Lan Dong’s Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States depicts the evolution of the woman warrior Mulan, contextualising her away from the Disney palimpsest, within the frameworks of her origins in Chinese literature. Dong leads us through thought-provoking chapters on the woman warrior, the lady knight-errant, Mulan as a virtuous icon and an inspired vision in Maxine Kingston’s collection The Woman Warrior. Additionally, the final two chapters show a depth of research, considering alternative modes of literature, such as picture books and the more controversial animations that preceded Disney’s Mulan.
In the Western world, we have been tricked into believing that Mulan was always a feminist icon. Disney’s Mulan has enabled this belief with its questionable feminist portrayal of Mulan seeking independence as a woman. Lan Dong unravels the literary journey with her reading of not only the original text but also the later renditions. In earlier versions, Mulan’s cross-dressing and subsequent trespass into the male dominated sphere of the war zone was ignored and viewed without the contempt it later faced. Dong reveals that this is due to the overpowering key attribute of filial loyalty accepted in Confucianism. Mulan goes to war for her father in many renditions of the story. Her act is out of familial love. The trespass is dismissed, thus becoming traditionally acceptable due to Mulan’s motives.
Yet why is it that when we watch Disney’s Mulan filial loyalty isn’t what we predominantly relate to? Yes, it is a crucial factor, but it’s not the height of our analyses. Dong exposes these questions, problematising the view we see as a Western audience. In her chapter, ‘Of Animation and Mulan’s International Fame,’ she explores the bemused view of Disney’s Mulan in mainland China. Dong interrogates the legend’s evolution, poignantly evoking the hybridity of Disney’s Mulan, and raising pertinent questions. For example, she considers whether the evolution of the character is in fact a modification. There is a fine line to toe there, but perhaps the Western world, in trying to carefully present the legend of Mulan to an international audience, has modified and therefore reconstructed a large part of what endears the original legend to the Chinese public. The Western world has diminished the idea of filial loyalty and has instead raised the question of female independence.
Lan Dong’s Mulan’s Legend and Legacy has truly been an eye-opener. It’s an informed text which questions, intrigues and answers. As myself a “hybrid” person stuck between two worlds it really made me consider whether I would be happy to see a story from my heritage so changed, maybe not in plot, but so overtly in feeling. Lan Dong’s Mulan’s Legend and Legacy explains those feelings in Chinese culture, exploring the rich literary history of a story we all love and cherish.
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.