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In 1998 Disney released the animated film Mulan. American audiences were first introduced to the history of Fa Mulan, including several Asian Americans who had never heard of this Chinese heroine. They were thrilled to see each other on screen, their turn to tell their stories on billboards and at the box office. They were excited to be part of the creation and sharing of culture.
In 2020 Disney released the highly anticipated live-action version of Mulan after similar remakes of the animated classics like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. Disney hired sensibility readers, consulted Chinese cultural experts and made sure that their interpretation of the ballad of Mulan, written in China over 1,500 years ago, does not offend but draws millions of viewers overseas and in the States.
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The publication was fraught with difficulties. The overseas viewers decided they didn’t like it (it was too American), the American release was an excruciating and anti-climactic event that dragged on for months due to the pandemic. The story’s glory has been overshadowed by international politics (the lead actress). Some of us still wonder why the producers managed to get great Asian actors but couldn’t even get an Asian screenwriter to join their all-white screenwriting team.
What about the story itself, apart from all the political drama? What about the cultural history and message of Mulan, our beloved warrior? We still loved it, damn it! And we want more. If it is you, your family or your classroom, and you just want more Mulan, our role model, you can add something to your bookshelves.
Fa Mulan: The Story of the Warrior by Robert D. San Souci and Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng
Beautiful work of art with a story that stays true to the original ballad. The images are beautiful like a Chinese scroll and an effective antidote to overly modernized versions of this ancient story. Topics like filial piety remain in this version, and the author even includes endnotes for sources and historical context. Perfect for those who loved the movie but still want a more sophisticated and educational look at the story. As a side note, the story of Robert D. San Souci is included in the credits of the 1998 animated Mulan.
Mulan: A Tale of the Legendary Warrior, told in English and Chinese by Li Jian, translated by Yijin Worth
This book is a more traditional tale of the legend and tells how Mulan became a soldier out of love for her family. Somehow she moves with ease between the female and male spheres. Not much is dramatized in this simple narrative, just like in the original ballad. It is just a fact that with the support of her family on the occasion, Mulan rose to do her duty and returned to the recognition of her country. Respected by the emperor, by soldiers, by her village and by her family, she becomes a national heroine. Grandparents (or fluent parents) can read this version to the children in Chinese.
The Song of Mu Lan by Jeanne M. Lee
An outstanding picture book for its carefully painted representations that remain true to Chinese art traditions. Period details are spot on. The author and artist adheres closely to the old text and honors the original poem with her father’s original calligraphy. This picture book also includes two languages, English and Chinese. The breathtaking work of art is a poem in itself.
Mulan: The Legend of the Warrior Translated by Faye-Lynn Wu, illustrated by Joy Ang
Although the illustrations were created in a digital, modern animation style, the text remains true to the traditional plot. The story is only told in English, but the actual ballad is printed in Chinese on the last page. Each page has a very cinematic quality to it for those who like that style.
A place for Mulan by Marie Chow and Jasper Shaw
The writer has given the traditional plot her own twist and taken creative freedom with Mulan, just like Disney. This story takes the idea of Mulan’s individuality – that it does not fit traditional stereotypes about girls – and paints it as an exuberant child with endless curiosity and energy who does not thrive in the home but flourishes in the spirited outdoors. A great message of self acceptance. I loved this book.
Mulan’s Lunar New Year from Natasha Yim and Sophie Li
This book follows the life of 7 year old Mulan as her family prepares for the Lunar New Year. In keeping with Disney’s version of the story, Mulan is a spirited but clumsy girl who tries to help but runs into all sorts of glitches. This book is wonderful for those who loved the movie and also want to celebrate the lunar new year with Mulan.
Mulan (little golden book) by Gina Ingoglia and Jose Cardona
Of course, we can’t skip the Little Golden Book version of Disney’s Mulan, which is illustrated in the Disney animation style. Sometimes the kids just want a verbatim film that retells.
Mulan: Before Grace Lin’s sword
This novel is Disney’s precursor to the film, and it’s excellent. Grace Lin is a gifted storyteller who tells Mulan an adventurous backstory before becoming the fateful warrior we all know her to be. Needing to find a cure for her sister who has been poisoned by a spider, Mulan begins a quest with the legendary Jade Rabbit to find an antidote. My kids loved this original story from one of their favorite authors.
Mulan: The Story of Film in Comics by Gregory Ehrbar, Bob Foster, and Mario Cortes
For those who love comics and want to retell the movie in comic book form, this version is well adapted.
Mulan’s Adventure Journal: The Palace of Secrets by Rhona Cleary, Agnese Innocente, Cardinali, and Ilaria Urbinati
This graphic novel is the thoughtful and creative endeavor of several writers and artists who turn a story about Mulan in a new adventure. After an assassination attempt is made on the emperor’s life, the heroine is hidden as a guest in the imperial palace to find out who is planning treason. The graphic novel is interspersed with Mulan’s own diary so that we can finally see and hear the inner thoughts and feelings of the woman for ourselves.