Kwa and Idema’s Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts gives five beautiful versions that preceded the much-loved Disney rendition of Mulan. It begins with an insightful introduction full of essential information regarding the original legend. The collection begins with ‘Poem of Mulan’ (386-533 A.D), moving onto ‘Song of Mulan’ (8th century), ‘The Female Mulan Joins the Army in Place of Her Father’ (16th century), ‘Mu Lan Joins the Army’ (1903) and finally ending with the script of the same name, ‘Mulan Joins the Army’ (1939).
Mulan is a household name. Disney’s Mulan (1998) was released during the third wave of feminism. I for one can unashamedly say that it is my favourite Disney movie of all time (yes, it’s better than Frozen). In every version, Mulan dresses as a male and goes to war in her father’s place. Mulan is always initially presented in a stereotypically female role, dissatisfied with her situation and ends back in the feminine role as a stronger and more well-rounded individual.
Yet this poses the question: why does she need to return to the private sphere that women have occupied over centuries? This is where Kwa and Idema’s expert unification of these versions is so essential. Mulan’s tale has grown from the original ballad. Kwa and Idema have scratched beneath the surface and have shown the development of not only the story of Mulan, but also the character. Mulan deconstructs the private and public spheres of women and men respectively, by transitioning between them. Also, Mulan evolves across centuries from the weaver, the hunter and the martial artist. In her male character development, she begins as a struggling soldier and develops into a heroic warrior.
It is by showing this evolution that Kwa and Idema have presented Mulan’s monumental journey over the ages. Consequently, they have also presented important attributes of Chinese culture, such as, filial loyalty to her family and kingdom, attributes which have persisted in the story until this day.
But to me, it’s Mulan’s loyalty to herself and her conviction as a woman that is truly highlighted in this collection. Mulan shows confidence and awareness in all the different versions. She knows she is right in her decisions as a warrior, it’s not a gendered question, it’s one of self-esteem. Mulan holds herself in such high esteem and self-respect, that in these versions, she has never felt the need to provide an explanation for her gender. In fact, in many of the renditions in Mulan: Five Versions, her gender is only highlighted at the very beginning and end. Mulan is simply a warrior, not a woman, not a man; she is a general and a saviour. Without question she is a heroine.
Kwa and Idema’s collection brings together a history to the character we love, presenting readers with the significance of Mulan as a Chinese popular cultural heroine first and foremost, before her international conquest as a result of Disney’s Mulan (1998). She is there to show that the image of the submissive Chinese female is a misconstrued stereotype and that women are able to fight just as well as men, and most of the time, better.
Disney’s Mulan will always have a warm place in my heart, but it’s Kwa and Idema’s translations, showing her independence and feminist attitude across centuries, that have earned her a place in my soul.
About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.
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