Mulan and Orientalism

As a kid, Mulan was one of my favorite Disney movies. I loved the whole story, the clothes, the colors, and especially the music. Watching it now, I can see clear examples of orientalism portrayed throughout the entire movie.

The most noticeable form of orientalism present in the movie is the combination of Japanese and Chinese culture. This is clearly visible by the clothing (Kimonos), white face makeup, and hair styles present throughout the movie. It is also seen in the song “Honor To Us All” by the way the ideal woman is portrayed.

Mulan is supposed to take place in China and be about the Chinese culture, but instead the creators mashed Japanese culture with Chinese. The idea of viewing many Asian cultures as similar or the same is an orientalist approach, when in fact Asian cultures are all very diverse and unique from one another.

Secondly, the way family honor is portrayed in the movie is a very orientalist view. The movie emphasizes and promotes self-sacrifice in order to keep a family’s honor. While family honor was and is a very important part of many Asian cultures, it does not mean that one should sacrifice their own important values for others. The way this concept of family honor is represented in the movie paints a picture that all Asian people will sacrifice themselves to honor their family and country.

Mulan is a form of orientalism, because the directors thought of Asian culture as one, and disregarded if cultures became mixed. In addition, the representation of self-sacrifice for family honor is seen as orientalism and is not how all Asian cultures are at all.

3 thoughts on “Mulan and Orientalism

  1. Mason F

    It is disgraceful how companies feel no shame when they produce films and ideas that show no respect for the ethnic group’s portrayal. I have heard several times how the creators of Nemo were instructed to take a course in ichthyology (the study of fish) before they were admitted to begin producing the movie. The creators of Mulan not being taught about the differences between each Asian culture and it leading to them combining offensive or inaccurate characters and references is not a surprise.


  2. So Disney’s 2020 remake of Mulan was about to be released but got pushed back to at least late July because of the pandemic. So all we have is the trailer:

    And that trailer — wow — it’s certainly well-crafted and moving, especially for those of us who were moved by the original Mulan at a younger age. But while I think it hints at a more thoughtful portrayal of Chinese culture — it still feels like it gets a lot of energy from those Orientalist tropes (we have the exotic Asian witch character, etc).

    Now the film’s clear feminism and its, from what I can tell, exclusively Asian and Asian American cast, will be seen, rightly so, as progressive. And by presenting the Chinese characters as fully human — showing a variety of representations — it might move past some of the Orientalist mindset.

    But what we are really talking about is a system — and it’s all about context. Until we get a lot more movies like, say, Crazy Rich Asians and Parasite — or staying within China, the Zhang Yimou movies we have been watching in AP Lit — and until those movies become big hits — it’s hard to believe that an American audience won’t be watching Mulan and getting their Orientalist mindset affirmed, rather than disrupted.


  3. Emily I

    Mulan portrays orientalism not only through family honor, but also through the character’s actions. From first glance, you can tell that the movie illustrates the traditional Chinese culture. All of the characters have similar appearances such as yellow skin, thin lips, small eyes, and dark hair. The movie also shows actions and events that are so-called “Asian” things, eating with chopsticks, drinking tea, and going around the house barefoot. I liked how you pointed out that the movie mixes Chinese and Japanese cultures, I did not notice that when I previously watched the movie. After thinking about it, the outfits and makeup in the movie is very similar to that of Japan’s rather than China’s. The characters’ kimonos and hairstyles were trendy in Japan during that time. In addition, the movie emphasizes the theme of cherry blossoms, which is the national flower of Japan. Now that I am reflecting, I find it very interesting that the directors decided to mix the two cultures, disregarding the fact that they have different traditions and values.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s