Diaspora, Appropriation, and Authenticity

Recently Disney released a preview for the new live action Mulan movie. Mulan is, of course, based upon the Ballad of Hua Mulan, a Chinese legend, the first written account of which dates back to roughly the 5th – 6th century. Hua Mulan, a girl who shows filial piety by taking her ailing father’s place and fighting as a soldier, is a beloved folk hero, is well-known to Chinese all over the world. When Disney created the animated film in 1998 it was perhaps the first time a Chinese folk story became well known to audiences worldwide.

Astute viewers of the live-action preview noticed something interesting about the setting – amidst the sweeping landscapes, a Hakka (ke-jia in Mandarin) tulou, or roundhouse, is visible. On Twitter, some grumbled about authenticity, as Mulan’s story certainly did not originate in Fujian, or anywhere in south China. In fact, if Disney intended to make an entirely authentic Mulan, then Mulan herself woul td likely not even be Han Chinese, but rather Xianbei, a semi-nomadic group that ruled northern China during the time the ballad was written. In the ballad, Mulan herself uses the term ke-han, which means “khan,” when she refers to the emperor. This corresponds with how the Xianbei emperors styled themselves. It is even possible that Mulan was not Chinese at all, but a story borrowed from some Central Asian group, the original long since lost to time. 

Nevertheless, ask anyone in China, and depending on their level of education and interest in history, you might hear that Hua Mulan was certainly Han Chinese. Some will tell you she was likely a northern nomad of some sort (I posed this question to my own husband, and to his credit, he knew she was likely not Han). One thing they will all agree upon is that, regardless of where the story originated, Mulan is a Chinese story. Her story has been told in Han households, in ethnic Hmong households, in Vietnamese-Chinese households, in Chinese-American households, and yes, in Hakka households.

Chinese culture is a culture of diaspora, in fact, one of the most widespread diasporas in all of history. Chinese people live in nearly every corner of the earth, and, as communities, they tend to retain at least some of their home culture, bringing it with them no matter where they go. Diaspora makes the ideas of authenticity, of ownership of culture, and ultimately, cultural appropriation, tricky things indeed. Which culture lays claim to the Ballad of Hua Mulan? Which telling, as the story was told and retold, over years, over centuries, over millennia, is the true telling, when even the earliest written record of the ballad is certainly not the original – that was most likely lost to time, as so many stories in our ancient oral traditions were? If a Hakka child who grew up hearing the story of Hua Mulan, envisioning Hua Mulan in her own image, feels represented by a Mulan living in a tulou, is that wrong? In chasing authenticity, eager to assign ownership to culture, myths, legends and stories, do we exclude those cultures of diaspora, of mixing and blending?

Chinese culture is not, despite misconceptions to the contrary, a mono-culture. Nor was it, historically, particularly secluded until late imperial times. Chinese culture was expansive, a culture of conquest, a culture of trade, a culture of exchange. Even today, in modern China, there are Russians who live in China, not as immigrants, but as native-born Chinese. They speak fluent Chinese, their children attend Chinese schools, and they often have never stepped foot into Russia’s borders. China recognizes “Russian” as one of its fifty-six ethnic minorities. So then, are the Russian folk stories these Russian-Chinese tell, not also Chinese stories? If not, why not? How do we define the ownership of stories when the very essence of culture itself, and some cultures much moreso than others, is an ill-defined thing, something shifting and changing  throughout history as people move about the world and come into contact with one another.

I admit to having a personal stake in this question. As many of my readers know, I spent sixteen years living in China during my early adulthood and middle age. I left the United States when George W. Bush was still president, and returned during the Trump administration. I missed out on the Obama years entirely, and when I left the United States to live in China, Twitter had not even been invented yet, nor had Smartphones, or Netflix. Amazon was strictly for buying books, and books were never digital. That is to say, in many ways, I came of age in China, and by the time I returned to the USA I no longer knew how to be a proper American. Although I can never call myself Chinese, in many ways, Chinese culture is also my culture, as much as my students who immigrated to the United States as college students can call American culture theirs (and of course they can). I married in China and performed ke-tou to our ancestors and toasted every relative in the village and endured raunchy nao dong fang customs. My children were born in China, and I followed Chinese birth taboos when they were born. I know that you never eat ice-cream when you’re on your period, you always wear house-slippers inside, and you don’t write people’s names using red-ink. These aren’t simply cultural tidbits that I’ve learned through research, I live these things. After sixteen years, these customs, this culture, became my culture.

Back in China, when my friends would complain about foreigners, they’d say to me, “not you, of course, you don’t count. You’re one of us.” They were happy to grant me insider status, something not easily granted, but which, once earned, is something your friends will constantly boast about on your behalf: “This is Jessica, and don’t mind her white appearance, she’s Chinese in her bones,” they would say. Of course, I would laugh this off – I’d never actually claim to be Chinese, even if citizenship were possible (and for all intents and purposes, it isn’t), but the intent was acknowledgement of my experience. And even so, my experience as a migrant living in China was not that of a Chinese person born in China. It was nearer to that experience than that of someone who has never set foot in China at all, but the subculture I occupied in China was indeed distinct.

Of course, I’ll never know the experience of a Chinese person in the United States. I cannot. I can watch as my children undergo those experiences, and as my husband does, for those experiences are based as much on race as upon culture, but I am an observer, not a participant. No one in America sees that side of me that came of age in China. They cannot. To them, someone who looks like me could not possibly belong to that culture. In my own writing, could not presume to write about the Chinese-American experience, for that experience is not my own. But in my writing, I do write about China, because China is my experience. If I write about a historical China, I am drawing upon a history that was, for the majority of my adult life, the most important history in my world. I looked at maps that put Asia front and center and read books that contained a sentence or two about the American revolution but chapters and chapters on the Tang and Song dynasties. If we are to write what we know, then China is what I know. It is quite nearly the entirety of what I know.

Cultural identity is not something fixed in time and place, belonging only to one set of people always and forevermore. This is hard for many Americans, who are, after-all, a relatively static people, not much prone to venturing outside of their own borders, to quite grasp. They tend to apply strict boundaries to cultures, whether it is “America, love it or leave it” rhetoric demanding strict loyalty to a jingoistic idea of American identity, or liberal ideology demanding cultural authenticity while failing to recognize that authenticity is a meaningless concept (the starry-eyed backpackers who would travel to China and be disappointed to see Starbucks. “Where’s the real China?” they would ask, as if the China they were seeing was somehow a pale imitation, fake, canned China, inauthentic.). Those whose families have ventured out in search of new homelands, whose people have been conquered, whose cultures have scattered, or who, like me, have scattered themselves outside of their homelands, know that culture grows in the heart. It is experienced firsthand, not dictated by blood. A Hakka child can claim Mulan as her own hero, and a Chinese-American child can claim Martin Luther King Jr. hers and I can claim Wu Zetian as mine. That is the beauty of cultural diaspora.


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