Shan Yu is one of the most ruthless and merciless villains ever seen in the Disney universe. He is not above killing his enemies in cold blood to prove his strength and he has been shown to make jokes about it: after capturing two imperial scouts and sending them to deliver his challenge to the Emperor, he asks his lead archer how many men it takes to deliver a message. The archer then draws his bow and replies, "One." Ultimately, only one scout delivers the message, implying that the archer killed the other. He is also shown to be merciless even to defenseless individuals, as evidenced by his murderous smirk when he suggests that he "return" the doll to its owner, as well as being implied to have killed the owner of the doll as well as her entire village. His penchant for brutality was such that the Emperor of China immediately took the matter seriously as soon as he learned that Shan Yu was leading the invasion, and one of the captured scouts fearfully recognized him when they were brought before him. Despite his brutality, or probably because of it, he is a respected leader, as his Hun army seems to be kept together out of loyalty to him, rather than out of fear of him. This is exemplified by his Elite Huns, who are able to speak to him on equal terms.
Shan Yu is also supremely confident in both his and his army's strength and superiority, sometimes allowing his enemies the advantage in order to prove his might. Such examples include his attack on the Great Wall, where he allowed a lone sentry to light the signal fire, sending word to the Emperor and giving him time to mobilize the Imperial Army. Later, he allows one of the Chinese spies to return to the Forbidden City, boldly telling the spy to inform the Emperor to send his best troops to face the Huns. In this instance, he even claims that the Emperor "invited" him, viewing the construction of the Great Wall as a challenge to his army's might. He also decides to head straight for the mountain pass that would lead his forces directly to the Forbidden City, knowing full-well that the entire Imperial Vanguard is guarding the pass and completely rejecting the option to simply go around the mountains and avoid the enemy entirely. As he and his men were later revealed to have managed to completely wipe out the entire Vanguard presumably without any significant casualties at his end, this confidence may have been perfectly justified. Even after being buried under an avalanche, he took it in stride (outside of letting out a loud yell) and simply improvised, using his "deceased" status and decreased army to infiltrate the palace.
Shan Yu is also notable for being one of the extreme few characters in the movie who does not underestimate women. As soon as he recognizes that Mulan is "the soldier from the mountains," he forgets about Li Shang, considering him to be insignificant in comparison, and tries to kill Mulan instead.
Shan Yu is gigantic and muscular. He is mustachioed in a thin horseshoe style. He possesses yellow eyes with black sclera, pale gray skin, sharp nose, and a prominent forehead. His fingernails are long and jagged. He also has dark and abundant hair, but he's also half bald. He wears a stocky tunic consisting of black on the right and cream on the left with both an eggplant animal pelt brim and cuffs, an eggplant pelt sash, and a fluffy gray pelt scarf with timberwolf stripes. He only dons a black glove on his left hand, presumably for his falcon. He also sports gray trousers and a pair of black boots with gray linings. On occasion, he wears a black hood with a fluffy gray trimming.
- Expert Combatant: Shan Yu is a hardened fighter and a lethal combatant, armed or not. This is shown where he overpowers Li Shang in a fight, though far from easily.
- Superhuman Strength: He possesses massive, possibly even super-human strength. He can break down a barricaded door with minimal effort, climb and smash through a rooftop with ease, and simply slice three massive pillars to shreds with his sword.
- Superhuman Endurance: Besides his strength, he also possessed a superhuman amount of endurance, having survived being buried in an avalanche for what is implied to have been hours with no apparent ill effects, something that only 5 other Huns managed to survive.
- Expert Tracker & Survivalist: He is a skilled tracker and survivalist, being able to deduce a doll delivered to him by his falcon came from a village in a nearby mountain pass where imperial armies awaited him using only a few subtle clues found on the doll (white horse hair from an imperial stallion, black pine which grows in the mountains, and the smell of sulfur from a cannon).
- Master Strategist: His leadership is matched by his cunning intellect. In addition to having the idea to scale the seemingly-impenetrable Great Wall with grappling hooks, he was able to infiltrate the Imperial palace and kidnap the Emperor of China with only five remaining Huns. However, he is not without equal, as his strategic skills and cunning are rivaled by Mulan's.
- Honed Senses: When he was riding with his army, he was able to detect the presence of nearby Imperial Scouts and stopped immediately, ordering his men to root them out.
The film's opening scene sees Shan Yu scaling the Great Wall of China using grappling hooks and leading the Huns in an invasion of China, setting the tone for the rest of the film. When one of the Chinese guards of the Great Wall revealed that he lit the torches and that the Emperor will soon know of Shan Yu's presence in an attempt to intimidate him, Shan Yu's only response was to burn one of the Imperial flags before giving a satisfied "perfect," revealing that the Emperor receiving the message of Shan Yu and the Huns' invasion was precisely what he had intended to accomplish.
Later on, Shan Yu and his men destroy yet another village and proceed to expose two spies sent by the Emperor. One of them insists the Emperor will stop Shan Yu, only for him to rebuff the scout before telling them to pass a message to the Emperor to send his best men for battle. Before the two are able to leave, he has one of his archers murder one.
While heading to the Imperial city, his falcon brings him a little girl's doll from a village. On the doll are pine dust from the high mountains, white horse hair from the General's army and the smell of sulfur from cannons, clues that the Imperial army is lying in wait for them at the mountain pass. Instead of avoiding the army, he and his men head in that direction, since the quickest way to the Emperor is through the pass. Upon arrival, he and his troops not only crush General Li's army at the mountain pass but also, in an act of fierce barbarity, raze the surrounding village to the ground, leaving no survivors.
Ironically, the army's winning streak is lost when they encounter Li Shang's meager force. Soon after the destruction of the main Chinese army, the group uses cannons to hold their own against Hun archers after Mushu accidentally ignited a cannon, giving away their position to the enemy. Eventually, Shan Yu leads the Hun cavalry down to the army to attack. Though the Huns vastly outnumber Shang's troops, Mulan manages to bury them in an avalanche by aiming a rocket at a nearby mountain. Upon noticing the intention, Shan Yu then slashes her, which eventually causes her identity to be revealed. Shan Yu nearly escapes but, like his men, he is swept away by the avalanche. Despite this, he survives, and upon unearthing himself from the snow pile, Shan Yu learns that his army has been destroyed and lets out a cry of rage. Just then, five other Huns break out from the snow as well, and Shan Yu quickly decides that his five remaining Huns will be enough to capture the Emperor as long as they use stealth.
With the advantage of being believed to be dead and defeated, Shan Yu was able to infiltrate the Emperor's palace and hide on the rooftops where he received his sword from Hayabusa, who quickly snatched it back from Shang. On the ground, his Elite Huns capture the Emperor during the victory ceremony by disguising themselves as dragon dancers.
After ordering his Elite Huns to guard the door, Shan Yu tries, but fails, to convince the Emperor to kneel before him. Just as Shan Yu moves to strike the Emperor down, Shang stops him and Chien-Po carries the Emperor to safety. Just as the Emperor escapes, Shan Yu overpowers Shang and was about to take his anger out on the defenseless captain, only to be distracted by Mulan, who reveals to him that she was the soldier who caused the avalanche. Abandoning Shang in favor of disposing of a more dangerous target, Shan Yu slashed and destroyed structures with reckless abandon as he pursued her until they arrived at the palace rooftop, where Shan Yu believed to have finally cornered Mulan. But to his surprise, Mulan disarmed him using only a fan. Shan Yu then spots Mushu with a rocket aimed at him before he attacks Mulan once more, only for her to knock him over. As Shan Yu recovers, Mulan pins him to the roof with his own sword before Mushu fires the rocket at Shan Yu, propelling him into a tower full of fireworks and killing him in the explosion.
Despite Shan Yu not making a full appearance in the second film (due to the fact that he is obviously dead), Mushu alludes to his demise at least once.
In House of Mouse, Shan Yu makes several minor cameo appearances. His most notable is where he, Jafar, and Hades are seen talking with Mortimer Mouse and making bets. In another episode, Daisy Duck kicks Shan Yu and some other villains out of a table because it was reserved for "someone important".
Shan Yu appears in Kingdom Hearts II as the main antagonist of The Land of Dragons. Instead of Huns, he possesses an army of Heartless at his command. The plot of the world follows the movie faithfully as it could. The main differences are that he hardly spoke and that unlike in the movie, he is killed in battle at the palace gates.
Shan Yu first appears at the beginning of the world with his falcon, Hayabusa. He had burned down a village and was standing in the ruins, smiling about the destruction he had caused.
He next is seen by Mushu walking into a cave outside the village Sora, Mulan, Donald, and Goofy are in. In order to prove herself to Captain Li Shang, Mulan enters the cave followed by the others. However, it is actually a trap. While the heroes are trapped in the cave battling Heartless, Shan Yu attacks the village, burning it, scaring off the villagers and turning some of the solders into Heartless while subtly having some of them work as sleeper agents.
Once the party sees the destruction, they charge to the summit of the mountain to encounter the Hun. Although he charges with a mass army of Heartless, Sora and company destroy most of them and Mulan's quick thinking sends Shan Yu and the rest of the Heartless over the edge of a ridge in an avalanche.
After surviving the avalanche as in the movie, Shan Yu attacks the Imperial Palace and distracts Sora with a group of Captain Shang's soldiers, who are actually Heartless. He is defeated by Sora, Donald, Goofy, and Mulan in a climatic battle. After his defeat, Sora receives the Hidden Dragon Keyblade. His sword serves as the object needed to open the Land of Dragon's "Gate".
In the Manga adaptation of Kingdom Hearts II, Shan Yu was revealed to be working for Organization XIII and tasked with killing the Emperor and conquering the Land of the Dragons. However, when he was defeated by Sora and company, he ended up sniped by Xigbar as punishment for the failure.
During the release of the original film, Shan Yu was featured on a parade float in the Mulan-themed parade in Disneyland. He was shown being blasted on a firework, referencing his demise.
Shan Yu participated in the Martial Arts Festival at Disney's Wide World of Sports on the resort property.
In the former castle show, Cinderella's Surprise Celebration at the Magic Kingdom, the Evil Queen plans on taking control and she sends Shan Yu, Jafar, and Captain Hook to do away with Mickey Mouse & Friends. Mickey calls fourth Mulan, Genie, and Peter Pan to defeat the villains. Shan Yu is trapped in a large birthday box with a firework by Mulan and dies in the explosion. He is the only villain to be killed in the show.
In the current fireworks show, Happily Ever After, Shan Yu was the first villain to appear after the Emperor said his quote about the flower that blooms in adversity from the first film (which he told Shang to encourage him to follow after Mulan), which starts the Adversity scene where the Disney villains invade Cinderella Castle and fight the heroes.
In France, Shan Yu joined the Halloween get-together with other villains in The Disney Villains Halloween Party. At one point in the show, he briefly battles Governor Ratcliffe in a sword duel.
- According to the writers, the reason why they decided to kill Shan-Yu in the manner they did was because they wanted to avoid the typical "fall to the death" that befell most Disney villains.
- Considering the setting and their point of origin, Shan Yu and his Huns could, in fact, be members of the Xiongnu people, Tuco-Mongol tribes who lived in the lands north of the Great Wall and conquered much of the Central Asia steppe in the 3rd-1st centuries BC. It is thought by many that the Huns that invaded Europe around 375 AD are descendants of those Western Xiongnu who were evicted by the Chinese in Turkmenistan.
- This is further supported by Shan-Yu's name, as a "Shanyu" or "Chanyu" was what the Xiongnu leaders were called, much like a Mongol leader would be "Khan."
- Shan Yu's black eyes may be a procedure known as scleral tattooing, in which tattoo ink is injected into the whites of the eye. This procedure is traditionally done in certain cultures and is still sometimes practiced today.
- Unlike most characters in the film, Shan Yu does not underestimate women. He also, unlike Chi-Fu, does not silence and belittle Mulan when they converse with each other before his death. When Mulan reveals that she caused the avalanche and came up with the idea to save the Emperor, Shan Yu instantly acknowledges that she is both responsible and a far greater threat to him than Shang as he abandons him in favor of killing Mulan.
- This is likely because it is believed that the Huns actually had several females within their military, many of the worst war crimes being caused by such women.
- It could also be because he lost many of his men because of Mulan and she ruined his plans to conquer China.
- Shan Yu is the only human character in the first film, apart from Mulan, to be aware of Mushu's existence, even though he did not live to tell about it.
- Shan Yu probably has the biggest kill count of all the other Disney villains.
- He is one of the few Disney villains who does not sing or have his own musical number.