Crystal Liu as Mulan in Disney’s upcoming film.
Culture

The shapeshifting politics of Mulan

Aug 29, 2019

Last month, Disney released the teaser for its live-action adaptation of Mulan and sparked a flurry of discussion around the world.

Fans raved about the action scenes but lamented the apparent absence of Mushu the talking dragon. Critics wondered whether if it was an attempt to win over the lucrative mainland Chinese market, while astute observers noted the anachronistic southern-style tulou houses in the northern plains.

But the latest buzz about Mulan, scheduled for release in 2020, has been political.

After lead actress Crystal Liu posted her apparent support of the Hong Kong police on Weibo, China’s Twitter, amid the city’s biggest protests in decades, there were calls on actual Twitter to boycott the movie.

As the political crisis in Hong Kong deepens over dissatisfaction with the government, celebrities across the Chinese-speaking world have been forced to choose sides.

In going public, Liu has followed in the footsteps of Jackie Chan, Tony Leung Ka-fai, and other actors in voicing support for China’s central government.

But Liu has drawn the most backlash, perhaps a testament to how powerful of a cultural figure Mulan has become around the world.

A shapeshifting tale

The legend of Mulan is one of the most celebrated—and versatile—in China. It has been retold countless times and taken on different forms to suit the politics and culture of the times.

She is often hailed as China’s “Joan of Arc,” but there is no record that Mulan existed outside of legend.

Her lasting legacy comes from what Shiamin Kwa calls “the attention drawn to the importance of role-playing in life.”

“The story takes different emphases, perhaps influenced by the biases of the author or the cultural climate at the time of its production,” the Bryn Mawr professor writes in Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend. “Because of this versatility, the legend of Mulan has endured for hundreds of years.”

In all the interpretations of the legend of Mulan, perhaps what’s most consistent about them is that they’re inconsistent.

Thus in all the interpretations of the legend of Mulan, perhaps what’s most consistent about them is that they’re inconsistent. Each iteration of the story is colored by the environment in which it was created.

The 1998 Disney animated version, for example, was a hit in the United States but drew criticism in mainland China when it opened there a year later.

Viewers found the animated Mulan too American. They said it focused too much on individualism and willfulness, and was disrespectful of Chinese culture—Mushu, in particular, was despised.

Now, more than 20 years later, Disney is taking a second shot at telling the story of Mulan. But this time, more so than last, it’s walking a fine line, with the 1.4 billion-strong Chinese market to capture.

We take a look at some of the major tellings—and retellings—of China’s legendary woman warrior, and how each of them has been shaped by its social climate.

The original ‘Ballad of Mulan’

The earliest documented story of Mulan dates back to the 11th century, but it likely originated and takes place in the Northern Wei period, between 386 and 536 AD. (A line-by-line translation of the original poem—it’s only 60 lines long—is available here.)

Mulan as depicted in a Qing Dynasty painting.
Mulan as depicted in a Qing Dynasty painting. / Photo: National Palace Museum

In the ballad, Mulan is a weaver and has younger siblings. The poem’s story is simple, devoid of the love interests that many retellings include. Mulan learns of her father’s conscription, worries for her family, and almost immediately leaves in his stead. She returns home after a decade of battles, and her fellow soldiers are startled to learn that she is a woman.

Many scholars have argued that contrary to how she’s depicted now, Mulan wasn’t actually Han, the ethnic majority in China.

Her ethnicity and the story’s social context are open to interpretation, setting in motion the legend’s versatility for centuries to come.

Notes on the text—most notably the conscription call coming from the “khan”—point to the setting as non-Han, or that the China then wasn’t the monolithic China we know now.

This is significant because it challenges the legend of Mulan as a singularly “Chinese” story. Her ethnicity and the story’s social context are open to interpretation, setting in motion the legend’s versatility for centuries to come.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior

Mulan travels across the Pacific in 1975 through Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston’s debut The Woman Warrior, a blend of memoir and fiction.

The first-edition cover of “The Woman Warrior” from 1976.
The first-edition cover of “The Woman Warrior” from 1976. / Photo: Knopf

Kingston mentions the story of Mulan several times as a tale that her mother told, but doesn't set out to tell it in its entirety.

Instead, she takes the idea of an ancient Chinese swordswoman and weaves it into her coming-of-age tale of growing up as a Chinese-American girl.

Mulan lends Kingston strength and clarity as she navigates between “American politeness” and “Chinese expectations.” The story was written in a way that was accessible to her American audience, which led to some criticisms of pandering.

Perhaps most significantly, The Woman Warrior is believed to have provided the idea for the 1998 animation, and like Kingston’s narrative, the Disney version spins the tale into something completely new and wholly American.

Disney’s animated Mulan

For a generation of Asian-American women, Disney’s Mulan was the heroine of their childhood.

Disney’s animated Mulan was the childhood hero of a generation of Asian-American women.
Disney’s animated Mulan was the childhood hero of a generation of Asian-American women. / Photo: Disney

Caught between the conflicting motivations of filial piety and self-determination—but flagrant in her rejection of traditional notions of femininity—Mulan was the feminist icon of many young Asian-American girls, at a time when there few who looked like them.

Mulan was the feminist icon of many young Asian-American girls, at a time when there few who looked like them.

The film did cut corners when it came to historical accuracy: the Chinese never fought the Huns; the Forbidden City of Beijing wasn’t built yet (if the story took place in the Northern Wei); and Mulan would have had bound feet (if the setting was the Ming Dynasty).

Instead, the film favors a vision of the tale that isn’t culturally specific; it is merely set in the country where it originated. Chinese viewers detected as much when they derided it as an “American movie decorated with Chinese accessories to make it interesting and exotic.”

Rise of a Warrior: The dark side of war and valor

A Chinese live-action version of the story, called Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, is as far from the Disney animation as it can be.

The 2009 film is a grim battlefield saga set in the Northern Wei, with the Rouran, a historic nomadic group, as the enemy. It is much closer to what an “original” and “Chinese” Mulan might be, putting forth nuanced conceptions of filial piety and duty to country.

The adaptation depicts the realities of war in the ancient world and shows the toll that conflicts take on personal relationships. It is not a family-friendly film, to say the least.

Here, Mulan becomes a woman warrior after enduring immense emotional and physical pain. Still, she ultimately decides to place her people’s well-being above her own happiness, a contrast to Disney’s animated Mulan, who runs off to take her father’s place not only out of love but because she wants to prove her worthiness.

It would be simplistic, though, to conclude that the Chinese film places country above the individual. The story is more nuanced than that.

But it does play to the deeply ingrained notion that one must make great sacrifices when part of a family, indeed when one is part of anything larger than oneself.

The next Mulan?

Aside from Disney’s live-action retelling, another version of the Mulan story, a young-adult novel by Chinese-American author Sherry Thomas, is set to come out later this year.

In her author’s note for The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan, she writes about her assumptions of the story and how they were challenged and upended through her research for the novel.

“What I always took to be a rather monolithic Chinese identity was actually forged of the collision and melding of many cultures and many peoples.”

Sherry Thomas

“What I always took to be a rather monolithic Chinese identity was actually forged of the collision and melding of many cultures and many peoples,” Thomas writes. “That the age-old story of Mulan can actually be a timely exploration of whose voices are heard and whose stories get told.”

Mulan’s versatility as an adaptable cultural icon with a rich history means that the 2020 film will be one to watch.

Unlike most of the works mentioned above, it is not a new remake for already-familiar Chinese audiences, nor is it an introduction for an unfamiliar West. Instead, it’s adapting—and catering—to everybody.

And that’s quite a challenge and responsibility.

FilmDisneyChinese historyChinese-Americans