Who is Hua Mulan?

So you think you know who Mulan is? Perhaps you know the feisty girl from the eponymous cross-dressing warrior of the 1998 Disney animated film Mulan. She is the rebellious teenager who escapes the suffocating social expectations for a maiden and heads to the battle zone, where she finds peace with who she is. Or, if you are a Chinese speaker, you may have first learned about the weaver-turned-soldier from the “Ballad of Mulan,” the lyrics of a folk song first preserved in writing in as early as the sixth century. In the memorable rhyming text she is the filial and brave daughter who is determined to shield her aging father from a perilous military life.

Mulan’s story is included in an advertisement booklet titled Women’s Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars in Color Pictures 女子二十四孝彩圖, published by a pharmaceutical company in Shanghai in 1941. Whereas the historic figures featured in the classic Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars were nearly all male, the booklet focuses on young Chinese girls’ and women’s filial piety. The caption emphasizes that when Mulan returns home after serving eleven years in the army, she is “apparently still a virgin” (page 7). The facing page advertises fish liver oil, said to have ingredients supplied by an American vitamin company. In Nü zi er shi si xiao cai tu. Shanghai: Xin Yi Pharmaceutical Company, 1941. (Cotsen 75832)

China’s Bravest Girl: The Legend of Hua Mu Lan, told by Charlie Chin 陳建文; illustrated by Tomie Arai 新居富枝; Chinese translation by Wang Xing Chu 王性初. Emeryville, CA: Children’s Book Press, 1993. (Cotsen 17732)

Have you ever wondered, however, what kind of Chinese girl Mulan was? Weren’t women in ancient China supposed to have their feet bound? How could Mulan have gotten away from the crippling practice? Was Mulan’s family rich or poor–and does it matter? Did Mulan really grow up in those circular communal buildings portrayed in Disney’s live-action adaptation of 2020? If not, where was her hometown?

The Legend of Mu Lan: A Heroine of Ancient China, written and illustrated by Jiang Wei 姜巍 and Gen Xing 根兴. Monterey, CA: Victory Press, 1992. (title page) (Cotsen 13496)

“Hua Mulan,” text by Haimo, illustrated by Alang Illustrations Studio. Serialized in Xiao pi pa 小枇杷, 2013, no. 1, a magazine for young learners of the Chinese language in North America. (page 8) (Cotsen 153521)

Long before inspiring Disney films, the legend of Mulan was already being dramatized in plays and novels, retold in comic books and picture books, and reenacted in Chinese movies and television series as far back as the sixteenth century. Mulan’s malleability does not stop at changing her outfit and camouflaging her biological sex to enlist her service at a time of crisis. In adaptation after adaptation, the heroine amasses a growing inventory of virtues and qualities, from filial piety to chastity, bravery, superb combat skills, military acumen, humbleness, loyalty, patriotism, and selflessness. She also subtly shifts other dimensions of her identity at the service of messages embedded in the next new iteration. Let’s take a closer look at the girl in disguise.

What about footbinding?

Mulan’s military service is all the more extraordinary against the backdrop of what we assume to be a Confucian Chinese society that confines women within the domestic sphere. What if Mulan was not molded from the prototype of an ethnic Han girl immersed in the doctrine of Confucianism? Scholarship suggests that the origin of the character Mulan was foreign to the Chinese-speaking Han people (Dong 2011, 53), China’s largest ethnic group which got its name from the Confucius-worshipping Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE). The ballad can be traced to the tradition of northern nomadic tribes, whose women were skilled at horse riding and archery (53). Active in the Mongolian area–to the north of the Great Wall–the nomads ran into frequent military conflicts with the Han empire, which collapsed in the year 220. The Tuoba clan of the Xianbei nomads, speakers of an Altaic language, eventually migrated south, established the Northern Wei in 386, and ruled northern China. The Xianbei rulers implemented Sinicization and assimilation policies in the fifth century, ushering in a period of cultural hybridity and social blending of Han and non-Han people that are subtly reflected in the lyrics (Dong 2011, 57; Millward 2020).

The ballad is likely set during the Northern Wei period (386-534), which predates the prevalence of footbinding among elite Han Chinese women of the Song dynasty (960-1279) for centuries. Mulan’s ruler is referred to by the Altaic title “Khan” 可汗 and the Chinese term “emperor” 天子 interchangeably. Philologist Sanping Chen (2012) proposes that “Mulan” (meaning “magnolia” in Chinese) is a Sinicized Tuoba word referring to “a large male cervid” (59) that includes stag, bull, and even unicorn—possibly explaining why, in the ballad, Mulan does not change her name (as she does in Disney films) and raises no questions among her fellow soldiers and Khan. Mulan’s capability of transitioning from a weaver to a soldier can be rationalized by the cultural mishmash of her time. That she begins in the ballad working at a loom reflects the influence of Han cultural expectations on women’s domestic role (Dong 2011, 57-58); yet she seems to adapt to military life smoothly, as a Xianbei woman might.

A portrait of Xu Wei (徐渭, 1521-1593), who wrote the first prominent adaptation of the Ballad of Mulan into a two-act play. (Wikimedia.org)

Chinese adapters of the ballad may have been aware of Mulan’s debatably uncertain ethnic background, but progressively shed non-Han elements from her identity and reshaped the story as one about Han people battling against invading nomadic tribes. In the first prominent dramatization of the ballad into a two-act play by Xu Wei during the sixteenth century, the protagonist introduces herself as a descendant of a prestigious military family from the Western Han dynasty–anachronistically, she has bound feet (Xu 1984, 44-45), necessitating a suspension of disbelief in her physical mobility on the battleground. Furthermore, Xu gives her the family name Hua (44), thereby transforming Mulan (“stag/bull”) into Hua Mulan (“flower magnolia”), a conventionally female name in Chinese. She enlists under the disguise of her father’s name, yet her feminine looks nonetheless draw fellow draftees’ immediate erotic attention (47).

Later adaptations invariably portray Mulan as a Han girl. During the first half of the tumultuous twentieth century, when China faced chronic military threats particularly from Imperial Japan, Han-centric narratives co-opted the filial daughter as a patriotic, self-sacrificing role model fighting a just war to defend the nation-state (Edwards 2016, 19).

Mulan Joins the Army 木蘭從軍, illustrated by Wang Shuhui. Beijing: Zhao Hua Fine Arts Publishing House, 1953. Third edition. (page 2) (Princeton University Library 5797/1126)

Caption: All of a sudden, the northern Tujue king led his troops and horses into Chinese territory, committed acts of rape, plunder, and all sorts of atrocities, resulting in many Chinese deaths and injuries. Men, women, the old, and the young were displaced and lost their homes.

Wang Shuhui (王叔晖, 1912-1985), one of the few female lianhuanhua illustrators in twentieth-century China. In Wang Shuhui, an Enduring Giant and a Master of Chinese Painting 巨擘传世: 近现代中国画大家王叔晖, by Zhao Deyang. Beijing: Gaodeng jiaoyu chubanshe, 2018. (page 10) (Marquand Library ND1049.W3647 Z436 2018)

In Mulan Joins the Army (1953), an adaptation in lianhuanhua form (akin to comic books) illustrated by Wang Shuhui, the heroine is explicitly named as a member of the “Han army” (Wang 1953, 30 & 32) fighting the invading Tujue nomads from the north, who are described as having inflicted great trauma on Chinese people (2). Published at a time when the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) was still clear in the rearview mirror, the indictment against the fictional Tujue recalls the Japanese wartime atrocities. The lianhuanhua is based on a Peking opera play with the same title written during the war by Ma Shaobo, a Chinese Communist Party official in charge of war propaganda (Wang 2001, title page). Ma took inspiration from multiple sources, including an earlier Peking opera play performed by the famed actor Mei Lanfang in 1912.

A cross-dressing Mulan as played by Mei Lanfang in Peking opera, premiered in March 1912. In Mei Lanfang 梅兰芳, edited by Liu Shaowu. Beijing: Beijing chu ban she, 1997. (page 59)
Since traditional Peking opera had a long history of using an all-male cast, there was a double gender-twist to Mei’s performance: he was a male actor playing the female role of Mulan on the stage, who is cross-dressing as a male in the story. Mei’s play was hugely influential, inspiring Ma Shaobo’s adaptation, which subsequently serves as the basis of retellings in a Henan opera, a Huangmei opera, and lianhuanhua in the second half of the 20th century.

Although Mulan has consistently been re-imagined as a Han girl, some subtle inclusive changes can be detected in adaptations in the 1980s. In a version illustrated by Wang Zhongqing (1984), the text retains the emperor’s Altaic title “Khan,” and the image portrays the ruler with a prominent aquiline nose and eyes set somewhat deeper than for other characters—a slight symbolic hint of non-Han facial features and a nod to China’s long history of ethnic multiplicity.

Mulan’s ruler Khan as depicted in The Poem of Mulan 木兰辞, illustrated by Wang Zhongqing. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1984. (partial image on the 19th panel)

The enemies, a tribe from northwestern China, on horseback, waging a battle at the border of the Great Wall. In Mulan Joins the Army 木兰从軍, text by Yu Peiming, illustrated by Xiang Weiren. Shanghai: Juvenile & Children’s Publishing House, 1983. First edition. (cover and page 1) (Cotsen S-000381)

Another version, illustrated by Xiang Weiren (1983), eventually absorbs the invading nomads into the expanded Chinese identity, thereby transforming the Chinese-against-foreigner conflict into a domestic conflict. In his version of the story, the enemies are a tribe from present-day “northwestern China” (1), who, after their defeat, pledge allegiance to a benevolent Chinese emperor. The peaceful resolution folds ethnic minorities into the Chinese empire, and is aligned with the People’s Republic of China’s orthodox political ideal of integrated, harmonious inter-ethnic relationship accomplished by a powerful, paternalistic central government.

To sum up, the Ballad of Mulan originated as a product of cultural exchange and amalgamation, but in adaptations by Chinese writers, the heroine is divested of her non-Han origin and participates in a Han-dominant narrative that assigns ethnic minorities as “other,” foreign, and invasive. It was not until the 1980s that adaptations attended to the non-Han as part of a multi-ethnic China, three decades after the PRC touted the ethnic unity project in the 1950s.

Is Mulan’s family rich or poor?

The ballad does not articulate Mulan’s socioeconomic background, but clues abound: her family owns a loom and livestock, and is able to purchase a horse and riding equipment. In Xu Wei’s dramatization, Mulan’s family owns a servant girl. Beginning in the 1950s, whether Mulan is portrayed as being rich or poor carried political significance under the Communist regime. A concern for Mulan’s class background can be detected in Ma Shaobo’s foreword for his play. A seasoned Party member, Ma would be fully conversant with the Communist class theory and familiar with the land redistribution campaigns that targeted rich land owners. His foreword introduces Mulan as coming from a “farming family” 农家 (Ma 1949, 1), implying a humble background but stopping short of declaring her poor. As the script reveals, Mulan, though never labelled as being well-off, is more likely to be from a property-owning family. As she educates a less enthusiastic fellow recruit, to defend one’s country is congruent with the private interest of protecting the safety and property of their own families. If everybody refuses to fight as a soldier, “by the time the enemy takes the world, we would lose our country and our homes! We can’t even protect our ancestral graves, farming fields, and gardens 田园, much less spend time with children and grandchildren,” Mulan points out (22; emphasis mine).

Ma did not author the second sentence, but apparently lifted it verbatim from the script of Mei Lanfang’s stage performance (Zhui yu xuan 1922, 16). In spite of Ma’s class consciousness, his adaptation preserves the economic status of Mulan’s family, because it fosters a motive to join the army by appealing to the audience’s self-interest. The play would not risk alienating members from any class that had the capacity and motivation to contribute to the war effort. The Party redirected attention to “class struggle” only after the defeat of the Japanese (Jackal 1981, 107). Literature and media from the later Mao era gradually sharpened a dichotomy between the virtuous poor peasants and proletariat and the evil rich landowners and capitalists, bolstering the moral justification for punishing the latter.

In fact, a 1950s version of Mulan presented her family as being even more affluent. This time, her story was reenacted in a Henan opera play during the Korean War. Chen Xianzhang, the main writer of the script, and Chang Xiangyu, the lead singer actress who played Mulan, were a married couple. After the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) of China joined the Korean War and suffered setbacks in June 1951, Chang formed an ambitious plan to donate a fighter aircraft to the PVA. She succeeded in collecting enough money to purchase a MiG-15 jet fighter by touring China between 1951 and 1952, performing the extremely popular Hua Mulan on stage up to 120 times (Jing 2000, 10). The Henan opera play makes a stronger suggestion that Mulan is identified more with the property-owning class than with the destitute poor. She reasons with a fellow recruit who complains about the unfairness of having to leave his parents, wife, and children behind:

There are tens of thousands of soldiers and generals on the frontier. Who do not have elders, children, farming lands, estates, and homes 田产家园? If all are attached to their homes and refuse to fight, the fire of war would have been burning at our doorsteps. (Chen and Wang 1954, 15; emphasis mine)

The phrase “farming lands, estates, and homes” expands upon the “farming fields and gardens” in Ma’s version and connotes even more wealth. Given the priority of fundraising for the Korean War, it makes sense that the script writers would see no conflict between the moneyed class and contribution to the war.

“Who do not have elders, children, farming lands and estates?” the titular character Hua Mulan (played by Chang Xiangyu 常香玉) sings in the 1956 movie version of the Henan opera. (YouTube.com)

In illustrated adaptations of these plays, Mulan’s socioeconomic class is never specified verbally. However, even though the text is noncommittal about this dimension of her family background, visual artists may have to commit to a firmer choice in depicting people and their material environment. Their illustrations show a comfortable home in accordance with what is implied in the source text. The characters’ clothing shows no patchwork, which is a common visual shorthand for poverty in lianhuanhua and the wider visual culture of Maoist China. In multiple versions Mulan either reads the military post that summons her father to the battlefront, or, as in Wang (1953), writes a letter to the marshal explaining her request for leave (38). Being female and literate in China would put Mulan among the privileged who had the wherewithal and willingness to give daughters an education.

In Mulan Joins the Army, illustrated by Wang Shuhui, Mulan is shown dressed as a scholar (page 38). (Princeton University Library 5797/1126)

After coming home and changing back into maiden’s clothing, Mulan meets her fellow soldiers in a living room that exudes affluence. In Mulan Joins the Army 木蘭從軍, illustrated by Liu Danzhai. Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, 1955. (page 43) (Columbia University Library 5237.49 4942)

The most remarkable tension concerning Mulan’s economic status arises in Liu Danzhai’s (1955) picture book. Half of the scenes are set in Mulan’s home, showing a capacious dwelling tastefully furnished—including a day bed inset with large, gray-veined white marble panels (39)—and artistically decorated with painted screens, potted plants, and wooden stands made from carved tree roots (37, 43). Her house is skirted by a corridor with red latticed railings, looking out to a serene garden replete with banana leaves and other lush greenery (7, 41). Somewhere in the back the family have pens for a fat pig and a stubborn sheep, to be slaughtered to celebrate their daughter’s homecoming (35). As an artist trained in classical Chinese painting, Liu visualized in meticulous detail the idealized high culture of a rural gentry home from an unspecified bygone era.

The trouble was that Liu had to wrestle with an incongruence between his interpretation of Mulan’s family background and that made in the paratext of his picture book, which was prefaced by the historian and folklorist Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893-1980). It is unclear if the painter had access to the preface during his creative process. If he did, then he apparently chose not to bend his mind to the historian’s view, but made a small compromise. Gu prefaces the picture book with an analysis of the Ballad of Mulan, and opines that the poem reflects how the oppressive ruling class of the Western Wei dynasty forced civilians to join the army, imposing hardship especially on the elderly and the poor (Liu 1955, 3). Liu has instead portrayed what appears to be a financially solid family sending their daughter to the war, except that in Mulan’s otherwise impeccable dwelling, the pink outer layer of an exterior wall of her loom room is in disrepair at a corner, exposing several gray bricks. Is this small defect the artist’s compromise with the historian’s interpretation? It looks almost as though Liu added the detail as an afterthought, a gesture to meet Gu’s concern for the poor halfway, but this surmise will have to be falsified/confirmed by consulting the artist and publisher’s archives.

The exterior wall of Mulan’s loom room is shown as exposing gray bricks, the only unkempt corner in an otherwise impeccable dwelling. In Mulan Joins the Army, illustrated by Liu Danzhai. (page 5) (Columbia University Library 5237.49 4942)

Where is Mulan from?

Fujian Tulou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, photographed by Song Xiang Lin (unesco.org)

A young Mulan chases a hen up the rooftop of the tulou. In Mulan, directed by Niki Caro. Disney, 2020. (YouTube.com)

In Disney’s live-action version Mulan (2020), the girl’s family lives in a circular building large enough to house an entire clan. Called tulou (earth buildings), such structures are the signature dwellings of Hakka Han Chinese communities, most often found in rural Fujian, China. The unique architectural style adds to the visual interest and cultural curiosity of the film, and the intended defensive function of tulou ties to the plot of the story. Does that setting make Mulan a local of Fujian Province?

As it turns out, Mulan is just as fluid when it comes to her birthplace. The original ballad cites vague geographical markers such as the Yellow River and Yan Mountain, making it difficult to pin down where the story is set (as well as giving interpreters liberty to choose). Not only has Mulan been adopted as a fictional Han girl, the popular filial daughter has also been naturalized as a historical figure, proudly claimed as a native in various regions, and recorded in local gazetteers since the Song Dynasty (960-1279) (Dong 2011, 87).

Mulan is depicted as a local of Yan’an, Shaanxi Province, wearing a wool head wrap distinct to the area. In Mulan Joins the Army 木蘭從軍, by Ma Shaobo. Shanghai: Shang za chu ban she, 1953. Revised edition. (title page) (East Asian Library 5715/7293)

In the preface to his play, Ma Shaobo (1953) names at least seven locations that, to his knowledge, had been claimed as “hometowns” of Mulan (2). The place Ma selected—Shangyi Village, Yan’an Prefecture, Shaanxi Province—was a convenient choice. The play was first written in 1943 and performed in Communist-controlled areas to “boost morale” (1953, 1). Associating Yan’an, the then headquarters of the Chinese Communist Party, with the heroine’s birthplace lent the seat of the Communist proto-state the positive light of a virtuous historical celebrity; it made the local daughter, who models patriotic behavior on a par with the standards of a Communist army soldier, more relatable to the audience. Having served its war mobilization tasks in that region, Yan’an eventually faded from later adaptations, in which Mulan is not tied to any particular locale. She is simply a Han Chinese girl and shares her identity with a much wider range of readers across China.

I Am Mulan 我是花木兰, one of the latest retellings of the Ballad of Mulan in Chinese picture books, written by Qin Wenjun 秦文君, illustrated by Yu Rong 郁蓉. Beijing: China Children’s Press & Publication Group, 2017. Available in Swedish edition Jag är Hua Mulan (Hjulet, 2021) and English edition I Am Mulan (Balestier Press, 2023), translated by Anna Gustafsson Chen and Helen Wang respectively.

Throughout the 1500 years during which Mulan’s story has been disseminated in oral, written, visual, and performance cultures, from possibly a nomadic tribe to a Chinese context to a transnational stage/screen, the girl in disguise has proved to be more pliant than required simply for the feat of cross-dressing. At the core of a Mulan in perennial transformation is a persistent readiness to offer her service. In the story, she is ready to change her appearance and to feign a male identity for the service of her family or country. In the omnipotent hands of storytellers, different dimensions of her identity are altered, be it her ethnicity, hometown, or class background, for the service of particular agendas, like boosting morale among the audience, modeling patriotism for readers, raising funds for the war effort, gracing political images, or increasing the box office profits.


Chen, Sanping. 2012. Multicultural China in the Early Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Chen, Xianzhang 陈宪章 and Wang Jingzhong 王景中. 1954. 花木兰: 豫剧 [Hua Mulan: a Henan Opera]. Xi’an: Chang’an shudian.

Dong, Lan. 2011. Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Edwards, Louise. 2016. Women Warriors and Wartime Spies of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jackal, Patricia Stranahan. 1981. Changes in Policy for Yanan Women, 1935-1947. Modern China 7 (1): 83-112.

Jing, Hua 荆桦. 2000. 常派艺术的铺路石: 我所知道的陈宪章先生 [The Paving Stone for the Chang School of Henan Opera Art: Mr. Chen Xianzhang as I Know Him]. Dongfang Yishu (02): 10-12.

Liu, Danzhai 刘旦宅, illus. 1955. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], first edition. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe.

Ma, Shaobo 马少波. 1949. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army]. Shanghai: Xinhua shudian.

Ma, Shaobo 马少波. 1953. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], revised edition. Shanghai: Shangza chubanshe.

Millward, James. 2020, September 25. “Mulan: More Hun than Han.” Los Angeles Review of Books: China Channel, accessed June 6, 2024, https://chinachannel.lareviewofbooks.org/2020/09/25/mulan-xinjiang/

Wang, Shuhui 王叔晖, illus. 1953. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], third edition. Beijing: Zhaohua meishu chubanshe.

Wang, Shuhui 王叔晖, illus. 2001. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], text by Yang Ying 杨英, first edition. Beijing: Renmin meishu chubanshe.

Wang, Zhongqing 王仲清, illus. 1984. 木兰辞 [The Poem of Mulan], first edition. Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe.

Xiang, Weiren 项维仁, illus. 1983. 木兰从军 [Mulan Joins the Army], text by Yu Peiming  俞沛铭, first edition. Shanghai: Shaonian ertong chubanshe.

Xu, Wei 徐渭. 1984. 四聲猿: 歌代嘯 [Four Cries of a Gibbon: Songs in Place of Howls], first edition. Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe.

Zhui yu xuan 綴玉軒. 1922. 木兰从军: 梅兰芳秘本 [Mulan Joins the Army: Mei Lanfang’s Private Script]. Hongkong: Xianggang tonglehui. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.b3961359


Thanks go to Dr. Lena Henningsen (University of Heidelberg) and Dr. Emily Graf (University of Tübingen) for their insightful comments on the first draft of this post; and to Dr. Helen Wang, on her invaluable editing and feedback on my second draft!

Thank Columbia University Library for making its copy of Mulan Joins the Army illustrated by Liu Danzhai, a full-color picture book rare for Chinese publishing of the 1950s, available for interlibrary borrowing.

Christmas Made in China

If you are beginning the frantic countdown to Christmas Day, take a few minutes to read this lovely and thought-provoking post Minjie Chen wrote three years ago about China’s role in making our holiday season bright in the West.

“Fotang is a small ancient water town south of the Yangtze River. It is my father’s hometown.” So begins “Made in China,” a deftly written short essay and an unlikely Christmas story published in Pipa, a magazine for young learners of Chinese as a second language. The theme of the issue, dated November 2017, was Christmas.

Cover of the Pipa magazine, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, a special issue on Christmas.

Launched in 2013, Pipa is a bi-monthly magazine designed for children who are learning the Chinese language outside China. The magazine title, “Pipa” (枇杷), refers to the loquat, a yellow-skinned fruit that resembles an apricot. “Loquat” is a playful rebellion against the slur “banana” for ethnic Chinese living in a Western country. Regarded as having lost touch with their Chinese cultural heritage, identity, and values, they are disparagingly compared to a banana, which is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” The flesh of a loquat is as yellow as its skin, implying the magazine’s ambition to connect Chinese American children with the culture of their ancestral land. (In the Chinese language, “yellow skin” is not a derogatory description: true insults come from not embracing the color, rather than using the term.)

Loquats (Image source: Pxhere.com)

Each Pipa issue is neatly organized around a theme and presented in columns featuring illustrated stories, interviews, informational text, poetry, rhymes, craft, games, and children’s writing and art. All contents, except for works submitted by children, are contributed by native Chinese writers but tailored for the limited language competency of children who are learning the language in an English-dominant environment. Pipa stands apart from most Chinese-language reading materials, which are either intended for native Chinese children or translated from popular works originally in English and other languages, or both. Chinese culture, history, and literature, as well as Chinese American life, are its main subject matter.

“Made in China,” written by Caomao and illustrated by Xiaoweiqun. In Pipa, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017. (Cotsen 153521)

In “Made in China,” Caomao continues: “As I remember, there the roof tiles were black, the walls were whitewashed, the trees were lush, and the aged stone pavement had a bluish gray sheen. On clear days, you could hear roosters cock-a-doodle-doo; on rainy days, you would listen to rain drops splatter. In winter, the smell of ham and brown sugar was everywhere.” (13) Farmers made a living by selling bok choy and rice and trading live hens and ducks at the market. Nobody knew how long life had been like this.

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Change started two decades ago when people opened factories in town, making small merchandise like toys, towels, and buttons. “Since then there were always the rumbling of machines, the honking of vehicles, and the raised voices of people speaking into phones. The odor of car exhaust hung in the air.” (14) Then, a decade ago, the locals learned a novel word—sheng dan jie (Christmas). Factories big and small began producing Christmas goods. Streams of trucks drove into town and carried away loads and loads of Christmas products. Where did they go? Someone said they would be shipped to Europe or America, because people in those places needed lots and lots of Christmas trinkets. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Migrant workers came from faraway places to earn a living here. They had no idea what Christmas looked like in America and Europe, but they always wore Santa hats in the factory–not for fun or to look good, but to block glitter. Once the colorful powder crept into hair, it clung fast no matter how hard you wash. Still at the end of the day, glitter covered their faces and bodies, and found its way into their ears and nostrils. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Townsfolks did not celebrate Christmas. From this day on, workers took their well-earned break, because no one would expect new orders after the start of the next holiday season. Migrant workers would not return until after the Chinese New Year to get ready for the coming Christmas. The town became much quieter: “On clear days you could hear cock-a-doodle-doo, and, on wet days, the pitter-patter of rain drops. Between black tiles and white walls wafted once again the delicious smell of ham and brown sugar.” (15)

“Made in China” is an exquisitely composed essay-story, contrasting two carefully edited images of life in an old-fashioned town before and after it became China’s so-called “Christmas Village.” As the manufacturing center for Christmas merchandise, Fotang (佛堂) has an uncanny name, the literal meaning of which is “Buddha’s hall.” The town is administratively part of the city of Yiwu, the seat of the world’s largest small commodities market. Though on a minor scale, the essay recalls Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), a documentary that traces the life cycle of glittering festival beads from New Orleans back to a factory compound in rural China, where the cheap disposables were made by workers as young as teenage girls fresh out of middle school.

The Christmas story of Fotang, written at the reading level of second and third graders without compromising the beauty of the language and illustrated in warm rosy watercolors, recapitulates the massive and complex history of globalization as it intersected with a tiny old Chinese town from the turn of the twenty-first century. Caomao’s economical use of language is remarkably effective, immersing us in the sights, sounds, and smells of the water town. (The ham mentioned twice in the essay is not any average processed meat, but the prized dry-cured Jinhua ham, a millennium-old product unique to the region.) The old-town life sounds charmingly peaceful, although poverty, elided in the text, must have played a big part in transforming “Buddha’s hall” into the “Christmas Village.” Environmental costs and health risks are suggested between the lines.

It must be pointed out that the changing reality of Fotang and Chinese society is more than can be summed up by the facile dichotomy between an idyllic agrarian community then and a booming manufacturing base now. For one thing, as Fotang has been exporting Christmas products to Europe, America, and an expanding global market, along with Hollywood movies, English-language learning, and Starbucks, “Christmas” has been woven into the fabric of a largely secular Chinese society. Merchants love Christmas for introducing yet another festive excuse to encourage shopping and spending. Young families even try to celebrate the holiday with children the “proper” Western way, one involving tabletop Christmas trees and stockings. The impact of globalization has worked in both directions. The culture of Chinese-Americans’ ancestral land that Pipa hopes to channel is not fossilized in five-character quatrains of the Tang dynasty, but is an evolving organism, continually exchanging elements with the larger world, modifying and being modified by the latter.

My childhood friend complained that she couldn’t find a good stocking for her toddler son. She lives in a big city only two hours away from Fotang, but for reasons beyond the knowledge of average consumers like myself, made-for-export products are not necessarily readily available in Chinese stores. As children we used to each have a stocking from my aunt, who worked in a Shanghai tapestry factory that made and exported embroidered stockings. I put my foot into it and found it a poor “sock.” Bemused by what a sock so huge was for (Aunt never mentioned it, and now that I think back I am not sure if she knew), I still loved the bright and merry pattern of jingle bells on it and would pull it out of the wardrobe to admire every so often. My friend said she was looking for a stocking as pretty as the one I gave her in the third grade. After the phone call I placed an order for a few with felt Santas and reindeer on them from a major online store owned by a certain Princeton alumnus, planning to take them to China on my next trip. The soft stockings came in a rustling plastic bag with a sticker on it: Made in China. It’s going to be a round trip home for the big sock.

(Edited by Jessica Terekhov, PhD Candidate in English, Princeton University)


Caomao and Xiaoweiqun (illustrator). “Made in China.” Pipa: The Magazine for Chinese Speaking Kids in North America, vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, pp. 13-15.


Thanks go to author Caomao, illustrator Xiaoweiqun, and Jing Cheng, editor of the Pipa magazine for granting us the permission to reproduce the text (in English translation) and images from the essay.