The most breathtaking example of this society’s casual sexism comes at the training camp, when Mulan-as-Hua-Jun shows off his use of qi while sparring with Honghui (Yoson An). Later, Commander Tung (Donnie Yen) gently scolds him—for hiding his ability. “You need to cultivate your gift,” he says. “Your qi is powerful, Hua Jun. Why do you hide it?” As a man, Mulan is chided for not utilizing her advantage, while as a woman she would be exiled for daring to do so.
Even her father Hua Zhou’s narration belies the tricky nature of qi: “The qi pervades the universe and all living things. We are all born with it. But only the most true will connect deeply to his qi and become a great warrior.” Only those who use their qi can be true, but only men can use their qi. Women are trapped from the start, with no chance to fulfill that trueness.
All of this lays the foundation for Mulan’s four confrontations with Xianniang—which, interestingly, map onto the four virtues of the film.
While the new Mulan adaptation uses the same story beats as the animated film in revealing Mulan’s true identity, they come in a different order, granting our warrior protagonist agency over this pivotal moment in a way she never got in the 1998 film. Instead of getting wounded and having the doctor discover her body beneath her armor, it is Mulan’s bindings that stop Xianniang’s deadly arrow from piercing her heart. Hua Jun dies, but Mulan lives.
Yet even before what was supposed to be a killing blow, Xianniang shames Mulan for lying. “Your deceit poisons your qi,” she snarls in disgust when they first fight—of course she immediately recognizes Mulan as another woman taking on a mantle not offered to her. Twice, Xianniang gives her the opportunity to identify herself; twice, Mulan says, “I am Hua Jun, soldier in the Emperor’s army!”