When the first trailers for Disney’s live-action redux of Mulan came out, I braced myself. I knew the live-action version would have many differences from the 1998 animated movie I rewatched over and over again as a kid, even aside from the notable absence of songs and the emphasis on martial arts. But there was one noticeable difference I hadn’t expected about the heroine: Mulan keeps her hair long in this version.
In the animated movie, a pivotal scene sees Mulan slashing her hair off with a sword so she can pass for a man when she joins the army to protect her father from conscription. In the 2020 version of the film, she stands tall and proud, long hair blowing in the wind.
Like many first-generation Asian-Americans, I grew up clinging to Mulan as a heroine, though it would take years for me to realize that seeing a Chinese Disney princess was an exception, not the norm. Mulan was an important part of my childhood. It was the first movie my mother took me to see in theaters, since she was so excited to see a story she learned growing up adapted for an American movie. It was a legend turned animated movie that crossed cultures and generations, bonding us together. Watching Mulan, I felt a connection to a culture that was mine, but that I’d never grown up in.
I knew the new live-action adaptation wouldn’t follow The Lion King and adapt the Disney movie shot-for-shot. This version is going back to the ancient Chinese ballad that served as the animated film’s source material. The original folktale has gotten many adaptations in China, but none have made their way into release in the United States. Jason Reed, a producer on the 2020 Mulan, told SlashFilm that the scene where Mulan cuts her hair in the original film alienated Chinese audiences because of its historical inaccuracy. Letting her hair stay long this time, he says, is a chance to keep Mulan truer to the original source material.
But while removing the scene updates Mulan to resonate more with Chinese culture, it’s also an ironic loss, because that sequence so specifically grounded the animated movie in the Chinese legend. It’s a highly Westernized scene, but the intent behind it gave the film an Eastern ethos that set its tone and visual language. It also ended up capturing a distinct feeling of cultural hybridity that resonated deeply with me and other young Asian-Americans.
Why the scene didn’t work in China
According to Reed, Chinese audiences openly mocked the haircut scene when the animated Mulan played overseas. Historically, Mulan cutting her hair wouldn’t have made her look more masculine, because throughout China’s past, men kept their hair long. Though the poem probably took place around 620 CE, around the founding of the Tang dynasty, the movie itself floats nebulously: many official synopsis position it in the Han dynasty, but the architectural style and other visual cues put it more recently, in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Regardless, until the 20th century, long hair was the norm across gender in Chinese culture. Hairstyles differed throughout dynasties — in the Qing dynasty, for instance, all men had to adopt the queue, a hairstyle where the front of the head was shaved and the back part kept in a long braid. But while fashions and political requirements changed, men typically kept their hair long. (Except for Buddhist monks, who shaved their heads.) Long hair was historically considered sacred, seen as part of the body and a legacy inherited from one’s parents. Most people never cut their hair once they became adults. Cutting hair was so dishonorable that at points in Chinese history, it was used as a punishment for minor crimes.
The haircut scene, plus the insertion of a dragon character, which turned the noble creature into a smart-aleck comic-relief character, played badly with Chinese audiences. The Western fairy-tale perspective dominated the animated Mulan — while key members of the production crew, including producer Pam Coats, director Barry Cook, art director Ric Sluiter, layout supervisor Robert Walker, and supervising animator Mark Henn visited China on a research trip before starting production, the crew were mostly white.
“We knew that as much as we enjoyed the China trip, and the culture, and everything that we saw, we were coming back to make an essentially Western movie,” Henn says in the official Mulan artbook. “We weren’t making a documentary. But I felt very strongly about trying to be as authentic as we could.”
The crew strove for that authenticity — and listened to character designer Chen-Yi Chang — but yes, ultimately, 1998’s Mulan is still a Chinese folktale told through an Americanized lens.
The haircut scene saved Mulan
While this scene alienated Chinese audiences, it also pivots Mulan sharply away from the motivations of the rest of the Renaissance-era Disney princesses, and pushes her back toward the original Chinese legend.
In early production, the creative team struggled when conceptualizing Mulan’s character. “Mulan was originally conceived as a romantic comedy, like Tootsie,” recounts story supervisor Chris Sanders in the movie’s artbook. She was conceived as a plucky tomboy outsider who wanted to avoid an arranged marriage, and she dreamed about life outside of her small village. Sounds familiar? Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and leagues of other Disney heroines did the same thing.
“For a while, we got really sidetracked and started to make a film that’s been made before — by us — about a girl who’s unhappy and leaves home because of that,” Coats says in the same book. “Through that storyboarding process, we discovered that this was not a girl we liked. This is a willful girl who is leaving home because she is unhappy. That didn’t make us care for her.”
In a scene that didn’t make it into the eventual movie, Mulan’s destiny is literally carved out for her, in the form of one of the stone tablets in the family’s temple (which signifies her place in the family), declaring her intended marriage. She shatters that tablet, declaring that she will write her own future. The sequence sounds like it belongs in Pixar’s Brave, where the similarly determined princess Merida enters the archery contest that’s meant to determine who will marry her, and competes for her own hand, changing her fate.
“It was just so militant that it really isolated her, and turned her story into something non-empathic and very self-righteous,” Head of Story Dean DeBlois explains in the art book. “That was something we didn’t like at all.”
From an East Asian perspective, it’s pretty apparent why an independent Mulan wasn’t working well with the story. The idea of pursuing an individual destiny has been romanticized for male protagonists throughout Western canon. In adapting fairy tales like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, where female protagonists passively waited around and suffered, Disney found it empowering to reinvent them as active heroines taking control of their own destinies. But Mulan doesn’t draw from a history of male heroes embarking on journeys. The idea of striking out against family goes against the Confucian notions of the original ballad.
The Ballad of Mulan, first transcribed in the 6th century, stresses the importance of patriotic loyalty, and the value of filial piety — a virtue that isn’t simply love of family, but a deeper dedication and respect to parents and ancestors. That manifests in being courteous and respectful, holding up the family name, and taking care of one’s parents as they age. The fierce individualism that made heroines from Western fairy tales, like Ariel and Belle, empowering by reclaiming their rather passive princess roles wouldn’t work when adapting Mulan. The values inherent in the original texts aren’t the same.
“I threw a fit,” Sanders says in the art book. “I was tired. I wanted to kill off the romantic comedy once and for all.”
He decided to revert back to the ethos of the original poem: Mulan doesn’t choose to leave home and fight in the war because she’s a plucky tomboy dreaming of adventure, but because she loves her father and her family above all else. The studio execs agreed that this was the right move, and the story team went back to rehash what they had.
The first scene the team scrapped was the running-away scene, where Mulan shatters the stone tablet. DeBlois took over the storyboarding for that scene with a clear vision in mind. The sequence in the script was just a paragraph:
Frustrated by what she sees and knowing what’s coming, Mulan decides to take her father’s draft notice as he sleeps; she steals his armor, cuts her hair and rides off on Khan into the night. The family wakes up and realizes she’s gone.
It was the scene that would make or break Mulan’s appeal as a character. Sanders envisioned the scene without much dialogue, and as DeBlois recounted at this year’s Annecy Animation Festival, he referenced the soundtrack of the 1990 drama Come See the Paradise as a jumping-off point, thanks to its specific dramatic, driving musical cue, which is often used in movie trailers.
This wasn’t the only movie that inspired the scene’s tone. DeBlois mentioned that he lifted heavy inspiration from the climactic scene of Dead Poets Society, when Robert Sean Leonard’s character’s father takes him home and tells him he’ll never be an actor. He cited the long shadows and blowing curtains as some of the visual language he drew from.
“From the moment that she sees her parents, and the candle blowing out, we go tight on her resolved, determined face, and she snaps into action,” DeBlois says in the movie’s art book. “From then on the cutting becomes more active and dynamic, with lots of camera moves. We tried to stage it so that from the moment she steals the draft notice, through to her cutting her hair and getting dressed, her face is hidden until she’s revealed as a soldier.”
That revised scene became the first one put into full production, ultimately setting the standards for how the team would approach using sound and space.
“For The Lion King, it was the opening sequence, ‘The Circle of Life.’ It put the whole picture into perspective. It was Sequence Six that put Mulan into perspective,” says Peter Schneider, then-president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, in the same art book. “We knew we could do it with greater simplicity — relying on visuals, and limiting dialogue — yet have it speak with a more universal elegance.”
The haircut scene set the rest of the movie in place — and it wouldn’t have existed if the filmmakers hadn’t decided to revert the emotional crux of the story back to the legend. It’s the most crucial scene in the movie, setting the tone of the story and putting the production back on track. Even though it’s a glaring cultural and factual error, the scene is key for the way it catches Mulan between American and Asian cultures, speaking directly to the diaspora of Asian-Americans.
Mulan is still Westernized
Mulan leaves home out of dedication to her family and her father, but earlier in the movie, she struggles to figure out who she is after the disastrous matchmaker scene. Like many Disney princesses before and after, she takes a quiet moment to sing about what she wants. But what she wants isn’t “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” or even anything specific. She wants to make her family proud, but is grappling with how she can do that, since she can’t do it in the way they want.
Her internal struggle is a key element absent from the original story. Mulan’s misfit, defiant first-draft personality was toned down in the final movie, but traces of it are still there. Her internal personality clash isn’t about how she seizes her own destiny and makes a name for herself while defying her parents, though. It’s about how she’s torn between filial piety and being true to herself.
That struggle resonates with many first-generation Americans, specifically first-generation Asian-Americans,who grow up in a society that upholds different values and communicates with a different cultural canon than the ones instilled at home.
Mulan is far from an authentic movie, but those inauthenticities made it particularly memorable for a specific audience. As Gregory Ng Yong He writes for Vulture, the distinct American touch — the Broadway-style music, the humor, the sassy dragon — on the otherwise Chinese story gives the movie a particular appeal for members of the Asian diaspora, who understand that “one’s racial appearance often does not reflect the hybrid cultures and values contained inside a person.” When Mulan cuts her hair, then, it doesn’t make sense for Chinese audiences, but for Chinese-Americans, of course it would.
Watching the movie as a young first-generation Asian-American, I was struck with a sense of familiarity at seeing characters like me — like my family on screen, eating the food we ate at home, and wearing clothes similar enough to the ones my mother put me in on special-occasions. I didn’t realize it was an oddity until the next Disney movie came out, and it didn’t have a Chinese heroine at its core. I grew up with Mulan birthday cakes and toys, but as the years passed, they became harder and harder to find. So the next time someone asked me who my favorite princess was, I said Belle, but the lie felt oddly weighty for such a trivial question.
Watching the movie as an adolescent, I was struck with a sense of familiarity, not just at Mulan’s appearance, but at her struggles. When she looks into the mirror and wonders why she can’t be what her family wants her to be, it hit a different chord. Mulan wants nothing more than to make her parents proud, but she struggles to do that because she knows she’s not the same as them. So she strikes out on her own. She cuts her hair. She joins the army, because she loves her father and her family, and also because this is her way of upholding their honor.
That ending may be what sits heaviest with me now, as an adult. Mulan comes home after winning the war. She did things her way, and while she’s now a hero, she’s still uncertain about how her family will welcome her back. She hesitates. But her father embraces her, and tells her that the greatest gift and honor is having her for a daughter. Mulan made her family proud — but her family also took the step toward seeing her choices from her vantage point. It’s a middle ground between parent and child, between tradition and modernity, a balance my mother and I are still figuring out. But years after I first watched Mulan in a theater for the first time, holding my mom’s hand, the film reminds me that it’s still possible.
Correction: This story previously stated the author of the Vulture article was named Gregory Ng. It has been corrected to Gregory Ng Yong He.
The original 1998 Mulan is streaming on Disney Plus.
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