The “Representation” in ‘Mulan’ Throws Marginalized Peoples in Asia Under the Bus

Mulan is a western Orientalist fantasy, as well as a Han supremacist fantasy.

Mulan (Yifei Liu) in Disney's Mulan
Mulan (Yifei Liu) in Disney’s Mulan. The Walt Disney Company

Disney’s live-action Mulan has been mired in controversy, to say the least. I’d been wary since the initial announcement, and had grown more pessimistic as details emerged, from the majority white creative team to stars Liu Yifei and Donnie Yen’s support for Hong Kong police. Now that the movie is finally out, my feelings as a Hakka Taiwanese woman can be summed up in a quote from the movie itself: “Ancestors, I could not.”

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Mulan is a western Orientalist fantasy, from its flattening of cultures and depiction of mindless imperial loyalty, to its obsession with honor. At the same time, it’s a Han supremacist fantasy that pushes for assimilation inside and outside of the nebulous ethnic category of “Han.”

In making Mulan’s home a Hakka tulou, the movie places her in a specific cultural context with a specific set of values. (A few other cultures have similar buildings, but director Niki Caro has specified its Hakka origins.) So I was beyond confused when Mulan got berated for chasing chickens. She’s forced to hide her active physicality and abundance of qi midi-chlorians to salvage her marriage prospects. None of it makes sense because Mulan’s central ideological obstacle contradicts traditional Hakka gender roles.

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Those gender roles were far from perfect, but they were inextricably tied to a long history of struggle. Hakka history is complicated and multi-faceted, but punctuated by strife and subjugation. They migrated south to escape war and persecution, and erected the tulou in self-defense. Environmental conditions were harsh, so everyone did manual labor regardless of gender.

So why the hell is Mulan expected to sit still and pour tea?

It may seem like a small tweak. Artistic license, if you will. But struggle is baked into the very foundations of the tulou. Hakka women had relatively higher standing than in other cultures because every hand was needed to survive on poor mountain soil. Attempting to separate the tulou from the people and culture for aesthetic reasons is insulting, especially since Hakka culture has been dying away in part due to deliberate policies enacted by Chinese hegemony.

Keep in mind that Hakka people are considered ethnically Han. It’s no surprise then that the situation is even more dire for peoples that aren’t categorized or assimilated as Han. Just look at the movie’s egregious depiction of Rourans and the real history of persecution non-Han peoples have faced. You’d need five U-Hauls and someone with that lived experience to fully unpack all of that Han supremacy. My background is limited, so I leave those stories to people actually from places like East Turkestan, Tibet and Southern Mongolia.

What I will say is that the Chinese nationalism also hit me hard as a Taiwanese woman. It’s the brand of nationalism peddled by the CCP to justify the use of armed forces should Taiwan declare independence. It’s reminiscent of the early Kuomintang (KMT) government in Taiwan, who pulled just about every trick in the authoritarian playbook, from prohibiting “lesser” cultures to wholesale slaughter. I grew up with mandatory national defense classes that included hands-on trips to a military shooting range. I grew up ready to be bombed at any second, so used to the threat that it almost became a joke, because what could we possibly do anyway? The legend of Mulan has always had an ethnocentric streak, but this movie has exacerbated it in a fragile political climate fraught with genuine danger.

This is why praise for Mulan’s supposed Asian representation falls flat. Representation is absolutely a legitimate concern in the diaspora. Yet it’s hard to celebrate these shallow portrayals when they throw marginalized peoples under the bus. This iteration of Hua Mulan would gladly kick an arrow at me. The legend of Mulan is fictionalized, but the people in Asia are real. Besides, the movie actually offers tokenism and caricatures, not representation.

When the Mulan teaser dropped last summer, the most bizarre exchange happened on Twitter. I pointed out the potential harm in Frankensteining cultures for a two-dimensional Chinese aesthetic. Then a white man replied that China was arguably fictional, referencing scholarly texts in some lofty intellectual exercise irrelevant to the matter at hand. I explained in vain that China and its neighbors were, you know, real places with real people, not amorphous exotic blobs to be discussed in abstract terms. And now, a year later, I’ve run out of ways to say that we are human on the other side of the world, too.

Observation Points is a semi-regular discussion of key details in our culture.

The “Representation” in ‘Mulan’ Throws Marginalized Peoples in Asia Under the Bus