- “Now you'll bow to me.”
- ―Shan Yu[src]
Shan Yu is one of the most ruthless and merciless villains ever seen in the Disney universe. He proves that it is not below him to kill his enemies in cold blood to prove his strength. He even makes 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 very efficient leader, as his Hun army seems to be kept together out of loyalty to him, rather than fear. His Elite Huns respect and admire him, speaking to him casually on the terms of a trusted comrade rather than a feared leader.
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, smugly 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. He also decides to head straight for the mountain pass that would lead him straight 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 army. As he and his men was later revealed to have managed to completely wipe out the Imperial 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 used 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 black eyes with yellow sclera, pale gray skin, sharp nose, and a prominent forehead. His fingernails are long and jagged. He also has dark and abundant hair, but 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 Combat: 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 possess massive, perhaps even super-human strength (perhaps second only to Chien Po). He can break down a barricaded door with no effort 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 for 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 by 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 sulphur from a cannon).
- Master Strategist: His leadership is matched by his cunning intellect. Able to kidnap the Emperor of China with only five remaining Huns. His strategic nature is rivaled with Mulan.
- Honed Senses: When he was riding with his army, he was able to detect the presence of nearby Imperial Scouts and stopped immediately and ordered his men to find them.
The film's opening scene sees Shan Yu scaling the Great Wall of China 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 insist the Emperor will stop Shan Yu, only to be rebuffed. He orders them to pass a message to the Emperor telling to send his best men for battle. Before the two are able to leave, he has his guard murder one via bow and arrow.
While heading to the Imperial city, his falcon recovers a little girl's doll from a village. On the doll is pine dust from the high mountains, white horse hair from the General's army, and the smell of sulfur from cannons. Instead of avoiding the army, he and his men plan to go that direction since the quickest way to the Emperor is through the pass. His armies crush the Emperor's soldiers with ease until they get to a mountain pass where they are cut off by Captain Li Shang's troops. In an act of fierce barbarity, he and his troops also take the opportunity to raze the village from which the girl's doll came, after Shan Yu mockingly suggests they return it to the child, killing the girl and apparently leaving no survivors.
Soon after, the armies battle by constantly shooting cannons after Mushu accidentally fired a cannon causing Li Shang's troops' position given away to him and his army. Eventually, Shan Yu leads the Huns 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. Shan Yu then slashes her, which eventually causes her identity to be revealed. Shan Yu nearly escapes but, like his men, he is taken away by the snow. Despite this, he survives, alongside five other Huns. Upon unearthing himself from the snow pile, Shan Yu learns that his army has been destroyed and lets out a loud war cry, thus exposing his survival to Mulan (who was left behind by the rest of the army at Shang's orders after refusing to strike her dead). Just then, five other Huns break out from the snow as well, and Shan Yu quickly decides that his five Generals will be enough to capture the Emperor as long as they use stealth. Mulan chooses to follow them to China.
Believed to be dead and defeated, Shan Yu and a group of surviving Huns are able to infiltrate the Emperor's palace and capture him during the victory ceremony through a dragon float. Shan Yu is also able to retrieve his sword, taken earlier from him by Shang after his supposed death, thanks to his falcon.
Mulan, Shang, Yao, Ling and Chien Po scale the palace wall and quickly overcome the Hun guards. Meanwhile, Shan Yu tries, but fails, to coarse the Emperor into kneeling before him. Just as Shan Yu moves to strike the Emperor down, Shang attacks him and Chien-Po carries the Emperor to safety. Just as the Emperor escapes, Shan Yu overpowers Shang and soon recognizes Mulan as the soldier who caused the avalanche. Mulan lures him to the palace rooftop, where he attempts to kill her with his own sword, slashing at her and cutting down structures with reckless abandon. Finally, after retaking his sword with the help of a fan, Mulan knocks him over and ties his shirt to the roof with his own sword. Then, Mushu aims a New Year's firecracker at Shan Yu, which propels him into a tower full of New Year's Day fireworks, and Shan Yu is killed 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.
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 subtling 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 and 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 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 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".
- 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."
- 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 an obstacle, and tries to kill her.
- 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.