What's in a Name?

"I've got a name...and it's a boy's name too!" - Mulan

Often Chinese names have meanings, and Mulan provides a great opportunity for Disney to give the characters appropriate names. Working from pinyin doesn't always help, because what looks like the same spelling in English may be completely different words in Chinese. For example, the sound "ma," has five meanings, differentiated by intonations when you speak them and by what the Chinese characters look like.

Here's a discussion of what some of the names may mean. Where possible, the official Chinese names have been included with proper pinyin, Wade-Giles, and/or Yale spellings. Much thanks to Randall M! Gee, Dennis Lee, and others for their help.


In the original poem, the heroine's name is "Mulan," which means magnolia. ("Mu" by itself means "wood" and "Lan" means "orchid.") Mulan is often given a last name, Hua, which means flower. Both the pinyin and Wade-Giles methods spell the name Hua Mu-Lan, while the Cantonese transliteration spells it Fa Mulan or Fa Muhk Laahn. (Last names come first in Chinese.)


Pinyin: Li Xiang
Wade-Giles: Li Hsiang

"Li" appears twice, as Capt. Li Shang's last name and also in Mulan's mother's name. Li is a common Chinese surname--in fact, it is now believed to be the most common surname in China, even more common than Zhang (Chang). "Li" means "plum."

The character for Shang's personal name (Shang) means "to soar."


"Mu shu pork", "mu shu beef", "mu shu chicken", and "mu shu shrimp" are what you call meat cooked with various vegetables and served in rolled-up thin crepes with plum sauce. It's a Mandarin Chinese dish. The characters here (mu shu lung) translate to "Mu shu dragon."


Pinyin: Chan U
Wade-Giles: Ch'an Yu

In classical Chinese, these two characters together are a single word, referring to the chieftain of the Huns. The first character (on the left) is pronounced as Shan only when it is associated with the character Yu. This character also be pronounced as "ch'an" when referring to the Hun leader, and was a common term during the Han dynasty.

As a surname, the first character is pronounced as "shan." (In pinyin or Wade-Giles, it's written as "shan.") Today, the word is usually pronounced as "dan" as a word. (In Wade-Giles, it's written "tan" and in pinyin it's "dan.") Its meanings aren't particularly relevant here.

Confused? So am I. The best analogy I can come up with now is the English word "read." This word can be pronounced two ways (one rhyming with "red" and the other with "reed"), and the different pronunciations have different meanings.


Pinyin: Xishuai
Wade-Giles: Hsi-Shuai
Yale: Syi Shwai

It just means "cricket."


Pinyin: Hua Hu
Wade-Giles: Hua Hu
Yale: Hwa Hu

His family name is, of course, the same as Mulan's. His personal name means "a wooden bow."


Pinyin: A Yao
Wade-Giles: Ah Yao
Yale: A Yau

The "Ah" is just something that goes in front of a name. (From what I understand it's a bit like calling a John "Johnny" or a Bill "Billy.") "Yao" is his surname. It's a real Chinese surname. One of the legendary sage kings had it too. It can also mean high, eminent, or lofty.


Pinyin: Jin Bao
Wade-Giles: Chin Pao
Yale: Jin Bau

"Jin" is his family name. It's a real Chinese family name. It also means "gold," or "metal," or "wealth," or a bunch of other things. "Bao" can mean "treasure" or "precious; valuable" or "respectable; honorable."


Pinyin: Ning
Wade-Giles: Ning
Yale: Ning

It means "peace; repose; serenity; tranquility."


In Chinese, the word "khan" usually refers to a foreign (i.e. non-Chinese) emperor, king, or leader. However, in the English translation of the poem "Mulan," "Khan" is used as another name for the Chinese emperor. Why? The author of the original poem lived in northern China in an area that was influenced by the nomadic cultures--and "khan" was one of the words adopted. Anyway, Disney decided not to call either the leader of the Huns or the Emperor "Khan." That name was given to Mulan's horse.


Officially, the character used is "ping" meaning "peace," which is a good choice, since it counter-balances the war elements of the movie. In the Mandarin version, an unexpected joke emerges from the name "Ping." I'll let a friend who saw the movie in Singapore explain it:

When Shang asked Mulan her name and she said "Hua Ping," the whole cinema broke into laughter, because "Hua Ping" actually means "Flower Vase." It's the same as in the Cantonese version but not as obvious a joke with the latter. It is so funny because in the modern Chinese language, "flower vase" is used to describe a girl who is only there as a decoration and has no substance.

The name Ping was also part of an amusing lawsuit.


In Mandarin, "chi fu" means "to bully," appropriately enough. Also, one person suggested to me that Chi Fu's name sounds like "Chief Fool."

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