Waiting for Mulan9 min read

Reflecting on the original legend before the upcoming Disney movie – Anne Zlatow

Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan is off to a rough start, and it hasn’t even hit theaters yet. Directed by Niki Caro, the film was initially set to be released in 2018, following the anniversary of the 1998 animated original. Its world premiere has since been postponed three times, the second time just over two weeks before its release date. Ironically, the greatest challenge to the film’s release has been the pandemic that spread from the same city as the birthplace of Mulan’s star actress, Crystal Liu Yifei. As we look toward the current release date of August 21, it seems that as with many other recent Disney remakes, the treasured predecessor proves tough to beat – this time due to social and political influences beyond the screen. And while the remake’s stunning visuals will likely satisfy most viewers, supporters of Hong Kong’s protests against Beijing last year are already less inclined to give the film a chance.

Mulan used in Hong Kong propaganda.

During the 2019 protests, Crystal Liu Yifei was vocal about throwing support behind the Hong Kong police. This created a backlash from Hong Kongers against the film, and circulation of propaganda using her image (see right). Although Liu was chosen for the title role with consideration for her martial arts acting experience in Chinese films, her views of China and its politics have made her a polarizing figure. Along with her fighting and acrobatic skills, Liu brings a great deal of contemporary Chinese patriotism to the legend of Mulan – adding political complexity to a legend twisted and stretched into many forms for over a thousand years.

Mulan has its origins, as far as we can tell, in a 62-line musical poem of unknown authorship from 6th century China, known as ‘The Ballad of Mulan’ (木兰辞). In the poem, Mulan is weaving at a loom. She sighs as she thinks of the upcoming army draft that demands one male from each household. Worried for her elderly father, she decides to take his place and fight as a man. She serves in the army for a decade. When the emperor asks Mulan what she desires as a reward, she humbly requests to return home to her family. Once home, she dons women’s clothes, revealing to her befuddled comrades that she had been a woman all along.

This patriotism, which prioritizes saving her family and defending the state, has been celebrated for centuries as a model of traditional Chinese values. ‘The Ballad of Mulan’ today is commonly taught in grade schools around China. Unsurprisingly, the story changed upon its Disneyfication in 1998. The emperor, for instance, discovers that Mulan served in disguise and praises her, even bowing in recognition of her accomplishments, whereas in the original ballad the emperor never finds out. Modern-day activists may be tempted to take the Disney version and run with it, claiming that Mulan is a feminist story. After all, what screams feminism more than soldiers dressed as concubines to help Mulan save the empire in the animation’s final scenes? Perhaps a feminist interpretation could make sense for the Disney movie, but how Mulan represents either fighting or preserving the system of society depends on the adaptation and the audience’s interpretation.

Mulan is a story in which gender means everything and nothing. Even since the 6th century, the ballad calls the distinctiveness of gender differences into question, as seen in its final lines: “A pair of hares sprinting side by side near the ground, how could observers distinguish male from female?” Whether it’s hares sprinting or soldiers fighting in uniform, individual identity becomes mottled. For Mulan, dressing as a man appears to be the moment she defies traditional Chinese expectations. However, this also makes for perhaps the only excusable exception to traditional Chinese rules, as she defies the norm in order to reinforce the structure of her society through loyalty to the state.

Whether or not the emperor recognizes Mulan’s identity plays a huge role in defining the story as either empowering for its feminist aspects, or the latest retelling of an ancient legend marked by patriarchal values. Some of the heartwarming, inspiring aspects of Mulan’s triumph in the animated film emerged with the emperor’s appreciation of her bravery as a woman and champion. Will Jet Li, as emperor in the live-action film, recognize Mulan for who she is? If so, this would be at odds with the legend. All we can tell for now is that the remake gives a nod to Chinese tradition by making Mulan’s masculine pseudonym Hua Jun. “Jun” may mean jun (军), as in “soldier” in Chinese, but it is also reminiscent of junzi (君子), the ideal gentleman according to Confucianism, a philosophy that provided patriarchal ideals for ancient China.

Mulan is a story in which gender means everything and nothing”

Different versions of the Mulan legend convey Mulan’s family situation using strategies that suit the times in which they were produced. For example, the original ballad describes Mulan’s two younger siblings, a brother and sister, doing activities around the home emblematic of traditional gender roles. By contrast, the Disney animated film explains Mulan’s decision to assume her father’s place in the army by depicting her as an only child. Unique to the 1998 film, the addition of Mulan’s dog (named “Little Brother,” possibly in reference to the younger brother in the ballad) effectively caters to American families. While the trailer for the remake does not reveal either a little brother or a dog, it bestows Mulan with a younger sister, making her an obvious role-model both on and off-screen as she fights for what she believes in.

Skeptics who’ve googled enough to know that Mulan predates Disney might take issue with authenticity in the retelling. For example, fans noticed that in the trailer Mulan appears to live in a tulou, a donut-shaped communal building found in Fujian, whereas Mulan was supposed to live in the north, before tulou were first built. Yet Disney wasn’t the first to take liberties with the story – we encounter the question of authenticity even within Chinese retellings.

In the 16th century, a famous Ming dynasty play by Xu Wei entitled The Female Mulan Goes to War in Place of Her Father (雌木兰替父从军) added a scene in which Mulan unwraps her bound feet in order to wear soldier’s boots. Audiences might have felt jarred by this anachronistic inconsistency: footbinding didn’t exist as a cultural practice in the Northern Wei period of the ballad, and only became popular as a symbol of feminine beauty in the 12th century. The play even explicitly discusses Mulan’s thoughts on her marriage prospects, which the ballad lacked entirely. So do we say that Chinese retellings of the legend are also inauthentic? With Disney introducing Mulan in a way that makes more sense for Americans, should we say it’s wrong to make any modifications? For romantics, how do we feel knowing that the earliest version of Mulan did not include a love story, or any romance at all? General Li Shang was imagined by Disney.

The use of names and symbols to refer to various characters has changed in retellings of Mulan. Mulan’s full name, 花木兰, is composed of the Chinese characters for magnolia flower. In the animated Disney film, Mulan’s father points out a flower bud on a magnolia tree, elegantly guiding the audience to see parallels between Mulan and the flower without necessarily knowing the context of her Chinese name. While the Disney animation translates Mulan’s family name (花) as “Fa,” the remake goes with “Hua” instead, a choice that enables a larger Mandarin-fluent audience to recognize the name. Interestingly, we also see a diverse use of “Khan” – the name for the emperor in the ballad but also the name given to the horse in the animated film, and now the name of the invading warrior leader in the live-action remake.

The liberties that Disney took with Mulan’s legend came to an apex with the invention of Mushu the dragon. Eddie Murphy’s humorous voice-acting made the story accessible to Americans, yet the trailer for the new film opens with a different mythical creature, the phoenix (鳳凰). The feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon in Chinese traditional culture, she appears in the film as the “guardian” who “sits on the right hand of the emperor.” It seems that the phoenix will be another symbol for Mulan, representing and foreshadowing her protective role. The upcoming film also has our heroine face a sorceress, who continues the animated film’s falcon-bearing villain motif through her power to morph into a bird. Two transformations culminate in a battle between women. Mirrored images, plus a Chinese version of the song ‘Reflection’ – it’s almost poetic.

Disney wasn’t the first to take liberties with the story of Mulan”

Details added, implied and modified to Mulan’s story throughout history have preserved the legend for over one-thousand years by making it resonate with contemporary audiences, evoking powerful emotions. Admittedly, the most influential versions had hundreds of years in between them. Nevertheless, Disney’s productions of Mulan, 22 years apart, allow the remake to draw on young adults’ childhood memories of the animated film. Matchmaker still plays a part in the upcoming film, though it seems her depiction is more serious. So too, nostalgically, does the flower hairpin reappear. The 1998 film was pivotal in introducing Mulan’s story to audiences beyond China. The 2020 remake has the opportunity to use Americans’ relatively recent impression of the animation to its advantage, though inevitably much of the ancient Mulan history will be missed.

There is debate regarding the source of the onomatopoeia in the opening line of the ballad, which thus starts our earliest record of Mulan: “Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek” (唧唧复唧唧). Some scholars attribute the sound to Mulan sighing, while others believe it to be the sound of Mulan weaving at her loom. Chinese scholars have also briefly speculated that the onomatopoeia comes from crickets chirps, which might have made lucky Cri-Kee a historical reference to the ballad in the 1998 film. The ambiguity of the opening line and other parts of the ballad invite various interpretations of Mulan’s story. The official trailer of the remake introduces Mulan in the context of a traditionally gendered activity — working at a loom, setting the stage for her to subvert the societal expectation of femininity. The upcoming film is sure to be full of spectacular visuals, but viewers might get more out of the movie by thinking about its historical background and its place in the ever-evolving story of Mulan. ∎