Mulan and the heroine’s journey

I was really looking forward to watching the live action “Mulan” in theaters, but because of COVID-19, it has been pushed back. In lieu of the movie, I decided to read three retellings of Mulan. The live action has gotten some backlash for not being faithful to the “original” animation in 1998, but that is only one version of a centuries old ballad.

There are so many ways to retell the story, the center of which is a young woman who disguises herself as a man so she can take the place of her father in the imperial army. To me, Mulan is about strength and knowing yourself, as well as questioning what femininity and masculinity really mean.

Aside from the Mulan retellings, I also read two books by authors who explored a part of their background. The heroine’s journey always draws me in.

The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas

This is an amazing book! Sherry Thomas is a romance writer, and this telling includes romance between Mulan and a princeling. Their families have dueled for generations and the winner gets to keep the other’s sword. At first Mulan didn’t recognize that the princeling was her rival Yuan Kai, and once she recognized them, she starts to have feelings for him. Their prior history makes the romance a little different from the romance in other versions of Mulan. They have to wrestle with family history in addition to the gender disguise.

Another thing that sets The Magnolia Sword apart from other Mulan retellings is the north-south regional differences and Rouran history that Thomas incorporated into the tale. Chinese history, like most forms of written history, is written by the victors. Mulan’s troop also included minorities, some of which descended from the enemy they were fighting. Thomas didn’t treat China as a monolith fighting against a foreign invader, and I appreciate that she brought more nuance to the story instead of having clear cut good guys vs. bad guys. In fact, Mulan had to find out who to trust even within her own family. This was a really refreshing aspect to the tale.

The Science of Breakable Things by Tae Keller

Mental health, science and flawed parents — Keller explored these themes in The Science of Breakable Things. I liked that Natalie is a little bit naive in that she thinks she can “solve” her mother’s depression by bringing her a reminder of her passion, which is a rare flower that she studied in her former lab. We might not be that naive but don’t we all want to solve our loved ones’ problems or bring back the past in some way?

Of course, it doesn’t work and Natalie finds out. But what she did accomplish is bringing depression to the surface as something that exists. It’s not an elephant in the room. It’s what her mother has, and there’s no easy way to erase it or make her mom better. And I think the fact that a kids’ book acknowledges that is very beautiful.

Before the Sword by Grace Lin

Grace Lin is one of my favorite authors, and Chinese folktales are her strength. Before the Sword is an original prequel to Mulan, when she was a girl. This book shares the same canon as Disney’s live action, so Mulan has a sister, Xiu, who was bitten by a poisonous spider. Mulan goes on a journey to find a cure, accompanied by the Rabbit and later, an Immortal named Lu Ting-Pin. The outcome of the book is that she finds out her destiny as a warrior, and the reader learns the origin and motivations of Xianniang.

Lin incorporates tales within the story, just as she did the “The Mountain Meets the Moon” trilogy. I love how the tales connect, and the comment thread is that the villain is the White Fox! She is so evil and beguiling. But the most interesting character to me is actually Xianniang. She and Mulan have a lot in common — feeling unwanted and a little bit lost. They both went on a journey with Rabbit, but where Mulan succeeded in bringing back a cure for her sister, Xianniang fell into the grasp of the White Fox, who, [SPOILER ALERT] was actually her mother! By the end of the story, I was rooting for Xianniang to find her place, even in the form of a witch joining the Rouran warriors. I’m excited for her and Mulan to meet again because they understand each other.

Ticket to India by N. H. Senzai

Partition, the separation of Pakistan from India, was an extremely traumatic event for both Indians and Pakistanis. When a line is literally drawn between religions, homes and families, the impact is felt for generations and it can never truly heal. N. H. Senzai identifies with both Pakistan and India, and Ticket to India explores what that’s like. It’s not that Pakistan and India are so different, or there’s pride in being from either country (as superior to the other) — it’s that there’s always a longing for home that never goes away.

The protagonist, Maya, is on a quest to find her grandmother’s treasure chest that she left behind when her family went to Pakistan after Partition. Maya finds that India is a place of contrasts; it has a lot of beauty as well as a lot of ugliness, but it’s nonetheless her grandmother’s home. This is the second book I’ve read from Senzai, and she really is the gold standard in South Asian MG lit.

Reflection by Elizabeth Lim

This was a YA adaptation that’s part of “Twisted Tales,” a series that takes a dark turn from the Disney versions. Reflection begins when Shang dies from saving Mulan from the Huns, and Mulan decides to follow him into the underworld, diyu, to take him back to earth. After talking to my friend Lynn, I realized this is a gender-swapped version of the Greek myth Eurydice and Orpheus. In the Greek version, Orpheus’s task is to bring his wife back to life, and he fails at the last second when he looks back at her.

In this version, Mulan is the one saving Shang. She’s still disguised as Ping, and the climax of the story happens when he finds out that she has been lying to him. [Spoiler alert] The penultimate test comes when an image of Shang abandons her in hell, and she has to believe that even though he would do that, she has to keep her end of the deal with King Yama, the king of hell. The final trial is that she has to select who she is — Mulan or Ping, among a pond of mirrors that reflects different versions of herself. I identified with this part because I feel like I’m always trying to find my true self, or fighting for it to come out.

Who are your favorite heroines, past or present?

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