So I really enjoyed the Disney movie, don’t get me wrong. I loved the songs and how bizarrely sexy Chang’s pixels were, and everything. But I hate what it did to the story of Mulan and how it is now viewed in the Western imagination (triggered by seeing a tumblr photo showing that Mulan was included in OUAT).
Mulan is not a fairy tale.
The story of Hua Mulan, a female war-hero, is NOT a fairy tale.
Unlike Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty and Belle, Mulan is a woman who actually existed and lived her story (not the Disney version). Hua Mulan is a young woman who lived in China during the Wei dynasty. This was a period of relative unrest and the bordering tribes of Loulan were again raiding the borders of China and massing for an invasion. In response, the emperor issued a draft, requiring one male from each family to report for military service. Unlike the popular Western characterization, Mulan was not a tomboy, but an extremely filial daughter. In fact, the traditional Chinese depiction of her (out of armor) is one of a young woman weaving before a window and sighing out of worry for her father. Because Mulan’s father was advanced in years and her brother was still a child, Mulan decides to take her father’s place in the draft.
Mulan spends over a decade fighting to protect her country along the borders of China. When she returns as a victorious soldier, the emperor is so moved by her filial piety and her patriotism that he pardons her crime of “deceiving the emperor” (the most severe crime possible in ancient China - since the emperor asked for men to serve in the army and Mulan pretends to be a man, she is guilty of this crime, which is punishable by the execution of nine generations). Mulan refuses the emperor’s offer of a position as a court official (women serving as court officials was not completely unheard of in ancient China, contrary to popular belief), and instead asks that the emperor provide her with a strong horse to bring her home, so she can care for her aging parents.
The story of Mulan is so enduring and beloved in Chinese culture because it is a story of the two most important values in Chinese culture: “忠”/”patriotic loyalty” and “孝”/”filial piety” (I could ramble on about the significance of how these two kanji are constructed, but I won’t~) There is, in fact, no “I” or “me” or “want” in the story of Mulan - “Reflections,” a beautiful song, is a gross misinterpretation of what the story is about - it is a story about “family” and “duty” and “must.” The traditional story of Mulan tells us that soldiers do notwant to go to war, but that, when the country has need, they must go to war. Mulan, like every other soldier she fights alongside, goes to war to serve her nation and protect her family - not because she was “nonconformist” or looking for an opportunity for self-discovery/adventure.
So my issue with Mulan being relegated to a Disney “princess” in Western media is two-fold: Mulan is a very real, historical heroine unlike the other “princesses” (except Pocahontas) and Mulan’s story is not a story about a woman (like Snow White or Cinderella), but the story of a nation and the soldiers who give up everything to serve it. When we write or think about Mulan, we should be writing and thinking about her in the context of George Washington or Lafayette, historical symbols of patriotism, rather than in the context of Cinderella or Rapunzel or “Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away …”
(Aside: Mulan’s also hardly the only woman to be celebrated for taking up arms to defend her nation. There is the equally celebrated story of the Yang family’s wives who were martially trained continued to fight to repel the invasion even after all of their husbands had fallen in battle. Princess Pingyang who not only led an army to her husband’s defense, but also mustered the entire army she led. In fact, Mulan has so many historical compatriots in Chinese history that there is even a title for these women: 巾帼英雄)