The evolution of Mulan: A chinese warrior

UIS Professor shares the many versions of the Disney-adapted Chinese folk tale

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Anyone who’s grown up in America in the past 20 years most likely associates the name Mulan with the Disney princess who keeps a talking bearded dragons and a lucky cricket as companions.

However, Lan Dong, associate professor of English at UIS and author of “Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States,” explained the road of evolution that Mulan went through to become the iconic figure she is today.

The event was held in the PAC restaurant on April 1, and those who attended enjoyed a light lunch. The event began with an acoustic performance of Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” by students from northern China, South Korea, and Indonesia.

Next, Lan Dong was introduced. Before she went into her lecture, she asked attendees originating from China to give a personal account of their experiences of hearing the story of Mulan. One student gave such an encounter.

“I heard the story from my parents and saw the Disney movie when I was a young girl. I think Mulan was so brave to protect her elderly father and her country from the enemy.” Following the summary of Mulan’s story, Dong highlighted three stages of evolution that Mulan went through.

The first was the Ballad of Mulan, written between the third and fourth century. Both today, as well as in the past, parts of China consider Mulan a historical figure.

“There are tombstones, temples, and statues in her honor. Also, much like here in Springfield where everything seems to honor Lincoln, schools, factories, and roads are named after Mulan,”  Dong explained.

The Ballad of Mulan is a 300-word poem describing how Mulan dresses as a man to go to battle in place of her elderly father. Once the battle is won, Mulan returns to her life and her duties as a woman.

Dong explained that details such as personal life, family background, and military life were left out of the story and were therefore up to the imagination of the readers and writers.

The next step of evolution was the novel “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston. This novel is a blend of memoirs and folklore about Chinese Women who became warriors.

In the book, Mulan, as well as other Chinese feminist figures, returns to normal life after the battles in which they participate. The novel enabled Mulan to transition from the traditional Chinese culture to a more American-accessible Chinese warrior.

“Mulan’s story builds a bridge between two cultures. This novel gives her story an autobiographical feel,” said Dong.

The third and final step for the moment is the Disney film, but, before discussing the big screen, Dong showed all in attendance several children’s books that tell stories of Mulan.

Many of these books had both English and Chinese translations. They also ranged in reading level.

“Writers and illustrators alike became very interested in the story of Mulan,” Dong informed the crowd.

Soon, Disney got the idea to turn Mulan into a movie. She was labeled as a Disney princess, and American girls began to look up to her.

The Chinese, however, did not make this a hit at the box office. They delayed the release of the movie in mainland China, finally releasing it at a time where parents were least likely to take their children to see it. In places like Thailand and Hong Kong, however, the movie was popular.

When asked by the audience if China’s personal feelings were positive about the image of Mulan, Dong explained that most of the Chinese viewed the original Mulan and the Disney princess Mulan as two separate concepts.

After the presentation, there was a question-and-answer segment. A student from northwestern China explained that the Ballad of Mulan was a middle school text taught to all Chinese students.

Deanie Brown gave her insight into how America (and other Western cultures) view Asian women. “One thing I learned from being an art history major is that the world’s first novel was written by a Chinese woman. We tend to stereotype Asian women as an accessory.”

Concluding this event Lan Dong’s books were available for purchase in the back of the room. It was announced that there may be a book club starting where members read and discuss Dong’s publications.

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