This is not Mulan: Hollywood’s failed attempt of cultural theft

Written By: Zhiying Published: 27/09/2020

Searching online for the new Disney film Mulan in 2020, you will see topics about Chinese culture, feminism, and the boycotting of the movie along with other controversies in the current political climate. But one very important critique seems to have been neglected. That is, the manufacturers of the film do not know, or more likely, do not care about Chinese history and culture at all! In response, this article will present evidence of this point, which is deadly obvious to the Chinese audience but may not be known by people from a different background.


The film attempts to recreate the very successful Disney cartoon version of Mulan made in 1998, but it is confusing, as Disney has chosen to portray the matchmaker character with Japanese geisha-like cosmetics.

The makeup of the main character, Mulan, is even more over the top. In the original ancient Mulan folklore poem there is a sentence that reads “Powdering yellow flowers by the mirror” (dui jing tie hua huang), but the poem isn’t meant to be taken literally – it doesn’t mean paint “yellow flowers” on your face – it is only a metaphor for blusher, a type of makeup which is applied to the cheeks, not to the forehead. Disney has applied the wrong cosmetics in the wrong location – A mistake that could have been avoided by conducting proper research into Chinese culture. Compared with an accurate example of what women really looked like in ancient China, let’s use a historic artwork from the Tang dynasty depicting female clothing and cosmetic style, we begin to see Disney’s poor and lazy imitation of ancient Chinese cosmetics. Flip between the pictures to compare.

The appearance of the emperor has been widely criticised by Chinese audiences. – A Black robe, a strange collar, his beard growing from his nostrils – This does not look like any emperor from any dynasty throughout any period of Chinese history. In the times of Qin, it is alleged that Qin emperors did favour the colour of black, but they never wore this imaginary hat. More lazy research from Disney. During the Qing dynasty, the last period of feudalism and imperialism in China, yellow was considered the noblest of colours, thereby their robes were largely golden yellow in colour. Flip between the pictures to compare.

Some Chinese Netizens have pointed out that the emperor in Mulan looks a lot like the “classic” villain Fu Manchu – A racist caricature of Chinese people from Hollywood films in an attempt to push the anti-Chinese ideology in early 20th century in America. Flip between the pictures to compare.


The style of Ancient Chinese architecture depicted in the movie is called a Tulou (translation: the building of soil). But a Tulou is a traditional form of architecture from the Chinese southern coastal province of Fujian, dating back to 16th century – A period which is more than a thousand years later than Mulan’s time. This architectural style, according to research, came into being in defending the invasion from ancient Japanese – given the castle-like shape of the building. However, the capital city in Hollywood’s depiction of Mulan is set in North China. So why did Disney decide to use this “Chinese element” so mistakenly? Flip between the pictures to compare.


The story is set in “ancient China” so of course there will be the use of the Chinese language in the movie. The screenshot of the scene of the movie below is a great example of one of Disney’s grammar mistakes. The door features a Chinese couplet (two complementary poetic lines adhering to certain rules) which is a form of Chinese literature poetry (just like a Heroic Couplet in English poetry). Literally translated, it means “May all the lovers stay forever; may all the couples keep to their hearts”. It kind of makes sense in the English translation, but it does not apply to the rule of the couplet, i.e. it is not grammatically correct in Chinese. Moreover, and more fatally for Disney, Mandarin was not in use in the time period in China because it was dominated by the ancient Mongolians!

The story of Mulan was originated from a poem from the Wei Dynasty’s Collection of the Department of Music, a book from around 400 AD. Although historians have not come to an agreement regarding the real identity of this heroine, she is known by every Chinese person and her story keeps inspiring not only Chinese but people around the world. Seeing how Disney has tried to tell the story with such little effort and respect, the Chinese audience and perhaps the consumers in other regions of the world share the feelings of disappointment, confusion, and repulsion. It is no wonder that the movie is receiving very poor reviews and low rating scores in mainland China, scoring only 4.7 out of 10 on Douban’s rating system (Chinese version of the websites rotten tomatoes or IMDB).

Overall, the movie Mulan is a lazy and poorly researched production and at times almost racist in its depiction of Chinese people and Chinese culture. Chinese people should reject this Americanised and lazy rendition of an ancient Chinese story. When Hollywood depicts other countries and cultures in this stereotyped way it is dangerous because viewers from different cultures are left with the wrong impression as their movies do not factually and fairly represent the culture or country in question. Secondly, we shouldn’t help Disney and Hollywood get away with cultural theft and even implicit racism while still gaining profit. Hollywood Movies should be honest, fair, and scientific to the culture and history in which the stories are based – Until then they can expect their movies to flop in the countries they demean.

Mango Press


Fujian Tulou
Fu Manchu
Yuefu Shiji: 1 Qin Melody
The Language of the T’o-pa Wei
Representing Chinatown: Dr. Fu-Manchu at the Disappearing Moon Cafe.