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Hua Mulan, China and me

With all the controversy around Disney's Mulan, are we at risk of forgetting the lessons the original legend teaches about defying gender norms?

London-based comedienne Ginnia Cheng awaited Mulan’s release with an anticipation she’d never felt for a film before. But with all the controversy around it, are we at risk of forgetting the lessons the original legend teaches about defying gender norms? By Ginnia Cheng. 

For East Asian women across the globe, it’s safe to say that Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan was the most anticipated movie of 2020. Okay, who am I kidding? It was, without a doubt, my most anticipated movie ever. 

22 years after we got our one-and-only Disney Princess to dress up as for Halloween, this film was supposed to be our moment, our hero come to life, our Black Panther. Instead, we got controversy, calls for boycott and more negative attention than any other blockbuster film of 2020. 

Being from Hong Kong, believe me, I have my own angry opinions on China’s socio-political issues that I have to censor – both because of the swear words and to make sure I don’t one day ”mysteriously disappear”. But when it comes to Mulan, I’m mainly furious that the 2020 film may end up overshadowing the original legend that inspired the Disney franchise, at a time when the values it teaches are more important than ever. 

Disney’s Mulan was most antecipated by Asian women.

First told in the Ballad Of Mulan in the 6th Century, the story goes that Hua Mulan takes her elderly father’s place in the army when he gets conscripted, as she has no older brothers. For 12 years, she fights gallantly alongside her colleagues who are shocked when her gender is revealed, and she turns down a high-ranking position to return to her family.

Real or not,  the story is a brilliant first lesson into the complexities of gender politics and the realities of historical patriarchy. For young girls of Chinese heritage, the legend is a real lifeline in a deeply patriarchal culture where being male is not only openly preferred, but girls are so undervalued that female infanticide has been practiced for thousands of years. In China, this preference for boys was sadly compounded by its historical One Child Policy, which led to millions of female fetuses being aborted. As of 2018, China has about 30 million more men than women

Having broken a three generation streak of oldest boys, Mulan means a lot to me. Here’s a riddle: I’m the only child of an eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son – and also a girl. What am I? Answer: A disappointment. In fact, when I was a baby my great-grandmother told my mother that I actually did have a penis, but I ran too fast in the womb and it fell off! I don’t really talk about it much; 32 years later, it still feels like a fresh scar. Emotionally, I mean – not where my willy fell off.  

There is no doubt that my family all love and cherish me. But culture runs deep and there are constant reminders that my arrival was a let-down, that not being a boy devalues my worth. 

I clung on to the legend of Hua Mulan as a little girl, because every time my mother told it, an exciting new feeling grew in my tummy that I later learned was called ’empowerment’. I also chose a path in life that goes against many of the values my culture uphold, perhaps as a reaction against tradition. But the strength of the legend means even to this day, as a 32-year-old woman, if I’m about to make a decision that goes against the grain or makes me question my worth as an East Asian woman, I still ask myself: what Would Mulan Do?

The live-action remake of Mulan is available on Disney +.

Yet hardly two weeks have passed since the film’s release and the top Googled question about Mulan is already “Is Mulan on Disney Plus?” See for yourself how the search volume totally overshadows the next two top searches of “Is Mulan real” and “Is Mulan a true story”.

I was delighted when parents around the world pledged to introduce their children to a more diverse range of voices and stories at the height of the recent Black Lives Matter movement. It was Hua Mulan’s time to shine – not only is there is no lover’s sub-plot in any later version of the myth until Disney stepped in (sorry Li Shang faithfuls), this strong yet humble character stands out in a world where women in mythology are either portrayed as deceitful and manipulative harpies, or weak and vulnerable victims. I truly hope parents won’t let a tale that’s been so powerful for so many, be forgotten amongst the call for boycotts of the movie. 

I’ve seen some people take issue with how the story might imply “you have to act like a man to be respected like a man”, but the original Ballad ends with Mulan asking “A male hare’s front legs are always moving, while a female hare’s eyes are always squinting. But when they’re both running together, how can you tell which is male and which is female?” (copyright goes to mum for her original translation). A legend from over two thousand years ago that teaches how regardless of your gender,  physical attributes or exterior oddities, we’re all equal at heart. In today’s increasingly socially-conscious world, is there a more valuable lesson to teach both kids and adults? 

Ginnia Cheng is a London-based comedienne and co-founder of sex-positive comedy collective Sex Standing Up