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The Politics of a New Mulan

Date & Time

Sep. 11, 2020
10:00am – 11:00am ET


Disney green-lit a remake of its 1998 classic in 2015. At that time, U.S.-China co-productions were still in vogue, the U.S. National Security Strategy had not yet labelled China a threat greater than terrorism, and there was no trade war or pandemic. As the film is released in September of 2020, its bad guys—Mongolians—are being told that their children can’t study in their mother tongue and an international protest movement is boycotting the film because two of its stars backed the police against demonstrators in Hong Kong.

This was a discussion of the evolving Mulan legend, the film’s gender and racial representations, and Mulan’s worldwide reception in the era of Sino-U.S. rivalry.

Selected Quotes

Rebecca Davis, Beijing Bureau Chief, Variety

“In terms of the actual artistic reception, it's very interesting to see how the conversation around Mulan initially has been one all about representation, the fact that this is one of the first major blockbusters to have an all Asian cast, it was celebrated certainly initially, whereas in China, it was received as extremely out of touch - it has bad rating now (a 4.7 out of 10, which is embarrassing). What’s very interesting is the things that Disney clearly put in the film that they thought were more original or authentic to the ballad turned out to be a big flop.”

“Disney has huge financial interests in China because of their two parks: one in Hong Kong and one in Shanghai, Shanghai which opened in 2016. This isn’t just about films for them, this is about maintaining a relationship so that they can continue to have a park there because that continues to be a huge, huge cash cow for them. Beyond just ticket sales and entering the park, there is all sorts of merchandising. They have a whole system of Disney English classrooms throughout the country. They have huge business interest in China that aren’t even just box-offices and those are probably even greater than what they get from the box-office, especially these days as the Chinese audience has shifted towards preferring local films.”

“Just from a practical point of view, right now I personally think that any major US-China co-production is on ice for the near future purely because it is impossible politically in China now to hire a prominent American director, to feature a US star, because of the politics [...] China is very punishing in terms of what is allowed to play. Any investment would require a lot of risk from a company and financing, and they take a long time. If you are financing something now, it won’t come out for two to three years. And it's too great of a risk right now politically to prominently use US casts or financing, things like that.”

Lan Dong, Professor of English, University of Illinois Springfield

“You can see the transformation of history in China as it has become already entangled with politics over the years. In terms of her [Mulan] adaptations and retellings in English, by the 19th century, we see English translation of the ballad and then in the early 20th century there were plays and stage performances adapting her story. Those were not very well known until the 1970s when Maxine Hong Kingston published The Woman Warrior. That’s a landmark work not only in Asian-American literature but also American literature in general.”

“I think the quality of the film would not change the political debates we are having right now. It may not have the same exact debates but I think that we would still be talking about these issues, we still have to address them in relation to the film”

“In addition to surnames, the importance of having different surnames puts her [Mulan] into different family lineages: if she’s the daughter of Hua family, later documents would invent entire family lineages for her from grandparents, great grandparents, parents, and so on, generations. They would invent her birthdays, burial sites, so yes there are a lot of details attached to these different surnames. And Hua is a very uncommon surname for Han Chinese, to go back to what Rebecca mentioned as the possible and very ethnic identity of Mulan. She is as far as we know most likely not Han Chinese based on the ballad [...] So that also gives her a different position within China in terms of ethnicity, in terms of location, and in terms of situating her as a legendary figure or as a historical figure.”

Hosted By

Kissinger Institute on China and the United States

The mission of Kissinger Institute on China and the United States is to ensure that informed engagement remains the cornerstone of U.S.-China relations.  Read more

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