To make a movie about Hua Mulan, the fabled warrior who takes her father’s place in the army by dressing as a man, is to engage with history. Mulan itself is a highly layered text, a fourth-century Chinese ballad that has been rescripted many times over the centuries, and across the world. But Disney’s 2020 Mulan harks back mostly to 1998, to its animated retelling of the story. For the younger audience who adored the animated musical, they will be happy to recognize several lyrics resuscitated as spoken lines in this remake. For the older viewers, this live-action version gives them that particularly piquant combination of the old and the new — that is, that blend of the most advanced technological, cinematic special effects with all the sensorial and visual saturations of an imagined ancient world — that they have come to expect of a good Chinese martial arts film.
Indeed, the cast itself boasts of an impressive pedigree. Donnie Yen, the “Ip Man” himself, plays Mulan’s commander. Jason Scott Lee of Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story plays the nomad Rouran leader Böri Khan. Jet Li lends an ironic note to his role as the emperor for those who recall his famous role as an emperor assassin in the epic Hero (dir. Yimou Zhang, 2002), a film, by the way, that could not tell the difference between a benign and a despotic ruler, with a plot that glorified the sacrifices of human lives in the name of imperial unification. And, finally, there is Gong Li, probably the most globally well-known Chinese actress today, who brings to her role as Xianniang, the witch, haunting specters of Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, and other memorable, tragic female protagonists.
Asiatic femininity, packaged for America, is such a fraught thing. And I say “thing” here because the history of the Western imagination about Asiatic womanhood is deeply and expansively bound up with its objectification. From Plato to Marco Polo, Monet to Sargent, Huysman to Wilde, Loos to Le Corbusier, Melville to Pound, Western philosophic, literary, and visual history has long associated Asiatic femininity with decadent, extravagant, and hence superficial and superfluous thingliness. She/it has been subjected to some of the most sexist and racist projections in history yet hardly registers in contemporary American racial dialogues as a figure of injury. Her aestheticization (china doll, lotus blossom) ensures her continual commodification even as it disqualifies her from much contemporary feminist discourse. This is why we have heard of white feminism, black feminism, brown feminism, but not yellow feminism. This is also why the supposedly nice, quiet, and sexually available Chinese girl is also the dragon lady and the pestilential prostitute, according to 19th-century American immigration law. What better way to combat this expansive, deeply abject, and yet often unnoted history than the story of a young woman who rejects makeup, who picks up a sword over a fan, and who chooses the battlefield over the shelter of domesticity?
Yet this Mulan, for all her appeal and talent — what’s not to like, a good Chinese girl with virtuoso skills? — cannot seem to escape the mantle of all this discipline. I am not asking for, nor do I want, a politically correct version of Mulan, but there are some glaring, missed opportunities here for exploring how Mulan might speak to 21st-century America beyond appealing to old fascinations. I miss all the potential frissons inherent in the story: what does it mean to be a good daughter in a system that thinks girls are disposable; what does it mean to choose to live as a man when one is born a woman; what does it mean for two presumably male soldiers to fall in love with each other; what does it mean to prefer a life of pain and resistance over the sanction of law and safety; and more.
The first and last time an American author rewrote Mulan as a dysphoric tale was, of course, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts (1976), and when that foundational novel first came out, Kingston was virulently denounced by fellow Asian American author Frank Chin for being a race traitor, for not having been faithful to the original myth, and for maligning Asian American masculinity. That debate between Chin and Kingston, some of us will recall, sparked what was thought of as the authenticity/cultural wars of the 1980s that rocked the birth of Asian American letters. Kingston saw Mulan for what she could be: a powder keg, a feminist fable that is tightly and painfully strapped in by the directives of patriarchy.
But Caro’s Mulan is noticeably uncurious about her own gender and sexuality. (Even Chinese dramas, from Peking operas to contemporary soap operas, that love this classic theme of gender masquerade do more with the unexpected, at times comical and at times tragic, consequences of gender crossing!) In this film, there appears to be no doubt, not even the slightest pause, on the part of Mulan’s self-perception — and therefore the audience’s — that she is anything but a woman, just in disguise. The (Chinese) troubles of being a girl — hemmed in by limited physical freedom; denied individual interests; subject to being bartered off, and so on — do not seem to generate even the smallest tremor on the armor of Mulan’s self-identification as a (straight) woman. The costume change remains just that.
Mulan’s crossdressing and any potential gender/sexual disruptions that it might have caused have been studiously sublimated through the virtues of filial piety (she did it for her father, and only for him) and of self-improvement (she did it to fulfill the greater purpose of her “gift” for chi, this film’s version of the Force). And although Yifei Liu as Mulan does a fine job portraying the fears and the physical discomforts of what it means to be a lone woman in a man’s world, the script does not allow her much more than that. Mulan’s increasing attachment to her comrade Honghui (Yoson An) and his to her while they are both male-presenting, for example, is carefully muted. This Mulan, a pious Joan of Arc, has to be either soldier or monk but not soldier and lover.
And here we come to the kernel of the Mulan story itself with which I have never been comfortable: its profound attachment to and sentimentality for the father, patriarchy, and empire. The sharp edge of Mulan’s extraordinary act of subversion and rebellion, making the decision to assume the identity of and live as a man, has always been blunted by how that act gets bent in the service of the father. That is, her rebellion can only be told and authorized as a legend, as a story of patriarchal affirmation. Mulan must remain Daddy’s Girl, in order to mitigate this woman’s male-identification. In Caro’s film, this father-daughter affinity gets further underscored by Mulan’s estrangement from her cold, controlling mother (Rosalind Chao) and Mulan’s distinction from her affectionate but silly sister. Mulan’s allegiance to — and her identification with — her father (and later her loyalty to the emperor, an extension of the father figure) sanctions her transgressions. She violates social rules in order to preserve social order. None of the very real negativities of her story — the disorders of being a girl in fourth-century rural China, the frictions and risks of gender masquerade, the realities of war for men and women, the compulsive servitude demanded by imperial rule, the harsh realities of commodified girlhood — comes into view.
This is where the character of Xianniang becomes interesting. I confess that I went into the film expecting to dislike this apparently new character. When I first saw this wildly exotic figure in the movie trailer, I made a mental eye roll. It is as if Disney and Hollywood at large simply could not allow the singular woman warrior to be and just had to add a female villain, because, after all, what is a film about Chinese womanhood without a dragon lady? (And what is a Disney film without Maleficent, Ursula, or Cruella de Vil?) Having seen the film, however, I think we might need the negativity that is Xianniang in a plot so desperate to dispel its darkness.
This character, not present in the original Ballad of Mulan (c. 386–535 CE), is nominally drawn from Renhuo Chu’s Romance of Sui and Tang, a 17th-century historical fiction, in which Mulan makes an appearance in a subplot. In Chu’s retelling, Mulan meets up with a warrior princess named Xianniang who became her friend. Chu’s Mulan, however, ultimately suffers a much darker fate. After 12 years of fighting for the Tujue khan, who was in league with and fighting for the Tang dynasty, Mulan refuses any reward and turns home to find her beloved father long dead and her mother remarried. The khan in the meantime, having discovered her true identity, summons her back to the palace to become his concubine. Rather than suffer this fate, Mulan commits suicide by her father’s grave.
Played by the exquisitely melancholic Gong Li, Caro’s Xianniang embodies and gives expression to all the darkness in the Mulan tale that Mulan herself is not allowed to carry in this Disney version. Xianniang provides a mirror, or an extension, of Mulan. The film anticipates this doubling very early on. When Mulan displays her extraordinary physical prowess and martial skills as a young girl in the opening sequence of the film, her fellow villagers call her “a witch.” Later, we are told that all women with chi — that is, the gift of a transcendent and universal energy accessible only to the few — are considered witches. (I think of Sylvia Plath’s observation in The Bell Jar that a mad woman is basically a woman who wants two different things at the same time.) We learn that Xianniang’s extraordinarily powerful magic is, in fact, the result of a lifetime of concentrated and disciplined cultivation of her chi, suggesting that being a witch and being a warrior are in fact one and the same. And just in case you missed all of that, Xianniang urges Mulan to join her by telling her, “We are the same.”
Xianniang thus turns out to be, not Mulan’s nemesis, but her doppelgänger, her shifu (it is Xianniang who unlocks Mulan’s full potential by giving her the critical lesson that her deception has been limiting her chi), and, finally, we might say, a vision of her older self had she chosen a different path. It is in the overlap between the two women — the uneasy merging between differences — that we might begin to locate a deeper possibility of the film’s self-critique. We, for example, are supposed to value the contrast between Xianniang, who calls herself a “slave” to Böri Khan, and Mulan, who refuses to be enslaved. Yet we have to know that Mulan the self-determined warrior is Mulan the obedient soldier. She remains, in short, conscripted.
The end of the film reassures us that Mulan goes on to become a “leader” and a “legend”; yet, are not such titles and honorifics precisely society’s reward for one’s self-renunciation and compliance? Why else would any of us forgo the pleasures of the id to the dictates of the superego? Given this, the only choice for freedom in this film is the one made by Xianniang, when she chooses to stop serving Böri Khan. This choice costs her her life, but this is not surprising because there is no room in the social system for a witch, that is, a woman who exercises all her talents not in the service of man or authority. The idea that a woman might choose to practice her full force in the service of no one but her own dictates is a choice for radical freedom, which is to say, a choice for death.
Xianniang carries, on behalf of the plot, the exquisite loneliness of Mulan for the better part of the film. Mulan’s fundamental isolation from her family, her community, and even her comrades (she took the lonely night watch every night just to avoid exposure) gets dumped on the exilic figure of Xianniang. If the big lesson here had been “Be true to yourself,” then the accompanying lesson of Mulan is “But make sure you are useful.” Being true to yourself for yourself alone, serving no social utility, equals social death. There is no room in fourth-century China — or perhaps even today — for a woman warrior not in service of father’s law. Xianniang, then, lives out by dying, Mulan’s other future, the dark expressions of a path not taken.
The feminist theorist Donna Haraway famously asserted that she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, by which she meant that she prefers the idea of being a postmodern figure of techno-human hybridity over the reclamation of some naturalized, matrilineal, and idealized notion of femininity. Mulan chooses the warrior over the witch. But is the woman warrior the more-than-human machine or the celebrated goddess? And which would the witch be?
If the warrior is but the witch who answers to a master; if the Asian woman in the Western cultural imagination is the cyborg par excellence — that always curious assemblage of fleshly fantasies and projected inanimate objectness; and, finally, if the mother is either the suffocating good mother upholding patriarchy or the disruptive bad mother unleashing your wildest magical powers, then I’d rather be a witch than a warrior.
Anne Anlin Cheng is professor of English and director of American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief; Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface; and Ornamentalism.