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No Guarantees for ‘Mulan’ in China

The latest news is murky about exactly when “Mulan” will show in China (“ ‘Mulan’ Hits a Wall of Chinese Red Tape,” Calendar, Aug. 8). Judging from its extremely sympathetic view of Chinese culture, the movie should eventually make its way there. Yet in understanding how American films about China have historically been perceived in that nation, it’s far from clear how well this latest “ambassador in a can” from the Disney Studios will play with audiences in Beijing.

Chinese audiences generally have enjoyed the entertainment from Hollywood’s dream factories. In fact, 90% of the films shown in China during the first half of the 20th century were of American origin. But soon after the 1949 Civil War victory of Chinese Communists, their anti-American posture resulted in the disappearance of American films from the country. Not until the late 1970s did select American movies from the 1930s and 1940s reappear on Chinese screens.

And not until the early 1990s did the government begin to allow a fixed number of modern-day American films to be imported into China annually. Even before “Titanic” successfully sailed to China last spring, “The Lion King,” “Forrest Gump,” “True Lies,” “Twister,” “The Fugitive” and “The Bridges of Madison County” had already scored huge box-office successes.

Yet there have been many American films dealing with Chinese subjects that have been rejected over the years, and not just those by Communist authorities such as “Seven Years in Tibet.” During the early decades of this century, Chinese protests against offensive American films were frequent occurrences. “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), “Welcome Danger” (1929), “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” (1933), “Shanghai Express” (1932), “Oil for the Lamp of China” (1935) and many others all ran into problems with the Chinese because these films were accused of portraying China negatively.

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Mindful of Chinese reaction, MGM hired a former member of the government’s Central Film Censorship Board as a consultant when it began to make “The Good Earth” in the mid-1930s in order to avoid details offensive to Chinese. Yet when the film was released in China in 1937, it was still met with bitter criticism by Chinese. They felt that the film presented only the “backward” side of the country. Officials singled out numerous scenes and dialogue referring to opium smoking, pigtails, cannibalism and poor hygiene, asking MGM to delete them. Apparently, Chinese in the 1930s were obsessed with progress and modernity, whereas American filmmakers had little sympathy with that modernist zest and failed to see “backwardness” as a negative attribute.

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It will be interesting to see if similar misperceptions will play out in the case of “Mulan.” Like “The Good Earth,” the movie tells a Chinese story unfolding against a totally Chinese background and has generated a great deal of good feeling toward China in America, particularly from young audiences. But many Chinese may see the Disney version of their famous 6th century tale constructed more according to contemporary American political ideology.

There have been two

Chinese-made films about Mulan, one in 1928 and one a decade later. Both films emphasize the dual notion of filial piety (zhong) and loyalty to the emperor (xiao)--fundamental concepts in Chinese traditional culture--whereas the Disney story is obsessed with the gender issue.

In the Chinese films, Mulan is presented as much less rebellious, less individualistic and less self-conscious of her feminist position. She joins the army with the approval of her parents, not in disobedience, as Disney presents. In the 1938 version, she saves the life of a field general, not that of the emperor. She sees her role as complementing men, not challenging or proving equal to them. And finally, she goes out on her own without the ominous assistance from her ancestral spirits. One of the films shows no emperor at all, and the second shows him only in the final sequence, when he grants Mulan’s request to retire from the service. In Disney’s story, the emperor appears as a sage king.

At the time the two Chinese Mulan movies were made, China was striving toward modernity and was critical of its “feudal past,” which seemed a burden to progress. In that context, a wise and capable emperor was incongruous with the revolutionary ideology of the time. Similarly, ancestor worship and the magic power of family ghosts were at odds with modern sciences, which had become the new religion for the Chinese.

All of this is not proof per se that the two Chinese Mulan films “constructed” her more authentically than has Disney. But from “The Good Earth” more than six decades ago to Disney’s “Mulan” today, American film producers never look at China and Chinese culture the same way that Chinese do, whether the movies are sympathetic or critical of China.

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More than any inaccuracy in details, this contrasting perspective has proven the source of Chinese alienation for most American films about China. While the Chinese film audience today may not necessarily find relevant their own Mulan films of the 1920s and 1930s, they almost certainly will not share the “politically correct” hype of the Disney film born of race, class and gender politics of the 1990s.

If Hollywood producers believe that their movies will sell in China just because they have projected the country positively in their films, they might find themselves dead wrong!

Zhiwei Xiao is an assistant professor of history at Cal State San Marcos, where he teaches a course on the history of Chinese film and popular culture. He is co-author of the “Encyclopedia of Chinese Film” (Routledge).

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