Sisters of Mulan: The Warrior Women of China

When I was a kid, we had a bunch of Disney movies in those big clamshell VHS cases. The ones I remember on heavy rotation were Hercules, Aladdin, and Mulan. We also had Pocahontas, which I’m sure I liked because Pocahontas is so pretty. Now, Hercules and Aladdin I understood to be fictitious because of all the magic and sorcery. Pocahontas, maybe I learned about in school; she was real, though different than depicted — younger. What about Mulan? I always thought she was a real historical figure, maybe because she was also pretty. The movie has only a dash of the supernatural — seasoned just right — and we certainly never learned about Chinese history in school, so how, before I looked it up, could I have known, how? Well, it turns out that the Mulan story dates back to a poem, not an actual, factual woman who rode off to war in her father’s place. But that’s such a good story, I want it to be real. And because our perception today of Mulan is so tied in with female empowerment, that she’s the Disney princess who kicks butt and challenges a woman’s place in society, shouldn’t that have some basis in reality? Obviously you can enjoy the Mulan story or the movies any way you’d like, and feel empowered by them, so the answer is no. But if the answer is yes, the question “Was Mulan real?” becomes “Is Mulan believable?” And to answer that question, I’d like to take a look today at the historical figures with similar stories, and their depictions in movies. Because it’s not enough that Mulan has spiritual sisters, we have to understand that she does. And so, our story begins where a lot of great stories begin.

Ng Mui and Wing Chun

The Shaolin Temple stands today in the forest of Mount Shaoshi in the Henan province, for some Chinese people, I imagine, a symbol of both resilience and a fractious past. Since its founding in the fifth century, it’s seen the rise and fall of dynasties, been subject to religious persecution and war, even that as recent as the Cultural Revolution. Political tides shape and reform just beyond the temple walls, casting the Buddhist monks as friends one generation and enemies the next. Governments, even ideologies are fleeting, but the principles of Shaolin are universal. You can’t burn down a passion. But you can burn down a building. Many, many times, in fact.

By the 17th century, the Qing Dynasty was nearing the peak of its power, having started life humbly, as an invading force into China by the Manchus, a people made up of Jurchen and Mongol tribes. Outsiders they may be, it was a betrayal by Chinese within the Shaolin Temple that led to its destruction — one of its destructions. Chan Man Wai, a civil servant seeking favor with the Manchus, conspired with other monks to burn the temple from the inside while soldiers attacked from the outside. Among the monks and students who escaped were the Five Elders, whose sole female member was the abbess and martial arts expert Ng Mui.

For all the wisdom fundamental to the mastery and teaching of martial arts, it’s difficult to anticipate treachery, and that was Ng Mui’s world before she lost the temple, this central place, this infrastructure for an identity. As a fugitive, Ng Mui found shelter in the White Crane Temple on the Tai Leung Mountain, and had to keep her talents a secret. How do you right a wrong like that? Even if Ng Mui were to reunite with her fellow Elders, they’d be up against the almost existential threat of a dynasty. The great desire for revenge, too, would have been suppressed. There is no style of kung fu to address a problem like that.

While living on Tai Leung, Ng Mui often bought bean curd from a man named Yim Yee and his daughter Wing Chun. They were also fugitives, trying to rebuild their lives after Yim Yee was accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Wing Chun was smart and athletic, and also betrothed to a fellow named Leung Bok Chau — and also, she was 15 years old. However, none of that stopped a local bully from trying to force her into a marriage with him. I’m sure there were many everyday injustices at Tai Leung Mountain witnessed by Ng Mui, but she’d have had to have been selective in her intervention. Maybe she saw a bit of herself in Wing Chun, because she took her in and began to train her to fight.

Ng Mui probably didn’t train many 15 year olds or many girls in her halcyon Shaolin Temple days. Wing Chun was just as much a blank slate as the Tai Leung Mountain itself. A new beginning, but this time on her own terms. And she would need to develop a new style to suit this real-world environment — applied Shaolin. One day, Ng Mui observed a fight between a stork and a large rodent, and noticed how the stork used its wings and legs to attack and defend at the same time. This would form the basis of what she’d teach Wing Chun, who needed to dissuade her attacker as much as possible, essentially maximizing each moment of contact toward a big “No” translated to physical terms. Wing Chun worked hard to learn this new style of kung fu based on nature, structured around softness of body — flexibility, but also aggression. Even if this is about the discouragement of violence, you can’t show any weakness, and you have to end it quick if you don’t match the stamina of a larger opponent.

Despite its isolation, the Shaolin Temple did liaise with various imperial courts, and whatever its influence upon them, it was obviously seen as a threat at various times through history. Ironic, then, because if the temple was Ng Mui’s world, its destruction made the world her temple. She crafted a new style based on a specific purpose, a specific body and mind and circumstance — she helped give kung fu to everyone. Wing Chun defeated the bully and married the man of her choice. Her work done, Ng Mui went on to travel the country. It was the husband, Leung Bok Chau who named this style in memory of Wing Chun.

“Wing Chun is in some sense a “soft” school of martial arts. However, if one equates that work as weak or without strength, then they are dead wrong. Chi Sao in Wing Chun is to maintain one’s flexibility and softness, all the while keeping in the strength to fight back, much like the flexible nature of bamboo” – Ip Man

Now, there’s a movie called Wing Chun, and it isn’t a great demonstration of the style, but I think that’s part of the charm. Released in 1994 and directed by Yuen Woo-ping, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the entire story is fantasy. And why might a director take liberties with these historical figures? Well, because everybody does. The stories of Ng Mui and Wing Chun you just heard were cobbled together from a number of online sources, whose details conflict — like with any history, sure. However, even aspects of the big picture are in dispute. Sometimes Ng Mui is the daughter of a Ming Dynasty general who developed her style in the Forbidden City. Sometimes Ng Mui isn’t even female, but a Tibetan monk with no Manchu enemy. Benny Meng and Steve Rudnicki of the Ving Tsun Museum argue that given the danger posed by the Qing Dynasty, Ng Mui would not have exposed herself by teaching a young girl kung fu to escape a forced marriage.

While preferable if Ng Mui and Wing Chun were real people who did these legendary things, it’s interesting to think about if they weren’t. It begs the question: who would’ve authored these characters, and who would’ve passed them down through generations as the truth? Either these women did exist, or somebody really wanted them to, and what was the cultural context for that desire? If director Yuen Woon-ping is any indication, it’s a desire that’s survived hundreds of years, living on to our modern day, or as we know it, the Michelle Yeoh Age. So, how does star Michelle Yeoh and Yuen Woo-ping bring this story to life?

Wing Chun (1994)

The movie Game of Death is bittersweet for Bruce Lee fans because it was going to be the fullest realization of his vision, and with the exception of Way of the Dragon, directors had a difficult time capturing the actor in action. There’s historical tension between choreography and direction, especially in Hollywood where the old wisdom goes that shaky cam and machinegun editing cover up a lack of fighting skills, with the plausible deniability that it’s for the purpose of intensity. What happens when the choreographer is the director? That’s my experience with Wing Chun, having seen Yuen Woo-ping choreography photographed and edited under the direction of filmmakers as diverse as The Wachowskis, Quibi Tostinos, Andrzej Bartkowiak, and Keanu Reeves, artists with their own unique styles. Wing Chun is the pure strain.

Yuen is a champion of wire-assisted kung fu, so there’s a lot of big jumping and twirling through the air. The feeling I get from the martial arts in The Matrix is smoothness. The camera glides and orbits just as the characters move through space in a logical way. By contrast, the movement of characters in Wing Chun is discontinuous and downright impossible, all in service of accentuating moments. It’s like the important part is the strike, not the windup, and the effect is staccato — it’s all strikes. But not exactly — even though the movement through space isn’t “logical,” it has a logic of its own and never loses you. This is important, because what’s happening is complex. The action has an almost Rube Goldberg quality, anticipating, for example, the table fight scene in Ip Man 2, especially with the “break the curd” challenge.

So this is what Yuen has been seeing in his own head all along, and it’s fast and ridiculous and cinematic. Not only physics but space and time become elastic: look at how long this grain is falling all around them. It’s a very dramatic effect, and I like how Yuen’s only reality is within the frame. Who knows what the world looks like when time stands still between two fighters? Michelle Yeoh slides into this world, and for her early filmography, this is a standout showcase of her skills, which is saying a lot. I think the difference here is that she’s playing a distinct character more so than an archetype like in earlier movies. She has a story, she has a history, and the world around her feels alive and, actually, quite eccentric.

This is a talking point, for me. I’m so blessed that I’ve now seen movies which fully satisfy the metric developed by suggestions offered during a childhood watching sci-fi action. You know, Ripley and Sarah Connor are cool, but how physical can you really get when fighting an Alien Queen or liquid metal? A badass action heroine cannot exist in a vacuum, she must be provided the proper context, both inside the world of the movie and in terms of the production. You know, do the characters treat her with respect, which is to say, first disrespect and they learn the hard way. Is there that learning? And then, do the filmmakers treat her with respect — can she be cool or is she more of a fetish object? Like I’m one to talk. But you know what I mean, and this is important beyond myself, I believe. And so, the first question we apply from this metric is simple: is she the most badass character? Of course, she must be, we might think. As we go on here, we’ll see there are no guarantees.

However, I will say that in Wing Chun, Wing Chun is the most badass character, and the world reacts to her accordingly. But remember, that’s only our first question, and it hardly sufficiently characterizes the world of this movie, which is ludicrous. Surprisingly, it is not the fantastical action we blame for the lighthearted tone; this movie is a straight-up kung fu comedy, and I don’t know how to react to that because the comedy is really crass. The only version of the film conveniently available to me is this one, where first of all, somebody xeroxed every frame and dropped it in a gorge on the way back from the frame xerox machine, and second, the English dub is quite profane. It’s mostly with the character Abacus Fong, Wing Chun’s aunt. Even if she didn’t say things like “Bang her to your heart’s content?” etc., there’s a lot of sexual assault themes in this movie, whether it’s a very aggressive damsel-in-distress sequence toward the end or Auntie Fong having sex with the character Wong who’s under the impression she’s someone else.

There’s a romcom subplot with mistaken identities, because here we have Michelle Yeoh dressing up like a man and suddenly men can’t see that she’s a woman. Very Mulan-like. We have this rather incredible foot-bathing scene? It’s a really weird movie, beginning with its very construction. It’s not an origin story for Wing Chun, the way Challenge of the Masters is for Wong Fei-hung, albeit a revisionist origin, and this surprised me, too. We see that Ng Mui appears in the film, played by none other than Cheng Pei-pei, but it’s a cameo. And then Wing Chun explains her origin later, without even a flashback. In the context of the film, it provides a thematic basis for the current-day conflict, which in turn would outline a formula for a Wing-Chun legacy of films again like Wong Fei-hung, but that’s not our reality. According to Wikipedia, there’s a Wing Chun TV series, but it doesn’t appear to be about Wing Chun or feature an abundance of female leads.

So if this is all we have for both Wing-Chun and Ng Mui, I kind of bristle against the weird stuff. Kung fu movies to my mind represent an opportunity to exercise the trappings of a genre in a pure way. You can have a movie where people are fighting each other and not much else has to happen. And yet Wing Chun is burdened by an entire additional genre, one that I don’t necessarily find appropriate. And while the action is fantastical, if you’re a Michelle Yeoh diehard like me, this is still a great example. The comedy actually works to keep the stakes low, which I appreciate. It’s a pleasant movie, and that’s unusual for kung fu. But if you’re looking for an unqualified recommendation from around this period in her career, I really liked Magnificent Warriors, in which she plays an Indiana Jones-type pilot who hits people with a whip and helps foment a rebellion in a surprisingly sweeping martial arts war movie.

You may have noticed that a young Donnie Yen figures into Wing Chun, which is funny to think about. With his portrayal of Ip Man in the Ip Man quadrilogy, it seems he brought the style into the mainstream. And how could he not? Look at that smile. You sit there and you think, “Man, how do you become like Donnie Yen?” whose very profession is being cool? To your surprise, I don’t know, but I’d endeavor to start where he did: his mom. I’m not kidding. Bow-sim Mark, Donnie Yen’s mom, is a martial arts grandmaster, making her a perfect example of a modern Chinese warrior woman. She’s a practitioner of the Tai Chi Chuaun style, which she’s taught to students by opening schools in Hong Kong and Boston. One of her former students is a legend in her own right, the actress Kara Wai, and since Bow-sim Mark doesn’t feature in the pictures business, we’ll take a look at legacies with My Young Auntie, designed to be a showcase for a new female kung fu star.

My Young Auntie

Kara Wai is one of the greats of Hong Kong cinema, but the story of My Young Auntie begins with yet another legend, Lau Kar-leung, director of movies like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Drunken Master II. Like Yuen Woo-ping, Lau Kar-leung is primarily known as a fight choreographer, having worked on the earliest Chang Cheh movies, including One-Armed Swordsman and Golden Swallow. Unlike Yuen Woo-ping, however, his choreography represents grounded, technical martial arts. So much so that the movies he’d go on to direct, like 36th Chamber, have an educational bent. By the end of them, maybe you’ve witnessed the construction of a style from the ground up, and are so moved by the hero’s story that you emotionally or spiritually understand what’s required to practice it. You will not see slow-motion or people flying through the air — the hits are harder, faster, and full of emotion.

Lau’s camera and editing are invisible but both are doing so much subtly as we track alongside the fighters at the same speed, punching in and out to highlight movement without disrupting the flow. It’s so graceful, and yet the action is so busy and layered over multiple planes. The clarity of this constant movement allows the narrative to express through the action itself. Cinema action, like kung fu, is a language, and it’s one that this director uses to say so much. Kara Wai won an industry award for this role; this is a movie about showing us that women can fight, too. And if anyone will depict a fighting woman in a believable way, free of the anti-gravity of Yuen or the CGI of Hollywood, it’s Lau Kar-leung. And that is true, but this is another comedy.

It turns out Lau Kar-leung is kind of a goofball, as we can see from his role in this movie. I got to say, though, his performance here and the comedy of the film are effective. All the more impressive that the comedy is built into the kung fu, both of which require precision timing. That’s the narrative mentioned earlier. For example, you have this constant back-and-forth between Kara Wai’s character and the nephew of the title, and these are fast and silly and clever. There is a product that emerges in that delicate balance between action and comedy, but what also emerges is a battle of the sexes. The setup is that Kara Wai’s character had married the brother of Lau Kar-leung’s character in order to inherit his estate and keep it from another brother, who is evil. So Kara Wai goes to stay with Lau Kar-leung and his nephew from Hong Kong.

Now, nephew from Hong Kong is a big shot. He’s been studying English, clearly no good, and he roves around with a posse like he’s gonna fight the Sharks or the Jets. He comes in like a whirlwind, so you kind of expect Kara Wai to put him in his place, and the movie so very nearly gets there, but he’s pretty much her equal in terms of fighting skills. And this probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if the mission of the movie weren’t about poking fun at Kara Wai’s character, even if it’s always sympathetic with her. A delicate tightrope to walk — lot of effort. Now, Lau Kar-leung is known to make his principle star Gordon Liu look absolutely ridiculous from time to time. That’s the whole point of kung fu training. You fall on your face repeatedly until you’ve learned the fearsome fist of stone-face. So what I’ll be looking for is the endpoint where the character ultimately triumphs and walks away with their dignity.

After we’ve worked all the sillies out of our system, the evil brother arrives and it’s time for the big battle. Actually, the big battle is the last hour of the film, and it’s a spectacle. We’re treated to the demonstration of different styles, different weapons, and it’s team deathmatch, so there’s almost a sports-like quality, where fighters run interference and swap out for different match-ups. Actually, I’m reminded here of one of the all-time great action climaxes, that of A Better Tomorrow 2, trading kung fu for gun fu. And while the body count in that one is a tad higher, there’s still this perfectly inappropriate party-like tone, like “Ah, we’re all getting in on this shit!” However, what also occurred to me was a real blast from the past, this Japanese martial arts movie I saw a long time ago called High Kick Girl. Now, High Kick Girl is so fetishistic I’m not gonna show any footage here — apologies to star Rina Takeda — but that movie eventually damsels its own title character, leading to her rescue by some dude.

If you notice, none of what I’ve shown you of this big fighting sequence features Kara Wai. And why might that be? Well, My Young Auntie concludes with an identical situation, though it’s multiple dudes this time staging the rescue, so maybe that’s progress. Before we’ve reached that point, however, Kara Wai does get to show off her moves, and she is amazing. So even if she’s eventually removed from her own movie, and throughout played off of a young brash hero-type, she is nevertheless captured on film by Lau Kar-leung, who directs kung fu like no other I’ve seen.

So let’s hop in our time machine and travel back to the 18th century to meet our next warrior woman, the real Mulan.

Wang Cong’er

The White Lotus Society was a Buddhist sect from around the 13th century organized against rule by foreign powers, specifically the Mongols. Followers of the White Lotus were vegetarians. They chanted, they lit incense, and they believed that a higher authority was one day coming — the Buddha. All of these things naturally rankled those around them, including the government, who probably believed themselves the highest authority — oh, but it’s actually “governments.” The White Lotus’s first open rebellion was against the Qing Dynasty, and this was late 18th century, which is remarkable to me. They existed as an institution in some form or fashion, for over 400 years to that point. That’s longer than the United States, and they survived somehow, for all that time, as a thorn in the governments’ side. You don’t suppose they’re gonna resurface today and claim that Beijing needs to be destroyed in order to be rebuilt, do you?

In 1777, Wang Cong’er was born in Xiangyang City, where she lived in poverty with her single mother. Then as now, I imagine, it was basically impossible to escape that kind of life. You’d need outside help, first of all, which Wang didn’t have. You’d also need luck, again, short supply. What she did have was creativity, because her idea to escape poverty was joining the circus. Wouldn’t have been obvious to me, but it paid out in dividends: here she learned acrobatics and kung fu. She was still learning, of course, when she was attacked by a group of men. A city official came to her aid, and after warding away the attackers, he identified himself as a member of the White Lotus Society. So, yeah, that’s origin story. She’s Batman.

Here’s Wang Cong’er, age 16, suddenly at a crossroads. There’s the world set out by the government, the world of civilization but seen from below, and there’s the potential escape taking stiff form in a violent, centuries-old rebel group. Do you even know who you are at 16? It’s hard enough to make life choices, but the cruel irony is that it’s even harder when you don’t. So of course, she joined the violent vegetarians. The leader of the White Lotus in Xiangyang was a man named Qi Lin, who, in another life, held a position in the local magistrate. He and Wang married, and together they recruited 100,000 soldiers from among the many peasants in the area, including another man named Yao Zhifu. These were in so many ways, Wang’s people. She would’ve known their struggles, would’ve spoken their language. And impressively, this recruitment didn’t discriminate along gender lines, as Wang’s membership already attests.

In 1796, a plan was drawn to begin an uprising at a time next spring when the day, the month, and the year all fell on the earthly branch Chen — poets, all of them. The Qing Dynasty got word of these plans and launched a preemptive strike, killing 112 White Lotus members, including leadership, among them Qi Lin. Wang escaped to the Qinglian Temple on the outskirts of the city. This was a devastating attack, and the people under Qing rule didn’t ignore how the government responded with such brutality. Recruitment increased, and by the time Wang assumed a leadership role, she was commanding over 40,000 soldiers.

Nevertheless, the White Lotus would continue to suffer setbacks and military defeats. If passion clearly wasn’t the problem, it was tactics. Here we have another David and Goliath, another enemy who lords over a supremacy in manpower — like the bulk of a bully writ large. The rebel army simply could not stand up to them in one-on-one battles. Wang, shoulder-to-shoulder with Yao Zhifu, would go on to demonstrate a mastery of guerilla tactics, using her people’s knowledge of the land as well as flexibility in troop movement to run the Qing all around the Hubei area. Wang and Yao attacked and burned down Luyan Station and proceeded south, claiming more and more territory.

A teenager whose walls were closing in, coming of age in a violent world, she took control. She changed the game, and prone to hyperbole as I am on such matters, she did. Her command of the battlefield made her so feared by the Qing court that they expended an effort at chasing her down so concerted it became reckless. At one point, because they were out running around, they left themselves exposed to an attack on the city of Xi’an. I mean, truly nobody but a woman can get the goat of any unit of men, organized any which way but never in sympathy with the Second Sex, but that seems shortsighted. Even still, Xi’an was successfully defended; it’s hard to bet against resources like those of the Qing. They can throw away strategy — they can afford bad ideas. In 1798, Qing soldiers surrounded Wang’s forces in a valley on the Shancha River. She and Yao retreated to Mao Hill but found more soldiers at the top, so they, along with their female troops, flung themselves off the hill to their deaths. She was 22, but she left a lasting legacy.

In the west, Wang Cong’er is sometimes thought of as “the real Mulan.” Her guerilla tactics represented a massive shift, changed how the Chinese people fought greater, more powerful threats throughout history. It actually makes me wonder if Wang Cong’er would’ve read the “Hua Mulan” poem and been inspired, but honestly, her story is more impressive. Not a Hollywood ending, granted. And so, since we don’t have a real Wang Cong’er movie, how do the various Mulan films stack up not as depictions of her legacy, but depictions of a Chinese warrior woman in the sword and horse mold, rather than kung fu? Are we allowed to believe such mythology could be possible, do we get a sense for this archetype’s greater significance…?

So, I lied. Wang Cong’er features in exactly one movie, I just didn’t want to mention it. The Swordswoman in White is from 1992, directed by Huaxun Zhang, and at the time of this video’s publication, you can only find it on a streaming service called the Wu-Tang Collection, which I don’t believe is associated with the musical group. Pretty cool then, that the RZA didn’t copyright “Wu-Tang,” which is a couple of existing Chinese things, but rather “Wu-Tang Clan,” which is how he comes to sue dog-walking company Woof-Tang Clan. That was a sentence I didn’t want to say. And to be honest, this movie probably isn’t so bad, though it looks like it was filmed on plywood. Of all things, could you believe the problem is the English dub? It’s so bad that the Wu-Tang Collection gets in front of it with a disclaimer. It’s pretty much on the level of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 you made in high school with your lame friends, and it made the film basically impossible to pay attention to.

There’s actually been a lot of Mulan movies, most of them made in China. You got Hua Mulan Joins the Army in 1927, Mulan Joins the Army in 1928, Mulan Joins the Army in 1939, and more, including an animated American movie and a Chinese live-action film from 2009. We’ll be taking a look at those, or shall we say, let’s get down to business?

Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (2009)

The story of Hua Mulan, being both a poem and lost to time doesn’t leave you a great deal of material to work with. It’s not license to create new material that the writers have, it’s a requirement. For Mulan: Rise of a Warrior, I think the story they came up with to buff out the legend really works. It’s a clever adaptation in that it takes the movements of the story and fleshes them out with narrative rationale. For example, to ensure that Mulan emerges as a singular hero in a war fought by a military, we have the betrayal of a commander, although his motivation was hardly illustrated. And throughout, we’re witness to Mulan’s headspace as she wages an internal battle, pondering the loss of self while fighting a war. That’s the kind of movie this is, full of philosophical exchanges and tilted more toward the depressing aspects of war than the triumphant. About partway through, after it appears the enemies have slain her love interest, I fully expect Mulan to charge into battle and kill all the bad guys in a bloody furor, but actually, she gets drunk.

It’s difficult for movies to access the psyche of the soldier in combat, no matter how much bloody verisimilitude. This movie takes an interesting approach, playing on familiar discomforts, like thirst, as a gateway to an unfamiliar, more severe suffering. They run out of water in the desert, and so they have to kill horses (off-screen) and the love interest, Wentai, feeds Mulan his own blood. So as they’re facing the enemy army, their lips are dry. It’s something. And I think it’s a consequence of the filmmaker’s interests when it comes to those central questions: why do we fight, what does war do to us? Typically, war movies structure their conflict in much the same way that military training does: us versus them. We can see this in the 1998 Mulan, with the design of the Huns. They may as well be the orcs from any given animated fantasy movie from the ‘80s. You look at World War II propaganda posters, and the Germans and Japanese look like creatures. Here, the Huns have grey skin and yellow eyes, you know, that way no human beings do?

In Rise of a Warrior, the invading army is the Rouran Khaganate, from Central Asia, and they’re not the same frothing warmongers we might be expecting. Their leadership is represented by a sensitive old man, his kindly Russian celebrity servant, and a passionate daughter. But then there’s the evil son, who introduces the film by executing Chinese prisoners. Now, that’s one bad apple. While this obviates the dehumanization trap, it reveals yet another problem; perhaps the war film as a somewhat landmine genre, no pun intended. If this is ultimately a story about heroic and villainous individuals — putting aside the trope that a war ends when the villain is defeated, like how there were no more Nazis after Hitler died — then it’s about good and evil, and that’s not why wars are fought, that’s just more propaganda talking. Are we really challenging the evil son because he executes prisoners, or is it because his army is invading? If it’s option A, maybe we don’t ask why the army is invading, even if the answer is “because we invaded first”? Why simplify, other than, you know, nationalism, and we’re back at the start. But it was a fun detour.

Both this film and the Disney movie position China, specifically the Han Empire, as a passive homeland under siege by invaders, and that strikes me as so American. How many times have we seen Russians, North Koreans, or Chinese invade American soil in everything Red Dawn ever influenced? This seems to be some sort of imperial anxiety, the very same that birthed invasion literature in early 20th century Britain, which itself developed into alien invasion literature. Talk about dehumanization. It is the same mythology we tell ourselves to justify a foreign policy we can no longer objectively assess. And that mythology is our inroad to the fantasy at the heart of these movies, dragons notwithstanding. If I did take a time machine back to shake hands with Wang Cong’er and ask for an autograph and a selfie, she would be completely alien. Not just in terms of language and culture, but morality. She’s doing things that disqualify her from our modern conception of heroism. And we like antiheroes, but even the Omar Littles and Dexter Morgans of the world are governed by morality — a man must have a code. I’m not saying Wang was some feral maniac, but the real-world situation she faced demanded an equal, opposite violence, where the fable of Mulan can always be crafted to appeal to sensibilities displaced from the historical period depicted.

Hua Mulan doesn’t need to be a hardcore, R-rated valkyrie of the battlefield… but if we’re starting from fantasy, framing her conflict as black-and-white, the rest may very well follow. One of the great things about film is that you can play with time — flashbacks, nonlinear chronology. But sometimes you can run away with it. A pet peeve of mine when it comes to movies is when scenes flow into one another rather than having discrete sequences with their own relative identities. I’m not saying one is better than the other or truer to the film medium, but it’s a personal preference. Because the flowing happens in Rise of a Warrior, you get this compilation movie feeling, perhaps that it was a television series edited down. There are frequent skips in time, clipped together by these flashes of white. It’s odd, because the moments they choose to fast-forward through are some of the most significant. And so, if the movie is a genre mashup of war, biopic, and melodramatic romance, it kind of inherits the worst tendencies from each. There’s war movie cliches like the band of brothers who all die heroically after giving their one characterizing detail, and people in love make strange choices for the purpose of romantic contrivance. With biopics, then, the problem is usually the highlight reel.

We’ve dug deep for this one, writing this biopic problem into the DNA of its cinematic language. This is a movie constructed of glances. We have essential story told in montage, conclusions placed before setups so we can flash back. At the ending, you have Mulan revealing to the government that she’s a woman, and that’s a big scene, but we just saw that she makes it home and reunites with her father. There’s no suspense in that, and that’s a frayed story thread. When we first see the army camp, we get this shouting voice telling us the one penalty for several trespasses, including bringing a woman into the camp. While shocking, this is a real-world military concern that’s survived today: it’s all about discipline. You can’t have women in the army because the soldiers will be distracted. God, how I wish I were making that up. I know that representation of women in the military is a more contentious front than other unequal spaces, but when the argument is that bad…? The whole point of training to be a soldier is discipline, so how else can there be such a breakdown that rape is as much an epidemic there as it is everywhere? It’s a systemic problem, as we say, a matter of who’s in charge and who makes policy. That sort of sexism isn’t so easily defeated.

By contrast, when the animated Mulan is revealed, because her body has boob-shape, the reason why she escapes the death penalty is because she saved Shang’s life. The character doesn’t necessarily transcend that sexism — she doesn’t get to break the rules for no reason. And notably, that sequence is told in chronological order. It’s suspenseful, it’s active. And then there’s the “Let’s Get Down to Business” scene, as it’s known, which combines a musical number with a training montage. Now, this speeds up time, but it provides character development. It’s a really great sequence, due in no small part to the song. I guess I want a movie like Rise of a Warrior to live in the present. All the more so, because in the moments it does, it’s really effective.

I think the acting is great, and there are narrative payoffs. I’ll cite three that stood out. First is when Mulan proves herself as a warrior. I mean, nobody questioned it, because her disguise is so good, but it’s a great scene, and it does play out as if it is a male character. Even when a lady beats somebody up in a movie, I’ve never seen the prostration as happens here. Second is another instance where Mulan gets physical, though this time it’s when her childhood friend Tiger starts poking the bear. Although he does a poor job of ripping down the dog tags to orient Mulan back toward the living, it is enough to roust her out of an alcoholic slumber and she comes very close to punching his lights out. Fun as that may be, it is a sad moment, and suddenly the gradual transformation of her character thus far comes crashing down into focus. Where before she used her martial arts to rescue Tiger from bullies, she’s now threatening to hurt him herself. And later we get an even more heartbreaking revision, where he dies in front of her and she’s helpless to stop it. That’s around the time of the big battle, and this is our third moment.

Where most of the battle scenes are those battle glimpses, this one has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And importantly, it hinges on strategy. While in the Disney film, Mulan is great because she inspires the army, she’s still just another grunt. In Rise of a Warrior, she takes on a leadership role. We see Mulan lay out the plan, and we see the stages of that plan unfold in the field. There is something satisfying about a plan unfolding according to itself, and then it’s exciting when things start to go wrong. That there is a narrative to the battle gives every action a weight and purpose. It’s not just a tableau directionless violence, it’s stakes and goals. And there’s just a lot of cool stuff happening. The archers shoot a volley of arrows out at no one, which I didn’t understand, but it’s actually so that they know when to fire upon the actual cavalry charge. This sequence was actually riveting, if I could borrow a term from the film critic thesaurus. I was riveted, and that had not been my experience with the movie.

She’s as great a strategist as she is a warrior, and I much prefer that to “fireworks are the answer.” However, when fireworks are the answer, we can chalk up the character’s success to an outsized determination. Animated Mulan has more to prove, and so she works her way up that pole mid-song. For our believability problem, it’s not great, but then again, she’s not really a kung fu badass or anything until the sequel. And yes, there is a sequel. What makes Hua Mulan so awesome? We’re not told. Wang Cong’er’s strategic genius came from extrapolating the world around her, from the life she specifically lived. Even when she was a child, Hua Mulan was a kung fu badass. And at this point, I hope you’re wondering, “Is this your hill, dude? Can’t a female character just be badass without some big explanation?” No! I mean, no, for our purposes here. We’re talking about legendary figures in contention, and how women distract soldiers. So, I don’t need Mulan to be a true story, to somehow alchemize that revisionist history, but since she is mythology, she can’t stand alone. We’ve got a few historical figures here, some more real than others, perhaps, and so far, their depictions in media — when they are depicted — are fantasy. They’re comedies, glimpses, shortcuts. So it’s not me who needs to be convinced, because I already know, and it matters to me. It’s whether or not they can convince some of the hardest heads out there, who do feel a rush of pride at depictions of strong men, because I also believe that what we see on TV influences us in ways we don’t even understand. What if it was this, but more tangible? More dry lips!

One of the aspects of the legend preserved in both films is the ending, where Mulan refuses the position in the imperial court and returns home to be a dutiful daughter. In Rise of a Warrior, this return to the status quo is an echo of the original tragic circumstance. Mulan and Wentai fought for peace, and now they must stay apart for peace, as Wentai marries the Rouran queen. In the Disney movie, when there is no war, there is no Mulan. That’s not a commentary on anything, it’s cause for celebration. And so, the question I’m left thinking is, “Why are there no domestic-born occasions for a Mulan to rise, for women to be more than what’s expected?” That’s the world, and Mulan is ultimately fighting to uphold it. And so, we don’t really ask what happens after Mulan, because we already know. The patriarchy remains unsmashed, because no matter how incredible these individuals were, Mulan or Wang Cong’er and her female army, there wasn’t the societal infrastructure in place to ensure their contributions were systemic. That wasn’t the point. All that being said, what does happen after Mulan?

Mulan II

Well, Mulan and her boyfriend are due to be married when the emperor summons them for an important diplomatic mission. Mulan and Li Shang are tasked with escorting the emperor’s three daughters to the Mongol court where they’ll be married off to secure an alliance and prevent an invasion. This is a direct-to-video sequel that clocks in at a lean 79 minutes, nine of which are credits, but it’s one of those time-bending movies. I was suffering. The circumstances of this production make it feel like an afterthought, which makes me sad, and I understand there are a lot of these direct-to-video Disney sequels, including Bambi II and The Lion King II: Simba’s Pride. This one retained most of the original cast, including Ming-na Wen, Lea Salonga, BD Wong, and Frank Welker as the cricket, while adding Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh. Missing however, is Eddie Murphy, which doesn’t surprise me, because I feel like that character must have been so unpopular. I mean, you could’ve easily cut him and the cricket out of the movie and lost nothing. Well, in Mulan II, Mushu is kind of the protagonist. Mark Moseley takes over in the voice role, and I think he does well, but Mushu probably has more screentime than Mulan, and he drives the action inasmuch as anyone does.

Basically, alongside the princess escort plot, we also have Mushu trying to break up the marriage of Mulan and Shang because it would mean he’d lose his position among the ancestral spirits. And once more, he has no bearing on the story. He contrives to split them apart, but they get split apart anyway because of a fundamental disagreement — do you pledge your loyalty to the country or to your heart? So that’s the kind of movie this is — a movie I was not supposed to watch, and I hope I’m the only 27-year-old man without kids who has. That said, it’s not worth going into YouTube Rage Guy mode for its recycled comedy, literal contrivances, deus ex machina ending, overanimation, and pretty offensive premise. So these princesses don’t want to be married off to a prince they’ve never met, but the movie expresses this partly by setting them upon the three goofball soldiers from the original movie, and having them all fall in love. We start the movie directly litigating one of the unremarked upon notes from the original, the song about women, that the big guy wanted a girl who’d cook for him all day. This movie tells us straight-up that, yes, they are all sexist, so you’d think those attitudes and behaviors would be revised by the end. It’s more that the women are liberated enough to choose unconventional suitors, while the men’s worst tendencies are either tempered or met in kind by contact with the women, and by the influence of true love.

Jesus Christ, what are we talking about here? I guess that’s kind of the thing with Mulan. With the exception of Fantasia, it was my favorite Disney movie growing up at the exclusion of all the other princesses because it was kind of an action movie. Mulan II shoots far in the princess direction, and that’s fine, but you’re affirming my prejudiced viewpoints on Disney Princesses, that girl stuff is shallow. This is really shallow, and I mean thematically. We’ve really flattened out the ideas floating around the Mulan story toward some bizarre love idiom, “trust your heart,” the consequence of which is that it’s good enough you’re in love, never you mind the details. There was a TV show not long ago called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend whose goal was to deconstruct the fantasy of true love, or “the one,” or “love at first sight,” and I think Mulan II is a great example of why these tropes are toxic and desperate for deconstruction. As far as I’m concerned, these three princesses just traded old boss for the new. And what do we make of these princess characters? Together they have one of the musical numbers, an absolute phone-scroller called “Like Other Girls,” in which they talk about their desires for life outside the palace, to be like normal girls and have fun. My first reaction to something like this is “Oh, how anachronistic — read: ethnocentric,” and by that token, how very Disney to impute its own corporate worldview upon period China. But then I think, is it so crazy to dream about something you don’t have? I don’t know what people during this time married off for political purposes felt, nor what concubines were thinking about — by the way, can you believe they said the word “concubine” in a G-rated movie? That is such an intense idea.

To be honest, I like the idea of a sequel to Mulan, and for some of the reasons extant in Mulan II. The character has taken on this legendary status, and people react to her accordingly. That’s novel. People seek her out for advice, and she dispenses wisdom, no matter how unhelpful. And I think there’s some interesting ideas bubbling unenthusiastically just under the surface. The conflict of this movie suggests a deconstruction of that Mulan legend. How do you apply the decision she made to other women’s stories, the kind of women we reject in the beginning of the first movie? That the answer is “uncomplicatedly” is frustrating, but the ultimate frustration comes from the shouting suspicion that I can’t be frustrated because again, this movie wasn’t made for me. But it’s out there. The story setup is so movie logic — “I need my best heroes to go on a mission!” and the messages laid out by the conclusion are dire. I feel like I just… I need something really strong, and I don’t know what it is, but it’s pirate queen.

Ching Shih

While Wang Cong’er’s legacy can be traced through Chinese military history, another woman from the same time, born two years prior, would show the world another example of tactical mastery on a completely new front: the South China Sea. I bet you’ve heard about Ching Shih, because it’s such a great story — it’s the story of a woman who won.

It often seems like the wealthy of the world don’t have a sense for how the other half lives, if you will. Given the benefit of the doubt, in fact, it’d be unconscionable if they did. However, the ignorance doesn’t cut both ways, and that’s likely been true for as long as there’s been poverty. So, for a young prostitute in the city of Canton, now Guangdong, her eyes tilted ever skyward, and I imagine they trembled with calculation and burned with rage. This is a woman who’d come to be known as Ching Shih. At the age of 26, she was captured by the pirate Ching, commander of the Red Flag pirate fleet. Now, Ching is the guy who managed to unite the many rival Chinese pirate organizations, and he wanted to marry Ching Shih. There’s not really a “no” in there, and yet her “yes” was conditional — and that’s underselling it. For her hand in marriage, she wanted half — half the fleet, half the loot. Now it was his turn to say yes, and he did. I mean, wouldn’t you?

We don’t have a lot of female pirates floating about in the Davy Jones locker of our popular consciousness. Maybe the most famous are Anne Bonny and Mary Read — not Chinese. I can tell by the names. And therefore, there’s even less female representation in pirate leadership. This is what Ching Shih was proposing, and I would guess it went over really, really well. But I don’t think she was being greedy. She was fighting for her fair share, and her weapon was her mind: negotiation. In due time, she’ll be fighting for even more and her weapon will become more metal if not more sharp. In 1804, Ching and Ching Shi (which is “wife of Ching”), blockaded the port of Macau, and defeated a Portuguese squadron. Romantic. And indeed, Ching was quite the romantic. He had another lover, a man named Chang Pao, who happened to be his and Ching Shi’s adopted son — a different sort of relationship in this time and place.

However, six years into their marriage, Ching died unexpectedly at the age of 42. Chang Pao would be next in line to inherit the pirate throne. Ching Shi thought quickly and married Chang Pao, reorienting the relationship that the man would be the face of the Red Flags, and she would be pulling the strings. Behind every man there’s a woman, I suppose, though I get the sense that Chang Pao was a figurehead while Ching Shih did the important work of terrorizing the Qing Dynasty. She did the usual pirate thing, capturing and probably sinking boats, she had extortion rackets with merchant ships, levied taxes on coastal towns. She was running a monopoly.

At the height of her power, it’s estimated she commanded 1,800 ships and 80,000 men. For reference, Blackbeard commanded four ships and 300 men. I mean, how do you manage all that? Well, we continue to scale upward — same eyes, different prize. Ching Shih kept everyone across those many ships in line with a strict code of laws, backed by the very real threat of beheading: if you’re a pirate and you give your own orders, you get beheaded. Disobey a superior, you get beheaded. Rape a female captive, beheading. Marry a female captive, then you’re okay. Unless you don’t treat her right, in which case you’re gonna get beheaded. I don’t even know why you’d want to be a pirate with this rampant threat of beheading, other than usually you were captured by Ching Shih and if you didn’t join her, you’d get your head cut off.

Of course, it’s always better to be on the winning team. Just as Wang Cong’er aroused the highest ire of the Qing government, so too did Ching Shih. In 1809, they threw everything at her. With the help of the British and the Portuguese, they blockaded the Red Flags in a bay. After two years of fighting, the coalition force gave up. The Chinese leader of the expedition falsified the report of this defeat and later died by suicide in shame. By this point, the Qing got their little message in a bottle (you don’t fuck with Ching Shih).

However, internal strife was threatening to compromise the pirate’s life, as the Red Flags were waging a war with the Black Flags, one of their five fleets. So with the ongoing pressure from the outside, Ching Shih met with the desperate Qing government and spent months working out an amnesty deal in her last great negotiation. In the end, she kept an embarrassing amount of riches, the government canceled all warrants out on her, made Chang Pao a lieutenant in the Chinese navy — and here’s the most unbelievable part — she retired at 35. Ng Mui and Wing Chun were lost to the annals of time while Wang Cong’er died the glorious death in battle. Most other notorious pirates, Ann and Mary included, were eventually captured by the authorities, some of them executed. Ching Shih walked away. Later in life, she ran a brothel, likely the most no-nonsense in all of Guangzhou, and died at the age of 69.

Remember, she started as a prostitute, and perhaps her literally circuitous route to ownership of a brothel should indicate the difficulty of upward mobility in that position. You got to make a few trips around the ocean, sink a couple fleet, behead, like, dozens of people. Our popular conception of prostitutes and maybe sex workers in general is inflected by a kind of limbo state, leaving these invisible people devalued and overlooked. So, we can say that great minds find wellsprings in the unlikeliest of places, or we can say that the inception of great minds, however quantified, doesn’t discriminate as we do along social or gender hierarchies.

And speaking of popular conception and wellsprings, wow — have a look at the portrayals of Ching Shih in comics, novels, movies. The people love it, just not enough to call her by name. By the looks of things, we have a conflation of Ching Shih and the “pirate queen” archetype, which makes sense, of course. But there’s more to her story than pirate adventures and cutting people’s heads off, so it’s sad there hasn’t been a flagship, again, no pun intended, Ching Shih film or TV show. I understand pirate movies are some of the most expensive of all time, especially the profitable ones, and the Chinese film industry isn’t in a great place right now. But that movie The Admiral did great business in its home country of South Korea, and Im Yoona is very popular in China. Just gonna float that one out there.

Conclusion

So, what do you think? Did we come up short on our media portrayals of the warrior women of China? Because after all, as I discovered, there are a lot of them. So many that they exhausted me over the months this video took to put together. Rise of a Warrior was one of the last movies I watched to talk about here and in front of the Blu-ray was a trailer for a movie called Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, which is about a real person, Qiu Jin. I fucking died. But it’s good. I didn’t see it coming — I didn’t prepare for it, to be overwhelmed by the easily accessed history of cool ladies. Moral of the story, I should’ve been prepared, and whose fault is that?! Me– nobody told me about this shit. The stories of these women are transformed to fit alien sensibilities, broadened into archetypes, or played for laughs. And these movies, regardless their varying quality, simply don’t live up to the legends or the history, and they don’t convince my abstracted self that these people could have ever lived, if it’s already important to me that they didn’t. So next time, we’re gonna take a look at fully fictional folkloric warrior women, as maybe a control group. When there are no rules for the storytellers, do their subjects become ironically more believable? I have a good feeling already, because, you know, I fucking love the White-Haired Witch.


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