In January I opened up my blog as a platform for readers to post anonymous reviews of the books they'd read and didn't want to review because of possible blowback (trust me, the struggle is real).
While this isn't a review, it is an important discussion of how vital cultural stories lose their context outside of their origin cultures and can make members of the culture feel alienated, something all authors should consider.
When I found out there are two YA retellings of Mulan coming out this year, I was ecstatic. Mulan was one of my favorite childhood stories, and I memorized the entire Ballad of Mulan, on which the Disney adaptation was based, as a child. My family wasn’t fond of watching the TV when I was growing up, but when there were drama adaptations of Mulan, they would let me stay up late to watch them. To this day, the 1999 Taiwanese adaptation of Mulan is still my favorite one, though it’s a loose adaptation and quite campy.
So when I was about to add THE TRAITOR’S KISS by Erin Beaty and FLAME IN THE MIST by Renée Ahdieh to my Goodreads TBR list, my heart sank after I read the blurbs. I had to walk away from my computer and spend several days ruminating on how disappointed and upset I was about these two Mulan adaptations/retellings. Both books have their issues, and while THE TRAITOR’S KISS is readily apparent on why it is offensive, FLAME IN THE MIST devastated me on a personal level. Thinking about it makes me seethe in anger even though the deal was announced late last year.
I’m going to divide the rest of this discussion into three sections. Section One is the story of Mulan; Section Two will be on THE TRAITOR’S KISS’ and Section Three on FLAME IN THE MIST. Both Sections Two and Three will discuss material I break down in Section One about how to do a proper retelling of Mulan and why I found both TTK and FITM problematic.
Section One: The Story of Mulan
In the West, most people think of the Disney adaptation of Mulan, which came out in 1998. If you are not familiar with it, here is a synopsis from Wikipedia. If I reference this version of the Mulan story, it will be mentioned as the Disney adaptation.
In contrast, here is a link to the Ballad of Mulan with the Chinese text and a side-by-side translation. If I reference this version of the Mulan story, it will be mentioned as the original source or the Ballad.
The Ballad of Mulan was written sometime in the sixth century C.E. during the time of the Northern Wei Dynasty. The Tuoba clan, who were not of ethnic Han Chinese descent, ruled Northern Wei at this period. That is why the king is called Khan/汗 in the Ballad. There are doubts about whether or not Mulan was a real historical figure or an amalgamation of several different women from the period, but this post will not touch upon that.
->So What Did Disney Get Right in their Adaptation?
The answer is very little. Only:
(1) There was a great war that required a draft, into which all males were conscripted.
(2) Mulan did replace her father, who was too old, as a man in the army.
->The Actual Contents of the Ballad
(1) Mushu, Cricket, the grandmother, and Khan didn’t exist. (Sorry to burst everyone’s bubbles. Those were my favorite parts of the Disney adaptation too.)
(2) Mulan has two parents, an older sister, and a younger brother
(3) The draft list is twelve scrolls long, and Mulan frets because her father is too old and she has no older brother to replace him. Her younger brother is too young to go to war too.
(3) She asks for permission from her family to replace her father. They agree. (She does not abscond with her father’s armor, unlike in the Disney adaptation.)
(4) She does this as a boy.
(5) The war takes over a decade.
(6) The army wins and returns home. (Mulan is still in disguise as a man the entire duration.)
(7) When the emperor/Khan attempts to reward her with money and an imperial post, she only asks for a horse to return home.
(8) After returning home, Mulan hangs up her armor and re-dons her female clothing.
(9) When her former compatriots visit and see that she’s a girl, they are stunned, but do not treat her differently.
(10) There is no love interest or Li Shang equivalent in this story. Mulan was alone the entire time.
The entire story of Mulan is predicated on Mulan replacing her father in a war against the enemy. It emphasizes familial ties and shows Mulan as a character with agency and loyalty. She willingly does this to protect her father and younger brother so he can continue the family line. The Ballad is not a story about fighting, though it is an important element of war. It is not about a girl secretly disguising herself as a man to fight either. It is also not a girly martial arts film.
Ergo, you cannot have a Mulan retelling in any context without the inciting incident of a heavy war and a willingness of a daughter to sacrifice her life to keep her father and brother safe. There is a Chinese proverb/saying that Mulan epitomizes: 代父從軍(replacing the father to follow the army.) This is what differentiates Mulan from other stories of a girl disguising herself to join a war, à la Jeanne d’Arc or Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier. That is why THE TRAITOR’S KISS and FLAME IN THE MIST both are not and should not be considered Mulan retellings and their pitches should have never included Mulan in the first place. To use Mulan as a comp was not only misleading, but also disingenuous based on the key components of the Ballad and the aforementioned points.
Most importantly, aside from the emphasis of filial and devotion, there is also an emphasis of loyalty to the state and defending the country against foreign enemies. We see this both in the Ballad and the Disney adaptation in which the emperor thanks Mulan and tells her she saved China.
Section Two: THE TRAITOR’S KISS (formerly known as THE MATCHMAKER’S APPRENTICE)
Several problems exist outside of the scope of this discussion with THE TRAITOR’S KISS. See here, here, and here for the major issues already raised. (Erin Beaty also supports THE CONTINENT, a book that Harlequin Teen has pulled from publication for further revisions after many book bloggers called out the novel’s problematic and racist content.)
Nothing in TTK resembles the Ballad. Sage is an orphan (which negates the predication of what I’ve mentioned above). She is reliant on her uncle’s family, which is why she goes into matchmaking to support herself.
It is ludicrous for a girl to become a matchmaker in historical Chinese society. Matchmaking was more than pairing two individuals who were compatible in personality. It included, for lack of a better word, a ‘sixth sense’ gift in which the matchmaker had to calculate the two candidates’ birth-date, horoscope, and birth-times to see if the gods allowed them to have a long, fruitful life. Moreover, given that it is implied in the both the Disney adaptation and the Ballad that Mulan is from a relatively privileged family, wellborn girls were not permitted to become matchmakers because it was seen as a lowborn occupation.
Last but not least, a whitewashed retelling of Mulan is not Mulan. You cannot divorce an intrinsically Chinese story and main character and toss it in a non-Chinese setting. There are plenty of figures in Western history Beaty could have used for her comp titles or her main character. Why not Jeanne d’Arc? Why not Jennie Hodgers/Albert Cashier? Why drag Mulan into this story when there is nothing pertinent to her?
Section Three: THE FLAME IN THE MIST
(1) I do not know whether or not the Japanese representation is truthful and good, and I am not qualified to speak about it.
(2) There have been criticisms of Tamora Pierce by PoC. This is not a master-post, but it links to other issues bloggers have raised in the past.
(3) I will spend more time on this section because unlike TTK, which is more conspicuous in its problematic content, the issues from FLAME IN THE MIST are more subtle and less obvious to non-Chinese readers.
(4) I understand that Renée Ahdieh is half-Korean, and spent the first few years of her life living in Seoul based on this interview. That is why I feel stunned that she would write a Mulan-esque story in Japan even more.
Before I delve into the issues with the fact that FITM is Mulan meets Tamora Pierce set in Japan, I want to discuss Sino-Japanese relations and re-emphasize that Mulan is a story about a daughter defending and saving not only her father, but also China from foreigners.
->The Complexity of Chinese-Japanese Ties in the Contemporary Era
The relationship between China and Japan is fraught. Much of it originates from the first and second Sino-Japanese Wars in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries. Japan dreamt of amassing a large empire like the British and Germans, and wanted to conquer every Asian country for this goal. In their quest to achieve pan-Asian dominance, the Japanese imperial army committed a plethora of horrific atrocities. This trauma still collectively haunts the national psyches of many Asian countries including South Korea, Taiwan, China, North Korea, the Philippines, and many others.
In China alone, Japanese soldiers killed approximately 10 million people, many of whom were civilians. The most well known event of Japanese military violence during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45 C.E.) was the Rape of Nanking. Japanese soldiers hunted down Chinese civilians for sport, forced fathers to rape daughters, sons to rape mothers, and slaughtered the Chinese in contests to see who could have the most kills. One of the most horrific things I learned about the massacre was when my grade two teacher told us how Japanese soldiers would slit pregnant women’s bellies open and yank the fetus to see if it was a boy or girl, laughing while the women bled to death. Here are some photos from the Rape of Nanking. (TW: violence. They are extremely graphic, so open the webpage at your own risk.)
(There are other issues here too, such as comfort women. For further reading, here is a link to just one specific group, though comfort women came from many parts of Asia. This is still an ongoing problem, and not likely to be resolved in the imminent future.)
Though the Rape of Nanking happened over sixty years ago, it is a heavy point of contention today in Sino-Japanese relations, and this plays out in the media each year. Each time a Japanese government official goes to Yasukuni Shrine, China and countless other Asian countries condemn and protest the visit. The Shrine holds the names of over two million people who died in service to Japan, and commemorates their sacrifices. But it also contains the names of war criminals who contributed to or supervised the atrocities Japan committed in the second Sino-Japanese War.
For example: Iwane Matsui and Akira Muto played key roles in the Rape of Nanking and Japanese wartime brutality. Both men were also found guilty of committing war crimes by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East after WWII ended and sentenced to death. China and many Asian countries who were brutalized during Japanese occupation perceive these visits as Japan reviving their trauma and scars. They argue Japan longs for its glory-filled days of attempted hegemony in this action and is un-apologetic about the war crimes it committed in the twentieth century.
Adding to that, the Japanese government has downplayed, if not euphemized, the full extent of what they did in their school textbooks. Some ultra right-wing groups and individuals go further and claim the atrocities never occurred like Holocaust deniers do. These two actions have been met by angry denunciations from other Asian media and increased diplomatic strain. Finally, aside from the legacy and consequences of Japanese wartime activities, Japan and China are also embroiled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
These are simply a few of the complex issues between China and Japan. I do not know if Ahdieh was aware of them when she decided to write a Mulan meets Tamora Pierce story set in feudal Japan, but I cannot help but wonder if she did research this. I do not necessarily expect her to have an insider’s perspective, but given she spent part of her life in South Korea, which has its own difficulties with Japan (see the comfort women example above and here), I am quite stunned. I have to ask, why not adapt or retelling a story of a Japanese heroine in feudal Japan? Or a Korean heroine set in Korean history? You do not need to be Chinese in order to love her story, but given how endemic to Chinese history Mulan is, why use her when you cannot do so respectfully?
Putting a Mulan-esque story outside of a Chinese setting is already problematic in TTK, but if you write a Japanese retelling of Mulan, it negates the Ballad and its message of a girl who is fighting the enemy to protect her family, her father, and China even further. What makes Mulan unique is the fact that it represents deep-seated Confucian, Chinese ideals. It cannot be retold in a non-Chinese setting. FITM is not a diverse story if it excises the symbolism and multifaceted cultural nuances behind the Ballad and the figure of Mulan for a Japanese retelling.
I personally found the idea of a main character modeled on Mulan in a Japanese setting also an egregious insult to my own family. Two of my grand-uncles died in the Second Sino-Japanese War, one as a soldier, another fleeing the Rape of Nanking; my eldest uncle died when the Japanese bombed the hospital he and my grandmother were staying in. My grandmother escaped with minor injuries while my uncle perished. My earliest memories are of her lighting incense for my family members, which she did daily until she passed away. So when I read the blurb of FITM, it didn’t only feel as if someone kicked me in the stomach, it brought back the memories of my grandmother crying when she told me about her brothers and son, and how she blamed herself for not being able to save her son. My relatives are like Mulan in my heart. They died to give my grandmother and my family freedom. In an alternative world, if Japan had succeeded in their dreams, I would be considered a lesser human because of my Han Chinese background. I would not know how to speak Mandarin. I would not be free.
What Ahdieh and FITM do not only disregards what makes Mulan so special to my Chinese heritage, but it also insults my own family’s efforts to preserve Chinese independence and liberty.
Mulan retellings are much more than the Disney adaptation. The Ballad is an intrinsic part of Chinese history, of nationalism, of a brave young woman who sacrificed herself for her father and family. When an author takes Mulan into their story and strips her of the very things that make her Mulan, it is no longer a Mulan retelling or Mulan. It is a gimmick used to sell diversity because it is ‘hot.’ It is disgraceful, disrespectful, and an insult to the people who cherish Mulan as their personal heroes, especially children who grow up in the West. Because growing up as Chinese-British/American/etc, we are pigeonholed into liking Mulan because she is the only figure Western media has deigned to give us.
It is cultural appropriation and hurts people who dearly love Mulan.
I want to emphasize that I am not trying to bully Ahdieh or Beaty or dissuade non #ownvoices writers from their adaptation of the Ballad of Mulan. However, if you are an outsider writing this story, I ask that you be respectful and mindful of the cultural nuances behind the Ballad and its context. Otherwise you will insult and do harm to your readers.