Based on a legend from medieval China, Mulan is the story of a girl who disguises herself as a man and goes to war in place of her father. At the time of the film’s release in 1998, it was widely rumoured that the Chinese government banned it because they were so insulted by Disney’s interpretation. In actual fact, they were in a sulk because Miramax had backed a film about the Dalai Lama, and refused to distribute any Disney films at all. Ironically, Mulan was used as a bargaining chip by Disney to help smooth over their relations, and while this succeeded, the film didn’t. Despite taking $300 million elsewhere, Mulan proved to be a substantial flop in the country of its heroine. The reason? Other than it having a rubbish release date, it seems that Disney was just as adept at disguising the title character. So, how different is their version from the source text?
I say “source text”, but Mulan is a folktale, so there are countless iterations that have been bandied about over the years. The earliest recorded version, Poem of Mulan, written sometime between 386 and 533 A.D., isn’t particularly long and doesn’t divulge that many details. It pretty much consists of “Mulan gets bored of weaving, goes to war instead of father, wins, comes home and carries on weaving”. Regardless of how badass it sounds, it’s not enough to be compared with a full-length feature film.
I’ve therefore picked what is thought to be the first ever “play” of Mulan for my comparison, the all-too-literally titled The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of her Father, by an arty chap named Xu Wei. It was composed during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and apparently kick-started the Mulan legend for a new generation (albeit one nine hundred years after the first).
So, aside from the drastically different title, what else separates the Disney film from its revered ancestor?
The Set Up
Shan Yu, head of the Huns, saw the Great Wall and thought, “Challenge accepted”.
He rallies his vast army and prepares to invade China and overthrow the emperor, for nothing other than playground-level spite. To ensure victory, the emperor orders one man from every family to join the campaign, and sends out his men to serve conscription notices.
A bandit known as Leopard Skin, who probably sounded far more menacing to audiences in 16th Century China, gathers hundreds of thousands of men in a rebellion against the emperor and declares himself king. (I did try to find an image of him, but typing his name into Google brought up some photos I’d rather forget.) Given that the emperor’s army was engaged in “subduing the east”, Leopard Skin is rather more sympathetic, but he poses a threat to the status quo and so must be quashed. The emperor serves conscription notices on every family to help join the war effort.
Essentially, Disney’s enemy comes from outside and is an invading force, whereas Wei’s is an uprising and a threat to the emperor’s ego. In addition, the film shows us the Huns attacking the Great Wall and the emperor’s reaction; the play simply sees Mulan stand in front of the audience and give a monologue. Which brings us to the title character.
Mulan is the only child of Fa Zhou, a former hero of the imperial army. She can win a game of Chinese chequers on the wing, and trick a dog into doing the housework, but astonishingly these skills do not help her find a husband in medieval China. While she looks the part, she manages to set fire to the matchmaker, and then dishonours her father and embarrasses her village by daring to speak in front of the army recruiters.
In case you were wondering, no, Mulan doesn’t really fit in with her restrictive environment, and is outspoken and forward thinking. We can therefore empathise with her, as she has even less of a clue how to act in medieval Chinese society than we do.
She is a constant disappointment to her loving parents, and part of the reason she goes to war is to prove her worth to them, and to express herself more freely. (By dressing up as a man, obviously.) Unfortunately, she has probably never left her village, and has no knowledge of weapons or physical combat, so the army commanders find her equally endearing.
By contrast, Wei’s Mulan is a complete badass.
A confident seventeen year-old, this Mulan is already versed in martial arts, sword-fighting and archery – she just put it on hold to get on with the far manlier task of weaving. Due to her strength and “smarts”, as she puts it, she was able to pick up these skills from her father from a young age, so she can easily pass muster as a man. When her father is conscripted, it’s completely sane and logical for her to go instead of him, and she takes to the task with gusto. Thanks to her skills, the army snap her up and keenly welcome her into the fold.
Equally, in an amazing display of versatility, when she returns from war she is able to put her glad rags back on and carry on with her weaving as a woman, with no sign of a flaming matchmaker or dishonoured parents anywhere.
Disney’s Mulan is initially an epic failure both as a woman and a man, and is far more restricted and introspective. She goes to war to redeem herself, and we sympathise with her not least because we’d also be bricking it in a battle, but because she doesn’t fit in with her restrictive society and wants to be true to herself. In fact, she’s really just a normal teenage girl who has been transplanted into medieval China. Conversely, Wei’s Mulan has no sense of awkwardness and fits seamlessly into society whether she is a woman or disguised as a man. What’s more, she doesn’t go to war to prove herself – she does it out of filial duty, and because her country needs her. She is perched firmly on a pedestal, and is intended to be emulated due to her strength and passion for her country and family.
Preparing for War
Mulan is angry that her ailing father has been forced to enlist again when there are plenty of expendable young men available. Her father says it’s important to do what’s right and to know one’s place, and ominously implies that it is time for her to do the same. Since she can’t face the idea of her father going to war, or replacing dog-teasing and arson with make-up and endless tea-pouring, Mulan runs crying out into a storm.
After much soul-searching atop the dragon statue in the garden, she decides to take her father’s place in the army. In the middle of the night, accompanied by a random burst of 80s electronica, she steals his armour and replaces his conscription notice with her hair ornament.
Her family wakes up in the night to find her missing. Her mother urges the father to go after her or she will be killed, but he knows the Chinese army takes a firm stand against cross-dressing, and will kill her anyway if she is discovered, so all they can do is stare forlornly at the symbolically banging gate.
As soon as she hears about her father’s conscription, Mulan drags her servant out shopping to get some military supplies, thinking if she looks the part first, her family will be less likely to fall about laughing when she says what she is going to do.
While dressing up, she has to carefully unbind her feet – keeping in mind she will need to rebind them if she ever wants to get a husband after the war – and then practice her martial arts and sword skills for good measure. Finally ready, she approaches her parents, and charitably suggests that her father cannot go to war, and her little brother and sister are too young, so, who does that leave?
Rather uncharitably, her father says nothing during the entire exchange, whereas her mother seems more concerned about whether Mulan will return a virgin after travelling and sleeping next to all those fine specimens of men. Mulan assures her she will return a virtuous woman, and then heeds the call of the army recruiters when they arrive at the house. Her family lauds her and then cries as she leaves on her horse.
Disney’s Mulan decides to run away and join the army as a last resort to protect her father, and potentially escape a life that she is not suited to. For Wei’s Mulan, joining the army instead of her ailing father is a duty, but she must still convince her parents and seek their approval first. Another key difference is that Disney’s version explicitly states that the army will kill Mulan if she is discovered to be female, but Wei’s version makes no such claim, although it does imply she mustn’t be discovered. So, does she manage to pull it off?
Life in the Army
As I mentioned earlier, Mulan, now calling herself “Ping”, has never left her village and has lived the life of a sheltered and demure country girl. Fortunately (or not) she is schooled in the ways of manliness by her sidekick, the mini guardian dragon Mushu (more on him later), but she still manages to fall out with the rest of the recruits, and I don’t mean in the military sense.
Said recruits play tricks on her so she fails her training, to the extent she is nearly sent home as a washout. But, in true Disney fashion, she convinces Captain Li Shang she is made of stronger stuff, and uses her practical way of thinking to solve an endurance test involving an arrow. This, coupled with the obligatory musical montage,
successfully turns her into a soldier and wins the respect of her comrades. It’s implied this takes a certain number of weeks.
Mulan (now Hu) is recommended as an able soldier pretty much on sight.
In this story, Ping is the first name of the commanding general. He picks Mulan for the not unimportant task of cutting through the battlefront and capturing Leopard Skin when they mount their next attack.
There is not much detail at all about Mulan’s army life in this version, which is ironic given the length of time she purportedly stays there. In any case, Disney’s Mulan has to earn respect and her position amongst the ranks, whereas for Wei’s Mulan it’s an embarrassingly easy ride, even when it comes to fighting.
Halfway through their trek to war, Mulan and the soldiers come across a town that has been sacked by the invading Hun army. It seems that the general, Captain Li’s father, is also lying somewhere in the remains of the village, together with the rest of the imperial army.
Mulan suddenly realises what she’s gotten herself into, and the gravity of the situation is brought home to the soldiers when they end up getting ambushed in the mountains.
Admittedly, Disney had a bit of a dilemma here. Mulan has to become a war hero, but to become a war hero, one must inevitably shoot people with arrows or hack them up with a sword, neither of which constitutes family viewing. Also, by this point the hundred or so imperial soldiers are ridiculously outnumbered.
How does Mulan earn her stripes in this version? In an ingenious move by Disney (or cop out, depending on your view), she takes the last cannon and fires it at the mountain, creating an avalanche.
The avalanche is very picky, deciding to mostly bury the Hun army, but it does also engulf Captain Li. Riding her trusty black horse, Mulan dashes to the rescue and saves him, therefore earning kudos and his trust.
Unfortunately, Shan Yu managed to injure her in the process, and he later wakes up in the snow, leading the last remaining members of the Hun army into the capital.
By the time Mulan has joined the army, the majority of the bandit army has been wiped out by General Xiu Ping. All that’s left is for them to lure Leopard Skin out of his hideout in some steep cliffs by firing a catapult. Once he reveals himself, it’s up to Mulan to capture him.
The “fighting” in the stage directions consists mainly of the head bandit darting out in front of the ranks a couple of times, after which Mulan grabs him and hands him over to be arrested. Job done.
Xiu Ping tells the men they will get a pay rise and have three whole meals a day, but they must also bowdown to Mulan (or Hua Hu)’s badassery.
Disney’s Mulan shows both the aftermath of a battle as well as a fight that’s literally for life and death, demonstrating the steep price of war. The army only triumphs against impossible odds due to Mulan’s quick thinking, but Mulan herself ends up paying a price here. For Wei’s tale, the battle is over extremely quickly and there is no sense of threat or urgency – it’s implied that the bandit’s game is already up, and they’re simply trying to flush the mouse out of the hole. War itself is not portrayed as a desperate struggle, or as something that has any consequences.
Brothers in Arms
Mulan cultivates a friendship with three other equally useless soldiers once she has proven her worth. You don’t really need to know their names, you can designate them as Fatty, Skinny, and Tough Guy.
They help save Mulan and Captain Li in the avalanche, as well as provide comic relief (or shock value, if you count the scene where they’re bathing). Captain Li himself also serves as the love interest, and consequently spends seventy-five per cent of the film walking around with his shirt off.
Apart from her soldier buddies, Mulan also has help from an ancestral guardian called Mushu.
Actually, he’s a disgraced ancestral guardian who has been demoted to ringing a gong to wake up the real guardians. He proves to be a failure at this too, and so decides to go after Mulan to help her become a war hero and redeem himself. When Chi Fu, the emperor’s advisor, doesn’t think that Li’s troops are fit for war, Mushu forges a dispatch ordering them to go to battle immediately. So you can add “war mongering bastard” to this little dragon’s C.V., together with “being voiced by Eddie Murphy”.
This Mulan also has soldier buddies, which are lovingly referred to as “SOLDIERS” throughout the play. They are nothing more than stage hands really, and serve only to lead Mulan to and from the army camp at the beginning and end of the tale. There is no love interest among this motley crew, in fact Mulan is married off to her next-door neighbour as soon as she gets home.
As for ancestral guardians, as far as Chinese fables go the legend of Mulan is actually considered mundane, because there are no supernatural elements in it whatsoever. There are no spiritual ancestors lending her a hand, and no tiny dragon sassing off in her ear either. This makes the story simply about a girl who goes to war in the place of her father, and for this reason it is considered all the more compelling and universal.
Wei’s version is more heavily focused on Mulan, and the other characters are only really used to set the scene and represent her actions. The lack of supernatural elements makes the story more realistic, and this was probably the author’s intention – there is nothing particularly special about Mulan, and she could be pretty much anyone going to war. The Disney film tries to paint a broader picture about life as a soldier, and also introduce western audiences to some aspects of Chinese culture. The fact that her ancestors are involved gives her more of an aura of “the chosen one” and highlights the importance of her actions, in that she is breaking free of her restrictive society.
By this point in the story, both Mulans have shown their figurative balls by becoming lauded soldiers and war heroes. However, their lack of literal balls can’t remain a secret forever.
A Revealing Dress
When Mulan has finally redeemed herself amongst the soldiers, she develops a more devil-may-care attitude and decides to go bathing in the river away from her comrades, despite Mushu’s concern about “the couple of things they’re bound to notice”. She therefore comes a cropper when they all rush in to join her, and politely ask if she will join them in a bout of naked wrestling.
Mushu proves he can be useful by biting the bum of one trooper who gets too close, making all the men evacuate the water screaming. Unfortunately, such bottom-biting antics don’t save Mulan later on in battle when she is bitch-slapped by Shan Yu’s sword, and she requires urgent medical attention.
The medic is subsequently surprised to see her humps and lady lumps, and explains his little discovery to Captain Li and Chi Fu. This goes over about as well as you’d expect, as in not at all.
Since having breasts is deserving of capital punishment, Mulan is thrown into the snow and Captain Li approaches her menacingly with this sword. However, in a show of astounding gratitude, he decides not to execute her because she was kind enough to save his life a few moments earlier. Instead she is abandoned in the middle of the mountains with her horse, her sassy dragon and a lucky cricket, so at least they were kind enough to leave her some food. They then all march off to the capital, disgusted by a woman who clearly did not know her limits.
Once the smell of her face powder and the mark of her hair ornament have faded, all Mulan has to worry about is making sure she goes to the toilet in private. For some reason this strikes the other recruits as odd, but there is no suspicion that she is anything other than a manly man underneath all that armour, nor are there any comical close shaves involving male nudity.
Naturally, this leads Mulan to voluntarily reveal herself as a woman to her comrades. Actually, nonchalantly is nearer the mark. After the war, she invites her soldier buddies back to her home village, and then disappears into the house to greet her parents and put some slap on. Her soldiers march in after her and happen to notice she is suddenly female.
Instead of baring their swords, shouting about dishonour and threatening to rend her into tiny pieces, they gasp and shout with elation, saying this is the greatest miracle of all time and pretty much slapping each other on the back in wonder. Then they go home.
So, in a play that was actually written in medieval China, and includes misogynistic anachronisms such as foot-binding, the Chinese army are totally okay with the fact that Mulan is a woman. Whereas in the Disney version, Mulan would have otherwise faced death, and loses all of her heroic kudos in the time it takes to flutter her eyelids. Okay, did I really say that Disney has a habit of sanitising the original story?
On to the Capital
Just as she is ready to call it a day and go home, Mulan notices some of the Huns have survived the avalanche and are heading for the emperor’s palace. She charges down to the capital to warn everyone, but because she is now just a piffling woman no one believes her. Shan Yu takes the emperor hostage, and Mulan and her former soldier buddies band together to save him, resulting in a showdown between Mulan and Shan Yu on the roof of the imperial palace.
With the help of Mushu, she manages to kill Shan Yu using fireworks (yes, seriously. And what’s her obsession with explosions?), and is commended by the emperor for her bravery.
Luckily, the huge crowd amassed in front of the palace is still there, having stood obediently by while the Huns attacked the emperor, and bear witness to Mulan being offered the job as imperial advisor, despite Chi Fu’s objections (fair enough considering it’s his job she’s being offered).
Despite this great honour, Mulan decides it’s time she went home to see her father, and so accepts her gifts of the emperor’s crest and the sword of Shan Yu before riding her trusty steed home.
General Xiu Ping and Mulan visit the emperor’s court to hand over Leopard Skin. He is to be beheaded, and at Ping’s recommendation, the emperor’s eunuch offers Mulan the position of court officer as a reward and gives her an official cap and girdle. She declines her court position, saying she must return home to her family, but will one day repay them “as a dog or horse would its master”. I’m assuming it’s more to do with loyalty than muzzles or leather straps.
In any case, this all takes place with Mulan still in her disguise as a man. She meets up with her soldier buddies, who say they too have been rewarded positions as centurions, so they all ride off together in the direction of Mulan’s home.
It’s not all happiness and light however, as Mulan suddenly has an identity crisis and thinks she is unworthy of her reward, as it was not really her that helped win the war, but her male alter ego Hu.
In true Hollywood style, the Disney version has a final battle in the ornate imperial palace, and this allows Mulan to reattain her status as a hero, as well as striking a blow for women’s rights. The play sees the events brought easily to a close and Mulan shying away from her reward, not least because she is unsure who deserves the credit, but because she was only doing her duty. What’s more, the rewards are offered to her male disguise, not the Mulan underneath.
Mulan returns home to her father and presents him with the emperor’s gifts.
He rather ungraciously drops them on the ground and hugs her instead, as all he wanted was her safe return. Her mother and grandmother hover by the gate, not knowing what to do, and then a sheepish Captain Li appears, having been wooed by Mulan’s heroism and dedication to her father.
She openly invites him to dinner, while Mushu and her ancestors have a boozy victory party in the family shrine.
Essentially, Mulan is more confident, but she has the same disregard for social norms she did before. For instance, in the capital, and clearly a woman, she can’t understand why people suddenly aren’t listening to her. She is no longer a shy and demure female, and this contrasts with the reactions of her mother and grandmother when she returns home. So, she has learned nothing at all – but luckily has enough confidence, kudos and figurative balls for her behaviour not to matter any more.
Mulan returns home to her family, and we learn that she has actually been in the army for twelve years. Um, they seemed to capture Leopard Skin fairly quickly, so I’m guessing they either went on a massive decade-long victory bender, or there was an epic map fail on the way home.
That aside, she does the complete opposite of Disney’s Mulan – she reverts back to being a modest and demure woman. Even before she has arrived home, her parents are busily arranging her next door neighbour as a husband for her. In fact, they are worrying about how they can encourage her to come home – assuming she has survived the war – so that she can be married off and they can then die with a “clear conscience”.
When she does come back, they are happy to see her and the cap and girdle from the emperor, and at the news that she is still a “little box of dogwood bud in the spring winds”, i.e. still has her V-plates. When her husband-to-be comes over to visit her, Mulan becomes shy and retiring once again, much to her mother’s surprise, because his having passed his civics and composition exams far outweighs her achievements at the emperor’s court apparently. As Mulan ponders her wedding, she also ponders who she is and who really became the war hero, and that the line between male and female has been blurred.
In spite of their different messages and stories, both versions of Mulan see the heroine question her own identity. Disney’s Mulan is unsure of who she is right from the beginning, because she is stifled by her restrictive culture and the role she is therefore forced to play. Conversely, Wei’s Mulan is entirely comfortable in her own person and society, and it’s only when she starts acting like a man that she becomes conflicted.
Disney’s version uses Mulan’s character as a trailblazer for being true to one’s self despite being persecuted or restricted. This is why there is a true sense of threat to both Mulan and her comrades, both in society as a whole and on the battlefield. Although no hand-to-hand fight between the armies is shown, the situation is much more life-threatening in terms of the enemy and how far Mulan can push the limits of her behaviour. After she has become a war hero, the world shifts ever so slightly in that it suddenly allows her to be herself.
Wei’s play, on the other hand, uses Mulan to show that it is everyone’s duty and within everyone’s power to serve their family and country, regardless of their status and gender – but that it’s still important for everyone to know their place in society and act accordingly. This is arguably why Mulan starts questioning who the real war hero is, as such kudos can’t really be given to a woman in her times, and this is emphasised by the fact that she receives her honour from the emperor while still in her disguise as a man. What’s more, despite her adventures, her life after the war and how other people see her has not changed in any way.
Picking a war story was a strange move for Disney anyway, but even more so considering their version leans more towards feminism than the patriotism found in the original, and is more blatant about what actually happens before and after a battle. In fact, you could argue that Wei’s play is far more Disneyesque in that everything’s happy and okay, and the main character triumphs over impossible odds without any fear of it being otherwise. All Wei’s version needed was a wacky supernatural sidekick, and then it would have cracked the traditional Disney formula four hundred years ahead of time.
In conclusion, this is another notch for Disney against my original notion that they sanitise every single source text that they lay their hands on.
1) Mulan, 1998. Film. Directed by Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook. U.S.A. Walt Disney Pictures.
2) Kwa, Shiamin and Idema, Wilt L. – Mulan, Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts. Hackett Publishing Company, 2010 (U.S.A.), ISBN-13: 978-1-60384-196-2
3)Mulan bridges diplomatic divide, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/287784.stm
4) Chinese unimpressed with Disney’s Mulan, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment
5) China vs. Disney, the Battle for China, http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1944598,00.html