The Legacy of Mulan: Disney’s Faux-Pas

By: Elisheva Zahtz  |  September 30, 2020

By Elisheva Zahtz, Features Editor

It is not unfair to say that the release of the new live-action version of Disney’s “Mulan” was one of the most anticipated releases of 2020. It is also not unfair to say that the release of this movie has resulted in cultural embarrassments, controversy, and offense. 

The Ballad of Mulan” is a Northern Chinese folktale telling the story of a young woman who takes her father’s place in the army. She served for 12 years before revealing herself to her comrades. The ballad’s ending line: “When a pair of rabbits run side by side, who can distinguish male from female?” may be familiar to many of us who have seen the movie as Mulan’s statement to her parents before they inform her she will be married. The Ballad is a proud piece of Northern Chinese culture and heritage. 

This explains why so many Northern Chinese people were upset by the presentation of Mulan’s village and Mulan herself in the new live-action movie. The circular village structure depicted in the movie is from Southern China — it’s known as a “tulou,” something common to Southeastern China. The issues with setting in the movie have created much upset among Chinese fans who feel Northern China’s representation in the movie has been botched and lost. However, this is not the only cultural misrepresentation upsetting fans about the movie.

The Chinese culture throughout the movie has been highly Westernized, earning the criticism from some fans that Disney is portraying “‘an American-style ancient China,’” and that the movie shows “a foreign, superficial understanding of China.” The description of qi (or “chi”) throughout the movie is explained as something “only men can use.” But the nature of qi, as explained by a frustrated Chinese fan on Twitter, is that qi is the basic life force inside everyone and every person. The attempt of the movie to show Mulan’s use of qi as feminist inherently goes against the basic concept of qi. Additionally, the explanation of the bird spirit as a “witch” is inherently Western, as there is no concept of witches in Eastern mythology. Spirits are common, but the explanation of Mulan being considered a “witch” is incorrect. The phoenix has also been Westernized, since Eastern phoenixes do not burn away and rise from the ashes. Perhaps the most glaring cultural upset is the depiction of Mulan’s makeup when she prepares for the matchmaker. The elements of traditional Chinese makeup is there — the cherry blossom lips, and the floral decoration on the forehead, but the rest has been applied sloppily and almost appears to be making a mockery of the art. 

Of course, the cultural upset is not the only offense Disney has committed with this film. More recently, with the release of the movie, the reality that they have interacted with political stances and entities has brought the hashtag #BoycottMulan into attention. 

The actress they chose for Mulan, Liu Yifei, has spoken out against Hong Kong and the protests for democracy taking place there. Her messages supporting the police read, “I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now,” and “what a shame for Hong Kong.” These comments were made and published in Summer 2019, but they have come back into light as the movie was released and people began to realize that there were deep-running controversies. This is, however, only one of the pieces to bring Disney’s new remake under fire. 

One of the places credited with filming is the province in China known as Xinjiang. This is a province notorious for containing at least 14 different internment camps and concentration camps run by the Turpan public security bureau — which is listed on the U.S. Commerce Department’s sanctions list. They have detained and interned masses of Uighur Muslims and other ethnicities in these camps, which the survivors liken to “prisons,” rather than the advertised “vocational training,” or “reeducation camps.” U.S. Senator Marco Rubio joined together with many other senators, penning a letter to the CEO of Disney, condemning him for the choice to film in such a place and inquiring about their cooperation with such people. 

To paint the movie in such a Western light, and to ignore the roots and the spirit of the story, leaves people disappointed, disgusted, and hurt. Cultural influences were portrayed badly and/or neglected, and American national sanctions appear to have been ignored in favor of filming in an area known for horrendous treatment of its people. As of right now there has been no official response from Disney, and their statement is anxiously awaited.