From Ancient China to Modern America: The Legend of Fa Mu Lan

Every creator brings his experience to his creation; the culture and upbringing of the creator influences his art. For several centuries, the ancient Chinese legend of Fa Mu Lan, the woman warrior, has transcended cultural boundaries and also become a part of the Chinese-American and American cultures. However, each culture has molded and shaped the legend to reflect its peoples ideal and values. The differences in the telling of the legend between the cultures reveal aspects of each culture; the ancient Chinese legend reflects the Confucian principles of the ancient society, while Maxine Hong Kingstons Woman Warrior intertwines two different ancient legends, paralleling Kingstons attempt to mix the American and Chinese cultures in her own life. A more modern version of the tale, Disneys animated feature film Mulan, not only depicts life in ancient China, but it also incorporates American values and American societys sense of fantasy and idealism. The differences in the nature of the father/daughter relationships and the training and battle scenes reveal the values of the different societies, and these values play into the presence or absence of a love story.

In the original Chinese legend, the unknown author never explicitly states the nature of the relationship between Mu Lan and her father. Obviously, a sense of love exists between them since Mu Lan chooses to risk her own life in an attempt to save her fathers. However, in the Chinese legend, the father is aware of his daughters intentions to fight in his place, indicating willingness on his part to sacrifice his daughter for his own well being. To modern Americans, his concession to send his daughter reflects badly on himself; he willingly sends his daughter into a potentially fatal situation. Fathers attitude reflects the Chinese belief that daughters are not as important as sons. While Father would most likely agree to sending Mu Lan in his place if she were a boy, the reasoning behind his decision would be based more on his sons duty than viewing Mu Lan as expendable. Mu Lan, as a girl however, is no more real to her father than a ghost. Judith Zeitlin maintains that in Chinese custom, a “ghost is to human as female to male” (243). Zeitlin then points out the qualities of ghosts that Chinese women emulate: “invisible, inchoate, and absent” (243). Thus, Mu Lans potential death signifies nothing more to her father than the potential absence of a silent being, much like a ghost.

Kingston hints at American influence as she illustrates a closer and more informal relationship between the father and daughter. Unlike the Chinese tale, Kingston includes some interaction between the two characters. Rather than addressing her father formally, the narrator cries out “Papa” when she first sees him in the water (Kingston 22). This more informal address indicates a more personal relationship; the narrator experiences longing when she no longer sees her parents on a daily basis. Likewise, when the narrator returns home after a fifteen-year absence, “her family surround[s her] with so much love” (33). This sense of a loving family unit depicts more of the American sense of family than the Chinese. American tendencies shape Kingstons writing when dealing with interpersonal relationships, including this relationship between a father and his daughter.

Although Kingston attempts to create a more intimate relationship between Mulan and her father, Americas Disney succeeds representing a tight bond between the two characters. The father and daughter actually exchange words and physical closeness; they sit beside one another on the bench under the magnolia tree, and her father encourages his daughter after she has disgraced the family. Mulan returns her fathers affections, resolving herself to taking his place in battle when the emperor orders him to war. Mulan acts out of a sense of duty and compassion for her father. Her failure at the matchmakers indicates an inability to succeed by following the traditional society ways; therefore, Mulan must prove herself in the only way she knows, by filling in her father in an attempt to save his life. For Mulans father, the pain he experiences upon the discovery of Mulans disappearance is unbearable. He falls when he tries to run for her. Her father refrains from reporting Mulan to the authorities, hoping to save her life. His silence results from a desire to save his daughter, rather than, as the Chinese legend implies, from indifference as to whether she lives or dies.

The cultures do not differ in only their approaches to the father/daughter relationship; the distance between the genders also indicates a sense of the womans proper role and duty in each culture. Ancient Chinese poetry omits actual battle scenes, hoping to keep the sexes apart and to deflate the intense physical strength of the women warriors. The women in the narratives must remain true to the four Confucian principles of loyalty, filial piety, integrity, and righteousness. According to Sufen Lai, the “Ballad of Mulan” serves a dual purpose, reflecting “the northern landscape and nomadic spirit” and “convey[ing] the Confucian expectation of womanhood” (82). In order to remain true to these principles, the Chinese authors eradicate direct contact between the genders while the woman warrior is disguised. Thus, the authors do not violate the values of ancient Chinese society; rather, the authors strengthen these principles by presenting a woman who is mentally strong and still faithful to her society. The Chinese authors make a distinction between the warriors posing as a man and her actual contact with the men. At the end of the legend, after she has transformed herself back into a lady, Mu Lan tells of the soldiers reactions. Until this point in the poem, Mu Lan has not directly addressed the other soldiers. The author chose to separate the men from Mulan while she crosses the gender boundaries, and it is not until her proper place has been reestablished that she can communicate with the soldiers.

Unlike the traditional legend, Kingston includes interaction between the woman warrior and the men, but she separates the training and battle portions of the narrative. Kingstons warrior trains in solitude, under the direction of only the old man and woman. Like Chinese women, the warriors training is quiet and draws no special attention. The training consists of learning to control oneself, an experience to which Chinese women can relate. Although Kingstons warrior trains without fanfare, she fights explosively. The narrator interacts with other armies and leaders, displaying sword work and battling a giant. This portion of the narrative depicts more American principles than Chinese, whereas the training section remains true to Chinese principles. Thus, Kingstons separation of the two cultures indicates a separation of the two cultures in her own life; she cannot reconcile the two cultures at this point in order to create one cohesive narrative.

In contrast to the Chinese and Chinese-American approaches to the legend, Disney meshes the training and battle scenes and Mulans interaction with men. Disneys training attempts not to distinguish between gender roles, but to unite the audience behind Mulan. Disney appeals to Americas romanticized view of war to emotionally engage the audience. The men and Mulan undergo a transformation from incapable and humorous soldiers to distinguished and capable warriors. However, Mulan trains ands succeeds with the men, in fact, she often does her tasks more accurately and quickly than the men. This depiction of women clearly illustrates a more American view of gender differences. Feminism in American dictates that men and women are equal, and popular culture reveals these attitudes by providing characters such as Mulan to illustrate the capabilities of women.

Unlike the traditional legend, the soldiers discover Mulans true identity before she returns home. Disney breaks away from the confines of ancient Chinese society by allowing Mulan to directly address Shang after this discovery. Under Chinese rule, Mulan never would have the chance to address him directly, since he is a man of high rank and not a member of her family. Shang would especially refuse to acknowledge her presence after she betrays him and army. In Disneys portrayal, Shang does ignore Mulan, but it is more from this sense of betrayal than from her taking liberties that her gender does not guarantee. Thus, American feminism once again plays a role in the depiction of other cultural societies in Disneys masterpieces.

In addition to portraying women as mens equals, American values dictate that Disney provide a more one-dimensional view of war. Americans hold an idealism and romanticism unique to their culture. In attempting to find an audience, Disney must focus more on Mulans achievements than the repercussions of her actions to the opposing army. Jack Zipes accuses Disney of “systematically domesticating and sanitizing its more subversive and troubling elements,” hiding behind humor rather than address the issues of war (Buckingham 290). In fact, at the beginning of the characters training, Disney presents the men more as buffoons than as a major force in society, highlighting mens more disgusting habits such as picking their toes and boasting about their manhood. This romanticized view of war supplements Disneys inclusion of interaction between Mulan and the men to portray American society within the Chinese setting of the story.

The different attitudes exposed by the different cultures address of gender roles also contribute to the love story element of each tale. The distance portrayed between men and women in the ancient Chinese tale leaves no room for a love story, while Kingston includes a love story that remains true, in a sense, to the Chinese attitudes of marriage. Disney, in contrast, pulls from the American ideal of a fairy tale and love blossoms amidst adversity between the main characters.

The ancient Chinese author of the original legend omits a love story because the presence of love between Mu Lan and a man would not accurately depict the Chinese culture. The interaction needed between man and woman to fall in love violates social standards in China, leaving no room for men and women to fall in love before they marry. Therefore, the Chinese view of a fairy tale is quite different than the American.

Americans picture the lovely maiden and the handsome man falling in love as the perfect ending to a fairy tale; however, with the Chinese disregard for love in marriage, this ending would be entirely inappropriate. Instead, an ideal ending consists of women dutifully accepting their societal positions. Xu Wei, a progressive Chinese scholar, writes his an alternative version of legend of Fa Mu Lan, incorporating modern (1520s) feminism and irony into his work. However, even this radical writer cannot break from the traditional values of the Chinese society concerning marriage. At the end Mu Lan comes home, like the traditional legend, but Xu Wei blurs the gender boundaries through the last line of the poem, “The scripts could not differentiate female from male” (Lai 88). However, despite the unconventional attitude Wei expresses, the Chinese fairy tale ending remains the same: the “daughters are properly arranged into favorable marriages in which they are expected to play their proper role” (88). This ending represents to the Chinese a devotion to Confucianism, dictating that duty, rather than love, constitutes the idealism of a fairy tale in the Chinese culture.

Kingston incorporates this Chinese sense of duty into “White Tigers,” but she also illustrates some America values by allowing a love story to flourish. She includes an intimate male presence into the woman warriors life. In fact, the woman warrior leads a secret life away from her soldiers; she marries and has a child without their knowledge. Her love affair is private; no one observes the union between the warrior and her husband. In this aspect, Kingston utilizes elements of the Chinese culture by allowing the husband/wife relationship to remain private. However, the interaction between man and woman that necessitates a marriage alludes to Kingstons American influence. Her inclusion of the loves story reflects American romance, but Kingstons forcing this relationship into the background of the narrative mirrors the Chinese attitude that love is secondary to duty.

In stark contrast to the Chinese people, Americans are romantic, craving the classic American fairy tale to exist in reality. This attitude of the ideal love story, in part, results from Disneys influence in popular American culture. Americans expect a romantic element from Disney. The creators of Mulan included the character of Shang to provide an innocent level of sexual tension into the story. He serves to oppose Mulan in the beginning of the movie and then to fall in love with her strength and bravery. Mulan represents the typical female Disney character, exhibiting “physical strength, autonomy, and wisdom” (Buckingham 291), and she appeals to Shang, the stereotypical “prince” character. This romance appeals to the American public and reinforces their ideals, including the idea that love wins over all else, including duty.

The different versions of the ancient tale of Fa Mu Lan directly reflect the culture in which they were created. The Chinese tale highlights the Confucian principles of women, and provides insight into the societal expectations of women. The elusive father/daughter relationship and absent depiction of battle illustrate the distance between the genders in the Chinese culture, while the American version of the legend incorporates modern American principles and issues such as tight parent/child relationships and feminism. Maxine Hong Kingston attempts to pull these two cultures together in her own life, as well as her writing. She weaves the two cultures, hinting at values of each society, creating a more intertwined narrative. Kingston attempts to create a narrative that exemplifies traditional Chinese values and American ideals. As a result, she uniquely defines her own experience as a Chinese-American.