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Disney’s Mulans: An Ultimately Western Take On Chinese Culture

Perhaps the majority of the world learned of Mulan only through the release of Disney’s 1998 animated film of the same name. There’s nothing wrong with that.

To recap, Disney’s 1998 Fa Mulan is a young woman who, after suffering through a disastrous matchmaking session, witnesses her father being called up to serve in the war despite the debilitating limp that he suffers—an injury gained in a previous far that he had fought. This Mulan is the young soldier-to-be who dramatically cuts off her hair, symbolically sacrificing her femininity, and leaves home, with only a lotus hair comb left behind in her place. This Mulan is one who has gained the respect of ancient China, returning home to her father as an acknowledged hero despite the reveal showing her true gender.

The 1998 film introduces a widely celebrated version of Mulan, a palatable blend of Western and Chinese cultures entertainingly brought to screen with great animation and its equally memorable soundtrack. This version of Mulan, however, is not the Mulan that the Chinese people have grown to know and respect.

Although the animated version of Mulan was successful overseas, the same cannot be said for its performance in the titular character’s ancestral homeland. In China, the film became a box office bomb, with its poor reception attributed to the movie being too westernized a take for a popular Chinese legend. As reported in The Baltimore Sun, filmgoers then had unsurprisingly called the movie the “Yang Mulan” or “Foreign Mulan” in Chinese, citing that its Western producers simply did not understand the filial piety that the original figure was known for.[1]

“She’s too individualistic,” one viewer who went by the surname Liu had explained then. “Americans don’t know enough about Chinese culture.”

Disney’s 1998 version of Mulan had already diverged from the original legend, highlighting themes of individualist feminism instead of the collectivist values—in this case, filial piety— upheld by Chinese society. Although the animated film still paid special attention to Mulan’s relationship with her father, the gravity of Mulan’s sacrifice to her family, which is the thematic heart of the ballad the character was based from, was ultimately eclipsed by the overshadowing climax of kickass feminism and the Western inclination to forward the timely message of breaking societal gender roles.


Mulan presents gifts provided by the emperor to her father after she returns home. 

A thematic divergence in the process of creating film adaptations for a primarily Western audience is inevitable. But given that China now has an estimated population of over 1.3 billion people, failing to secure a good box office performance in the country of Mulan’s birth would be too much of a wasted opportunity. This is why Disney’s 2020 remake departs so wildly from its predecessor and steps even further away from the original story, unintentionally but ultimately drawing heavy criticism from its viewers.

As of this writing, Mulan (2020) holds a 51% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes, 5.1/10 on IMDb, and 4.9/10 on Douban (a Chinese film review aggregator site).

The low audience ratings for the live-action adaptation are a combination of several factors, including backlash from lead actress Liu Yifei’s Instagram post supporting Hong Kong police brutality. Aside from this, the poor reception may be a result of the film’s divergence from elements on three levels: the familiar, the culture, and once again, the original ballad itself.


1) The Familiar – Mulan (1998)

Mulan (1998) vs Mulan (2020) (Source: Den of Geek)

Even before the live adaptation’s release, multiple online fans were already voicing their disappointment in announcements stating the lack of several key characters such as Mushu, Mulan’s mini dragon guardian, and Capt. Li Shang, her love interest; as well as the lack of iconic songs to be passed on from the original film. Since most fans of Mulan were only introduced to the titular character by watching the animated film, removing elements of the formula that made the 1998 version successful on the global scale meant higher expectations that, if not met, expressly resulted in viewer dissatisfaction.

Unfortunately, audience reviews for Mulan (2020) seem to mostly have come to the consensus that the new adaptation lacks charm, citing a stilted script, contrived cast, and the removal of elements that allowed viewers to connect with the film’s original characters. [2] [3] [4]

One Rotten Tomatoes reviewer, who goes by the online alias of Jessie D, summarizes:

“4.5/10. Let’s get down to business; by trading charm, humor, and pretty good tunes for mediocre kung fu action, overly-serious yet toothless tone, and stilted dialogue, ‘Mulan’ has laid bare the soullessness of the Disney live-action formula. Certainly not a film worth fighting for.”


2) The Culture

Xianniang, a powerful “witch” with shapeshifting abilities. (Source: Den of Geek)

Starting from just the release of its trailers, Mulan (2020) attempted to capture the Chinese market’s attention by infusing in its movie local genre elements such as classic flight-like kungfu fights and the concept of qi, the vital flow of life energy that serves as the basis of Chinese medicine and martial arts. When done right, this formula may awe viewers, introducing them to a new world of wuxia (read: Chinese hero-fantasy) content that Chinese audiences regularly consume. When done wrong, this alienates both foreign and Chinese audiences, resulting in a product that neither group would want.

Ultimately formulated by producers, writers, and designers of no Chinese background,[5]  Mulan (2020) proves that it has done the latter. One particular flaw would be the concept of qi established in the film, explained vaguely in how it functioned and mistakenly portrayed as magic—the secondary antagonist Xianniang was also erroneously described as a “witch” because of her mastery over her qi.

Commenting on the conceptualization of the film, Chinese Youtuber Xiran Jay Zhao explained, “It’s filled with European fantasy stuff like witches, dark magic, and duels to the death and interpreted traditional Chinese concepts in the way that showed only a surface-level understanding.”

Other recognized flaws in the film would be the weak execution of CGI and fight scenes in comparison with Chinese films of similar genres, with one filmgoer commenting, “The special effects were embarrassing. I felt like I could’ve been watching Shaolin Soccer.” [6]  (Shaolin Soccer is a comedy martial arts film released in 2001, almost twenty years prior to Mulan.)


3) The Ballad of Mulan

Part of the reason why some viewers wanted to accept the changes that Disney was bringing into the live adaptation was their promise of trying to find a more accurate way to tell Hua Mulan’s story. However, in its attempts to produce a film with a strong feminist character, Mulan (2020) creates its titular character as someone perfect from the get-go, showing her as someone who had powerful qi right from the start—apparently different from other typical young girls.

But that defeats the purpose of the original story.

The Ballad of Mulan tells the life of a woman who disguised herself in the army to take her father’s place. After years of exemplary service, Hua Mulan was bestowed a high official position by the emperor, only for her to refuse because she wanted to return home. She then donned her old clothes and revealed her gender only after retiring to her hometown.

As explained by Douyin (TikTok) user @lialiu_chinese:

“She put on her old dress, put on flower make up. She found her old self… The meaning of Mulan’s story is that she’s not the chosen one. She’s a regular person. She could be you, [she] could be me, or [she could be] any girl in this world. She told us [that] what a man can do, a woman can also do… We can protect our family too. Mulan is not a superhero. She represents the power of women.

“She is us.”




Davis, Rebecca. “China Hates Disney’s ‘Mulan,’ but It Has Nothing to Do With Politics.” Variety.
Langfitt, Frank. “Disney magic fails ‘Mulan’ in China; Cultures: The Americanized version of the famous folk tale is all too American for Chinese movie audiences.” The Baltimore Sun.
Lialiu_chinese. “Mulan is no superhero in China.” Douyin.
“Mulan 2020 Full Cast and Crew.” IMDb.
“Mulan 2020 Reviews.” Rotten Tomatoes.
“Mulan 2020 User Reviews.” IMDb.
Xiran Jay Zhao. “Everything Culturally Wrong With Mulan 2020 (And How They Could’ve Been Fixed).” Youtube.
“花木兰短评。” Douban.

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