OPINION: Mulan – Learning from a Chinese feminist icon

By Yu Bai
Delta Digital News Service

The origin of Mulan’s story can be traced back several centuries and before it became a much-loved cartoon image created by Disney in the 90s. This year, film director Niki Caro adapted the story into a live-action movie for the big screen.

Yu Bai/ DDNS Social Media Coordinator

Yifei Liu, the actress cast as Hua Mulan, is the first Chinese actress selected to star in a Disney movie. This historic casting is one of the reasons the movie has demanded a huge box office in China.  As such, Liu as Mulan represents the breaking of traditional societal constraints of Chinese women.

The story of a Mulan is that of a Chinese woman who disguised herself as a man in order to replace her elderly father in the army. As a solider, Mulan would inevitably engage in combat, eventually becoming a heroine on the battlefield.

Mulan is witty, brave, and self-conscious. She is the ordinary girl who became extraordinary – the ‘heroine’ that everyone hopes become. When her country needs her, she stepped forward and made the sacrifice. More importantly, her actions were not driven by the actions of men as were most Chinese women at that time. Mulan proved through her efforts that women also have the strength to protect and defend their families.

The boldness of her choice is evident, as hundreds of years ago, China was a feudal society where women were subordinate to men. Mulan reflects the hardworking, kind, and brave character found in traditional Chinese women which inspired future women to strive for self-improvement and challenge the status quo.

The story also teaches young women an important lesson  – the pursuit of a self-satisfying identity can only happen when you shed society’s “good girl” constraints to become who you were meant to be inside.

In addition, the legend of Mulan has created a new understanding of how traditional eastern women are defined in Western culture. Whether in fairy tales or in Disney animated films, the traditional European and American princesses are always gentle and innocent, waiting to be rescued by the prince. However, as a warrior Mulan subverts this tradition.

At the end of the story, when Mulan plucked up the courage to return home, her father accepts her as she is. It conveys the attitude of family tolerance — no matter what happens, your family will always welcome you home.

In the development of the Chinese film market, there are also many outstanding actresses representing the spirit of Mulan. Successfully breaking into the Hollywood film industry, Chinese-American actress such as, Lucy Liu, known for the “Charlie Girl” series, was nominated for an Oscar in 2013. In addition, Ziyi Zhang, known for the character of Yu Jiaolong in the 1999 martial arts film, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” won the American Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress. In 2005, Zhang was shortlisted for best actress during the 63rd American Film and Television Golden Globe Awards for her film, “Memoirs of a Geisha”.

More and more Chinese actresses appear in Hollywood films breaking Hollywood movie tradition by playing roles that have historically been dominated by European and American actors and actresses.

Li’s portrayal of Mulan in the film shows a young woman who becomes a legendary feminist icon by daring to challenge and break the mold of traditional gender roles.

Editor’s Note: (Feature Image credit: Disney)