As a child, my foremost wish was to become a princess. Like Ariel, Aurora, or Cinderella, I wanted to be saved by a prince, playing my part of damsel-in-distress to convey my delicate and feminine nature. But when playing make-believe on the playground, if I asked to be either of them, my friends would scrunch up their noses and suggest Mulan instead, conflating representation with relatability. “Don’t you want to be her?” I remember one friend asking. “The one you look most like?”
I didn’t, and my distaste for Hollywood’s Mulan was deceptively simple: I felt aggrieved by how unattractive the heroine appears compared to her princess counterparts. Mulan has caterpillars for eyebrows, eyes so slanted they almost dove into her nose, and a large, wide mouth, while her royal Western peers had shiny ringlets and slender limbs. They sold their voices in a Faustian deal or slept for years until a prince came or lost glass slippers and ended up with a crown. Mulan, however, had to raze her hair and go through boot camp.
My underlying unease with her narrative was more complicated than just aesthetics. “My name is Mulan,” she says in the movie. “I did it to save my father!” I couldn’t yet comprehend that daughters had the capability of becoming national heroes, as I had grown up in a culture where raising a daughter was defined as 替别的男人养老婆 (Tì bie de nanren yang laopo ), or “raising a wife for another man.” And Mulan eschewed that principle, failing her matchmaking session and saving all of China instead.
As a child, my father had been my protector, and our household was presented as the safest space for me, a girl.
I wasn’t yet old enough to be moved by her sacrifice. Instead, I was unnerved by how she had disobeyed her father. As a child, my father had been my protector, and our household was presented as the safest space for me, a girl. This concept was reinforced through the vernacular of Mandarin, which frequently conveys power dynamics in its placement and pairing of ideograms. For instance, the symbol for home, 家 (jia), is used both in the word for family, 家庭 (Jia ting), and for country, 国家 (guo jia). The differing placement the ideogram has in each context, however, also demonstrates a key Confucian concept about hierarchy: a country is a collection of homes, not of people; the base unit of citizenship is communal, not individual. The individual, in fact, is largely deemed worthless without a surrounding community.
In Confucianism, power differentials are key to maintaining a system of balance and yin yang. There has to be a supplicant that provides care and a leader that provides protection. In my family, my father consistently warned me there was no one in the world who would ever take care of me the way he did. “You’re going to grow up,” he said, “and just be some man’s plaything. It’ll break my heart.” And his voice was so full of love that I hurt for him, because I truly believed that there was no one in the world who would love me the way that he did.
Caregiving in my family was a type of currency, but it was a currency that only women paid as the sole benefactors of the security and shelter that men provided.
But his cautions also suggested that this care demanded my respect, my 孝顺 (xiaoshun), filial piety, which in turn meant caregiving in my family was a type of currency, but it was a currency that only women paid as the sole benefactors of the security and shelter that men provided. This division of labor is visible in the morphology of Chinese itself. Male, 男 (nan), is made up of two radicals. The uppermost part means “field” while the lower component stands for “strength.” Woman, 妇 (fu), consists of an ideogram that looks like a person sitting on crossed legs combined with the character 扫, which means broom.
Men, in Chinese culture, are often given the title of一家之主 (yi jia zhi zhu), which translated directly into English means “one’s home only has one host,” but more literally means “patriarch” or “head of household.” Growing up, my mother called my father this sometimes, often as a joke, but humor functioned in our family as a way in which to convey true information that we did not want to fight about. After I had left for college and been exposed to feminist texts, I started to challenge the ways in which my culture defined a woman’s role and would quip that the great irony of my life is that my father is a patriarch who raised a feminist.
Yet, I did not actually embody the logic of feminism in my conduct. My best friend and I often derided women who seemed to lose their entire identities in relationships, effacing interests and desires to conform into the ideal girlfriend. But when I fell in love for the first time, at 24, I became exactly that type of woman, making excuses for his dismissive behavior and daydreaming of ways in which to please him. He would comment on my “exceptional patience” as he disappeared for days, and I would realize I thought of my patience as a type of currency—a sliding scale wherein enough patience on my part might usher in grand gestures from him—in the same way I had been taught respect and obedience in my childhood.
I thought of my patience as a type of currency—a sliding scale wherein enough patience on my part might usher in grand gestures from him—in the same way I had been taught respect and obedience in my childhood.
When I turned 25, this man and I broke up. I revisited the princess movies of my childhood and felt disgust at the passivity of the protagonists. Mulan was now my favorite Disney heroine, but when I began to research her history, I discovered how American culture had bastardized the source text. “Mulan isn’t some feminist call-to-action,” I fumed to a friend. “It’s fundamentally just a story of filial devotion. A girl who loves her father so much she’s willing to die for him.” Mulan saves the nation only incidentally; it is never her motivation to be a hero.
At least, the original Mulans did not have nationalism as their inspiration. The folklore, one of China’s most famous, has spawned numerous adaptations, each version embodying different values in Chinese culture. The source text, The Ballad of Mulan, most likely originated in the fifth or six century CE, and it skipped over the war almost entirely, but the skeleton of familiarity in the plot remains: Mulan hears of her father’s impending conscription; it breaks her heart. She has two siblings in this tale, one younger brother and one elder sister. The boy is too young for war, and the other daughter apparently has a different value system from her soon-to-be-warrior sister. This origin text doesn’t provide the father’s character with a reason that precludes him from enlisting. Mulan loves him enough to sacrifice anyway, leaving for 10 or 12 years before returning home and slipping back into her “old-time clothes” and powdering her face: the virtuous daughter once more.
But aside from the narrative of family devotion, what is actually remarkable about the poem is what Vox writer Constance Grady identifies as the hierarchy of values it illuminates. Mulan commits a capital crime through her impersonation, but “she’s not really breaking imperial China’s strict gender rules when she crossdresses, because she’s obeying the most important rule of all: filial piety.” And because Mulan’s crime is glossed over by the poem’s conclusion, the family unit has implicitly been placed above the nation.
Mulan is a vessel of other (male) desires, a tale of how valor is always constructed of virtue; she embodies the pious daughter who would become the perfect wife.
This dynamic would be reversed in the Nationalist and Communist interpretations of Mulan’s story, both of which transformed her narrative from one of filial piety to one of patriotic wartime propaganda. Yet, in all interpretations, Mulan remains subservient: the characters shift but the archetypes remain, a mobius strip wherein the authoritarian guiding forces of her life transition fluidly from father to chairman, wherein sacrificing for a man is tantamount to sacrificing for your country. And despite these more ostensibly progressive versions of Mulan, there’s also numerous permutations that embody distinctly feudal attitudes, including a Mulan whom is propositioned by the Emperor, and, unwilling to part with her virginity and virtue, she chooses instead to stand over the grave of her father and slit her throat.
In short, Mulan is a vessel of other (male) desires, a tale of how valor is always constructed of virtue; she embodies the pious daughter who would become the perfect wife.
Therein lies my problem with the 1998 Disney animated film: it dilutes Mulan’s sacrifice by introducing an alternative reason for her actions. “Maybe I didn't go for my father,” she muses at one point in the movie. “Maybe what I really wanted was to prove I could do things right. So when I looked in the mirror I'd see someone worthwhile.” The scene is a product of globalization, a way in which Hollywood could introduce tried and true themes of individualism, autonomy, and girl power into a narrative too overtly feudal and patriarchal for American audiences. Yet, in doing so, Disney had diluted the essence of what and who Mulan is. No part of me believes Mulan’s sacrifice was to prove her self worth; no, she did it for her father.
No part of me believes Mulan’s sacrifice was to prove her self worth; no, she did it for her father.
As the only child and daughter of two Chinese immigrants, I have spent my entire life wanting and trying to give back to my parents for their sacrifices, to thank them for the life they’ve provided me. Filial piety is central to Chinese childrearing and Confucian thought because it is used as a way to promote social harmony and support: to represent love as a responsibility requiring repayment also creates buy-in, an ouroboros of generational support that ensures parents raise children who eventually become multi-generational caregivers themselves.
These principles are embodied in how my father cared for and continues to care for my grandmother in her senility, despite the toll it takes on him. In his role as patriarch, he views offering care and protection as a sacrosanct. Though, as a child, I never viewed my father as a patriarch. He could be lively and affectionate in a way that seemed to preclude the severity the title connoted; he had a way of belittling my feelings and problems that felt generous through its humor. He told me he loved me, and often. Most importantly, he told me that what he wanted most for me in the world was to live an easy life. “I don’t want you to shou ku (受苦), to suffer, the way I did,” he always said.
He grew up during Chairman Mao’s reign; the Chinese Cultural Revolution formed the skeleton of his childhood. When he was only one year old, his father was imprisoned for being a “rightist.” When he was 17, he was “rusticated,” sent down to the countryside and forced into hard labor. When he was in his fifties, he almost died three times: blood clots, an aortic dissection, and renal cancer.
Since my father had endured so much ku (苦) and still provided me a privileged childhood, offering my respect and subservience for his care and protection seemed just. While the love and the compassion I have for my father has remained steadfast, our relationship began to erode as I moved out and explored roles for myself outside of just mother and wife, ideas that contrasted with what my father used to tell me: “You don’t need to be so stressed out about your future. You’ll run a household. You’ll raise kids. You won’t have to work. You can write your little books.”
My father is unable to understand my desire for autonomy, identity, and independence outside of a future as a caregiver or homemaker because he believes that these roles offer women protection from the ku (苦), the suffering, of the world.
The first time he said this, I was wounded. The second, indignant. The third, furious. Part of what has always divided my father and I is what he calls my “American way of looking at things” (or what researchers would call acculturative family distancing). My father is unable to understand my desire for autonomy, identity, and independence outside of a future as a caregiver or homemaker because he believes that these roles offer women protection from the ku (苦), the suffering, of the world.
There’s an irony in his parenting: he never wanted me to experience the hardships he had, but he also disparaged me for how weak my privileged childhood had made me. I think my ambivalence towards Mulan’s mythology stems from a similar schism. Mulan is lauded for her bravery, but her courage is not derivative of feminism (as is implied in Disney’s adapation) or jingoism (as demonstrated by the Communist and Nationalist interpretations) or even an innate character trait. Mulan is a story about a young woman who was never taught to differentiate between devotion and love, who believed that for being born, cared for, and protected, she had to be willing to die. Her valor is based on loyalty, a form of repayment.
Published on November 17, 2022
Words by Sabrina Qiao
Art by Ryan Quan
Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.