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“Mulan” Through the Ages: Riots, Rebellions, and Kung Fu Retellings

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Disney’s live action remake of Mulan hits Chinese cinemas today — one week on from its Disney+ release — amid a wave of controversy and some decidedly lukewarm reviewsBut the figure of the famous female warrior Hua Mulan is no stranger to politics and her tale has gone through many iterations over the years.

While the first extant sign of the legend comes from the short “Ballad of Mulan,” her story has been adapted for a variety of cultures and dynasties in China through the ages — taking on the politics and moods of different eras — and more recently for TV and film by companies based on opposite sides of the world.

Origins of the “Ballad of Mulan”

The earliest record of the story of Mulan comes from the famed poem the “Ballad of Mulan,” which was included in a book of verse from the 6th century called Musical Records of Old and New (古今樂錄 Gujin Yuelu). The poem is undated and has no definite author, but is believed to have been passed down through the years orally, before finally being captured in written form.

In the poem — set in the Northern Wei Dynasty, between the 4th and 6th century CE — we hear of Mulan sitting in front of a loom, going over her thoughts on a conscription notice that has just been issued in light of an enemy invasion. In an effort to save her elderly father from going to fight in the war, she buys a horse and a saddle, before crossing the Yellow River, which traverses across northern China, through provinces such as Shanxi, Shandong and Gansu. She spends 12 years fighting the enemy, with none of her comrades suspecting that she is a woman; they only find out later when she has already returned home from war.

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Back in Vogue During the Tang Dynasty

With the rise of the Tang Dynasty in the 7th century, and the ascendency of the only female emperor in China’s history, Wu Zetian, stories about female heroines became popular in the country. As such the story of Mulan came back into vogue around this time.

One of the most famous retellings of Mulan’s story was Wei Yuanfu’s “Song of Mulan,” which was published in 750 CE. The poem, like “Ballad of Mulan,” starts with Mulan sitting weaving cloth, and sees her take part in a battle. When she returns home, her parents and her comrades are shocked to see her female appearance. The poem, interestingly, finishes with mentions of loyalty and filial piety, reinforcing Confucian ideals that were popular during the Tang Dynasty.

Another Tang Dynasty poem, “Mulan’s Temple” by Du Mu, is notable for its depiction of Mulan as agonizing over whether drinking with the officers in her regiment would be appropriate, as well as the poet’s focus on Mulan’s beauty.

Mulan Gets a Makeover During the Qing Dynasty

There were multiple retellings of the story of Mulan during the Qing Dynasty. Probably the most famous of these was Chu Renhuo’s Romance of Sui and Tang, where Mulan’s story appears as a subplot of the book, which narrates the grandeur and excellence of Sui and Tang Dynasty warriors, generals and emperors.

With China under Manchu rule at the time, there was an air of rebellion in the writing of Mulan’s story. In Romance of Sui and Tang, she is depicted as Tujue-Chinese fighting on behalf of the khan and against the Han Chinese, the Tujue people being of Turkic descent.

Gong Li Mulan 2020

Interestingly, in this book we see the character Xianniang, who is the daughter of historical agrarian rebel Dou Jiande of the Sui Dynasty. In Disney’s 2020 live-action remake of the film, Xianniang is the name of the witch played by Gong Li, who aids the Rouran leader Böri Khan.

The Qing story sees Mulan captured by Xianniang, ultimately helping to save Dou Jiande and sent on a mission to deliver a letter to Xianniang’s lover Luo Cheng, a Chinese warlord. In Chu’s telling, the tale ultimately ends with Mulan’s suicide after the death of her father, a signal of filial piety. Other interpretations of the story during the Qing Dynasty also showed Mulan taking her own life.

Mulan During the Second Sino-Japanese War

Directed by Anhui-born Richard Poh (Bu Wancang), Mulan Joins the Army (花木兰 Hua Mulan) takes the classic story of Mulan and incorporates wartime themes, opera, comedy and tragedy.

Released in 1939, two years after Japanese forces had entered the country, the film’s production company Hwa Cheng Studio was forced to submit to Japanese censors in order for it to be distributed in occupied cities such as Nanking.

Later the film was submitted to Chinese censors in the capital of Free China at the time, Chungking (Chongqing). While the film was approved by censors there, it caused an outcry when it was released in the southwest city, as residents of Chongqing felt that the studio had collaborated with Japanese forces. At one showing, audience members broke into the projection room of the cinema and burned the film in the street, before local authorities quelled the riot and allowed the screening to continue.

The story itself sees Mulan beating her fellow trainees, before admonishing them and imploring them to fight together for the greater cause: combatting the invaders who have come into China.

Shaw Brothers Place Mulan at the Opera

Distributed by the hugely influential Shaw Brothers company, this Hong Kong-made depiction of Mulan stars Ivy Ling Po in the main role, for which she picked up an award for Best Actress at the 11th Asian Film Festival in 1964. The film definitely shows its age, with lines like, “Mulan, if you were a man, everything would be okay,” while the comic quality of early scenes which show Mulan pretending to be a man but failing to beat her asthmatic father in a fight add a certain silliness.

Incorporating elements of traditional Chinese opera and the martial arts stylings made popular by the Shaw Brothers, the movie is immensely musical and dramatic.

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We first see Mulan out hunting for food, when a pair of horsemen ride along a hill nearby declaring that invaders have come into the North of China, quite a departure from her previous depiction beside the loom. 

A Disney Animated Mulan

Perhaps the most famous adaptation of the Mulan story internationally, the 1998 animated version of Mulan stars Ming Na Wen voicing the title role, with Eddie Murphy providing the voice of Mulan’s beloved (but controversial) dragon sidekick Mushu, who is sent to watch over Mulan by her family’s ancestors. 

The timeline of this version differs greatly from traditional tellings of Mulan, with the Hun army (3 BCE-1 CE) acting as the invaders against whom the titular character must fight. In addition, for this version of the story Hua Mulan’s name changes to Fa Mulan, feminist values are relatively at the fore, and Mulan falls for her commanding officer Captain Li Shang.

Ming Na Wen reprises her role as Mulan in the sequel to the original animated film by Disney, the direct-to-video and poorly-received Mulan 2. The sequel’s storyline sees Mulan and Li Shang get engaged, but through a series of zany plotlines, Mushu attempts to tear the couple apart. 

Three Very Different Mulans in 2020

All the hype for Mulan in 2020 centered on the Disney live-action remake of the 1998 animated film. While certain scenes from are a shot-for-shot remake, much of the plot is changed. In this remake, the enemy is now the Rouran, a tribe that lived from the 4th to 6th century CE, thus following closer to the original story set during the Northern Wei Dynasty. Historical inaccuracies still feature however, perhaps most prominently the use of Fujian tulou for Mulan’s home — structures that wouldn’t be built until for another 1,000 years or so after the Northern Wei.

Additionally, there’s no Li Shang and no Mushu the dragon, omissions that irked some people. Released on Disney+ on September 4th, this new version of Mulan continues to see critical and audience reception tumble, with viewers on Douban giving the film 4.7 out of 10, and the audience score for the film on Rotten Tomatoes standing at 53%

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What Do Chinese Viewers Think of Disney’s “Mulan” Remake?

The live-action movie is not the only iteration of the Mulan story to be released this year, however. Matchless Mulan (无双花木兰 Wushuang Hua Mulan) came out in May, representing a bloodier, grittier tale. In this version, Mulan also battles Rouran forces who invade China. The action in this one is lacking however, something borne out in online scoring of the film, which now holds a 4.7 rating out of 10 on Douban.

Finally, Kung Fu Mulan (木兰: 横空出世 Mulan: Hengkong Chushi) an animated adaptation of the Mulan story is set to hit Chinese cinemas on October 1 this year. Growing up in a martial arts family, Mulan is exceedingly skilled in fighting, but also arrogant, and must find a way to overcome her difficulties after she is captured by enemy forces.

Bryan Grogan
    Bryan is RADII's Culture Editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He can be found at a music show, usually with pint in hand.