After the devastating conclusion to the Opium Wars, the Chinese people became increasingly dissatisfied with the Qing Dynasty. An uprising ensued, which eventually resulted in the collapse of China’s final dynasty. During the Revolution of 1911, the legend of Mulan was used to inspire women to join the Women’s Liberation Army and fight to free China from the oppressive Qing state.
In the 1920s, the communist party began gaining traction. The communists, who insisted on equality among all individuals, welcomed women to join their ranks. Mulan was hailed as an inspiration among women who sought to liberate themselves from China’s patriarchal system and escape family duties such as arranged marriages. Whereas virtually every previous rendition of the legend emphasis that Mulan’s joining the army was an incredible act of filial sacrifice, her story was now being used by women who sought personal freedom, recognition, and adventure.
In 1937, the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (which eventually escalated into World War II) broke out. Initially, China suffered several devastating defeats, including the loss of Nanjing (the capital city), throwing the country into a state of alarm. Women stepped into the workforce to sustain the Chinese economy, while the vast majority of the country’s men enlisted to reclaim China. During this time, Zheng Meiqing assembled a team of talented artists to produce a poster that would inspire all Chinese people, both men and women, to work together to defeat the Japanese (shown above). No hero epitomized the artists’ sentiments better than Mulan.
In 1939, one of the first successful films of Mulan’s story, Mulan Joins the Army, came to the theater. The movie, which glorified warfare, was received as a call to arms. With the warrior princess Hua Mulan leading the way, the Chinese were overcome with a renewed desire to liberate themselves from foreign aggression. After the war ended, it quickly became apparent that the Chinese people would never be able to return to the lives they once knew. Another film (Lady General Hua Mulan) issued a plea for the Chinese to unite as a family to persevere through the trials which lay ahead.
As the twentieth century drew to a close, English translations of Mulan’s story began making appearances in the West. Of all the English adaptations, none exceeded Disney’s Mulan in popularity. This film was so successful that it began inspiring a renewed interest in Mulan’s legend in China; the resulting movement eventually culminated in the release of the Chinese film Mulan: Rise of a Warrior. In 2010, Disney announced plans to release a live-action remake of Mulan. This film, which draws inspiration from both Chinese and American cultures, is expected to appeal to audiences from around the globe.
Mulan’s story has traversed the globe several times and has touched the hearts and minds of countless generations since the story was first conceived over a millennium ago.
肖伟, 论月份牌绘画之《木兰荣归图》 (收藏与投资, 2016.06): 72-79. Note that the painting referenced above was included in a picture calendar. However, because the calendar differed greatly from what most English speakers consider to be calendars, I have called it a poster in order to avoid confusion.