You know, it’s kinda funny talking about the Disney film Mulan. To anyone older than say thirty-five, it’s a kid’s film so why would you watch it? To anyone in their teens now, you’ve grown up with 3D animation so spectacular, what’s the point of cartoons? But to those of us in between, those of us who grew up on The Lion King, Pocahontas, Hercules and Mulan; such films will always hold a special place in our hearts. But is it just because we grew up with them? I reckon they are still some of the best films of our generation, Mulan especially. And I’d like to take some time to explore why.
Let’s start with how it deals with history and get that out of the way. Modern authors trying to write historical fiction would do well to learn a few lessons from films like Mulan. It captured so much of the time period but still makes it entertaining for children. It includes such things as the filial values of its society, from the home right up to the Emperor himself. Sure, the “Huns” might have never truly threatened the capital, but the feeling of civilisation vs barbarism so inherent to Chinese culture at the time comes through very powerfully. Who cares if we still argue over whether the Great Wall of China was really there during the Han dynasty or whether the Xiongnu who attacked China were the same people as the Huns who attacked the Roman Empire a few hundred years later? The writers seem to have an appreciation for the subtleties of history in naming the leader of the Huns Shan Yu, which sounds very similar to Xiongnu. They seem to understand the complexities, even allude to them, but take what they need from the backdrop of history in order to create an entertaining story.
And the story is there itself in Chinese literature. Hua Mulan. The girl who fought. Another point to make from history is how ironic the film is in depicting her fighting against the barbaric nomadic invaders. Sure, that’s roughly what the poems from history have her doing—fighting the enemies of China, but they’re set during the time of the Northern Wei dynasty. The Northern Wei dynasty came from nomadic invaders who managed to carve out Northern China for themselves. And once we realise that nomadic cultures were generally freer societies for women to live in, it’s quite possible this story could have only emerged in China under a foreign dynasty with such values. Consider the prowess of Khutulun half a century later—a Mongol princess even more badass than Mulan—and you start to see a very interesting pattern. But I digress. The story the film Mulan chooses to tell is in many ways, even more interesting.
See, you could watch the film and be forgiven for thinking it’s about a girl who wasn’t cut out for being a bride but good thing there happened to be a war going on so she could go and fight and be who she was always meant to be, a fighter. That’s not the story however. It’s not a fish born out of water who returns to the sea, it’s the story of someone who truly grows in spite of everything because of her love for her family and, ultimately, the world.
Let’s get to the crux of it. I reckon you can best explain what this film is and why it’s so powerful by analysing it through Carl Jung’s archetypes. What are they? Basically, Jung got his stripes under Sigmund Freud and Freud was big on the subconscious. His idea was that there’s some part of your mind your conscious self isn’t aware of and it influences you way more than you could ever realise. Freud thought the subconscious was full of repressed desires and innate primal drives and didn’t really like it that much as a result. Jung thought differently however. He reasoned from studying the myths and legends of humanity that we had common patterns that kept occurring, common building blocks we used. He reasoned that the unconscious (how he liked to call the subconscious) was largely made up of these common building blocks he called archetypes and that our brains were hard-wired to view the world through them and their patterns. Understanding humanity through myth, you can understand why a Classicist has a soft spot for him, eh?
Now, rightly or wrongly, dear Jung considered most of these archetypes to be gendered. He thought that feminine archetypes portrayed qualities traditionally associated with women, like compassion and wisdom, but thought that the male archetypes portrayed qualities like strength and hard logic. These days we might say his gendering of such attributes was a product of the patriarchal society he lived in, that the core reality of the archetypes is still true but can be filtered by the culture we live in. Others might provocatively say the gendered aspect of the archetypes is hard-wired and culture stems from it, not the other way around; yet still others might say it’s all a load of nonsense anyway. For the moment, run with me though.
Let’s look at Mulan through the lens of Jung’s archetypes and see what we find. Mulan starts off trying to prove herself a good potential bride but fails in her tasks. She lacks the feminine graces (for want of a better way of phrasing it) needed to impress the matchmaker. Nevertheless, her father’s response is really interesting and, in a sense, sets up the whole film: he’s wise and compassionate and tells her her time will come. However, when called away to war, we realise what he’s missing: his strength. Her father has grown in attaining the desired feminine qualities, but at a loss, through age, of his masculine ones. At the moment, Mulan has neither—she doubts herself yet seems to fail at everything too. The first step on her journey is the bravery of stealing her father’s armour to fight in his place.
Enter Mushu. When the ancestors try and send a dragon to help Mulan, effectively cheating and sending her strength incarnate, it backfires and she gets the pitiful lizard instead. Because Mushu has no real strength to help, it forces Mulan to gain it herself. And at the camp with the men, we learn she has none of the masculine qualities either. Throughout the song, “I’ll make a man out of you” we all recognise the double meaning in it, to give Mulan the masculine qualities. It’s interesting though that as she builds to attaining the masculine qualities like strength, she also exercises her feminine ones in bringing compassion to the camp and making friends out of an otherwise hostile rabble. It isn’t the camp and the archetypal animus (male-lover of a female protagonist) which changes the world. Instead, Mulan changes in herself, excelling at both the masculine and feminine in response to exposure to the animus. The world then changes around her, as a response to her growth.
Skip through the middle section of the film and you see Mulan demonstrating wisdom, compassion, intelligence and strength more than anyone else around her, effectively becoming the best human she can be. This is what Jung’s archetypes lead to (else the character will pay a terrible price); one learns to embrace both aspects of oneself, the feminine and the masculine, becoming a well-rounded being able to succeed in doing good in this world. Once a character has achieved this union within themselves, then, and only then, are they truly able to sacrifice themselves for the good of everyone. Her animus tries to do this himself at this time but since he hasn’t yet learned her qualities at this point, he’s unable to. That’s why she’s the one who defeats the Huns in the mountain pass and almost dies as a result. And were this not a children’s film. That’s where the story could have ended.
But we’re all children at heart and so it’s a good thing it didn’t. What we’ve seen up to now in the film is the external effect of the inner qualities she has attained. Once she’s found out as a woman and kicked out of the army, she’s tested as to whether she’s truly grown as a person. To all the world, she’s failed utterly by being found out and has no real future but despite that, when she realises there’s still danger, she resolves to fight it—all her qualities are still there regardless of the external circumstances or approval of others.
And so it’s fitting that in the final climactic scenes in the capital Mulan and her friends are the ones who save everyone, even the Emperor. One of the best scenes in the whole film is when she decides to dress up as a concubine to invade the palace and not only do the other soldiers do so too, but her animus does as well. This is the point in the film where we see not only has she externally embraced her masculine and feminine qualities, but the world around her has too. We see the success in the saving of the Emperor but also, don’t forget Mushu crisping the great enemy’s eagle; his projection of strength is ultimately beaten by hers because as she grows, so does Mushu and he ends up becoming the very strength he was meant to be.
The ending is such a brilliant reversal of everything wrong at the start. Mulan is honoured rather than shunned, her brave masculine man is timidly wanting to marry her, he still has some growing to do but she is complete. Her family are happy and even the grumpy ancestors rejoice. We have the protagonist and love-interest coming into their kingdom together and nothing is more archetypally fulfilling than that.
Mulan is perhaps the perfect story to play with the archetypes and twist them to complete fulfilment. That, in my view, is why people watching it in their mid-twenties can enjoy it as much as ever. Most stories will have the protagonist grow by gaining the qualities of the animus/anima but the fact Mulan was able to take that a step further and feminise the masculine as well as masculanise (totally a word) the feminine shows the strength of its narrative and the depth of the satisfaction of its resolution. If you can look beyond the initial problems Jungian language and concepts can present to people of the modern world, you may find at their heart, Jung’s archetypes are powerful tools at explaining (and planning) stories even now.
(Painting of Mulan sourced from Wikimedia Commons)