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'Mulan': A product of stereotypes or another attempt at cultural collision?

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The release of Disney's "Mulan" has sparked controversy over its representation of Chinese history and culture. 

Since its release in China on Sept. 9, “Mulan” generated a strong reaction to the representation of the traditional Chinese story. Some responded with a supportive and loving attitude, saying Mulan reflected modern women's independence.

However, some think the movie is like "American Chinese food," in that it introduces a classic Chinese tale into an American hero movie where the story loses its traditional Chinese cultural roots.

Much of the film's controversy stems from the large differences between the traditional story and the story the film represents. In the classic Chinese story, Mulan is a folk woman in ancient times who volunteered to fight in her father’s place during the war’s recruitment. Because her father was old and frail, Mulan disguised herself as a man to take his place in the ranks. 

While Disney’s “Mulan” centers around a similar tale, much of the controversy stems from the Western image of China shown in the film being far from reality. 

The Beijing Daily, the largest daily newspaper in the capital area of China, published a report on Sept. 18 under the headline, "It's a reminder that Chinese audiences don't approve of 'Mulan.'"

The reporter said that Mulan may be beautiful or exotic to foreigners, but for Chinese people, this cultural symbol's distortion is out of line. As a well-known traditional figure, the cultural elements in this film are quite different from Chinese audiences' knowledge of traditional Chinese culture.

Vina Zhang, a junior studying music education from the Shandong province in China, says she has issues with the film’s representation of China and the adaptation of the Mulan story. She says the film did not have a full understanding of ancient China. The film's clothes are colorful, but the film did not accurately show the variation of colors in the Southern and Northern dynasties of China and from that time.

Zhang also disapproved of the inclusion of Qi in the film, saying it takes Chinese martial arts out of reality and most importantly, Qi does not exist in Mulan's story. In the film, the characters use the word “qi” to express Chinese martial arts. In the Chinese branch of martial arts, there is Qigong, but the traditional story of Mulan does not include Qi. 

"If you want to make a film set in ancient China, it is better not to use stereotypes," Zhang said.

Overall, Zhang believes that the character description involved in Mulan is based on westerners' understanding of Chinese culture. However, Zhang praised the loyalty, filial piety and courage of traditional Chinese culture promoted in the film.

Tia Chen, who recently graduated from KU with a degree in communications and is from the Jiangxi province in China, shares Zhang's views. Chen says the film is a perversion of Chinese culture. She acknowledges that the production and special effects were quite shocking, but she felt that the film brings Chinese stereotypes to the screen. 

Chen suggests that people should research a country's cultural background if they want to make a film about another country's culture. On the other hand, Chen says that “Mulan” has a good representation of feminism, which is positive for promoting women's sense of independence.

Cici Liu, an accounting student who graduated in spring 2020 from the Shandong province in China, had more positive feelings about the film.

"People might think the storyline is a bit clichéd, but I think it's acceptable," Liu said.

Liu believes that because Mulan is a film created by the United States, it is normal to be more American and should not be viewed in the traditional Chinese way of thinking. Liu was especially a fan of the creative aspects of the film, and says that the art set and makeup used were impressive aspects. She appreciates the film’s representation of Mulan's independent female character, who takes her father's place in the army and serves the country faithfully. 

From the perspective of traditional Chinese culture, a part of the audience did not approve of all aspects of the plot, such as the representation of Qi and historical and cultural inaccuracies.

However, some audience members expressed their love for Mulan’s classic story of joining the army to fight for her father, and the promotion of women’s independence. From the perspective of traditional Chinese stories, “Mulan” is not entirely satisfactory or accurate, but from the standpoint of an American heroism film, Mulan’s film is undoubtedly a success. 

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