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Overview of China’s 2017 Top TV Dramas

These are the Chinese TV dramas you should’ve seen in 2017.

Manya Koetse

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China has one of the most booming TV drama industries in the world. As millions of drama fans tune into their favorite show, What’s on Weibo has compiled a list of China’s top TV dramas of 2017.

Note: Also see China’s top tv dramas to watch winter 2017/2018

Nothing is trending more often on Chinese social media than TV drama. What is the best drama, who is the hottest star, how will that nerve-wracking cliffhanger end? It is all part of the daily discussions on Sina Weibo.

The Chinese TV drama industry is booming and among the most vibrant in the world, with no signs of slowing down.

We have compiled this Top 10 of 2017 Chinese TV dramas by checking the February 2017 top ranking TV drama’s on Sina Weibo and Baidu, and netizen blogs. We have also taken into consideration a Weibo poll of the ‘most-anticipated TV dramas of 2017’ that had over 10,000 votes.

Chinese TV dramas are becoming more popular across the world, with thousands of people volunteering to do subtitles for them in their own language. A great website to watch Chinese dramas is Viki.com, but most are also available on YouTube and of course on their native sites such as iQiyi or LeTV.

Viki has a great selection of Chinese dramas with subtitles, some have geo restrictions.

Depending on where you live, these sites might have geo restrictions. You can circumvent this with a VPN to change your IP geo-location. We recommend ExpressVPN for this, as it is known for its fast streaming of online video content online (see our top 3 of recommended VPN here).

Keep in mind that many of China’s big TV drama productions are launched in the period around Chinese New Year – a time when TV drama fans are looking forward to seeing their favorite shows. It’s around this time to spot the TV dramas you can binge on later in the year.

What is remarkable about the 2017 year’s list (check out our lists of 2016, 2015, and 2013) is that it does not include any historical genre television dramas themed around the history of the War of Resistance against Japan.

China’s war dramas previously always made it to the top ranking TV dramas. In 2015, China’s official censorship bureau spoke out against war-themed TV dramas that are “overly entertaining.” One popular war drama this year is Brothers in the Fire of War (战火中的兄弟), but it did not make it to this list.

Brothers in the Fire of War (战火中的兄弟).

What is also noteworthy is that this year’s top 10 tv drama’s are all made in mainland China. Last year, the number one TV series was a South-Korean tv drama.

There are no series in this year’s list that revolve around any ‘risque’ topics. Last year, the gay-themed TV show Addicted was pulled offline by censors when TV dramas that ‘exaggerate dark side of society’ were banned from TV. Off-limit topics included homosexuality and adultery.

Here is our top 10 of China’s most popular TV dramas of this moment:

UPDATE: Don’t forget to also check out our top 10 of best dramas in winter 2017/2018!

 

#1. Eternal Love 三生三世十里桃花

(Photo provided by @irilight).

Genre: Fantasy, martial arts
Other title: Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms
Directed by Lin Yufen (林玉芬), 58 episodes

Within a week after its first episode on January 30, this TV drama already attracted over 29 million comments on Sina Weibo, and ranked number 1 drama in both the Weibo and Baidu ‘most popular’ lists. It is also one of most-anticipated dramas of 2017.

From gods and demons, from reincarnation to never-ending love affairs – nothing is impossible in Chinese fantasy drama. This drama evolves around the High Goddess and the Crown Prince played by Yang Mi and Mark Chao, who were once lovers in another world and another lifetime. According to Dramafever, this fantasy story shows that love goes beyond worlds and lifetimes.

The success of this TV drama is partly linked to its timing; like many dramas in this list, the first episode was aired in the middle of the Spring Festival.

Starring: Yang Mi, Mark Chao, Zhang Zhiyao, Dili Reba (also known as Dilraba Dilmurat), and Gao Weiguang (杨幂, 赵又廷, 张智尧, 迪丽热巴 高伟光). The show is broadcasted every day on Dongfang and Zhejiang TV, as well as on Youku, Tencent, iQiyi, LeTV, Sohu and PPTV.

 

#2. Rush to the Dead Summer 夏至未至

Genre: Romance, Youth
Directed by Chen Mingzhuang (陳銘章), 40 episodes

Rush to the Dead Summer (夏至未至) is a TV drama based on the novel by Guo Jingming (郭敬明) that follows a group friends as they go from their highschool life and each start their own life in society. The main actors are Zheng Shuang, Chen Xuedong (Cheney Chen), and Bai Jingting.

Many fans have been waiting for this TV drama to come out, as its airing was already announced in the summer of 2016. By now, its official Weibo account has well over a million followers.

 

#3. Love, Just Come 爱来的刚好

Genre: Urban drama, Romance
Other title: Perfume Woman
Directed by Wang Lianping (王连平), 60 episodes

Love, Just Come (爱来的刚好) first aired in late January. Its main cast includes actors Han Dong, Jiang Kaitong, Li Wei, Zhang Xiyuan, Wang Wei, Liang Aiqi (韩栋, 江铠同, 李威, 张熙媛, 王伟, 梁爱琪). The drama revolves around an orphan girl (Jiang Kaitong) with an absolute sense of smell, who dreams of becoming a successful perfume maker. The series follows the struggles she faces on the road to reaching her dreams, during which, of course, she finds love. The show can be viewed here.

 

#4. Fighter of the Destiny 择天记

Genre: Fantasy, Martial arts, costume/period drama
Directed by Zhong Shujia (钟澍佳)

This series ranked number one in the Weibo poll of most-anticipated TV dramas of 2017, as netizens have been talking about this series for months.

Fighter of the Destiny is based on a novel by the same name of author Mao Ni, and involves the timetravelling adventures of the young man Chen Changsheng (Luhan) who leaves his master (Eric Tsang) in search for a cure to his terminal illness.

 

#5. Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace 如懿传

Genre: Costume/period drama
Directed by Wang Jun (汪俊), 90 episodes.

Ruyi’s Royal Love in the Palace tells the story of the marriage of the Qianlong Emperor and Ulanara the Step Empress during the Qing dynasty. The drama, broadcasted by Dragon TV and Jiangsu TV, features major leading roles by Zhou Xun and Wallace Huo. Read more about this TV drama at the Cfensi blog.

 

#6. Double Happiness 双喜盈门

Genre: Comical drama, Rural comedy
Directed by Han Zhao (韩兆).

This successful drama has famous leading actors Pan Changjiang, Ding Ziling, Xiao Guangyi, and Zhang Dajing. Especially Pan Changjiang (1957) is a famous as a skit actor and a recurring performer at the CCTV New Year’s Gala. This comical drama focuses on a big rural family and follows their ups and downs. The show is available on YouTube (no subtitles).

 

#7. City Still Believe in Love 北上广依然相信爱情

Genre: Romance
Directed by Li Jun, Mou Xiaojie (李骏, 牟晓杰), 44 episodes

This drama that stars Zhu Yawen and Michelle Chen revolves around the relationship between a Taiwanese woman who has arrived in Beijing to work and her temperamental boss. Despite their misunderstandings, their professional relationship eventually is bound to become personal.

 

#8. The Glory of Tang Dynasty 大唐荣耀

Genre: Fantasy, Costume
Directed by Liu Guonan, Yin Tao (刘国楠、尹涛), 60 episodes

The series is about the ups and downs in the life of Shen Zhen Zhu (played by Jing Tian 景甜), a exceptional beauty living in the royal court during the most turbulent period of the Tang dynasty, that is challenged by rebellion, unrest and opposing forces.

 

#9. Ode to Joy 2 欢乐颂2

Genre: Urban drama, Romance
Directed by Jian Chuanhe, Zhang Kaizhou, 52 episodes

This is one of the only shows in this list that has not been broadcasted yet – it is planned to air in May of this year. It is the sequal to Ode to Joy, a highly popular 2016 Chinese TV series produced by Dragon Television (here with subtitles). It is about five single, independent career women who live in the Ode to Joy apartment building together and try to find the balance between love and career, looking for their personal happiness.

For Liu Tao, a leading actress in this TV drama, Ode to Joy is not her first hit TV drama. In 2013, the series Good Wife (贤妻) was also a major success.

 

#10. The Starry Night, The Starry Sea 那片星空那片海

Genre: Romance, Fantasy
Directed by Wei Hantao and Deng Yancheng (卫翰韬 邓衍成)

This mainland drama that stars Feng Shaofeng, Bea Hayden, Wang Zixi, Huang Ming and Sunny Wang (冯绍峰, 郭碧婷, 王梓薇, 黄明, 王彦霖), premiered on February 6 2017 on Hunan TV. It is based on a book by the same name by the Chinese contemporary novelist Tong Hua (桐华), whose previous novels were also turned into television series.

The story revolves around girl-next-door Shen Luo who moves from the big city to a small island cottage, where she meets the mysterious Wu Julan – a man wirh mystical powers that help Shen yo overcome her obstacles. The show can be viewed on Viki, where fans graded the drama with a 9.7.

Want to read more? Check out:
Top 10 of TV Drama in China 2018
Top 5 of Best Drama Series Winter 2017/2018
Best TV Dramas in China Summer 2017
Most Popular Television Series in China in 2016
Top TV Drama 2015

– By Manya Koetse
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What’s on Weibo is an independent blog. Want to donate? You can do so here.

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Bernice Ponce

    February 27, 2017 at 1:17 pm

    Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms Cdrama -MOST watched drama online 2017..here in the Philippines..BRAVO! YANG MI and MARK CHAO…BEST MUSICAL THEME..LOVE IT..

  2. Avatar

    mingirim

    April 15, 2017 at 10:39 pm

    It’s great! Eternal love and Rush to the dead summer being at the top of the list! My fave actors and actresses now becoming more popular internationally. If only there could be Eternal love season 2, or a new drama where Yang Mi and Mark can be the lead again! Their chemistry is one of a kind. ????
    – Fan from PH

  3. Avatar

    Christina

    April 18, 2017 at 12:31 am

    Eternal Love (Three Lives, Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms) is absolutely the best historical drama ever made with good casts, sound tracks and scenaries. After watching 3 years of Korean dramas, I have decided to watch a few Chinese and Taiwanese dramas. This particular blew my mind and the OTP is tops! Mark Zhao’s acting really nailed the emotional parts and I cry each time I come to the same scene. I completed the drama within 3-4 days and I am rewatching it again. Highly recommend it to any one who wants a beautiful romance though there are some heartbreaks in between the 3 live times.

  4. Avatar

    Alejandra

    April 27, 2017 at 4:49 am

    Les faltó poner “General and I” que super buen drama y del año pasado The princess Weiyoung como mención honorífica. <3
    absolutely Eternal Love is the best of all the chinese dramas , we can not forget every character 'cause presents some unique every time . I normally see k dramas and the first c drama that I saw was The Princess Weiyoung , so I wanted more about this new experience and "surprise" … this year I fall in love Eternal Love . My number two in the c drama by this year is General and I .

  5. Avatar

    kfan

    May 14, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    who is left in the poster? nice plastic surgery nose.

  6. Avatar

    Lea Granada

    May 23, 2017 at 10:00 am

    I love the Drama Eternal Love (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms) It was worth watching and the acting was great with the actor and actress. I been watching K-drama but this Chinese Drama caught my attention and I was engrossed and instantly loved it from the first episode. Hope that they could have season 2 or another Romance fantasy drama with Yang Mi and Mark. They had a good screen chemistry.

  7. Avatar

    Lea Granada

    May 23, 2017 at 10:03 am

    I love the Drama Eternal Love (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms) It was worth watching and the acting was great with the actor and actress. I been watching K-drama but this Chinese Drama caught my attention and I was engrossed and instantly loved it from the first episode. Hope that they could have season 2 or another Romance fantasy drama with Yang Mi and Mark. They had an excellent screen chemistry.

  8. Avatar

    Joyann

    May 31, 2017 at 7:01 pm

    Haven’t watched any Chinese serial dramas for a long time and finally decided to watch Eternal Love. Couldn’t stop watching and completed the series without 3-4 days! Mark Chao and Yang Mi were fantastic and I was totally mesmerised by Yue Hwa (Mark Chao). Have to re-watch now because it feels so strange not to see Mark Chao’s character anymore. Love his acting and every aspect of him ????.

  9. Avatar

    Iriaka Maraea

    June 3, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Ten miles of Peach Blossoms is the best drama I have ever watched, and I have watched hundreds. It is one that will forever remain at the top of my list. Mark Chao and Yang Mi were absolutely amazing in this, I can see their careers sky rocketing and they have at least one fan here in New Zealand. I also have to mention the music score…. absolutely fabulous! As for the script, I do wish a wedding had been included. I also hope a second series is made for Shifu and Dijun. It is incomplete.

  10. Avatar

    TinHie

    June 5, 2017 at 11:35 am

    I wasn’t going to watch eternal love at first because the trailer looked a little boring but I gave it a try and I’m so glad I did. The plot and actors were amazing. Definitely give it a try because it was ranked #1 for a reason.

  11. Avatar

    Ludovina Rosado

    June 10, 2017 at 5:17 am

    Yang Min and Mark Chao great couple on screen. Eternal Love serie is my first Chinese drama. I could not stop watching. I saw the video where Mark Chao says he was not confortable with the long hair. But, he looked gorgeous with it. The setting of the drama, specially the peach tree blossom setting was fantastic. And, what can I say about the love scene? OMG awesome. Mr. Chao, keep it up as a good actor and also try to give us good dramas as this one (Eternal Love), which I just finished.

  12. Avatar

    Emma Parker

    July 16, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    Its quite difficult to watch china shows globally as they also banning different VPN IPs. I’ve tried 4 brands and out of 2 brands were able to connect with China servers and one of them was unable to connect after 4-5 days. Recently, I connected via purevpn and its working find till now, not sure till when it will work for me.

  13. Avatar

    Wizarion

    May 7, 2019 at 10:24 am

    I’m a huge fan of Chinese TV, it’s just so bizarre sometimes. Anyway, I always use Surfshark which is actually one of the cheapest services but it consistently works in China. Here’s more details: https://medium.com/@evanlovel/top-vpns-still-working-in-china-test-results-updated-every-week-f009e83949d

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China Arts & Entertainment

Canceled Chinese TV Drama Gets Second Chance: Novoland Is Here!

Novoland, China’s “Game of Thrones” was canceled just before its premiere six weeks ago.

Manya Koetse

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First published

The Chinese fantasy drama Novoland: Eagle Flag is one of the most-anticipated series of the year. After the show was suddenly canceled twenty minutes ahead of its premiere in early June, it was announced on July 16 that it will broadcast anyway.

With 1,8 billion views, the hashtag Novoland: Eagle Flag (九州缥缈录, Jiǔzhōu piāomiǎo lù) is top trending on Chinese social media site Weibo today after the show suddenly announced it would broadcast its first series on July 16.

Over six weeks ago, on June 3rd at 21:40 CST, the show was suddenly canceled just twenty minutes before its much-awaited premiere on Tencent, Youku, and Zhejiang TV.

Novoland: Eagle Flag has been called China’s answer to Game of Thrones. It is a 56-episode costume drama that tells a story of war, conspiracy, love, and corruption in a fantasy universe called ‘Novoland.’

It is based on a popular web fantasy novel series by Jiang Nan (江南) and produced by Linmon Pictures. Production costs reportedly were as high as RMB 500 million ($72 million).

The drama features Chinese celebrities such as Liu Haoran, Lareina Song, and Chen Ruoxuan.

Why was the show’s premiere suddenly canceled? The only reason given for it on June 3rd was that there was a ‘medium problem’ (“介质原因”).

China’s English-language state tabloid Global Times reported on June 4th that their official sources also did not know the reason for the withdrawal, although they did admit to having received an order from “higher level,” which would come from China’s National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA,国家广播电视总局).

China’s regulatory body started to severely crack down on the rising popularity of Chinese costume dramas (古装剧) in March of this year.

Regulatory rules were supposedly issued for costume dramas with ‘themes’ (题材) such as martial arts, fantasy, history, mythology, or palace, stating that they should not air or were to be taken down from online video homepages. The strictest crackdown would allegedly last until July.

From early on in 2019, it was already rumored that Chinese costume dramas would face a tough year, after Chinese state media outlet Beijing Daily published a critical post listing negative influences of court-themed TV dramas (宫廷剧).

The critique included arguments such as that the imperial lifestyle was being hyped in these dramas, that the social situation of the dynastic era was being negatively dramatized, and that these productions are just aimed at commercial interests while weakening China’s “positive spiritual guidance.”

After the show’s premiere was officially “postponed,” fans are now overjoyed to hear that it will air anyway.

The first eight episodes are available for binge-watching now via Youku (Chinese only).

It is unclear if (ordered) changes were made to the show over the past six weeks.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Arts & Entertainment

China’s Woman Warrior Goes America Again: The Disneyfication of Mulan

The story of Mulan is ingrained in Chinese culture, but Disney has made her an international classic.

Manya Koetse

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Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of Mulan has become a recurring topic of debate on social media recently. The movie is much-anticipated in China, but there are also critical voices suggesting the American Disney company “doesn’t understand China at all.” How ‘Chinese’ is Disney’s Mulan really? 

Ever since news came out that Disney would turn Mulan into a live-action movie the topic has been frequently popping up in the top trending lists on Chinese social media.

The movie has been especially top trending on Weibo this week since the official trailer was released.

Mulan is the much-anticipated live-action remake of Disney’s 1998 animated Mulan movie, which tells the story of the legendary female warrior Hua Mulan (花木兰) who disguises as a man to take her father’s place in the army.

Over recent years, Disney has released and announced the live-action adaptations of many of its animated classics. Remakes such as Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), Dumbo (2019), and Aladdin (2019), have all been successful and, besides Mulan, they are now being followed up by the remakes of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Lady and the Tramp, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Disney’s new Mulan movie is directed by the New Zealand film director Niki Caro.

The role of Mulan will be played by the (mainland-born) Chinese American actress Crystal Liu Fei (刘亦菲). The film also features Yoson An as Mulan’s love interest, Tzi Ma as Mulan’s father, Donnie Yen as Mulan’s Commander mentor, Gong Li as the evil witch, Jason Scott Lee as the enemy warrior leader, and Jet Li as the Emperor of China.

 

MULAN: WEIBO MANIA AND CRITICISM

Americans really have no idea about China.

Since the story of Mulan is a Chinese legend that has a history of over 1500 years in China, Chinese audiences are particularly invested in the topic of the upcoming Disney movie. Every new detail concerning Mulan seems to become another trending topic on social media.

On Weibo, “Disney’s Mulan” (#迪士尼花木兰#) has seen over 420 million views by now, while the hashtag “Mulan Trailer” (#花木兰预告#) alone received a staggering 1.2 billion views.

Following the release of the movie poster made by Chinese visual artist Chen Man, the relating hashtag (#花木兰海报是陈漫拍的#) was viewed more than 260 million times.

A topic dedicated to the missing Mushu, a talking dragon that is the closest companion to Mulan in the animated film, also received 310 million views (#花木兰里没有木须龙#).

Online discussions on Mulan show that there already is quite a lot of criticism on the movie and its historical accuracy, even though its release is still months away.

Some commenters criticized Mulan’s makeup in one of the movie scenes as being too exaggerated and unflattering.

The fact that the actors in the movie all speak English also did not sit well with some people, writing: “Why is it all in English?!” and “I understand the logic, but why would a group of Chinese people speak English while it’s filmed in China? Even if it’s a Disney movie, it seems awkward.”

Another controversy that has been especially making its rounds for the past few days is the one relating to the traditional tulou round communal residences that are featured in the movie trailer (#花木兰 福建土楼#, 170 million clicks).

The tulou are Chinese rural, earthen dwellings. Although the buildings are part of Chinese traditional architecture, they are also unique to mountainous areas in Fujian province. Not only is Mulan not from Fujian, her story also takes place long before these tulou were built – something that many Chinese netizens find “nonsensical” and “distracting.”

“Americans really have no idea about China,” some people on Weibo commented, with others writing: “We can’t expect Disney to research everything, but they can’t not do research. They shouldn’t let Mulan live in a tulou just because it looks pretty, she is not from Fujian!”

“Why on earth would she live in a tulou,” others write: “Isn’t she a northerner?”

“Foreigners just don’t understand China,” one among thousands of commenters said.

Another Weibo user writes: “Americans should first thoroughly understand the Northern and Southern Dynasties, and Chinese geography, and Mulan’s ethnic background, and then they can give it another try.”

 

FROM SELF-SACRIFICE TO SELF-DISCOVERY

The meaning of the story of Mulan varies depending on how it is told, when it is told, and by whom it is told.

Although many people outside of China only know about Mulan through the 1998 Disney animation that made the story of this Chinese warrior go global, Hua Mulan’s story has seen continued popularity in China for more than a thousand years.

The first known written version of the Mulan legend is the anonymous sixth-century Poem of Mulan (木兰辞), followed by other plays and novels in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Edwards 2016, 19-20; Li 2018, 368).

Especially since the twentieth century, the story of Mulan has become a recurring theme in China’s popular culture, appearing in various plays, movies, TV series, operas, and even in games. Some of China’s earliest films were about Mulan; from 1927 to 1939, three different films came out on the female heroine, all titled Mulan Joins the Army (木兰从军).

“Mulan Joins the Army” is a 1939 Chinese historical war about the legend of Hua Mulan.

The meaning of the Mulan legend varies depending on how it is told, when it is told, and by whom it is told. The story has seen a centuries-long period of change and development, with different perspectives being presented depending on the region and genre (Kwa & Idema 2010, xii).

The basic outline of the story is always the same: Mulan is the daughter who disguises as a man to protect her father and take his place in the army, where she fights for twelve years before being promoted to a high-ranking position by the emperor. Mulan declines and asks for an honorable discharge instead, so she can return home to her family. Once she is home, Mulan changes into women’s clothing again.

Chastity, filial piety, feminism, perseverance, sacrifice, militarism, patriotism – the Mulan story has it all, but which motives are given prominence is always different. Within China, the Mulan narrative is related to issues of China’s national identity and political goals.

“Mulan: Rise of a Warrior” is a live-action film produced in mainland China in 2009.

In Chinese literary versions before the twentieth century, Mulan is presented as a northerner of uncertain ethnicity, a figure of resistance, who sacrifices her own safety to protect her father and show filial piety. Confucian values and the importance of family are at the core of the Mulan story (Edwards 2016, 19-20).

In Chinese versions after the twentieth century, Mulan is implicitly presented as being Han Chinese and as a “loyal patriot defending China.” The focus is no longer solely on Mulan giving up her own freedom for the sake of her father; it is her militarised sacrifice to the state and the importance of patriotism that is highlighted instead (ibid., 19-20).

With Disney’s 1998 adaptation of Mulan as an animated film, the main focus of the story was again shifted. Disney presented Mulan not so much as a patriot or as a Confucian daughter, but as a somewhat goofy and free-spirited young woman on her “Americanized self-realization journey” (Li 2018, 362-363).

Mulan’s individual coming of age and feminist story is echoed in the film’s Reflection song, in which Mulan sings:

I am now
In a world where I have to hide my heart
And what I believe in
But somehow
I will show the world
What’s inside my heart
And be loved for who I am

Although the narrative of the young woman who finds her own true voice resonated with many around the world – Mulan became an international box office smash hit -, it did not resonate with Chinese audiences.

In China, the Disney film grossed only about one-sixth of its expected box office income and was even among the lowest scoring big imported US films since 1994 (Li 2018, 362-363).

According to scholar Lan Dong, the Mulan flop in China indicated Disney’s failure to anticipate how the film would be received in China and how the Chinese audience’s familiarity with Mulan’s story had already shaped their expectations of the film (ibid.): Disney’s Mulan clearly was not the same as China’s Mulan.

 

THE DISNEYFICATION OF A CHINESE FOLK HEROINE

The animated Mulan film clearly Disneyfied the story by playing into various American stereotypes of feudal China.

But who is “China’s Mulan”? And who is “Disney’s Mulan”?

As described, Chinese versions of Mulan have significantly changed through times. And Disney’s Mulan of 2020 is also very different from the Disney princess that stole the hearts of viewers around the world in 1998.

Judging from the trailer, the upcoming Mulan will be a much more serious movie that focuses on the action and martial arts, and seems to represent Mulan as a self-sacrificing woman warrior (nothing goofy).

There’s an apparent risk in this route taken by Disney. On Chinese social media, the complaints about the movie relate mostly to the movie not being ‘Chinese’ enough when it comes to historical accuracy and language.

In English-language media, the movie is criticized for omitting the talking dragon and the songs and for “bowing to China’s nationalistic agenda” with its patriotic theme (Jingan Young in The Guardian, also see Vice).

The Disney company aims to entertain children and adults all around the world. In doing so, they convert “cultural capital” to “economic capital”1 and create content with universal appeal for global audiences, virtually always requiring commercial concessions to adapt to tastes and expectations of their mass audience.

Mulan merchandise, image via mouseinfo.com.

Since tastes and audience expectations change over time, it seems logical for Disney to make different choices for its Mulan feature film in 2020 than it did in 1998, and not only because the company might have learned from its past mistakes in mainland China. China’s role in the world, and how people view China, has also greatly changed over the past twenty years.

National cultures, stories, and legends go through a process of ‘Disneyfication’ once they became part of the Disney canon. The term ‘Disneyfication’ has been coined since the 1990s to describe this phenomenon and has been used in various ways since.

Speaking of globalization and literature, author David Damrosch (What is World Literature?, 2003) uses ‘Disneyfication’ to describe how many foreign literary works will only be translated and sold in the West when its content ‘fits’ the image audiences have of that certain culture. What remains is actually a ‘fake’ cultural product that holds up certain stereotypes and clichés in order to please the audience (Koetse 2010).

In the 1998 animated film, Mulan was clearly ‘Disneyfied’ by playing into various American values and stereotypes of feudal China that were most dominant at the time.

Although the upcoming Mulan movie will be very different from its animated predecessor, we already know that it will play with some of those stereotypes again in a way that you could call ‘market realistic’: viewers will see an English-speaking Mulan that lives in a traditional Fujian tulou building. Some of the sceneries and settings will have absolutely nothing to do with the authentic story, but much more to do with how viewers around the world now imagine China.

The movie will undoubtedly present folk heroine Mulan and ancient China in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and accessible, making Mulan and her story easy to understand, digest, and love.

 

WHOSE MULAN IS IT ANYWAY?

For many Chinese viewers, Mulan has become ‘too American’, while foreign media criticize the film for being ‘too Chinese.’

The irony in the criticism that has emerged over Disney’s Mulan recently, is that in the eyes of many Chinese viewers, Mulan has become ‘too American’, while foreign media criticize the production for being ‘too Chinese.’

This is by no means the first time the Disney company is under attack for the way in which it adapts local legends or stories into international feature films.

With Pocahontas, Disney was accused of “whitewashing horrific past,” the Moana movie was said to show “insensitivity to Polynesian cultures,” some critics found Aladdin to be “rooted by racism and Orientalism,” and recently, Disney’s choice to cast a black actress for the remake of The Little Mermaid triggered controversy for removing “the essence of Ariel.”

There are two sides to the controversial ‘Disneyfication’ coin. On the one hand, one could argue that some of the cultural value of the original local myths, legends, and stories are lost once they are transformed and simplified to satisfy mass market demand.

On the other hand, the Disney corporation also truly makes these local stories go global and in doing so, further adds to their cultural significance and worldwide recognition.

Mulan is now a Chinese legend that has gone beyond its borders and is no longer ‘truly Chinese’ – whatever that might mean. She has become a part of people’s childhood memories and popular culture in many countries around the world.

Just as The Little Mermaid no longer solely belongs to the realm of feudal Nordic folklore, Quasimodo no longer just exists in French literary canon, and just as Aladdin has become so much more than part of the The Thousand and One Nights, Mulan has also come to represent more than a Chinese folk heroine. She has become a world-famous woman warrior whose story will keep evolving for the years to come.

About the upcoming Mulan movie and its criticism, one Weibo commenter writes: “I find it hard to understand why people are so fussy. They have a problem with Mulan’s make-up, or with the fact that there’s no singing and no Mushu, or with the scenery. This is a movie. It can only stay close to the original work, but it will never be the original work.”

Luckily for Disney, many Chinese viewers are still very keen to watch the Mulan premiere despite – or perhaps thanks to – the ongoing controversies. The casting of Liu Fei as Mulan has also been met with praise and excitement.

Popular Weibo law blogger Kevin (@Kevin在纽约) writes: “On the first day that the trailer for Disney’s live-action Mulan was released, it had 175.1 million global views, making it the number two Disney adaption. The number one is The Lion King which had 224.6 global views [on its first day]. Although the Americans made Mulan live in a tulou, and made her speak English with a Chinese accent, it all won’t prevent Hua Mulan from having great success in 2020.”

Other netizens also agree, and they do not seem to mind sharing ‘their’ Mulan with the rest of the world.

“Some people are being too obstinate,” one female Weibo user writes in response to all the criticism: “This is the American Disney company, and all princesses speak English first. Jasmine in Aladdin also did not speak Arabic. I gather that in the film there will definitely be some subjective ideas or errors based on Western conceptions of China. As Chinese, we might find them misrepresentative or laughable. But from the trailer, I can already see that [this film] matches our esthetics and imagination. Most importantly, this film expresses the strength and beauty of Chinese women, and of women in general – that’s what matters.”

Discussions on Disney’s Mulan will certainly continue in the time to come. The movie is scheduled to be released in theatres on March 27 of 2020.

Too Chinese? Too American? Too Disneyfied? Too patriotic? Disney’s Mulan might not please all viewers. Fortunately, there are and will be dozens of other Mulan versions providing viewers and readers with new and different perspectives on the centuries-old legend. But who is the ‘real’ Mulan in the end? We’ll probably never know.

By Manya Koetse

1 (Harris 2005, 50).

Dong, Lan. 2010. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Bibliovault OAI Repository, the University of Chicago Press.

Edwards, Louise. 2016. “The Archetypal Woman Warrior, Hua Mulan: Militarising Filial Piety.” In: Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China, pp. 17-39.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, David. 2005. Key Concepts in Leisure Studies. SAGE Key Concepts. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Koetse, Manya. 2010. “The Imagined Space of Chinatown: An Amsterdam Case Study.” Leiden University, https://www.manyakoetse.com/the-imagined-space-of-chinatown/ [July 12, 2019].

Kwa, Shiamin and Wilt I. Idema (eds). 2010. Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend with Related Texts.” Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company.

Li, Jing. 2018. “Retelling the Story of a Woman Warrior in Hua Mulan (花木兰, 2009): Constructed Chineseness and the Female Voice.” Marvels & Tales 32 (2): 362-387.

Young, Jingan. 2019. “The Mulan trailer is a dismal sign Disney is bowing to China’s nationalistic agenda.” The Guardian, July 8 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/jul/08/mulan-trailer-is-a-dismal-sign-disney-is-bowing-to-china-anti-democratic-agenda [July 12, 2019].

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