Chenlu – The Cultural Image of the Global Other: Orientalism in Disney’s Mulan(s)

We are excited to share the third in our series of commentaries showcasing original research by students in the School of Humanities at the University of Westminster. In this third post, Chenlu, an exchange student from Beijing has written an article about the representation in Disney’s Mulan(s).

The Cultural Image of the Global Other: Orientalism in Disney’s Mulan(s) 

The tensions between the United States and China are escalating, fueled by the declining hegemonic status of the US since the financial crisis of 2008, the increasing economic strength of China, and a growing rivalry between the two over their global influence (Prashad, ‘Towards a Conversation Across Civilisations’, Tricontinental, In the West, this had led to a rise in Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism (Prashad, ‘Towards a Conversation Across Civilisations’,Tricontinental, but it has also contributed to a more subtle resurgence and shift in what Edward Said conceptualized as Orientalist discourse.

For Said, Orientalism is both a ‘style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between “the Orient” and (most of the time) “the Occident”’ – or “the East” and “the West” – and a way of the West ‘dominating, restructuring, and having the authority’ over the East (2014, pp.16-17). By constructing the Orient as ‘its deepest and most recurring images of the Other’, Said argues, the West cultivates a ‘belligerent collective identity’ (2014, p12,16).  

As China grows to be more powerful, there has been significant changes in the mentality of both the narrators (the West) and the narrated (the Orient). With the rapid development of Chinese economy, “the Other” no longer remains silent and subjected to the reshaping and re-construction of the West (2022, p180). Not only does the term “China” signify a political and economic entity that plays a pivotal role in global trade, but it also represents a civilization (Toynbee, 1958, p7), which has partly escaped from the existing discourse dominated by the West and is actively seeking for its own voice on the world’s stage. 

Simultaneously, as the West seeks reassures of its own superior identity by reinforcing and consolidating its stereotypical image of China as “the Other” in its cultural narratives, China’s increasing prosperity promises a significant new market for Western industries, whose commodities, including its cultural commodities, seek to cater to the Chinese consumer. Such ambivalence consequently comes to be reflected not only in international relations but the Orientalism of its cultural discourse as well.  

Films often play a key role in this cultural discourse, their ideological processes often obscured by their recreational nature compared with other mass media, and so they act as ideal tools for the West to reinforce its cultural superiority over the Orient (Tan, 2016, p102). The development and tensions of this strategic cultural ambiguity can be tracked in the historical unfolding of one film in particular: Disney’s Mulan.  

The original Chinese folklore the Ballad of Mulan tells the legend of a filial and loyal girl who lived in the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534CE), when Central China was invaded by the Rouran, nomadic people from the north (Wang, 2020, p2). With no brothers at home, Mulan courageously disguises herself as a man and takes the place of her father in the army, who is old and lame due to his previous military service (Peng, 2005). Mulan performs extraordinary military exploits but none of her comrades see through her disguise until she reveals her identity. Mulan is a well-known and beloved figure in Chinese culture, due to her patriotism and the “virtue of Confucianism” she displays, such as filiality, courage and loyalty (Cheng and Chen, 2021, p82).  

In March 2020 Disney released Mulan, directed by Niki Caro, a live-action adaption of its 1998 animated feature based on the Chinese folklore, the Ballad of Mulan. Disney’s animated Mulan received a positive response from audiences around the world, with critics considering Mulan’s independent warrior image as ‘a departure from the studio’s previous princesses and modes of storytelling’ (Anjirbag, 2018, p2), in which girls are born into a royal family and await their “prince charming” to save them from trouble (Wang, 2020, p2). The live action version released 22 years later did not, however, continue the animation’s success and the film failed to gain wider recognition, especially in the Chinese market, which was intended as its main target (Cheng and Chen, 2021, p83).  

Driven by their traditional business model and profit-seeking strategies, Disney were determined to expand their Chinese market and maximize profits (Cheng and Chen, 2021, p88). To do this, they employed a variety of methods to appeal to the Chinese audience, including an all-Asian cast. “It’s incredibly important in this film that Chinese culture was respectfully and authentically represented”, claims the director Niki Caro in her interview (Wardlow, 2020), and it is evident that the production crew made attempts to rebuild their vision of an “authentic” ancient China. Caro emphasized the importance of bringing “iconic elements” of Chinese cultural to the movie (Wardlow, 2020). From a quantitative perspective, the creation team did achieve their goal of building up an epic and exotic world.  

A profit-oriented approach, however, is not an effective guarantor of cultural exchange and the filmmakers were unable to adequately comprehend and connect with the Chinese culture represented in the film. Due to the lack of extensive research, the finished product appears to be a random and illogical patchwork of diverse cultural icons, revealing the Western “gaze”. This sense of weirdness is especially strong for those who are familiar with Chinese culture, which leaves them feeling “bad”, “awkward” and “unrealistic” (Chen et al., 2021, p9). As a consequence, the creators failed to break out from the stereotypes of Chinese culture and this perpetuation of Orientalism indicates the continuing anxiety over the West’s own self-identity. 

In the original Ballad of Mulan, Mulan’s family members, neighbors and comrades, as well as the narrator, express recognition of her courageous deeds and her achievements on the battlefield, displaying a tolerance and openness absent from Disney’s subsequent versions. In these, Mulan is portrayed as a naughty, fearless and energetic tomboy who refuses to accept “her position” as defined by the patriarchal order and reinforced by her parents (Liu and Zou, 2021, p92).  

The animated Mulan, however, established traditional Chinese culture as an “Oriental despotism,” opposed to individualism and feminism (Feng, 2003, p240). Although the animated Mulan was criticized for its Orientalist perspective and cultural appropriation, the Chinese audience was generally more tolerant of its numerous trivial errors, as the primary task of Chinese culture at the time was “to be seen”, and the animation, despite being inaccurate in some respects, accomplished its goal of showcasing a positive side of Chinese culture to the rest of the world. Two decades later, the Chinese audience had developed a strong sense of confidence and identification with their own culture, demanding that their story be conveyed with respect instead of being incorporated into Western mainstream values. This may account for the particularly strong resistance to the live action Mulan upon its release.  

Other instances of Orientalism include Mulan’s “hybrid” make-up (Cheng and Chen, 2021, p85) and the prevalent use of written Chinese characters in a contemporary font and style, but two central examples are the architecture and the application of concept “Chi”. The Ballad of Mulan is originally located in the Northern part of China, along the Yellow River. In the animation, Mulan’s home is set in a village with low-rise bungalows which basically conformed to the architectural style at that time, while the live action changes it into the grand and round building Fujian Tulou, which is the signature architecture in Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau in the southern China and never seen in the north (Liu and Zou, 2021, p91).  

Another significant change is endowing Mulan with a special and mysterious power “Chi”, which is a complicated concept originating in the philosophical school of Tao and describes the vital energy that “connects and pervades everything in the world” (Watson, 2013). However, in the film “Chi” is simplified as a superpower, restricted to men, and used to distinguish warriors from normal people. Mulan tries her best to conceal her power initially, which renders her a Chinese rehash of Elsa in Frozen who is born with the forbidden magic to control ice. 

By adding “Chi” as a male superpower, the film inserts ideas of gender inequality. Before joining the army, Mulan is subjected to her neighbors’ mockery because she fails to behave like a decent lady and dishonors her family. Similarly, the female antagonist Xianniang, vassal of the male leader of the Rouran, has to endure humiliation as a “witch” because she is a woman born with exceptional power and intelligence. When Mulan’s comrades discuss their ideal wife, the standard they mention show completely no respect to women, but only objectify them as men’s possession (Cheng and Chen, 2021, p88). As the plot develops the film increasingly converges on this classic Hollywood narrative of women’s self-awakening or “finding yourself”, such that this story of “the Other” is distorted, domesticated and integrated into a Westernized value system, with its original themes displaced or eliminated.  

Mulan in Disney’s production is merely “a surrogate for commonly perceived Western values” defending individualism, independence and feminism (Wang, 2020, p2) and reinforcing the image of ancient China as a highly oppressive and misogynistic society, from which Mulan has to break free by converting to “advanced, civilized” Western values (Cheng and Chen, 2021, p85). This time it is not the prince but the Western values which play the role of savior from Orientalism despotism (Wang, 2020, p2). 

Consequently, Orientalist ideology is not eliminated in the live action Mulan (2020) but reinforced and integrated into the narrative in a more oblique manner. While Western creatives devote themselves to consolidating the static image of an “irrational, childlike” China to allay a deep fear of this threatening “Other” (Said, 2014, p35), the Chinese audiences are no longer content to remain silence when confronted by these Westernized constructions, and the growing confrontation between the two is indicative of broader global tensions. 

Chenlu Liang is currently completing an undergraduate degree in English literature at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She joined the exchange project between BFSU and the University of Westminster in September 2022 and took three modules in the School of Humanities: Issues of Culture, Making Memory: Culture History and Representation, Language and Literary Style. She enjoyed her time at Westminster a lot and hopes to revisit London soon! 


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