Thumbnail art by: Jisoo Kim
When we think of ‘Mulan’, we usually think of the animated Disney princess who was one of the first to truly break the typical “damsel-in-distress” plot line. Until now, she’s considered a feminist icon to be reckoned with because of how she fought against all odds (including gender discrimination) to save China.
What’s not talked about enough though is the fact that gender discrimination wasn’t really her main problem. Don’t get me wrong. Her bravery as a woman during her time period will always be commendable and important. However, if we dive deeper into the cultural context of her situation, being a woman and having to face difficulties because of that fact wasn’t what was at the forefront of her mind.
Last year, Disney released the live-action version of Mulan. Controversy and criticism aside, the movie did one thing right that made me fall in love with the Chinese warrior once more. It highlighted a different side of her that most people seem to brush aside—her love for her country and her love for her family.
At first, this doesn’t seem like anything new. Since the beginning, the story centered around her taking her father’s place in order to protect him. At the same time, the animated movie that everyone grew up with showed how well she bonded with her comrades to fight for her country. However, the weight of these two loves and how they create this complex internal struggle for Mulan is often neglected and not truly understood.
In order to grasp the significance of Mulan’s love for family and for country, we must take a step back to learn where they both come from. One of the foundations of Chinese culture is the religion we know today as Confucianism. Originally, it was simply a philosophy that taught about moral values. It upheld virtues such as ‘li’, ‘ren’, ‘xin’, and ‘yi’. All of these focus on attributes such as etiquette, kindness, sincerity, and righteousness respectively. The one that plays a major role in the topic at hand though is the fifth and arguably most influential one, ‘xiào’. Xiào refers to the practice of filial piety, the honoring of one’s parents, and the display of strong family values. This virtue in particular resonates intensely with the Chinese, not only because of how it sets the stage for family dynamics, but also because it essentially became the basis for their government. As Confucius once said, “The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.”
Xiào stems from the idea that after working so hard to provide for their children, parents and ancestors deserve a certain level of respect. It becomes a child’s duty to look after their parents for their whole life while the parents in question also have to exhibit kindness and benevolence. This concept eventually produced the practice of ‘ancestral worship,’ so it becomes clear as day how serious the Chinese were about family. It doesn’t stop there though. Xiào is also the foundation of loyalty to one’s government. After all, generally it talks about devotion to those who are elder or superior over you. Considering family is at the center of society, it is expected that the same level of devotion to family must be shown towards the state as well. Confucius teaches that as subjects, people must be faithful in serving the government.
Going back to the story of Mulan with all this in mind, you may realize something you have never noticed before. Filial piety clearly is pivotal to her character, and that’s the exact reason why she goes to war. She loves her father, and although she may have disrespected him by stealing his belongings and running away, she did all this to show that she cares about him and is willing to do anything to save him. The moment she steps onto the training grounds though, her love for her country starts to conflict with her love for her family. The virtues Confucianism teaches mean much to her as it does to anyone else in her time period, so her concealment of her identity plants a seed of guilt in her because of how she is deceiving the authorities she looks up to. She is fighting for her country as someone who she is not, and that in itself is disrespectful to the entire nation. However, if she doesn’t hide who she is, she’ll dishonor and taint the name of her family. Choosing one over the other is almost impossible considering how important family and country is to the Chinese. The idea of betraying either is blasphemy, but doing nothing about it is just as disgraceful. The animated film fails to cover this struggle mostly because it presents Mulan in a more Western-influenced way. At the same time, with Mushu by her side, she isn’t exactly alone in facing her issues. The live-action movie changes this by emphasizing the war she’s battling all by herself in her mind. The best part about it is that she solves her dilemma in the most epic way possible.
Throughout the movie, Mulan is expected to wrestle between the two choices: prioritizing her family or her country. However, there is a third choice that her selflessness prevented her from considering until later on. In this chaotic mess where she has to choose between country and family, why can’t she choose herself? Why can’t she focus on finding out who she wants to be during a time where so much is forced upon her? After finding confidence in her own strength and being, she did what no one thought she could do; she chose all three.
One of the controversial parts of the live-action movie is where Mulan intentionally reveals her identity. Many people claim it was a ‘dumb’ move on her part because she essentially throws all her efforts away while at the same time risks her family. That’s not it though. In the scene, she steps through the mist and kneels before her comrades. “I’m Hua Mulan,” she announces, and instead of telling them that she was the one who saved them all, she says, “Forgive me.” It has to be one of my favorite Disney live-action moments ever because of the power behind it. She chose to reveal herself for who she truly was, and it wasn’t even for selfish intentions. The one virtue that has been bothering her for the entire film was ‘honesty’. If she were to continue to serve the state as a false persona after everything she went through at this point, it wouldn’t be fair to her family name, to her country, or to herself. She realized she didn’t have to choose one over the other. She chose the things she held dear to her heart, and that was what mattered in that moment. She was willing to suffer the consequences too because ultimately she chose to be true to herself instead of pleasing the expectations of those around her.
Personally, I’d say it was her bravery as a person rather than as a woman that led her to be such a hero. Again, I totally see her as a feminist icon too because she is. She was highly aware of the superficial conceptions men had about women at the time and was against it. However, being such a passionate and courageous person overall was what pushed her to not give up even when everyone turned against her in both the animated and the live-action movies.
After all, the last stanza in the original Ballad of Mulan says:
“Most people tell the gender of a rabbit by its movement:
The male runs quickly while the female often keeps her eyes shut.
But when the two rabbits run side by side,
Can you really discern whether I am a he or a she?”
Although open to interpretation, the way I see it, the poem emphasizes that men and women may have their differences, but really none is superior over the other. At the end of the day, they’re all people. They’re all equal. The story of Mulan is able to show how incredible she was to be able to do all she did as a woman during her era while at the same time portray that her actions had more to do with who she was and what she valued as a person due to her cultural roots.
Mulan is a hero for everyone, and though she may be fictional (or not, who knows), her story is one that is timeless. In the face of an impossible situation, she pushed through and discovered herself and what she was meant to do. Maybe after understanding her conflict a little better, you’ll be inspired to have your reflection show who you truly are too.
The ballad of Mulan (木蘭辭). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://mulanbook.com/pages/northern-wei/ballad-of-mulan
Confucius quotes. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/confucius_134943
Mack, L. (2019, August 15). Filial piety: An important Chinese cultural value. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/filial-piety-in-chinese-688386
Wang, C., & Madson, N. H. (2013). Inside China's Legal System. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/confucius