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The Ballad of Mulan

Music Analysis

By Sophia Eberlien

Nestled in the mountains of Northern China during the Sui Dynasty, a young woman
named Hua Mulan would grow to defy her prescribed role in Chinese society. When officials
demanded that citizens become soldiers to fight the encroaching Huns, Mulan knew that her
father was too elderly to fight. Instead, Hua enlisted herself, pretending to be a man and covertly
rejecting the typical gender roles she was subjected to. The “Ballad of Mulan” recounts this epic
tale and has been passed through numerous generations, originally created during the Northern
Wei Dynasty around 386 C.E. It is Mulan’s story of defiance and bravery that was later adapted
into the contemporary Disney film Mulan. The movie encapsulates the strength of one woman
when defying typical gender roles. Although the story is modified for modern audiences, Mulan
does not shy away from illustrating the harsh social subjugation of women throughout China’s
history. By illuminating the true and gritty history of subordinating women, Disney serves to
strike change in contemporary times, where females continue to face discrimination. In Mulan,
the song “Honor to Us All” serves to illuminate the historical subordination of women in society
by presenting women as objects with the ultimate purpose of being beautiful, appeasing men, and
becoming brides.

The song “Honor to Us All” exemplifies the second class nature of women in society by
depicting them as objects. The ballad commences with the line, “ This is what you give me to
work with?” (1) This rhetorical question is asked by the Matchmaker to express her doubt that
Mulan will meet the standards that husbands strictly set for their wives. In addition, referring to
Mulan as “this” creates a negative tone while simultaneously relegating Mulan to the status of a
nameless object. As the song continues, it becomes clear that a woman’s role in society is that of
an object rather than a human being. When the Matchmaker states, “We’re gonna turn this sow’s
ear into a silk purse” (2-3), she is referring to Mulan as a commodity rather than as a woman.
Mulan is further characterized as undesirable and dirty when she is symbolized as a “sow’s ear.”
However, through the process of grooming and becoming attractive for men, she can become a
“silk purse”, or a pure and highly desired commodity. It is further established that women are
merely objects for the pleasure of men when the Matchmaker sings, “Like a lotus blossom, soft
and pale/how could any fellow, say “No Sale” ”(21-24). A simile is used to express that Mulan
must have a “soft”, feminine, and fragile figure of a flower to make herself irresistible to men.
Being “soft” also implies that Mulan will acquiesce to all that her dominant husband’s demands.
With these qualities, no man will be able to resist “buying” her and owning her as a wife and as
an object.

“Honor to Us All” further illuminates the subservient role that women play in society by
depicting their need to become brides who live solely to appease men. Throughout the song, the
phrase “bring honor to us all” is repeated nine times. The ability for a woman to “bring honor” to
her family is conditionally interlocked with her ability to get married. This repetition strives to
firmly establish that the only way for a woman to improve her social standing and gain the
approval of society is through marriage and reliance upon a man. The song states, “ a girl can
bring her family great honor in one way/by striking a good match” (18-19). The choice of diction
concerning the word “one” further exemplifies that submitting herself to a man is the only way
for a woman to raise her social status. In China, the concept of filial piety is ingrained into the
very structure of society. While men act as the brave warriors who “guard us from the Huns”, a
woman can only serve the Emperor and society “by bearing sons”(15). Thus, women are further
relegated to a subservient position as they are only objects meant to produce men, appease men,
and marry men.

“Honor to Us All” further illuminates the subjugation of women in society by illustrating
the pressure placed on women to be objects of beauty. The role of the Matchmaker who sings
this song in the film is historically accurate. As a majority of marriages in China were arranged,
women had to appeal to possible suitors and would hire such matchmakers to enhance their
chances of getting married. In Mulan, the Matchmaker cheerfully sings, “ When we’re through,
boys will gladly go to war for you… with a great hairdo, you’ll bring honor to us all” (10). The
harmful stereotype that only men are strong enough to go to war is depicted in this line, which is
used in a dramatically ironic way, as unbeknownst to the Matchmaker, Mulan will soon become
one of the greatest soldiers in the Chinese army. However, it is expressed that all women can be
of great use if they have “great hairdos” that will attract men and consequently bring the family
honor. It is only with her appearance and subsequently the bond of marriage with a man that a
woman has any value in society. This is further expressed when the song states, “ Men want girls
who work fast-paced, calm, obedient/with good breeding and a tiny waist” (21-23). This
reinforces the patriarchal paradigm where women are frail and submissive objects that are solely
physically attractive objects with “tiny waists” and “great hairdos.” Women had to preserve their
image of beauty as “perfect porcelain dolls” and were traditionally instructed to be subservient,
defenseless, fragile, and obedient.

Mulan and “Honor to Us All” illuminate Chinese culture and history in a painfully honest
way. Even in modern times, the traditional reverence in China for filial piety has led to an
overpowering patriarchal society. The One Child Policy instituted in 1979 and recently ending in
2015 has created a deep gender imbalance that has lasted to this day. The preference of Chinese
parents for their one designated child to be male led to the abandonment of thousands of female
infants, who are historically regarded as inferior to male counterparts. Contemporary narratives
need to combat the subordinate role delegated to women around the world. With a plethora of
modern pop songs and television programs that promote the objectification of women, it is films
like Mulan that push us to remember our past in order to correct our future. The subordination of
women in societies around the world can be perpetuated by media, but films like Mulan prove
that media can also be the catalyst to inspire women to find the warrior within themselves.