Does Mulan speak Chinese?

One day, my daughter was at her pretend kitchen pretending to prepare a party for all the Disney princesses. (Yes, this was during her Disney princess phase.) The pretend phone pretend-rang, and she handed it to me. "It's Mulan."

I dug deep into my brain and pulled together enough Mandarin Chinese words to form a reply: "你好. 你來嗎?" I asked. ("Hello. Are you coming?")

My daughter corrected me.

"Mulan doesn't speak Chinese."

Some time later, we took a trip to Disneyland, and my daughter had the opportunity to meet Mulan. My wife discreetly asked Mulan, "Do you speak Chinese?"

Mulan quietly replied, "Sorry, no."

So my daughter was right.

To be fair, Belle probably doesn't speak French,¹ Jasmine probably doesn't speak Arabic, and Pocahontas probably doesn't speak Algonquian.

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month.

¹ Well, unless you go to Disneyland Paris.

Comments (30)
  1. Kevin says:

    If there's one thing I've learned from Disney, it's that everybody speaks English, they have always spoken English, and they follow exactly the same cultural norms everywhere.

    1. Lars says:

      The characters speak whatever language is spoken in their target markets. And although Disney presumably spends a pretty penny getting people like Elton John and Phil Collins to contribute songs, they go and ruin that afterwards by getting nobodies (relatively speaking) to sing their translated lyrics.

    2. smf says:

      I don't know about the distant past, but modern Disney movies are dubbed into every language. They often even have alternate sound tracks for the UK and America (e.g. Therefore what Mulan speaks is not what you hear.

      The Mulan you met didn't handle the question properly. She should have spun some line about not speaking Chinese because she is in the US to learn English. I was sitting out the back of a shop in Magic Kingdom years ago because the rest of my party were shopping and I was bored, Belle appeared to do a story reading but nobody had turned up. So I got to spend quite a while trying to get her to break character. While she was historically inaccurate as she said she flew with Beast from France to America, she managed quite well.

      I don't know whether they appreciate it or whether they just think you're weird.

      1. Boris says:

        But how can she be in the US to learn English if she lived a thousand years before the colonies were settled? :) I'd prefer something more like this (a bit simplified since I'm not that familiar with the Chinese language situation, and I'm not sure a Disney cartoon character would be either):

        — Do you speak Chinese?
        — Sure I do!

        The visitor tries Chinese.

        — I'm sorry, what language is that?
        — Um, Chinese?
        — Well, but it can't be Chinese since I only speak Chinese, isn't that so? And we clearly understand each other perfectly!

        Visitor shows her a dictionary of English.

        — What does it say here?
        — Let's see... the Chinese Language Dictionary!

        1. smf says:

          >But how can she be in the US to learn English if she lived a thousand years before the colonies were settled?

          Magic. If you're there talking to her then she is definitely there. There are different characters from different time periods, so it's not you that has travelled in time.

          1. Boris says:

            I've never been to Disneyland, but I'd assume that those characters mostly inhabit their own virtual machines, without actually interacting with one another in any sort of meaningful manner? (How would that be scripted, let alone acted out spontaneously?) And if they cannot interact, then clearly they don't inhabit the same environment, and it is rather the visitor who is jumping between their individual VMs.

        2. smf says:

          > — Well, but it can’t be Chinese since I only speak Chinese, isn’t that so? And we clearly understand each other perfectly!

          That would be more confusing to children, because it obviously isn't Chinese.

          1. Boris says:

            Depends; children play-pretend all the time, which might include pretending they were Belle while knowing they don't actually speak French.

          2. smf says:

            But Raymond's daughter says that Mulan doesn't speak Chinese, so it's safe to imagine she doesn't think Belle speaks French either.

            She would almost certainly be right, the original story was written in 1740 and only 12% of people spoke French and they lived in cities. It was only after the 1798 revolution that French started to be universally used in France. While it's possible she could speak French, it's unlikely that every other character in the story would. I doubt most children even know that Belle is from France.

            Whatever the cast members say has to be appropriate for children of every age and understanding. You don't need to worry about the ones that think that it's just a person in a costume.

          3. Boris says:

            Sorry, I didn't quite get which language you think the character should be speaking? I don't know anything about the story, but a quick glance at the Wikipedia plot summary reveals French names such as Maurice, Gaston, Philippe, Lumière, so I assume she'd speak French according to the internal logic of the Disney film version.

            Yes, the actor would have to be experienced in talking to children; there may be other ways to manipulate the question without breaking character.

        3. MarcK4096 says:

          I think some of these suggestions suggest a pay grade far above what Disney is willing to pay their in-park actors.

  2. Boris says:

    I don't know enough about the language situation in Mulan's time or what language / dialect she'd be speaking, but the important thing to consider is that for the purposes of interaction with visitors, English maps to that particular language, the character being essentially dubbed. Therefore, not addressing Mulan in English means using a different language, one she need not be familiar with as a character. However, if she is asked in English whether she speaks Chinese (meaning Mandarin), then the answer would depend on whether such a question would be meaningful to the character at that time in history (I thought one only spoke languages such as Mandarin or Cantonese?). I just hope that "Sorry, no" wasn't a case of breaking the fourth wall, a UI exception of sorts.

    1. smf says:

      Historical accuracy is not something that Disney are particularly worried about

      All Disney princesses understand what cameras are, so they aren't stuck in their time period (whatever Mulan's time period actually is)

  3. 12BitSlab says:

    Both of my granddaughters are in the Princess stage right now. Everything is pink and purple! Regardless of language, the characters at Disney do an outstanding job with the young ones. They somehow find a way to make all of the kids feel special.

  4. Fun fact - the original Aladdin story takes place in China. (There's a nod to this in the movie.)

    1. I wouldn't be so sure...

      You see, those who have taken a course in translation and linguistics know of a middle-eastern word that today translates to "China" but originally meant "India". I can give more details if you wish, but in summary, a loss in translation might have occurred and the story might have been "Indian" instead of "Chinese". Reinforcing this fact is that the original Aladdin story is devoid of key signature Chinese cultural elements and has a middle eastern setting instead.

  5. kktkkr says:

    Well you are receiving the US-localized version of Mulan without the Chinese language support, just like the Chinese-dubbed versions of American superheroes have their own struggles with English.

  6. RL says:

    Disney is opening a park in Shanghai next month, hopefully Mulan will understand Chinese by then.

    1. cheong00 says:

      And so do the other Disneyland characters.

      Talking about "Disney princess phase", my nieces (10 and 8 years old) are still in that phase, and I still have no idea if they'll ever get out of that phase. :O

  7. Joshua says:

    Well the Chinese spoken language never really unified, and that far back it's entirely possible that Mulan (presuming there is a person behind the legend) would speak none of the modern dialects.

    1. viila says:

      Mulan almost certainly would not have spoken Mandarin. While the legends place her in the generally right geographic area, she's about 900-600 years too early for the local dialects to have been combined into (old) Mandarin.

  8. BZ says:

    While the original story is said to be set in "China", the writer seems to know nothing about Chinese culture, so the story as presented is a lot more at home with some sort of "Arabia".

  9. — "Jasmine probably doesn’t speak Arabic"

    Jasmine definitely doesn't speak Arabic because she was from a Persian-speaking locale. The genie, however, did know at least a little Persian, enough to write "بوقلمون", Persian for Turkey the bird.

  10. Cesar says:

    Relevant TVTropes article: (WARNING: if you never went to that site before, be warned that it's known to be addicting).

  11. If she was asian and in Disneyland Paris, you may have tried Vietnamese ;)

  12. jgh says:

    The histo-lengendary Mulan was from southern China, so more likely to speak Cantonese than the invader language of the north.

    1. cheong00 says:

      If that is the case, she may really speak Cantonese then.

      Cantonese pronounciation has not been changed much over time since the "Spring and autumn period", that's why most of the "楚詞" still sound correct when recited in Cantonese but may not match the "oblique rule" when recited in Mandarin.

  13. Rolf says:

    Belle (the one in Epcot Center) does in fact not speak French (she told my daughter today).

  14. David haim says:

    Mulan will speak whatever locale was set on her.

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