Wednesday, March 7, 2012


"Let's get down to business - to defeat the Huns
Did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?
You're the saddest bunch I've ever met
But you can bet before we're through
Mister, I'll make a man out of you"


            Long before my parents got their hands on the Disney movies (first imported into southern China in the mid 90's), Mulan has already made an impact on my life. In pop-up books, nursery songs, and textbooks, Mulan's legend left me in awe as a child. I still remember her shiny armor and red cape. Then in junior high, we were required to memorize the prose of Mulan, which was beautifully written in ancient Chinese in the 4th century. As I read the prose over and over again, the image of Mulan and what she truly stood for began to change. 

            The prose started with Mulan's worry for her family’s future; her sick dad is about to be enlisted in the army. Her sister and brother doing nothing to help, Mulan stands up for her father. She rides her horse to the battlefield with heroic courage! When she comes home, loaded with honors, she takes off her armor and puts on her old robe-- everything goes back to normal. Everything, except all her comrades are shocked by her real identity.

            The prose was written in approximately three hundred and sixty words and eighty percent of the them are about Mulan and her family: the preparation for Mulan’s departure and the warm welcome for Mulan’s return. Mulan’s filial duty is the prior concern of this story. Family is the underlying importance. As she disguised herself as her father, Mulan faced fatal danger, both from her country and the battling enemy. While she fought off the ruthless enemy, her identity as a woman could have been exposed, which would have led to the ultimate punishment: death. Under such pressure, Mulan still chose to protect her father and her family's honor, fulfilling her filial duty as a daughter. This kind of familial dedication has been an essential element of Chinese culture ever since Confucius, listed family duty and loyalty as the first virtue for all the Chinese people. Mulan carried on this tradition and became an exemplar in filial duty. Other interpretations also observe that Mulan signifies patriotism. Regardless of whether this is true or not, this argument is heavily politicized.

            Disney, as usual, has a very different take on this story. Mulan is no longer a middle child, but an only daughter in a wealthy and respected veteran family. Her parents desperately want to marry her off in order to secure family honor. Observe how this changes the theme of Mulan's story from family loyalty to challenging the traditional role of women and celebrating women's independence. 

           In the Disney version, Mulan is a rich girl trying to break free from social expectations. In Disney's presentation? Mulan, is experiencing a first world problem: singing to her reflection in the pond and figuring out who she really is. At that moment, her role in the movie is defined: challenging the gender stereotype for females by showing people that Mulan, the only daughter of a wealthy family, can also fight on the battlefield like a man. For the rest of the movie, Disney presents the hardships Mulan has to go through in the military camp, battle field, and finally, in the Emperor’s palace, focusing on Mulan’s transition from a traditional woman into an empowered, slightly masculine warrior. This movie must tickle feminists' pink-- girls are actually kicking ass, instead of just singing and dancing with cute forest animals and waiting for the true love to appear.

            So far we have two distinctly different approaches to the same story: the original prose celebrating filial piety and the Disney movie hailing female independence. The Mulan in Chinese culture protects the social convention of filial duty, though in a rather unconventional way. The Disney Mulan completely reduced the importance of filial virtue, focusing on Mulan’s successful transition into an independent woman warrior. 

            Interestingly, there is little to no emphasis place on the challenging of traditional female roles in society in the original Mulan Prose. Disney's message of breaking free from traditional female roles is seriously understated in the original version and in Chinese culture. In the original story, Milan fought as a daughter, the idea of her independent, fierce identity subdued. In the original version too, Mulan rejected the Emperor’s offer of a position in court. Instead she returned to her family and her loom, playing into the traditional role of a Chinese woman. Her filial loyalty and modesty are celebrated, but is home-life and loom work the really the end for Mulan? For the rest of her life? Only loom work after intense battles and an unmatched heroism? ... What kind of message does this convey to women in Chinese society? 

             The value of family and filial duty, however, are hushed in the Disney movie as it tries to promote Mulan’s individuality. Granted, it is a big step forward for Disney, its past cluttered with Princesses that are dependent on Princes to make their lives less miserable. But, it lost the essence of family, of honor
              Consider Mulan. Consider the Chinese culture. Consider women, and the suffering they have felt. Consider. What is the true message of the story of Mulan really?

Disney's I'll Make a Man out of You, from Mulan:

            The Woman Behind the Cultural Perspectives Section:
Asheley Gao is an extremely creative young woman, currently attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, a long way away from her home country of China. She is double majoring in Political Economy and History of Art. Her interest in life and exuberance is evident, not only in her work as an artist and academic, but also a friend and co-worker.

1 comment:

Unleashed Magazine News Central said...

Ironically, the Cal Band played "I'll Make a Man out of You," on Upper Sproul today! My friends and I heard it, and immediately started singing along and dancing... it's the little things.