By: Benjamin Storm
Disney's 1998 release of "Mulan" is considered a momentous achievement for the
Asian American community. Based on real events, the story has lived in the heart of
Chinese civilization for over fifteen centuries (Pei). Still today, Mothers teach their
daughters the original ballad, sharing with them the glory and lessons of the heroic
Chinese woman. Disney's rendition of Mulan, however, written by Chinese American Rita
Hsiao, has twisted the original text to support damaging views of Chinese culture. While I
do not claim that these alterations were made consciously, they nonetheless exist, and
serve to perpetuate the systemic misrepresentation of eastern culture. To demonstrate, let
me compare the two texts.
Both Disney and the original poem begin with the Huns invading China, and a
conscription law requiring a man from each family to join the imperial army. Mulan's
feelings at this time are very different in the two versions. Disney portrays her as a girl out
of place, forced to live in a world where she can not be her true self. Evidence for this can
be heard in the song "Reflection." "Can it be I'm not meant to play this part? Now I see
that if I were truly to be myself, I would break my family's heart. Who is that girl I see,
starring straight, back at me? Why is my reflection someone I don't know? ... When will
my reflection show, who I am inside?" In the original poem, the text explicitly announces
that she does not have these feelings, "Ask her: does she pine. Ask her: does she yearn.
No, this girl does not pine. No, this girl does not yearn." There is nothing in the
traditional poem that regards Mulan as feeling alienated from herself or her culture. This
important difference in the film changes the conditions behind Mulan's decision to take her
father's place in battle. The traditional story indicates that Mulan acts out of honor and
duty to her family. The American version creates a character that is trapped in an
oppressive Chinese culture that will not allow her to be who she is meant to be. This
internal struggle separates Mulan from her Chinese culture, representing her as a woman
with western values instead. By going to battle, she will be demonstrating the flaws of
what is perceived as Chinese culture, and it will be her western values that bring honor to
The American manifestations in Mulan's character can be seen throughout the film.
It is no coincidence that during her interview with the match maker, she is unable to
remember the only sentence of the final admonition, a saying that describes how a wife is
supposed to act. Also, during the song, "A Girl Worth Fighting For," while the men sing
about the type of women they desire, Mulan replies, "How bout a girl whose got a brain,
who always speaks her mind?" The men look back at her confused, grunt, and continue
their song. These clues separate her from Chinese culture, and give her a modern
American identity. It is important to note that when I refer to western and eastern values
and culture, I am not speaking of true characteristics. I am referring to America's
perception of what these characteristics are, regardless of their intrinsically flawed and
The consequences of Mulan's disobedience have also been altered in Disney's
version. To take her father's place, Mulan must disguise herself as a man. According to
the movie, however, Chinese law requires that a girl caught serving in the military be
executed. There is no evidence that such a law existed, either in the poem, or in China's
historical records (Pei). In fact, the wording of the original poem leads me to believe that
the Emperor was aware of Mulan's sex, but instead of having her killed, rewards her. If a
woman received enough respect to rule as Emperor of China for fifteen years, as Wu
Zetian did in the seventh century, I suspect that Mulan would have been able to serve in
the military (Willis 127).
The movie continues with a scene involving Mulan's ancestors discussing her
situation. They decide that it would be best to stop Mulan and take her home before she
brings any more dishonor to the family. A tiny comical dragon, named Mu Shu, tries
instead to help Mulan become a war hero. Mu Shu had recently been demoted within the
ancestral hierarchy, and wanted to prove himself to the other guardians. Similar to Mulan,
this dragon is very different from his peers, as the very non-Chinese voice of Eddie
Murphy illustrates. It is Mu Shu's disobedience that allows Mulan to become the hero she
is meant to be. Overall, the movie makes clear that every aspect of Chinese culture
opposes Mulan's actions. Law, religion, and culture all forbid what she is attempting to
do, even though the poem gives no basis for this opposition.
When Disney Mulan's gender secret is discovered, she is called a treacherous
snake committing the ultimate dishonor. This comes immediately after single handedly
defeating the Hun army. She would have been executed, but the Captain decided to let
her live since she had just saved his life. Mulan is only given her deserved recognition
after personally saving the Emperor. The original ballad differs in that her true identity is
not discovered until she returns from battle, and it does not require the saving of the
Emperor to be appreciated. Quoting the Emperor's words, "Your valor fills twelve
books. Your reward amounts to a hundred thousand cash. Now what does the girl want
for herself?" Notice that she is referred to as the girl, but rather than being killed, Mulan
is rewarded. There is no indication that what she did was considered dishonorable.
The original poem ends with Mulan coming home to a banquet, where she is
warmly met by her family. In response to the Emperor's praise, Mulan responds, "Mulan
has no use for any high court post. Loan me the famous Thousand Li Camel to carry me
home." She simply wanted to return to the traditional life style of her past. Once home
and in her bedroom, Mulan continues this transition. "Off with the battledress of recent
times. On with the gowns of old times." This ending is consistent with the rest of the
poem. She had only taken her fathers place out of love and duty, and it was now time to
return to her old way of life. A similar ending in Disney's version, bearing in mind the
song "Reflection," is based on change rather than reconciliation. Our American Mulan has
won honor and respect by proving herself to her family and Chinese culture.
Disney was not the first to change "The Ballad of Mulan" in such a way.
According to Frank Chin's analysis of Mary Hong Kingston, she "rewrites the heroine, Fa
Mulan, to the specs of the stereotype of the Chinese woman as a pathological white
supremacist victimized and trapped in a hideous Chinese civilization." In this novel,
Kingston decides to write that Mulan's back was brutally tattooed. "FOB", a play by
David Henry Wong, goes further in having Mulan's family impoverished and slaughtered
to further dramatize the cruelty of the Chinese (Chin 3).
The movie Mulan is not as extreme, but does repeat the basic theme of a woman
with western values overcoming the oppression of a backwards Chinese civilization. Why
would Asian Americans represent their Asian heritage in such a harmful way? Given the
past problems of representation and stereotyping in the media, one might think that they
would write for the betterment of China's cultural image. After all, what America comes
to believe of Asians, will undoubtfully be projected onto Asian Americans.
Asian Americans are an ignored minority, often unrecognized victims of racial
injustice. They have dealt with overt and institutionary racism since immigration began in
the 19th century. They have been used as scapegoats during economic downturns,
subjected to discriminatory laws, and restricted by the glass ceiling effect that women and
other minorities struggle against. In fact, it was not until 1945 that the Chinese exclusion
laws were reluctantly repealed to strengthen military alliances. Even this event was no
cause for celebration, for the next two decades, only 105 Chinese would be allowed to
come per year (Nee 409).
Accompanying these and many more examples of racial discrimination, are harmful
stereotypes of eastern culture. Asians have been represented as anti-individualistic,
mystic, hyper-sexualized, passive, and morally corrupt. We grow up seeing movies like
Lloyd Corrigan's "Daughter of the Dragon" where an Asian woman must fulfill her
father's irrational plea for vengeance on an innocent white family. The only way she can
achieve any "honor" is by obliging to the sickening practices of her culture. Fortunately,
her fetished methodology prevents her from succeeding. I admit that "Mulan" can not be
compared to this movie, I simply wish to demonstrate the pervasiveness of anti-Asian
sentiment in our society.
Disney did not have to change "The Ballad of Mulan" to make an entertaining
movie. After all, the original poem lived in the hearts of Chinese for over a millennium.
The changes we see are the result of the poem's Americanization. With this process,
comes the absorption of the systemic prejudice in western culture. Kingston responds to
the criticism for altering the Chinese myths by stating, "I'm not even saying that those are
Chinese myths anymore. I'm saying I've written down American myths. Fa Mulan and
the writing on her back is an American myth. And I made it that way (Chin 29)"
Some Asian Americans misrepresent their heritage because they do not associate
themselves with it. As Chin says, "These works are held up before us as icons of our
pride, symbols of our freedom from the ichy-gooey evil of a Chinese culture where the
written word for woman and slave are the same word (Kingston) and Chinese brutally
tattoo messages on the back of women (4)." Kingston writes pieces of literature that
support the empowerment of women, and for this I applaud her. I do not agree, however,
with how she degrades Asian culture to do so. While it is true that ancient China was a
very patriarchal society (as was Europe at that time), Kingston and Disney steal an
important symbol of female power and pride from Chinese culture by transforming Mulan.
Western influence can also be seen in Daniel Okimoto's autobiography, "American
in Disguise." During World War 2, American citizens of Japanese descent were subjected
to an irrational and humiliating internment. Interestingly, there was no organized
resistance against this blatant constitutional wrong. Okimoto, a third generation Japanese
American, wanted to know why. Simply put, his answer was that there was too much
passive Japanese culture. A more reasonable explanation is that any act of resistance
would have been seen as a sign of disloyalty, a label undeserved that any good citizen
would try to avoid. As we have seen, blaming Asian culture is common practice. Though
the heroics of Mulan are the product of China and its culture, stereotypes reshape its story
in a way that makes Chinese culture the more familiar, opposing force against her. It is
difficult for a subjective western society to accept that Mulan's actions are actually the
result of Chinese values and thinking.
People have a tendency to believe that the way they look at the world is the only
proper way to do so. There is no question that western and eastern values differ, but for
Western society to claim moral high ground is a dangerous assumption. Similar to Asian
history, European history is filled with the repression of women. There are many aspects
of modern American life that Asians look down on too. A Filipino pastor in LA, for
example, complains of American's lack of respect, materialism, sexual behavior, divorce
rate, and its own mistreatment of women. In truth, neither of us can claim moral
superiority. Our view of each other is based more on the subjective perception of our own
beliefs, than on any real differences. It is this flawed perception that leads to the unfair
representation of other cultures in novels, movies, and in history.
"Mulan" may pale in comparison to the racism we find elsewhere, but does
demonstrate its banality in our society. Even a Disney film, written by a Chinese
American, can be tainted by cultural prejudice. Mulan is needlessly transformed into an
American protagonist, struggling against a cultural opposition that Disney took the liberty
of creating. We must remember that it was originally a Chinese culture that produced
"The Ballad of Mulan," and the image of gender equality that comes with it.
"The he rabbit tucks he feet under to sit.
The she rabbit dims her shiny eyes.
Two rabbits running side by side.
Who can see which is the he and which the she?"
Chin, Frank. "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and Fake." The Big
Huang, David H. FOB. 1983
Kingston, Maxine Hong. "White Tigers." The American Warrior. 1975.
Nee, Victor G. Longtime Californ'. 1986.
Okimoto, Daniel J. American in Disguise. 1971
Pei, Ming L. Chinapage. 1995-1999
(Original article published at http://www.benstorm.homestead.com/mulan.html )
Note: the author of "The Woman Warrior" should be Maxine Hong Kingston, not Mary Hong Kingston.