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Reviewed by:
  • Mulan's Legend and Legacy in China and the United States
  • Cheryl Narumi Naruse (bio)
Mulan's Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. By Lan Dong. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011. 263 pp.

In her comprehensive study of the many versions and adaptations of the legend of Mulan, Lan Dong shows how this legend draws out historical, cultural, ethical, and political complexities of ethnic and gender representation from premodern China to contemporary China and the United States. To capture the movements, transformations, continuities, and erasures of the legend, Dong frames her analysis through the trope of a palimpsest (5) and thus points her reader's attention to the inadequacies of treating the legend of Mulan in the singular. Mulan's Legend and Legacy in China and the United States is an impressive and well-researched resource that will appeal to folklore, literary, and cultural critics and teachers.

Following a brief prologue, in Chapter 2 Dong responds to the reductive and homogeneous representation of women's roles in Chinese studies scholarship. She examines the biographies of Chinese military heroines in official dynastic histories of premodern China to remind us of Mulan's heroic predecessors and to argue that we must consider the ethical values of Confucian doctrine to properly understand how heroic womanhood transgresses gender roles—twentieth-century Western values of individualism will not capture the extent of such bold moves. Moreover, by showing that there is a tradition of heroic womanhood, Dong seeks to "challenge any one-dimensional view of Chinese women and any monolithic understanding of premodern Chinese society" (11). Dong unpacks the complexities and contradictions of gender and heroism through her careful comparative work across these different historical records.

Chapter 3 most strongly illustrates Dong's important point that truly understanding and appreciating the influence of Mulan's legend in contemporary times and in the West necessitates a historicized examination of the many versions of the tale in premodern Chinese culture. Dong begins the chapter with an excellent close reading of "Mulan shi" or "Ballad of Mulan," the earliest known folk version of the tale. Here, Dong is attentive to the impact of oral traditions and possible non-Han origin of this poetic adaptation. She then maps out how Mulan moves from a local folk heroine to a national one through the many varied versions. Especially clear in this chapter is Dong's ability to [End Page 115] historicize and contextualize her literary and cultural analysis within specific details of the texts. For example, Dong looks at the narrative strategies used to manage what appears to be a contradiction between military heroism and femininity in Xu Wei's sixteenth-century dramatic adaptation where Mulan has bound feet. Overall, in this chapter Dong illustrates the diversity of Chinese cultural values, because each iteration of Mulan at once breaks a different gender norm and is another "adjustment in representing a positive image of the heroine" (92).

In Chapter 4 Dong looks at Maxine Hong Kingston's adaptation of the legend in The Woman Warrior to explore questions of ethnic and gender identity within the critical debates over cultural authenticity in Asian American literary studies. Dong argues that "Chinese Americans need to invent a collective identity through a constant dialogue among themselves and theorize the emerging minority culture with its dynamic fluctuation and heterogeneity" (117). Dong shows how the tradition of Mulan's adaptation within Chinese cultures is used to enter the debates on cultural authenticity as they were sparked by Frank Chin in the 1970s. Considerations of Mulan's story in an analysis of Kingston's novel places its history within a transnational scope and complicates notions of "real" and "fake" Asian Americans—after all, who is the real Mulan?

In Chapter 5 Dong looks at adaptations of Mulan in children's picture books and shifts the focus from textual to visual narratives. Of primary concern in this chapter are the strategies that the various authors use to appeal to children, how the texts espouse multicultural values through the bilingual layout of the books, and how the books treat gender identity in relation to cross-dressing. Although it was not a major emphasis in "Ballad...


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