Editor’s note: A $5 movie theater ticket for Lei Jiao, a university English instructor in Wuhan, China, compares with a $30 Disney+ online pass for University of Kentucky journalism professor Buck …
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Editor’s note: A $5 movie theater ticket for Lei Jiao, a university English instructor in Wuhan, China, compares with a $30 Disney+ online pass for University of Kentucky journalism professor Buck Ryan to see “Mulan,” whose box office debut “fizzled” in China on Sept. 11.
“Hey, Lei! Something’s bothering me. Can we talk?”
“Sure, what is it, Buck?”
“I took my teenager to the grand opening at the movies. We absolutely loved it!”
“Mushu is missing. I just loved that dragon! And Eddie Murphy’s voice. So Ruby saw no problems?”
“She thought the animated version couldn’t be beat. Her only problem was, how come they speak English and write in Chinese?”
“The scenes, colors, cast, acting...made me ignore the glitches.”
“Yeah, the glitches. Is that why the New York Times said the film ‘fizzled’ with its box office debut?”
“Well, it still finished No. 1 among other movies with 23 million U.S. dollars.”
“The Hollywood Reporter called that figure ‘disheartening,’ saying analysts expected 30 to 40 million from September 11-13 for the $200-million-production. Plus moviegoers in China threw some ‘Rotten Tomatoes’ — the Douban site rated it 4.9 out of 10.”
“The expectations were so high, no question there was some disappointment. That can happen when Disney American-izes a Chinese heroine.”
“Yeah, I keep hearing that netizens in China are trolling Disney. What are their gripes?”
“They think Disney made Mulan look Japanese, sapped her filial piety, turned her into a feminist-empowered Jedi knight with super ‘qi’ and created bad juju with her ancestors.”
“If that wasn’t enough, Disney dressed the actors in costumes from the wrong dynasty and set her family in dwellings that wouldn’t even have existed in Mulan’s time.”
“Gee, I guess we really do need to talk. What do you mean, Japanese?”
“When they painted Mulan’s face with white makeup, that made her look like a Geisha girl. Chinese concubines back in the day of Confucius wore heavy white makeup — not a good look for Mulan, either.”
“How do we know Mulan wore any makeup at all?”
“It’s in the Ballad of Mulan. It’s a poem I had to memorize as a kid. Ruby recited it to me when she was 12 years old, something right out of her 7th-grade textbook. Mulan’s yellow forehead decoration was mentioned in the ballad.”
“So Disney sapped her filial piety, eh?”
“Yes, that’s a tenet of Confucianism — respect for parents. Sure, she became a warrior lioness, but it had nothing to do with ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ as a feminist.”
“Tell me about qi. It’s pronounced chee, right?”
“Yes, qi is the central principle underlying both Chinese traditional medicine and martial arts. It’s the life force.”
“So not exactly a superpower?”
“Disney turned Mulan into a mystical jedi knight. May the force of cultural appropriation be with you!”
“But you believe in qi as a concept, right?”
“Well, my mother sure does! When I was a kid, my mom’s arthritis started acting up, so she retained a ‘master of qi’ to come to our home."
“I’ll never forget witnessing the great power of the master as he stood three feet away from my mom waving his arms to send the ‘qi’ to her. That made me wonder.”
“How did they create bad juju?”
“Did you see the red lanterns in the ancestral hall? Red is for celebration, not death. When people die, the family hang white lanterns. If you worship your ancestors well, good things happen. No wonder Mulan’s father wasn’t also blessed with a son.”
“What about the costumes?”
“They look like something out of the Tang or Song dynasties, which happened centuries later than the story of Mulan. Same for the buildings used for her family’s rural dwellings. Plus those buildings — called Fujian tulou — come from the south of China. Mulan’s story is about an invasion from the north.”
“So did Mulan really save the emperor from the invading Mongolian Huns?”
“Well, that’s tricky. She may have been more Hun than Han.”
“China has 56 different ethnic groups, but almost all the people — more than 90 percent — consider themselves Han Chinese. One sliver of the remaining 55 are Mongols, and most of those in China live in Inner Mongolia.”
“Yes, that’s where I saw a statue of Mulan! It was in a Hohhot museum in the capital. Next to the statue was an engraved version of the Ballad of Mulan, which they think was composed in the year 400 AD before Attila was made King of the Huns.”
“That’s it! Well, listen to this passage from the ballad:
The Khan is issuing a great draft—
A dozen volumes of battle roll,
Each one with my father’s name.
“It says Khan, not Emperor, right? The title of Khan was given to rulers in ancient Turkey and Mongolia, so Mulan might have been Turkish or Mongol, not Han.”
“Oh gee. I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“Aw, don’t worry, Buck. It’s an Eastern story told in a Western way — fiction, technically, not history. Here you go.”
“Yes! I know you prefer the cartoon version of ‘Mulan,’ so let’s watch that one. We’ll party like it’s 1998.”
About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is collaborating with the News + Record on several projects, is a frequent academic guest at universities in China.