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‘Mulan’ and China’s Approach To Soft Power Through Hollywood

The live-action remake's new additions speak to China's influence over the film.

Words: Ethan Lee
Pictures: Ahmet Yalçınkaya

I recently convinced myself to dish out an extra $30 on Disney+ for the live-action remake of Mulan. “For research purposes,” I muttered under my breath. My overpriced Saturday streaming binge ended up highlighting a problematic trend in Tinseltown, something that I need to confront.

While visually stunning and unique in its telling of the 6th century’s original “Ballad of Mulan,” the live-action remake of “Mulan” did not live up to the high standards set by the 1998 animated classic. There has been a large amount of scrutiny in the media over Yifei Liu’s comments on Hong Kong police and the end credit’s special thanks to the Xijiang Public Security Bureau (which operates internment camps indoctrinating millions of Uighurs and other Muslims). While these criticisms are valid and should not be overlooked, they also miss the fact that the 2020 remake of “Mulan” has, in its attempts to cater to global audiences and government censorship organizations, shifted its plot and message from those championed in the original animated film. Let’s start by touching upon three distinct differences between the remake and the animated version that highlight this shift:

1: The Addition of “Qi”

In the animated film, Mulan is not a natural warrior. She learns how to fight alongside her fellow recruits. Mulan’s individualistic traits — e.g. her grit and ability to think outside the box — lead her to successfully retrieve an arrow from the top of a pole in training, thereby demonstrating that women are as capable as men in what are perceived to be traditionally masculine roles. The live-action film makes a conscious effort to upend this dynamic. Mulan is framed as a combat prodigy, full of masculine lifeforce rebranded as “qi.” By making her a naturally-gifted fighter in a comparison of masculinity and femininity, the live-action remake suggests that Mulan’s experiences as a woman are hindrances to her ability as a warrior, rather than a unique asset. If a woman isn’t known from childhood to possess qi — Mulan and the shape-shifting antagonist Xianniang are the only women in the film blessed with this supernatural force — should they maybe look to Mulan’s sister for inspiration?

2: Mulan’s New Sister

Mulan was depicted as a single child in Disney’s original rendition. The new live-action remake changes this dynamic, directly juxtaposing the title character with a new sister named Hua Xiu. Unfortunately, Hua Xiu does not have any of Mulan’s prodigal special sauce. She is matched into an arranged marriage by the end of the film, set up to lead a more “traditional” life. This addition, combined with the addition of Mulan’s “qi,” seems to suggest that young girls who aren’t blessed with supernatural levels of masculine lifeforce will be confined by the limits traditionally imposed on them by the status quo.

3: Why Mulan Saves the Emperor

Mulan doesn’t save the emperor out of loyalty in the animated film. Instead, Mulan’s actions are driven by her protective outlook for all of humanity. The 2020 film strikes a very different tone in this regard:

Unfortunately, Hua Xiu does not have any of Mulan’s prodigal special sauce. She is matched into an arranged marriage by the end of the film, set up to lead a more “traditional” life.

Mulan: “I know my place. And it is my duty to fight for the kingdom and protect the emperor.”

By changing the motivations driving Mulan’s actions, the remake outlines a submissive protagonist fighting to preserve a Chinese dynasty. While Mulan rejects a job offer from the emperor in the 1998 film, the live-action remake is baked in suggestive ambiguity. Mulan’s homecoming reunion with her father — a poignant and touching end to the animated film — is cut short by the emperor’s job offer. While the film ends before we hear Mulan’s final answer, her smile seemingly implies that the answer is yes. In its worst-case scenario, this directly implies Mulan’s service to a hegemonic status quo.

As a co-production between Chinese and American studios (most notably Walt Disney Pictures and the China Film Group Corporation), “Mulan” represents bilateral collaboration to address distinct global audiences. This serves as the basis of a potential explanation for the remake’s shifting themes and plot: to increase ticket sales and revenue, compromises were made during production to increase marketability for foreign audiences not invested in the animated film’s progressive messaging.

Moviegoers aren’t the only audience members that need to be considered, however. A likely explanation for the remake’s shifting nature is China’s censorship apparatus. This expansive system consists of over seven unique departments and is of major consequence due to its power over the world’s fastest-growing movie industry. Beijing can be notoriously picky when selecting foreign films for release. Another way for many American production companies to distribute inside China is to co-produce films with state-owned enterprises. Regardless of which path is chosen, filmmakers hoping to tap into the growing Chinese box office must anticipate the tastes of China’s censorship system and its state-owned film enterprises.

Hollywood’s current dynamic with Beijing is of notable consequence to China’s assertion of soft power abroad. While big-budget Chinese films often perform well domestically, they can struggle in the international box office. The highest-grossing films of all time — most of which were released in the last twenty years — have been primarily produced by American production companies; this serves as a testament to an expanding pre-pandemic international box office, the global community’s unipolar moment at the end of the Cold War, and the enduring reach of American corporations. Despite this, the number of movie theaters in the US has been declining for the past 18 years, a trend that will likely be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This has largely resulted in Hollywood expanding into international markets, particularly China. Because of Hollywood’s desire to expand internationally and the influence of China’s censorship apparatus, the Chinese Communist Party has been able to dictate the content of “Mulan” and other major films produced by American companies. This is of significant consequence to the international expansion of Chinese soft power.

Alterations to Mulan’s central themes emphasizes the emerging liabilities posed from globalized cultural industries which, by extension, is reflective of a strategic shift in Sino-US relations. The growing reach of censorship is of growing consequence, relative to clandestine influence over political behavior. Short-term financial considerations governing corporate interests should never serve as a restriction on our collective values’ free expression and distribution. We risk becoming beholden to foreign powers if we accept self-imposed censorship in our entertainment and media.

Despite this uneasy conclusion and its implications, Hollywood’s future is not irreversibly bleak. In his book “Feeding the Dragon,” entertainment executive Chris Fenton writes on the potential of films to serve as a common cultural thread between the US and China, assuaging escalating tensions that threaten to turn us from competitors into adversaries. Films can be a tool for collaboration or a battleground in a reemerging era of Great Power Competition; how we decide to utilize them is a shared decision.

Ethan Lee is an undergraduate at Stanford University studying Political Science and History. He has also worked in the entertainment industry on television and film productions.

Ethan Lee

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