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Pet Sins December 1999

Disney's Mulan

I saw Disney's Mulan with 2 friends. One of them, a European male, thought the ending with the ancestral spirits having a party was very offensive. The other, a Turkish woman, said all that crap about how Mulan will be killed if they found out she was a woman was a typical "Western Orientalist" view -- stereotyping Oriental cultures as brutally sexist, without pointing a finger back at European sexism.

Disney deviated greatly from the original Mulan story. I think there is nothing wrong with Disney changing a story to make characters stronger or the plot simpler. I liked what they did with the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The original Esmeralda was a weak pathetic creature but Disney's Esmeralda kicked butt and physically defeated hordes of men.

Disney's Mulan didn't even beat up as many people. For Mulan, they changed it for the worse when they had very strong material to start with. Why is this? Afraid to disturb the Western male view of the Asian female or what?

Here is the Chinese traditional version of Mulan:

  1. The traditional Chinese version of Mulan was a 12 year war veteran who retired as as general. In the movie they made her into bumbling private who retired a private. It is like you make a movie about General Colin Powell's life and it starts and ends his career with him still being a private. At best inaccurate and grossly insulting. At worst -- you can fill in the blanks. Can't promote an Asian woman to general, not even in fiction? Not even in an all Asian setting?
  2. There are many legends about Mulan and at least one of them says that she was an accomplished martial artist before she joined the military. I think this is highly likely, considering in the actual account, she spent 12 years in the military without being found out. (in the movie, not) How did she deal with her monthly cycle? I think the answer is that she did NOT have one. Many female athletes stop having their monthly cycle. So the movie writers had to take this extreme athlete and change her into a weakling, a physically unfit novice in the art of war.
  3. Another piece of supporting evidence for Mulan the experienced fighter -- in the traditional account (and yes, Disney had access to that) she went to war with the full permission of her parents -- would they do that knowing it wouldn't take long for her to be exposed?
  4. How credible is the movie's trite line that "she would be killed if they found out she was a woman"? There had been female military trainers and other female warriors before the time of Mulan. Mulan is certainly not the first, nor the last Chinese woman warrior. Other women served openly in the armed forces. The only one situation in which Mulan could be put to death was if she accepted a official post from the emperor while pretending to be a man. "Deceiving the Emperor" is a capital crime. The issue is not gender, but honesty.

Other grossly wrong details:

  1. The Huns are not Mongolian. (remember the Disney joke about the Mongolian barbecue?) They are a Turkic people. My Turkish classmate took issue with how Disney (and most Western sources) inaccurately equates Turks with Mongols. Although these are related peoples, to call them the same is just like saying the Italians and the Spanish are the same. Europeans see the differentiation and diversity among themselves, but look at Asians and Africans as monolithic societies.
  2. The Huns in the movie went bare-chested in winter! Would you do that?
  3. Mulan's horse couldn't have been called Khan. Khan is a Mongolic/Turkic term. The time period during which Mulan lived is under dispute - she could have been living under a foreign (non-Han Chinese) dynasty which calls its head of state 'khan'. In that case, to call one's horse the name of the head of state is highly insulting and could be considered a capital offense. On the other hand, she could have been living under an indigenous Chinese dynasty, which was at war with peoples who called their leaders khan. In this case, naming a horse after an enemy is inappropriate.

  4. The cricket can't be called Cri-Kee (there is no "kr" sound as in "Cri" in Chinese)
  5. Captain Li Shang cannot make a match for himself -- respectable people always use a matchmaker except in extreme circumstances where one is not available. No one shows up at the lady's house directly.
  6. In Chinese tradition, when one's father dies (in the case of Li Shang), one has supposed to be in mourning for 3 years. During this period the mourning child cannot partake in joyful events such as parties, wooing the opposite sex, and certainly no marriage proposals. For prominent military/public service families the pressure is even stronger because of public scrutiny.
  7. Disney's Mulan hugged the emperor and kissed the dragon. Chinese people in general are not inclined to hugging and kissing. Disney's Mulan feels inappropriately like a modern Asian American girl half conforming to the Western male expectation of what she should be and half trying to make it on her own.

X.T.

Comment from 'Turkish student, Turkey'
When Mulan was shown in Turkey, Turkish nationalists were very angry. They said the movie depicted the ancestors of the Turks as evil and barbaric.