Introduction: Feminism in the Chinese Culture and the Role of Art and Literature in It
In the 21st century, social roles of women have changed greatly worldwide. However, in some states, the cultural traditions seem to have been hindering the progress. In Chinese society, the image of a woman is traditionally identified as the one of the keeper of hearth and home. However, under the influence of some works of literature and cinema, the stereotypical portrayal of Chinese women may change.
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Although each of the narrations (The Woman Warrior, The Ode to Mulan and Mulan) are linked to each other with a single theme of Chinese women emancipation and the introduction of feminism into the Chinese society, the time periods, in which the specified pieces of art emerged did not allow them to have an equal impact on and, therefore, significance for the Chinese society and the role of women in it.
The Ode to Mulan as the Starting Point of the Chinese Feminism: A Challenge to the Societal Standards
A seemingly simple poem, The Ode to Mulan, nevertheless, has had a tremendous effect on the representation of women in China. While the poem puts a very strong emphasis on the traditional family values, it outlines the courage and the resourcefulness of the young woman, therefore, offering a new female character to the Chinese society. From a certain perspective, the poem can be viewed as the introduction of the principles of gender equality into the Chinese society. As the first of a kind, the poem has a historic significance.
The Woman Warrior as the Link between Two Interpretations of the Story of Mulan: Repressions, Stone-Cold Traditions and the Related Issues
A nonetheless significant work of literature created in the 20th century, The Woman Warrior is important to the culture of China in its own way. Much like the poem, the novel introduces the reader to the lack of equality in gender relationships in China (Yin 65). However, a more sophisticated manner of storytelling, the creation of three-dimensional characters and an incorporation of a range of social and political issues make the novel even more powerful than the poem. Unlike the author of the poem or the creators of the movie, Kingston renders both the necessity for the social change and, most importantly, the cultural implications of it. The author specifies that changing time-honored traditions in such a close community as the Chinese society is not an easy task, and that the transformation must occur on a personal level for the alterations to occur within the society.
The difficulties in changing the social role of a woman manifest themselves in Kingston’s novel as she creates a virtual world, where Maxine creates an idealistic image for her to mimic: “Kingston illustrates the imaginative side of Maxine’s personality as Maxine speculates about No-Name Woman” (Job 83). Otherwise, the author warns, the Chinese women will never be able to reconcile with the new responsibilities and challenges. The past will haunt the Chinese women until they realize the need for change: “My aunt haunts me – her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origami into houses and clothes” (Kingston 19).
Disney’s Mulan as a 21st Century Interpretation: Introducing New and More Challenging Ideas to the Chinese Culture and the Image of a Woman in It
Though Mulan the movie did not have a stellar box office success, it did represent a unique interpretation of the Ballad of Mulan through the lens of the American culture. Dismissing the obvious pop-cultural references in the movie, as well as some of the inconsistencies with the actual Chinese culture, one must admit that Disney’s Mulan raises a range of issues other than the role of a woman in the Chinese society. While the latter subject clearly is the focus, Mulan also offers the audience a range of other debatable issues in a rather subtle manner. For example, the line “Your great-granddaughter had to be a crossdresser!” (Mulan 00:22:12) taps on such topical social and cultural issues as gender identity and the acceptance of people, who belong to an alternative sexual orientation. It is remarkable, though, that the specified topic, which became a concern in the late XX century and still remains a major social issue in Europe and the U.S. (Blackwell, Ricks, and Dziegielewski 29), has a long and quite peaceful history in China, with its own tradition of non-heterosexual relationships (Gerkin 57).
Naturally, the focus of the movie remains on what the poem revolves around, i.e., the portrait of a woman in the Chinese society and the changes that the role of a Chinese woman had to undergo under the pressure of new environment and new challenges. However, unlike the poem, the movie also puts a very strong stress onto the family relationships. While in the poem, the author mentions the relationships between Mulan and her parents: “They ask Daughter who’s in her thought, / They ask Daughter who’s on her memory.” (The Ode to Mulan lines 5–6), the movie devotes a lot of attention to the communication between Mulan and her family, particularly, Mulan and her father: “My, what beautiful blossoms we have this year. But look, this one’s late. But I’ll bet that when it blooms, it will be the most beautiful of all” (Mulan 00:14:00–00:14:03). In a way, the movie represents the relationships between the members of a Chinese American diaspora, as it was created in the United States and, therefore, through the lens of the American culture. Thus, the animated movie seems to have had little effect on the actual portrait of a Chinese woman in the Chinese society, yet has affected the portrayal of the one among the American audience and touched upon a range of topical social issues.
Conclusion: The Tremendous Effect of The Woman Warrior, Mulan and the Disney Interpretation
It would be wrong to claim that each of the works of art mentioned above holds the same value for the Chinese culture and the representation of a woman in the Chinese society, even though the three of them tackle the same topic and address similar social issues. Created in different epochs, they were meant for different types of audience and, therefore, conveyed different messages. Even though the significance of the animated movie can match neither the Ode to Mulan, a “pioneer” in heralding feminism in China, nor The Woman Warrior with its complex plot and a unique perspective on the life in the American Chinese diaspora, each of the three works deserve being mentioned as a step in changing the image of a woman in the Chinese society towards a more democratic and liberating one.
Blackwell, Christopher, Janice L. Ricks, and Sophia F. Dziegielewski. “Discrimination of Gays and Lesbians: A Social Justice Perspective.” Journal of Health and Social Policy 19.4 (2004), 27–43.
Gerkin, Kody. “The One-Child Policy, Gay Rights, and Social Reorganization in China.” Human Rights and Human Welfare. 2014. Web.
Job, Jessica. “The Woman Warrior: A Question of Genre.” Journal of the CAS Writing Program 6.1 (2013–2014), 79–89. Print.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York City, NY: Vintage International. 1975. Print.
Mulan. Ex. Prod. Pam Coats. Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Pictures. 1998. DVD.
The Ode to Mulan. ca. 386. Web.
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Yin, Jing. “Popular Culture and Public Imaginary: Disney vs. Chinese Stories of Mulan.” Javnost – The Public 18.1 (2011), 53–74.