale' armor, calling it idealized chain mail. And no examples of actual mountain scale has been found? That is strange isn't it? Being such an iconic example of Chinese armor, only going out of fashion with firearms during the Ming dynasty.
Dragon's Armory said…
I sort of hope that either Korea or Japan might uncover an in tact example. After all it is quite proliferated in East Asia so...I guess its a matter of time before we find something that will be the missing piece of the puzzle.

As to people who just call them stylized chainmail. and I actually do run into circles that wholeheartedly believe this. I don't even know how to arrange brain melting arguments like that. There are many many sculptures with detailed relifs and carved depth that showed those armor where not chainmail. Compared to lamellar armors- chainmail actually were much more labor intensive in construction and manufacturing, and the few chainmail that were recovered were high status symbols.
Dragon's Armory said…
For the most part the Chinese simply regarded the chainmail with at most curiosity or a mild fascination. They were reported from time to time but the Chinese were one of the few Eurasian polities to just largely ignore them for the majority of its history. By the Ming they did for a time came to prominence and was wore by guards and officers.

The Qing also had chainmail shirts later- and you'll see a lot of Qing soldiery wearing the chain shirts on campain in Xinjiang or other part at the boarder of Central Asia. However compared to Central Asia or the Middle Eastern states China didn't field as many of them.
Der said…
I wonder why the Chinese (and Japanese) ignored china mail? It's so prevalent in Europe, the Middle East and India. Is it because mountain scale armor is basically china mail on steroids anyway so why bother?

Dragon's Armory said…
Lamellar's cheaper and thus able to be fielded more widely. They are also much easier to be repaired. I suspect it is because of they preferred to stick with what they were used to and have always been using. In order to adopt something on such a massive level before you bit the bullet you have to view it as a game changer and much more superior than the local variety. I can see that the Ming probably did see that they were useful, but could only procure them in limited amounts. However I don't think they were seen as a game changer to field them on a massive scale.
Everae said…
Hey Jack, I was wondering if I could get your permission to link your blog I am making for a video regarding the Mulan movie and my own analysis of the armour?
Dragon's Armory said…
Sure, although can you tell me what the video is about?
Thanks for letting me know.
Rayray said…
There is a Japanese copy of the Mountain-scale armor found. Not sure if it's for ceremonial purpose or an actual practical one. Hoping someone can provide a "autopsy" to see how it was made.

Tried Google Translate and it's a mess to decipher. I think it's on auction and its made of leather/copper??
Dragon's Armory said…
I've see that piece being posted several times by friends and associates but can't really tell because of the fact I can't really see the details of the armor. If its the reverse side of an armor it sure looks interesting.

At first I thought it was a piece of Kikko 亀甲 armor, but now it does not look like it. It sure looks as if its closely packed together and the pieces stickes into each other to form a matrix. I can't ascertain its quality. Might need a higher resolution of it. Haha.
henrique said…
After watching the latest trailer, the movie looks like a generic wuxia fantasy and we all know the gold mine chinese market is at the hands of Hollywood producers. I don't think they would miss the chance to profit from their only environmentally Chinese film at a time when films adapted for the Chinese market are profitably smarter
Dragon's Armory said…
I see your point but I am still somewhat forgiving. Mainly because mild generic cringe is still better than much (Much) of the schlok low quality movies/ series produced in China's early 2000s and most of the early 2010s. The story, the Tulous, as well as Liu Yu Fei's very robotic delivery worries me. But honestly, I didn't expect it to be nothing more than a Disney Live Action like the other ones.

I mean if you think about it, the live action Aladdin, Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast all looked terrible in my opinion, in this context, the production value is a tier better. They are using live sets and the more historically authentic designs (compared to Aladdin etc) is not bad. The worst that could happen is that this will be another generic forgettable piece, with forced acting and political drama, but even in that case, the old Mulan is still out there. And this piece- like all other live action remakes will just be something we might look back with cringe like the endless Disney Sequels from the DVD era in the 2000s. Tbh because they dare to do something original with the script, that's the only reason I am willing to go see a Disney remake, because then I get something out of it that I don't from the animations. I just hope they have a sober and mature take on the "Northern Invaders" where they are not just cardboard villains.
Jason Oakley said…
Great post! Very informative, thank you.

What do you know about the colours worn at armor at the time? I know of someone (who is Chinese) who insisted that red wouldn't be worn at the time, but I can't find any other source for that. (I have Chinese family, friends, and even teach international students from China, but basically everyone said they hadn't heard of that but they're not armor experts)

Google-searching led me here. xD

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