Asia Life | Society | East Asia

Who Is the Real Mulan?

The current film has sparked a fierce fight over Mulan’s soul: what she should represent, both as a symbol for women and for Chinese-ness.

Jessie Lau
Who Is the Real Mulan?

Actress Yifei Liu poses for photographers upon arrival at the European Premiere of ‘Mulan’ at a central London cinema, Thursday, Mar. 12, 2020.

Credit: Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

When Mulan is told by her family to enter into an arranged marriage, her face falls. But she accepts the decision, solemnly pledging: “I will bring honor to us all.”

This is one of the opening scenes in Disney’s new “Mulan” – a live-action remake of its popular 1998 animated film – released on September 4. Since it was first announced, the film has provoked intense discussions over the definitive representation of Mulan; a debate that covers everything from feminism, cultural authenticity, and ethnic representation to global politics.

Much of the initial uproar was centered around the remake’s stern portrayal of the iconic heroine. In one scene, she sits quietly at a loom, the picture of domesticity. In another, she’s a stone-faced warrior, fighting off invaders with robotic precision. Fans of the animation say she’s a far cry from the vibrant, humorous teenager they remember: The one who struggles to complete her morning chores, writes cheat notes on her arm before her meeting with the matchmaker, and flails around during training.

Some have accused Hollywood of bowing to China’s nationalistic agenda, arguing that by replacing the awkward girl from the animation who rebels against her family’s expectations with a servile, serious Mulan, industry heads were remaking her into a symbol of Chinese state-sponsored patriotism. The critique was exacerbated when leading actress Liu Yifei voiced support for Hong Kong’s police force during crackdowns on pro-democracy protests – a move that strengthened perceptions of the new Mulan as a state-sponsored puppet. Recently, after 23-year-old Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow was arrested under the city’s controversial new security law, supporters began calling her “the real Mulan.” Others took issue with the trailer’s focus on arranged marriage, arguing that the portrayal was “not the feminist Mulan Chinese girls recognize.”

Which is the real Mulan: the stoic, dutiful daughter or the rebellious and unmarriageable teen? If she’s hard to pin down, that’s because she’s always been elusive — a symbol to be made and remade when useful, sometimes in the name of feminism, other times in the name of nationalism. The current tug-of-war is a fierce fight over Mulan’s soul: what she should represent, both as a symbol for women and for Chinese-ness. But it’s hardly the first such battle.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Since her appearance in a poem some 1,500 years ago, Mulan has been co-opted by countless creators as a vector for spreading ideologies on Chinese womanhood. Composed in the fifth or sixth century CE — in the Northern Wei Dynasty, when ancient China was ruled by non-Han Chinese ethnic groups and divided between the north and south – “The Ballad of Mulan” tells the story of a woman who disguises herself as a man to take the place of her father when he’s drafted into the army.

In the original ballad, and subsequent pre-20th century versions of the story, Mulan was mainly an ode to filial piety and domesticity. In the ballad, Mulan takes the place of her father and brother – who is too young to serve – as a soldier in the Khan’s army. After her service, Mulan is awarded an official position, which she rejects so she can return home. The poem barely references Mulan’s time as a cross-dressing soldier, nor does it mention nationalism or a desire to defend the state as motivation for Mulan’s decision to serve in her father’s place.

Unlike more contemporary retellings, earlier versions of Mulan lack nationalistic sentiment. Rather, scholars have argued they prioritize a women’s role in the family over the state – using the plight of Mulan to criticize the state’s high expectations for common people. “Hua Mulan’s sacrifice and personal risk protects the family against the unreasonable state,” says Louise Edwards in a 2010 paper. “The weighting of content in the ballad celebrates ideals of devotion to one’s family and sacrifice to one’s father and simultaneously presents a muted critique of the central authorities’ unreasonable exertion of brute power – the family had to provide one warrior regardless of its composition or the welfare of its members.”

Such sentiments were carried over into portrayals in the Ming and Qing Dynasty eras, beginning with a popular adaptation by playwright Xu Wei titled “Ci Mulan” in 1593. It’s in this version that the idea of Mulan’s father being too ill or frail to fight is first introduced – a choice that amplifies her filial piety, according to Edwards. Unable to turn down the state’s request, her father prepares to hang himself, prompting Mulan to take his place and save his life. When her service concludes, she is rewarded with a marriage to a prestigious scholar, which she happily accepts.

In subsequent years, writers took this anti-state discourse even further. In Chu Renhuo’s 1675 historical novel “Sui Tang yanyi,” Mulan chooses to commit suicide when ordered to serve as an imperial concubine – concretizing her as a martyr and resistor to the empire. Other retellings in the Qing period also utilize the trope of Mulan choosing to kill herself in order to protect her chastity, which was an ideal virtue of Chinese womanhood at the time.

It’s not until the 2oth century that Mulan became imbued with patriotism, ethnic divides, and feminist ideals. In 1839, a series of military battles against Britain turned into the First Opium War, which forced China to grant Western powers unfair trading privileges and also concede control of Hong Kong. The defeat ushered China into an era now known as the “century of humiliation”: a period that included Japanese invasions and World War II before ending with the founding of the People’s Republic of China by the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.

Mulan was reimagined as a Han-Chinese loyalist fighting against barbarian invaders – and later a feminist symbol touting values of gender equality espoused by the Communist Party. She became a favored protagonist in wartime dramas, which depicted her as a brave warrior who is often superior to men, with fierce martial arts skills and sharp intellect.

One of the most famous adaptations of Mulan during this era is the 1939 film “Mulan Joins the Army,” which popularized today’s typical expression of Mulan as a heroine unproblematically serving both family and country. The evening before Mulan departs, she dons her father’s military uniform and prays to her ancestors, before thanking her father over dinner for teaching her the value of defending her nation – a scene that Edwards says uses traditional rites to absorb filial piety into state servitude.

After 1949, this portrayal of Mulan as a figure for nationalism and modern womanhood continued to dominate. For instance, in a 1956 Henan opera created for the People’s Republic of China, Mulan appeared as an advocate of anti-American imperialism and a socialist ideological model of “women hold up half the sky,” Jing Li explains in a 2018 paper. In Mao’s China, a modern Chinese woman was one who contributed to nation-building and socialist struggle as much as a man. As such, efforts to promote gender equality centered on economic liberalization for women, rather than any genuine dismantling of patriarchal values.

When Disney came out with its 1998 animation, it created a version of the heroine that was, in many ways, an outlier. While this spirited, clumsy Mulan who grows into a strong, unexpected savior of her people has immense transnational appeal, it’s a marked deviation from her more nationalistic modern Chinese counterparts. In China, Disney’s Americanized portrayal was met with a backlash. In 2009, the need to “reclaim” the heroine’s Chinese-ness was manifested in a live-action movie titled “Hua Mulan,” which emphasizes Mulan as a warrior representing patriotic nationalism and Confucian values, according to Li.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

“Hua Mulan’s gender crisis never plays such a strong note as in Disney’s Mulan… In her military life, Hua Mulan never faces embarrassment by lack of physical strength or martial skills as a woman; nor does she show anxiety trying to earn her fellow soldiers’ respect,” Li writes. “Rather than defying social/family expectations, Hua Mulan also represents the ideal Confucian principles for both women and men.”

Disney’s live-action remake is simply the latest battleground for Mulan’s soul. Yet the adaptation is significant, for it comes at a time when feminism is becoming more mainstream – but also facing intensifying pressure.

China’s recent feminist awakening began in 2015, on the eve of International Women’s Day, when the Chinese government detained five feminist activists for planning to hand out stickers to raise awareness on sexual harassment in public transport. Following a wave of global outrage, the women, later dubbed the “Feminist Five,” were released. But their detention ignited a nascent feminist movement – one now sustained by a networked community of thousands who take up issues such as domestic violence and discrimination that resonate with millions across China.

In recent years, challenges to Communist Party rule in China have resulted in policy objectives that hinder feminist activism. One is demographical: as the nation struggles with an aging population and shrinking work force, the government is now eager to encourage women to have more babies, and prioritize making a home over a career. The move represents a drastic turn in population policy compared to previous years, when the government took harsh measures to limit family sizes with the one child policy – recently relaxed – in an attempt to control population growth.

Another obstacle is political. As the CCP struggles to deal with a variety of disputes including the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S.-China rivalry, Hong Kong protests, and Xinjiang, it has used propaganda to manipulate national pride as a tool for exerting control. This has resulted in anti-Western, xenophobic – and misogynistic – manifestations of state-sanctioned nationalism that threaten feminism and other social movements.

Disney’s new “Mulan” comes at a time of intense feminist struggle. Yet there is hope: women are becoming more outspoken about gender issues. The mainstream feminist discourse is also becoming more sophisticated, which may pave the way for more thoughtful analysis on the state of Chinese-ness and womanhood. In recent years, some have reflected on Disney’s 1998 animation and argued that it fails to empower women for it reinforces gender stereotypes and binaries. Others have also questioned the feminist potential of contemporary Chinese versions of Mulan, which do little to address issues important to women’s rights such as social mobility or sexual harassment, and largely cast the heroine’s crossdressing as entertaining rather than revolutionary.

Despite her many forms, Mulan has retained one quality that has resonated with people across time and space: her emancipatory appeal. Whether motivated by a love for her family, a desire to protect her country, frustration at gender norms, or the strength of her personal convictions, Mulan is a heroine that makes choices in a world where women often cannot and do not. She’s a woman who fiercely claims the little agency she has and ends up taking charge of her own destiny, in the face of daunting challenges and societal constraints.

As women everywhere continue to question their role in patriarchal societies and seek emancipation, Mulan will always be a heroine that inspires people to fight for their place in the gendered hierarchy of the world – and a mirror that reflects just how far, or little, we’ve progressed.