Hua Mulan, of perhaps the Sui dynasty (581-618 C. E.), was famous for serving years in the Imperial Army and may or may not have later died in battle. Mulan has been depicted in varied guises over the centuries, virtually ever-present in the Chinese cultural discourse involving the proper roles of women. She is almost always mentioned when someone wishes to defend the role of women in China, and presented as an example for women in difficult times. Possibly the most famous heroine of China, Mulan is the central figure of traditional accounts from ballads, to plays, to a long novel from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 C. E.), to modern children's books.

The various tales have a few constant elements. Mulan's family lives in a time of war. The Imperial Army is carrying out instructions to recruit the men from each household, but Mulan's family has only her aging father. To save him from conscription, she puts on men's clothing and joins the army herself. She gets away with her disguise, although it would have been a capital offense at the time. In her several years in the army, she acquits herself so well and so honorably that she is offered an official position. Later, her former comrades-in-arms come to her home and are shocked at the revelation that she is a young woman. Various versions include further detail, such as her parents begging her not to leave. In some versions her father challenges her to a duel, and to his shock she bests him with and without a sword. Variants describe Mulan's cleverness in battle, death in combat, or even marriage to a high official, none of which appear in the early ballads. However, almost all depictions of Mulan celebrate general attributes such as martial fierceness, tactical intelligence, filial piety, and natural beauty.