The repeated appropriation of a woman warrior’s tale (DeDisneyfication, Part 2)
Disney’s Mulan (1998) is drawn from a poem of only 42 stanzas sketching the tale of a woman warrior. At first blush, this work might seem better suited to the studio’s treatment than some of the larger works they have attempted to cram into their 90-minute package. They even had women—one of them Chinese—on the writing staff and they seem to have done actual research. Nonetheless, it still turns to ethnic stereotypes and tired gags, yielding a film whose girl power is pretty weak. Reasonably successful in the West, it received a much worse reception in China, where it was seen as “foreign looking” and reflecting little of their legends, although certainly unfair trade practices may have been another factor.
The Disney version of the film first builds a straw man Chinese culture where women are best seen and not heard and then knocks the flimsy construct down. They do so by making a mockery of Mulan—she shows little competence at anything with the possible exception of xiàngqí (象棋), a game sometimes called “Chinese chess”; a skill for which there is also no pay-off. She can’t even hold a sword, and her method of using her dog, Little Brother, to feed the chickens defiles the family shrine—until she receives training in the army.
Even this half-hearted foray into the woman warrior genre came after the waters had been well tested by those who didn’t feel they had to dress their heroines in drag or have them trained by men to do it, like Buffy and Xena. Even so, in the end, Mulan goes back to the life she previously dreaded, turning down the government post offered by the Emperor for her heroism, also (it is suggested) becoming romantically involved with her former captain, Li Shang, and accepting the role of obedient, quiet wife.
Other characters in the film are more disturbing, including the large, mannish matchmaker, who first has a beard and mustache drawn on her, and then is set on fire. And still more so, Chi-Fu, the Emperor’s advisor, is a misogynist bad guy, who is also effeminate—contrasting strongly with Mulan’s “manly men” army pals as a clear gay stereotype. Unlike some of James Hong’s other roles, this is problematic. The portrayal of Asian men as villainous and asexual in Western media has a long and troubled history, employed to make men of “other races” seem less attractive to white women.
Another issue comes in the form of Mushu, portrayed by Eddie Murphy in a performance nearly a dress rehearsal for his Donkey role in Shrek (2001), and which cuts still closer to the bone of cultural insensitivity. Naming this comedic character after a well-known American-Chinese food (moo shu pork, 木须肉) conjures images of the ’60s DC Comics character Egg Foo. This Yellow Peril caricature’s name was drawn from another such dish, egg foo young (芙蓉蛋). The Ah-Chu-God-bless-you gag occurs, egg rolls are called for—one wonders if a racist light bulb joke was pitched at some point.
Turning to the “real” Mulan, there is doubt as to whether she belongs to history or legend, and moreover, whether she was even Chinese. Even her name is not entirely agreed upon: while Mùlán (木蘭, “magnolia”) seems consistent for her given name, Disney gives her family name as Fa—which is the Cantonese version of the more commonly used Huā (花, “flower”)—but Zhū (朱, “cinnabar”) and Wèi (魏, from the Kingdom of the same name) have also been used in various works.
The first known story about her was told in a ballad which is completely lost to us but which was documented by Zhi Jiang (智匠) of the Chen dynasty (陳朝) in approximately 568 CE.¹ The definitive text that is both available and most commonly referenced, The Ballad of Mulan (《木蘭詩》, Mulan shi), was collected in an anthology by Guō Màoqiàn, during the Song dynasty (宋朝) in the 12th century.² Recent scholars have concluded, based on Guō’s inclusion of the work among yuèfǔ (樂府, “Northern poems”), as well as its character, that it most likely was created sometime in the fifth or sixth century.³
The Northern Wei dynasty (北魏) this ballad would therefore be identified with was founded by the Xianbei (鮮卑) tribe, a non-Han (漢) nomadic people. It’s important to note the language spoken by these peoples was likely a Mongolic one, and the name Xianbei is either a transliteration of their own demonym or, more likely, an exonym.
Furthermore, the depiction of a woman warrior runs against the image of the gentle and graceful ladies the literary tradition of Confucianism (儒家) favors, whereas tales of horsewomen with traits similar to Mulan’s—bravery, martial prowess, and military resourcefulness—do appear among the poems of the Northern tradition, such as The Ballad of Li Bo’s Younger Sister and The Black-Tailed Red Horse⁴, both yuèfǔ from the same period as the Ballad of Mulan. Such songs make sense to the state of constant warfare in the region, making these traits admirable in individuals without regard to their gender. As the poem says in closing:
Two hares running side by side close to the ground, How can they tell if I am he or she?
This is the original Mulan, an independent, accomplished horsewoman, skilled with sword and bow, and with a keen mind for military strategy. She is not lacking in confidence in any way, is not in need of any training from anyone, doesn’t whine about hardship, and camps alone on her way to join the fighting. Neither does she fight for the couple of days the Disney film presents, but instead for 10 years, and those not easy ones:
Generals die in a hundred battles […].
One element, Hua’s taking up of her aging father’s sword, was seized upon as an opportunity to change the story into a Confucian fable. Already in Guō’s work, he records a so-called “Second Mulan”, retelling the tale in the eighth century with significant revisions that stress Confucian virtues, in particular, filial piety (孝, xiào). Where in the original, Hua declines a government post after returning from war triumphant, Tang dynasty (唐; 618–690, 705–907) official Wei Yuanfu (韋元甫) omits that part, as giving a woman political power would be inconceivable to his worldview. Finally, the first-person perspective of the original disappears, and an impersonal, moralizing third-person narration takes over instead.
I hadn’t known it when I began this piece, but apparently a live-action version of Mulan is set to be released by Disney two years hence. I’d like to see them treat the cultural issues with more sensitivity, peeling away the layers of appropriation the story has already undergone in China—which made it into a legend of Confucian orthodoxy in support of the empire—as well as steering clear of the ethnic biases Western media have applied to portrayals of Asians. It is also my hope they present a proud, strong horsewoman from the Xianbei nomadic tribes fighting to defend her family and her homeland of the Northern Wei, perhaps with badass female warrior buddies instead of anthropomorphized animals and stupid macho dudes.
There was one additional point I think worth making, which I did not include in my initial post: the choice of the Huns, also known as the Xiongnu (匈奴), as the invaders that had to be fought off, always struck me as odd. The Huns’ activities in Asia were in fact fairly limited, and Mulan’s people, the Xianbei, supplanted them on the steppe, perhaps driving them to their better-known invasions of Europe. Shan Yu, despite being the villain, is strong, clever, skilled at riding, use of the bow and the sword, living off the land, and falconry; all things still associated with these Northern tribes. In short, I’d conclude his portrayal, minus the two-dimensional evil, is actually closer to an authentic Mulan.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- Musical Records of Old and New (《古今樂錄》, Gǔjīn Yuèlù), c. 568 CE.
- Guō Màoqiàn (郭茂倩), in Anthology of Yuefu Poetry (《樂府詩集》, Yuèfǔshī) an anthology of lyrical pieces from the Han dynasty (漢朝) through the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period (五代十國, second century BCE–10th century CE).
- Map by Khiruge, 2015.
- 李白 (Li Bai), 《李波小妹歌》(Li Bo xiaomei ge, The Ballad of Li Bo’s Younger Sister), and 《紫騮馬》 (Ziliu ma, The Black-Tailed Red Horse), 701-762, both collected in 《全唐詩》 (Quan Tangshi, Complete Tang Poems), 1705. Coincidentally, Li Bai was also a friend of Du Fu.