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Why Do Americans Like Mulan?

"If you’ve been waiting for an invitation, this calligraphy is it. Commissioned by Facebook, this is a hand-lettered design for a poster. Quote is Facebook mine "

- Massimo Vignelli

Mulan is familiar to Americans of all ages. With the 1998 Walt Disney animation Mulan, the historical character is as popular in the United States as she is in China. Out of the tens of thousands of stories from Chinese history and folklore, what is the special appeal to the story of Mulan? Why did Hollywood directors and producers choose this story? To better understand this appeal, we need to look into our interlinking cultures. The reason runs far deeper than just the commercial perspective. American culture is based on a Christian foundation that brings one of its core values of philanthropy to American society. With his self-sacrificing love, Jesus Christ is the perfect manifestation of philanthropy. Upon arriving in the US, Chinese people may notice an interesting phenomenon.

Mulan is familiar to Americans of all ages. With the 1998 Walt Disney animation Mulan, the historical character is as popular in the United States as she is in China.

Out of the tens of thousands of stories from Chinese history and folklore, what is the special appeal to the story of Mulan? Why did Hollywood directors and producers choose this story? To better understand this appeal, we need to look into our interlinking cultures. The reason runs far deeper than just the commercial perspective.

American culture is based on a Christian foundation that brings one of its core values of philanthropy to American society. With his self-sacrificing love, Jesus Christ is the perfect manifestation of philanthropy. Upon arriving in the US, Chinese people may notice an interesting phenomenon. In China, Buddhist or Taoist temples are mostly located in mountains. In America, churches are mostly in towns. Why? It is associated with different cultivation methods of Buddhism and Taoism as well as Christianity.

Hua mountain is famous for Tao school. Its temples were almost inaccessible in ancient time. Only one narrow path leads to the mountains. Photo/NSC


Traditionally, Buddhists and Taoists, in pursuit of compassion and truthfulness, were always disillusioned with the human world and worked towards becoming free of attachments to fame, wealth, and affection. Christianity took a different approach, placing a high value on self-sacrificing love. That is, if one can treat others as one’s family, one will not hesitate to make sacrifices for others’ benefits.

Though their methods of cultivation diverge, Buddhists, Taoists, and Christians cultivate for the same purpose of abandoning their attachments. Different roads taken have decided their cultivation sites. As a means of escape from the secular world, Taoists and monks built their temples in mountains, while Christians built their churches in towns so as to spread their love to others. Who would come to share their love if churches were located in faraway places?

A small countryside church in Hallstatt village next to the Austrian Alps. Photo/NSC

There is another critical matter. Cultivation practices in Buddhism, Taoism, or other religions at present involve immense difficulty. The difficulty is in sacrifice. With their retirement from the world, it is comparatively easy for monks or Taoists to let go of their everyday attachments. They beg for alms, appearing care-free. On the contrary, secular beings are troubled by their daily necessities like fuel, rice, oil, salt, sauce, vinegar, and tea. If they give more, they will have less. Driven by their desire for a house, a car, a promotion, and by the responsibility to raise kids, modern people suffer want of everything. How can sacrifice be possible for them? It is overwhelmingly difficult to find an example of self-sacrificing love among everyday people.

Is it that hard? Definitely! Yet there is still one example among them, the well-known Mulan. An exotic, mysterious girl in the Orient is a big selling point for a movie. This is the reason why Mulan caught Hollywood’s attention.

When it comes Mulan, many Chinese people will see her as a classic example of filial piety. In fact, this is a partial conclusion. Rather, we should recognize Mulan as an example of loyalty as well as filial piety, which is closer to the definition of loyalty in Confucianism.

As Confucius said in Xiao Jing (Classic of Filial Piety), a Confucian classic treatise on filial piety, filial piety is the foundation of virtue, while loyalty is to show filial piety to the world. That is, one should treat one’s countrymen as one’s own parents. The reason why Mulan is regarded as the perfect example of filial piety is that she not only took care of her aged father, but took his place as a soldier as he was too weak. She also fulfilled his wish to be loyal to the country.

Mulan did not blame her old father for his physical weakness. This was what set her apart from others as a heroine. Her behavior was that of devoted filial piety and loyalty. Besides, looking from the western perspective, the loyalty of treating one’s countrymen as one’s own parents is philanthropy. Isn’t it selfless love?

With a better understanding of the aspects shared by filial piety, loyalty, and philanthropy, we can grasp the deeper cultural reason for American’s preference for Mulan. Yet there is also more than the cultural reason.

American culture involves two other important aspects: one is cherished family values; the other is freedom, which is also seen as a classic foundation of American culture. Like philanthropy, traditional American family values are deeply rooted in Christian culture. The foundation of freedom and equality was laid by America’s founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Thomas Paine, and was then strengthened and developed by their outstanding successors like Abraham Lincoln. The Boston Tea Party in 1773 stated, “No taxation without representation.” Since then, American culture has placed its emphasis on “small government, big society” simply because a bigger government brings about more regulations and less personal freedom. Seen from the angles of family values and freedom, what will Mulan’s story reveal to us?

After her 12-year fight in the battlefield against the enemy, Mulan was awarded a high position and a generous salary by the emperor. However, she only wished to take care of her aged father after the end of the battle and was unaffected by such generous awards. How did Mulan prioritize her values of varying importance? Loyalty (to her countrymen rather than to the government) topped her priority list; her family should be next. What is the least important? It is the emperor, the court or the government. Judged from the American perspective, philanthropy should be the first and the family next. As for the government, it is unavoidable but should be kept small.

So, Chinese and Western cultures have these things in common. Mencius (372-289 BCE), a Confucian philosopher, said, “The people are of greatest importance, the altars of the soil and grain are next, and the ruler is of least importance.”


The Ballad of Mulan


Tsiek tsiek and again tsiek tsiek,
Mulan weaves, facing the door.
You don’t hear the shuttle’s sound,
You only hear Daughter’s sighs.
They ask Daughter who’s in her heart,

They ask Daughter who’s on her mind.
“No one is on Daughter’s heart,
No one is on Daughter’s mind.

Last night I saw the draft posters,
The Khan is calling many troops,
The army list is in twelve scrolls,
On every scroll there’s Father’s name.
Father has no grown-up son,
Mu-lan has no elder brother.
I want to buy a saddle and horse,
And serve in the army in Father’s place.”

In the East Market she buys a spirited horse,
In the West Market she buys a saddle,
In the South Market she buys a bridle,
In the North Market she buys a long whip.

At dawn she takes leave of Father and Mother,
In the evening camps on the Yellow River’s bank.
She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears the Yellow River’s flowing water cry tsien tsien.

At dawn she takes leave of the Yellow River,
In the evening she arrives at Black Mountain.
She doesn’t hear the sound of Father and Mother calling,
She only hears Mount Yen’s nomad horses cry tsiu tsiu.

She goes ten thousand miles on the business of war,
She crosses passes and mountains like flying.
Northern gusts carry the rattle of army pots,
Chilly light shines on iron armor.


Generals die in a hundred battles, Stout soldiers return after ten years.
On her return she sees the Son of Heaven,
The Son of Heaven sits in the Splendid Hall.
He gives out promotions in twelve ranks
And prizes of a hundred thousand and more.

The Khan asks her what she desires.
“Mu-lan has no use for a minister’s post.
I wish to ride a swift mount,
To take me back to my home.”
When Father and Mother hear Daughter is coming,
They go outside the wall to meet her, leaning on each other.

When Elder Sister hears Younger Sister is coming,
She fixes her rouge, facing the door.
When Little Brother hears Elder Sister is coming,
He whets the knife, quick quick, for pig and sheep.
“I open the door to my east chamber,
I sit on my couch in the west room,
I take off my wartime gown, And put on my old-time clothes.”

Facing the window she fixes her cloudlike hair,
Hanging up a mirror she dabs on yellow flower powder
She goes out the door and sees her comrades.

Her comrades are all amazed and perplexed.
Traveling together for twelve years
They didn’t know Mu-lan was a girl.
“The he-hare’s feet go hop and skip,
The she-hare’s eyes are muddled and fuddled.
Two hares running side by side close to the ground,
How can they tell if I am he or she?”

(By Frances Tran, Queens College, CUNY)


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