Why a Chinese-American should have been cast as Mulan

When Disney first announced they would be making a live-action film of my favorite movie ever, Mulan, to follow in the footsteps of commercial successes Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast, I was beyond ecstatic. But I was also concerned– not about the possibility that they would fail to cast an Asian actress as many people feared for some reason, but that they would cast the wrong one. After Disney announced at the end of last year that the actress to play the titular heroine would be none other than Chinese star Liu Yifei after an “extensive auditioning process,” my ecstasy dwindled and my concern grew. Although I believe the actress has the right look to play Mulan, she does not hold a reputation as a great actress, leaving Chinese people familiar with her work perplexed by the choice. More than that, my disappointment that Disney shied away from the many Chinese-Americans within the country who were dying for a chance at representation is likely second only to that of the actual Chinese-Americans who auditioned with false hope.

Growing up, I absolutely loved Mulan. Yes, as an Asian-American, it was exciting to see someone from my ethnic background represented in the forefront of an American screen. Yes, I could empathize with her struggle for individuality in a very traditional and filial culture. But it was more than that. Millions of girls of all ethnicities across the United States fell in love with Mulan because she was more than her background. She was a woman trying to make it in a man’s world. She was a woman trying to find herself and her worth. All of her issues and her challenges go beyond the borders of cultural lines. All in all, she can be deemed an American heroine because of Disney’s original interpretation of her legendary counterpart, so we need someone who encompasses this duality, and who better than a Chinese-American? Someone who not only gets the culture and history of China but also the culture and spirit of America?

My concern stems from this very fact: Disney is not making a historical rendition of Mulan. Disney is remaking their own rendition of the Mulan of Chinese ballads and tales. Why are they taking the same route China already took when making their own movie about the heroine in 2009? After all, Disney’s animated movie actually tanked in the box office when released in China back in the late ‘90s. According to a report that was actually written in 1999, the Chinese audience did not enjoy the movie, complaining about her “individualism” and distance from Chinese culture. Once again, this Disney movie may take place in China, but it was meant primarily for the American audience, and who better to address America than Americans? It was never so much about the accuracy of the portrayal of the culture and historical figure as it was about the universal story of finding and proving oneself.

Additionally, Hollywood always had a tendency to make anything remotely foreign as foreign as possible, as if there could never be a possible overlap or middleground. Often, Asian actors have to speak another language (not even their own country’s) or fake foreign accents even though their English is perfect. What I like about the animated Mulan is that she has no accent–she sounds and acts just like any spunky American teen with a dose of self-doubt. The culture is often appropriated for a sense of exoticism while the people are likewise stereotyped or forgotten altogether. For example, Bladerunner 2049 has been criticized for heavily borrowing from Asian culture while featuring no prominent Asian actors. Of course I would like to give the benefit of the doubt, but I have misgivings Disney is going down that same path of making it all about the culture, aesthetics, and exoticism.

See Also:  What part would you play in the Marvel Universe?

This brings me to the next and possibly most important point: Hollywood keeps choosing to under-represent Asian-Americans and Asian-American actors by outsourcing to foreign actors who have already made names for themselves overseas. These actors do not need these opportunities, but Asian-Americans do. They haven’t been able to move as quickly up the ladder because they aren’t given such opportunities, and this would have been the perfect chance for a Chinese-American star or aspiring actress to rise and gain experience and exposure. However, Disney takes the safe route, much like other production companies, by hiring outside the country to someone who already has a good resume and standing. Even though she is virtually unknown in the States, she is somehow a safer bet for a blockbuster because of her prior success. This is the excuse of Hollywood. Ghost in the Shell writer Max Landis said there was no A-list Asian-American star who could be cast, so the character was whitewashed. If this goes on, however, there will never be an A-list Asian-American star.

According to one report by LA Times, “Asian actors have been getting more work these days, in large part because of the flow of money from China…China, the world’s second-largest film market, have rounded out their casts with Asian faces.” While this is wonderful, you have to keep in mind who is looking out for whom. While America keeps whitewashing or type-casting, China is understandably looking out for their own stars–leaving, once again, the forgotten minority of Asian-Americans in an awkward limbo with no one to look out for them. There is a rigid system of either-or: a White-American or an Asian. There is no such thing as an Asian-American.

Yes, there is a difference between being Asian and being Asian-American, just like there is less of a difference between being American and Asian-American than some may think. Yes, it was nice as a child to see an Asian on the big screen. It was a step toward change, I once thought. But that change has long since stalled, and now what I need more of are the faces of Asian-Americans on the screen. Growing up, I never belonged one hundred percent to the Asian culture or the American culture. I had always felt like I was in a strange middleground of belonging to both and neither at the same time. I would visit South Korea and be immediately recognized as an American. I reside in United States, constantly being asked where I am from. This cannot continue to be proliferated as the norm in media, and it is time for us Asian-Americans to be better represented.

Yes, Mulan may have originally been a Chinese hero, but Disney had turned her into an American one a long time ago, and that Mulan is the one we need to see more of today. Disney so far is continuing to let me down, what with the delayed release date and the apparent additions of characters like a witch and a sister. It appears they don’t know what to do with the movie to make it a success, so they are adding more and more flashy tidbits to the storyline out of concern about the all-Asian cast. They are forgetting about what’s really important, what’s at the heart of Mulan.

Will they continue to let down the ones who need this heroine the most, as their role model, as their icon, as an important precedent? We shall see.


gallantly gal



  1. Nat

    April 20, 2018 at 4:44 pm

    This post is so true! Disney’s Mulan does have Chinese cultural roots to the character, but she’s also somewhat Westernized in characteristics in that her femininity and how she shows that femininity by being a strong and tough person is not the traditional chinese womanly submissive role of Confucian principles. I can see how in a Western perspective people cheer on Mulan for empowering herself and not conforming to the social pressures of her sex, but of course in China and perhaps other overseas Chinese communities where traditional roles for what is expected of women is still highly valued and seen as the norm, it might appear to them that this Mulan is a woman who has lost her way from her family’s culture and way of life. I had no idea the movie was not well received in China but it’s also unsurprising to know it’s true.

    The foreign accent thing definitely is a touchy subject. Kinda reminds me of when Mulan was cast on the tv series Once Upon a Time (my favorite show, haha). I was sort of holding my breath when the character first appeared on screen because I was really scared that the actress would’ve had to speak with some kind of accent for the role, but she had a normal voice after all. Incidentally, Ming-Na Wen had reacted to the news about the Mulan casting with disappointment that they didn’t cast a Chinese actress (Jamie Chung, a Korean American actress, played Mulan on OUAT).

    This is also unrelated to your post but since it relates to Disney’s Mulan I can’t help but want to bring it up. OUAT’s Mulan had similar characteristics to Disney’s Mulan, but of course a retelling of Mulan is not going to be the same as its predecessor, right? Well, OUAT’s Mulan ended up falling for a woman, and at the time I did hear about some people online using Disney’s Mulan as their reason as to why Mulan being a lesbian was completely wrong. I found that to be very strange considering westerners are okay with a woman being a badass warrior who can handle herself but not gay? I understand on a worldwide scale, a lot of the Disney characters are the most well known renditions of certain fairytale characters, like Snow White and Princess Tiana and Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but people also need to understand that those fairytales have been rewritten and retold for centuries now. People have been creating their own versions of fairytales and myths since forever, lol. So what the writers on OUAT did with Mulan isn’t any different.

    1. gallantly gal

      April 20, 2018 at 10:41 pm

      Yeah I wasn’t sure how I felt about Jamie Chung because she is Korean but she fits the part and spoke normally, so should it be fine or no? I feel like since Mulan is still rooted in a Chinese culture, it’d make more sense and be fairer for a Chinese actress, though. Should there be something like ethnicity-washing? Like is it okay amongst Asians–just not when White people do it? Not sure… That might be too much? It’s an interesting topic. I personally am leaning a bit more towards the it’s okay side unless it’s something very cultural, which is why I’m on the fence with Jamie and Mulan, and can understand where Ming-na Wen is coming from. As a side note, she was happy when Liu Yifei was cast and I wasn’t.
      I would only complain about them making Mulan lesbian in the TV series because they seem to always freaking do that with any woman who doesn’t fit the typical feminine gender role. Whenever a woman is tough or a fighter or cool or girl crush worthy or ANYTHING like that, they ALWAYS make her lesbian, which seems so close-minded to me. Like they are putting them into a bubble. No woman who can be like that can possibly be straight, apparently. I find that it’s unfair to both straight women and lesbians, being forced into their separate corners like that so often. So I’m just rolling my eyes like, “Oh of course they made the tough cross-dressing Mulan a lesbian.” They would never show another more “princess-y” type being a lesbian. Unless.. it’s to cater to like.. male fantasies or something I don’t know xD Having an Asian lesbian on TV is cool and all, but it just seems so trope-y based on the character, which I don’t like. It’s a bit counterintuitive because Mulan is about a woman being able to do what men can do, but it’s like they’re trying to explain or give an excuse or do anything to undermine that feeling of empowerment? I don’t know if I’m making sense, haha.

      1. Nat

        April 20, 2018 at 11:14 pm

        I definitely can sympathize with Ming-Na Wen’s reaction to Jamie Chung as Mulan because I felt that way too. I guess I felt personally affected since I am Chinese and it seems only natural for a Chinese actress to portray a character of Chinese ethnicity, but then I did wonder if I was being too harsh. In a way, it feels nice that an Asian American actress like Jamie Chung got the role, especially remembering the generation I grew up in when I barely saw Asian people on television unless it was for comedic effect or they were simply background characters. I also feel iffy when the character in a show or movie is supposed to be Asian or mixed Asian, but the actor cast for the role does not come from the same exact background. Such as the upcoming movie (based on a book) called Letters to All the Boys I’ve Loved. The protagonist is a mixed race Korean-Caucasian girl, but the actress who landed the role is Vietnamese. On the one hand, I understand in the acting world, they can’t always find an actress who not only fits the exact ethnicity but also demonstrates the superb acting skills needed for the role. On the other, I wonder if I’m being too sensitive about the possibility the casting directors were looking for someone who was Asian and had a particular “look” for how they envisioned the character to look on-screen.

        I get what you mean about making the tough/strong woman into a lesbian and how it can come across as a biased stereotype. From my perspective as an Asian woman, I think I saw the show’s portrayal of her sexual orientation as good because I still get the sense a lot of Asians are seen by non Asians as uppity and traditional and not open about their sexuality, and I thought it was bold of them to reinvent a character in that way where she seemed to fall in love but the emphasis wasn’t on gender. Or at least that’s the impression I got based on how her story played out lol. It is hard to explain unless I were to tell you the whole plot of Mulan’s story on the show. XD This opinion of mine could be colored by my own experiences. Things like sex and sexual orientation were definitely not discussed in my household when I was growing up (and still are not, lol).

        1. gallantly gal

          April 23, 2018 at 5:49 pm

          Yeah, to be fair, I didn’t watch the Mulan arc, so I don’t think I can say much more on the topic without having seen it myself, but I was also iffy on their choice for To All the Boys I Loved Before. I thought she was cute, but she definitely looks Vietnamese to me. She doesn’t really look half-Korean, half-White like the character is supposed to be. Actually, none of the sisters look half-Korean, and I don’t think any of the actresses are… They don’t look alike, either, so I am a bit wary of that, but I’m still excited to see it on Netflix this summer! The actress does give off a Lara Jean vibe. Hope it’s good. Peter has to be good since he’s like the most out-there star of the book in a way, haha.

  2. passerby

    August 5, 2018 at 11:44 am

    Honestly, after reading your thoughts and the replies, I can only feel that Asian-Americans are second class citizens in the states, the reason why mulan who is actually a China-Chinese character matters so much and you people desperately wanted a label and a share on the character and story. NOPE, mulan is Chinese legend and is only right for a China actress to take the role if Disney really wanted a Asian actress for the role. The focus of you people are benefiting from the role career-wise and self-esteem..lol but for China Chinese actresses will be Hua Mulan is their national heroine, they don’t want any outsider including Disney to spoil misled their legend, I’m sure many Chinese actress audition for the role for that matter including liu who actually holds a american passport, she is very Chinese in her mentality, she certainly love China more than America…LOL What China meant to you people???? lol BYE BYE!!

  3. T H

    December 6, 2019 at 7:28 am

    From what I’ve read, Liu Yìfēi is an American citizen.

Please leave a comment :)

%d bloggers like this: