I’ve been working as a lecturer at University College Roosevelt for a little over ten years now, where I teach courses within the religious studies track. One of my favourite courses to teach has always been a course called Wisdom of the East, in which I cover the basic ideas and practices of Hinduism, Buddhism and Daoism. Although I’ve taught the course many, many times, it never ever gets boring. I get to take my students to yoga and meditation workshops, discuss some of my favourite books such as the Bhagavad Gita and the Dao-De-Jing with them, and get to hear all about their own creative interpretations of topics like karma, meditative states of consciousness, and the ethics (or lack thereof) of yoga as a multi-million dollar industry in Western countries. Because I’m so enthusiastic about the topic my students often get excited too, and frequently they end up sharing some of their favourite media references to Eastern thought with me. Some of those tips have been great, and have helped me to discover books and films that I hadn’t heard of which I ended up enjoying tremendously. Quite often, however, it’s clear that the audience for the film or book in question is not someone whose been reading up on the topic for more than twenty years. Don’t get me wrong – I love it when students recommend references to Eastern thought in books and movies to me. Often, however, I’m just not the right person to really appreciate them.
I was a little wary, then, when one of my students recommended the new Disney film Mulan to me, on account of it containing ‘references to Eastern philosophy’. ‘Here we go,’ I thought. ‘A Disney film with Eastern thought in it? Can’t be good. Bound to be superficial.’ And then there was the whole business with the costs, which further strengthened my conviction that I didn’t really want to see it. Because of the corona virus, Disney has decided to release the film straight to their online streaming platform Disney Plus, which we have a subscription to. Disney Plus is alright in my book – for a relatively modest monthly fee you can watch the entire Disney back catalogue without limitations. On top of that you get access to all the Marvel superhero movies AND all the Starwars movies. Mulan, however, is a Disney Plus premium release, which means that if you want to watch it, you have to fork out another twenty-two euros on top of your monthly fee. I took one look at that price tag and decided that we wouldn’t be watching Mulan anytime soon.
Then my daughter fell ill.
She soon got better, but we live in the Netherlands, where – because of the corona virus – you can’t go to school right now if you have a runny nose. Which she did. For a very, very long time. She couldn’t go to school or her sports clubs, was stuck indoors for most of the day while my wife and I tried to get our work done from home, and got very, very bored. After a week of trying to cheer up an extremely sad and deflated eight-year-old I threw in the towel. There is only one thing that can solve this conundrum and bring some cheer back to our household, I thought: watching a brand-new Disney film. My daughter loves Disney – has done ever since she was a toddler. One of her favourite Disney movies of all time has always been Mulan, and so when I told her there was a new Mulan adaptation, with real-life actors and horses and sword-fighting, she got so excited that I threw in the towel. I paid the twenty-two euros, ordered some pizzas, and sat down with her to watch it.
I’ll spare you the finer details of the film’s story. In a nutshell, it’s about girl in imperial China who dresses up as a boy to help the Chinese imperial army fight an important battle. The girl in question – whose name is Mulan, of course – goes through a series of trials and tribulations, is outed as a girl halfway through the film, and ends up saving the day because of her superior sword-fighting skills. I found it highly enjoyable, and had a great time watching it from the very beginning. When we got to the bit that my student had told me about, though – the bit with the supposed ‘Eastern influences’ – I couldn’t help but cringe. The concept from ancient Chinese philosophy which the Mulan film zooms in on is the concept of chi, which – with some stretch of the imagination – can be translated as energy. The movie mentions the concept repeatedly and links it to Mulan’s talent as a sword-fighter. What the movie doesn’t do, however, is explain the concept in any kind of meaningful way, one that actually does justice to the Daoist belief system from which it was taken. Chi, in the film, is a monolithic concept that contains no duality. As anyone who’s ever looked at a t’ai chi symbol knows, however, there are two kinds of chi: yin and yang.
T’ai chi symbol, with white representing yang and black representing yin.
Yin is associated with darkness, femininity and passivity, yang with light, maleness and activity. There are no equivalents of good and evil in this thought-system. According to the Daoists there is no such thing as absolute evil. Human actions can be out of touch with the natural order, and if that happens, suffering and chaos often ensue. But the two opposites of the ta’i chi symbol are not the equivalents of good and evil. Both yin and yang are equally important, and all people contain both opposites within them. In the movie, however, Mulan is frequently told that since she is good at fighting, her ‘chi is strong’. It is implied that only warriors are high in chi, and that there are therefore two kinds of people: those with a lot of chi and those with very little or no chi. From the Daoist perspective this doesn’t make much sense. No one is ever without chi, and so saying to someone that their chi is strong is non-sensical. It’s the same as saying ‘you are alive’. Well, chickens are alive. So are cauliflowers.
‘Pfff’, I thought. ‘Really, Mulan? That’s all you’ve got?’ and then promptly forgot all about the chi references and simply enjoyed the rest of the movie. Much to my surprise, however, those passages really resonated with my daughter. I mean really resonated. To the point of her becoming obsessed with the chi concept. It’s all she’s been talking about for days. When we went for a walk last Sunday she bombarded us with questions about chi, all of which were fantastic. Is there good chi and bad chi, she asked my wife and me? Strong chi and weak chi? Can you kill someone with weak chi? When is it wise to use strong chi? Before we knew it we were into an hour long discussion of yin and yang and their interrelatedness. I know that sounds pretentious, like we’re trying to turn our eight-year-old daughter into a modern-day Matilda who will win the educational ratrace against her peers. But it really wasn’t like that at all. We had fun with the concept. We laughed and giggled and linked it to other movies like Kung Fu Panda and Starwars. At the end of the walk I was forced to conclude that the fact that Mulan simplifies the chi concept was actually wonderful, as it left room for my daughter to come up with her own questions and interpretations. It also allowed me to see how, right in front of my eyes, her questions led her to develop her own philosophy of chi – one that did much more justice to the Daoist worldview then the film did. My daughter figured out that chi is a duality all on her own, without anyone telling her that this was an ancient, well-established idea. How cool is that?
Because of the impact it had on my daughter, I ended up completely rethinking my initial response to the movie, which had been that its take on Chinese philosophy was shallow and superficial (something that also some critics have zoomed in on to explain why the film met with a rather lacklustre response in China). What I thought was a weakness in the movie – that it simplified Daoist ideas I’m fond of – turned out, surprisingly, to be a strength. So thank you, Mulan, for pointing out to me that just because something doesn’t strike a chord with me doesn’t mean that the ideas are handled poorly. And thank you for making my daughter happy: she can’t stop talking about how weaknesses can be strengths and strengths can be weaknesses (one of the implications of the t’ai chi symbol, and the yin yang philosophy in general), and will probably end up doing a PhD in Ancient Chinese philosophy one day. It pains me to say it, but those were twenty-two euros well spent.