free essayAn animated film Mulan produced by Disney’s Studio hit box office sales throughout the world. Although it was not the first movie about China’s national heroine, it was the first to win international acclaim and make the story of Hua Mulan famous all over the world. Disney’s version became a cultural phenomenon that evoked a controversial critical response for combining Chinese tradition and American vision. However, the film was not such a success in China as expected. This fact raises the question whether Disney’s Mulan is more a Chinese character or an Americanized version that embodies American values.

Historical Mulan vs. Disney Version

Mulan is a real historical figure, a heroine of the Chinese nation. She was born in Beiweizhuang village (modern Henan province) during the Sui dynasty (6th century). Mulan’s original family name was Wei, but later plays and operas gave her a name Hua (the flower). According to the legend, she left home to serve in the army instead of her father. Mulan effectively disguised herself as a young man, participated in battles, won merit, and returned with triumph. Further fate of the heroine was sad. When emperor Yang Di heard of Mulan, he wanted to make the warrior girl his concubine. Mulan refused and committed suicide (Song, 2000).

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In Sui times, it was forbidden to mention Mulan since the facts blemished the emperor’s reputation. People paid tribute to the girl by a folk song. The first Mulan text appeared in 568; the original 62 lines provided the basis for later detailing (Edwards, 2010).  In her hometown, there is a Hua Mulan Temple and two steles, one is called “Testimony to the Filial and Martyred General,” another one is “Rectification of the Name of the Filial and Martyred General” (Song, 2000)

The collisions of the original Mulan story partly differ from the American version. It is a very national narrative, which praises Chinese values of filial piety, personal dignity, and sacrifice for the nation. Although Disney film does not feature Mulan’s tragic death and transforms the story into a fascinating, heroic, and romantic tale, it carefully frames the action against the traditional Chinese background and preserves the initial values while adding some typical American touches.

Viewers’ Reaction

China’s response to Disney’s Mulan could be the best marker of successful or failed depiction of China. $1.3 million box office revenues in China, which are below the expected level, supposedly indicate Mulan’s failure. However, even within Chinese audience, the responses to the film vary. Chinese purists regard the animation within the US political discourse. They are immensely irritated by “the American disfigurement of Chinese history, their lack of understanding of the Chinese environment, their eternal inability to understand Chinese culture, and their skewed comprehension of Chinese people” (Zhang, 2000). Such a strongly-worded response is the evidence of politicized prospect influenced by a strained relationship with the USA. Meanwhile, other reactions register cultural openness and thoughtful treatment of the original story demonstrated by Disney animators (Zhu, 2000; He, 2000).

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Cultural Authenticity

It would be naive to expect Disney Studio to film a purely Chinese movie. Finally, Disney employees are Americans and could only portray Mulan and her epoch through their cultural lens. The point is that Disney’s attitude to Chinese culture is positive, cleansed of the racial stereotypes, careful, and sincere. Moreover, as the film was destined for an international audience, the studio could not refuse from its brand attractions such as funny guardian Mu Shi Dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy or the Hua ancestor spirits dancing to a jazz band in the final. In these terms, Mulan is a hybrid of American and Chinese culture. David Sterrit called the film “the product of a full-proof recipe that combines a feisty heroine and a spunky sidekick with songs, action scenes, and an exotic historical setting, thus representing the Disney formula at its best” (as cited in Dong, 2010).

Disney took a responsible approach to portraying Chinese cultural heritage. In June-July of 1994, the pre-production period, the company sent its key employees: producer Pam Coats, co-director Barry Cook, art director Ric Sluiter, supervising animator for Mulan character Mark Henn, and six others into a research trip to China. During three weeks, the team got acquainted with Chinese culture and environment, visited the Great Chinese Wall, Mulan’s hometown, tourist sites, and historical relics. They also tried to absorb the cultural impressions (Dong, 2010). The visit was important for understanding the historical and cultural legacy of China. It exerted a great influence on the way of depicting sceneries and buildings and portraying characters.

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To add authenticity flavor, Disney invited artists and cast of Asian and American Asian origin. Chen-Yi Chang, a Taiwanese artist, helped to incorporate ancient Chinese paintings, drawings, architecture, and sculptures in an organic manner (Dong, 2010). Disney color laboratory developed additional color palette especially for Mulan. Thus, the color of the “dragon robe” of the Yellow Emperor is authentic imperial yellow (He, 2000).

The team of animators made great efforts in paying attention to the cultural differences. Thus, in the garden scene with Mulan and her father, she does not give a “goodnight kiss” as was designed before, because it would be unlikely for daughter-father relations in the 6th century China. Leaving her ornamented hair comb as a farewell sign is one of the ancient Chinese customs (He, 2000). The film reminds of Chinese poetry and drawings. The rural scenery, the design of the entrance gates, house roofs, and the garden of Mulan’s parents with dark red azaleas are utterly Chinese.

The Chinese in the animated film are far from the traditional negative stereotype of the Chinese in Western perception. No character has European-like faces. Mulan herself has distinctive oriental features, such as round cheeks, a small nose, and slanting eyes. She is gracious, fresh, and attractive. Some critiques remarked that Disney Mulan “is the most beautiful image of a Chinese female they have ever seen” (He, 2000). However, critically inclined Zhang Renjie claims that the girl looks more like Vietnamese. Moreover, her mimics, gestures, and the way of expressing emotions are not typically Chinese (Zhang, 2000).

How It Works

Certainly, as the film was not produced by the Chinese, it has some cultural flaws that look strange for Chinese viewers. For example, Chinese script in Disney version is horizontal and left to right while it is vice versa in reality (Zhang, 2000). Mulan sings not in a traditional Chinese manner but like in a Broadway musical (Zhu, 2000). Finally, purist Chinese audience is dissatisfied with the inclusion of some Oriental markers, such as dragons, kung fu, acupuncture, hieroglyphics, or paper lanterns, as they connect such symbolics with schematized and simplistic “Chinatown” imagery of their country (Dong, 2010). At the same time, the Chinese, who live abroad, were happy to see these familiar symbols treated with respect (Zhu, 2000). Moreover, international viewers immediately and unmistakably identify these details with Chinese setting.

Values and Morals

The original short poem allowed for elaborating, expanding, dramatizing, and continuously reinterpreting the narrative of Mulan. Over 1500 years, depending on the ideology needs in China, the legend has received various interpretations. The accent shifted  through “a wide range of often contradictory perspectives on the central significance of the Mulan story – from filial piety and feminism to maidenly chastity and militarism, onwards through Marxism and patriotism” (Edwards, 2010).

Apart from the ideologies, Disney’s Mulan is a film for children that asserts the universal values of “family love and duty, personal honor and group commitment, obedience and ingenuity” according to Richard Corliss (cited in Dong, 2010). Another important message that cannot be linked to any particular country or outlook is that individual’s sacrifice is often a prerequisite for the realization of something significant and personal growth and discovery (Dong, 2010).

Filial piety is one of the most important features of the heroine that is deeply valued in China. Mulan, a young village girl, joins the army to replace her veteran father. Both historical and animated Mulan revere the parents and want to do the best for them. With her act, the girl saved her father from unavoidable death and covered her family name with glory.

Patriotism is another value shared by both Americans and the Chinese. The heroine’ decision is guided by filial piety as much as by her concern about her land. Therefore, Mulan becomes a conscript to defend her country and people. Although the ruling Chinese ideology supports this interpretation, the starting point of the story indicates opposition to the central state that appropriates people en masse for state projects (Edwards, 2010). Edwards also remarks on the interpretation of the 20th century that raises filial piety to the level of obedience to the state and eliminates the initial element of opposition.

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Feminist motives clearly sound in Disney version of the story. Critical Chinese respondents regard it as an American message, imposition of the American values, and cultural distortion. However, Chinese cinema was the first to portray Mulan in a feminist key. The 1956 movie served the political agenda of “women holding up half of the sky” (Dong, 2010). Taking into consideration the historical development of the interpretations, Mulan’s “assumption of a male gendered military role take on a feminist, anti-patriarchal hue” only in the 20th century (Edwards, 2010). At the same time, feminists criticize Disney movie for conveying negative post-feminist ideas. The fact that Mulan is getting ready for marriage at the beginning of the film as well as her return to a female role in the final provoke much feminist criticism, because they allegedly fit the heroine into male-dominated patriarchal social matrix. However, it is exactly what was expected of a girl in China of that time. Moreover, when real Mulan returned home, she changed into a female attire (Edwards, 2010).  The social role of a woman is reduced to being a wife and a mother. Mulan’s army service is uncommon for Chinese tradition.

Nevertheless, the underpinning reasons for Mulan’s escape are different in Chinese and American versions. In the original text, the only cause for joining the army was the protagonist’s wish to protect her father. Of course, she was a strong personality if she took that decision. Maybe, she would feel unfit in the traditional role of a housekeeper. Disney version raises this assumption to the level of certainty. At the very beginning, the girl is portrayed as attractive and fit but unable to demonstrate the required female skills valuable for a bride. She is trapped between the imposed social role and her strong character. Failed marriage enhances her desire for another sort of life. In that interpretation, Mulan’s male disguise has a third implication after filial piety and patriotism: Disney heroine takes her chance to change her life, to become an active agent, and to try herself in a heroic and romantic role. Even if it could be like that in reality, Chinese society does not appreciate anti-patriarchal incentives and infringement of social rules.

In all probability, the greatest difference lies in the Western and Chinese mentality. While Americans value individualism, the Chinese maintain collectivism. Disney film makes an accent on individual maturing, discovery, and life. For the Chinese, an individual is inferior to the family and the society. Hence, the vision of the heroine’s motives would be different even if the plot took the same turn.

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The theme of chastity, gender ambiguity, and disguise  make the Chinese a fascinating generation and continues intriguing western people. Mulan’s male companions in arms could not recognize a girl until she was wounded and needed medical help. In the original poem, she managed to conceal her identity for 12 years (Edwards, 2010). Despite the fact that Mulan performed a male role in the army, she returns later to her female self. Although female activists dislike this step, it better suits the historical truth and Chinese mentality. Moreover, it symbolizes a return to the essential values at a new level, not through coercion but self-realization.


To summarize the opinions, an animated film Mulan is a product of cultural adaptation of the ancient Chinese story to the American and international audiences. Despite some incongruence that is inevitable in the case of cross-cultural perception, Mulan is an undoubtedly Asian personality. Her appearance, environment, and primary motivation comply with the Chinese culture. The Walt Disney Studios took a delicate approach to the theme of feminism and social roles though a disputable approach. Whatever the opinions are, Disney’s Mulan is a positive contribution to the world’s idea of China. It evoked a wave of interest in Chinese history, made a Chinese national heroine well-known in the world, and increased touristic visitation to China.

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