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.

Gospel and War Propaganda Take to the Streets! The Rise of “Educational Kamishibai” (教育紙芝居)

By Dr. Tara M. McGowan

Japanese “Paper Theater,” or kamishibai 紙芝居, was invented around 1930 as a street-performance art. The performers, known as gaitō kamishibai shi 街頭紙芝居師, were candy peddlers, who would travel from neighborhood to neighborhood on their bicycles and sell candy or other treats to children before entertaining them with stories. The early kamishibai artists and performers were inspired by silent film. In Japan, silent films almost always had live narrators called katsudō benshi 活動弁士, telling the story alongside. The kamishibai storytellers emulated the popular movie narrators by orally dramatizing the stories, while pulling a series of illustrated cards out of a wooden stage strapped to the backs of their bicycles. The artists who painted the street-performance cards were also inspired by cinematic visual effects that mesmerized their young audiences and made them come back to hear episode after episode. Before the advent of television in 1953, kamishibai was the primary form of popular entertainment for children, especially of the lower socio-economic classes. It was so popular, in fact, that television was called “electric kamishibai” when it first entered Japan.

Alarmed by the sensationalistic stories, lurid colors, and general lack of oversight, parents and educators called on the authorities to control the content of street-performance kamishibai, much as we see with video games today. But not everyone took this punitive approach. One young Christian missionary named Imai Yone[1], recently back from studying in the United States, saw the potential of this new medium to enhance her missionary work. She promoted the format, and inspired others to eventually develop what has come to be called “educational kamishibai” (教育紙芝居). Thanks to the generosity of the Friends of Princeton University Library, the Cotsen Children’s Library has recently acquired nine rare kamishibai sets published by Imai Yone, as well as five sets by other notable pioneers in the field of educational kamishibai.

Imai Yone (今井よね, 1897-1968) was born in Mie Prefecture and moved to Tokyo for secondary school in 1917. She was baptized the following year at the age of 21. During the Kansai earthquake of 1923, she met Kagawa Toyohiko (賀川豊彦, 1888-1960), a priest and social activist, who had studied at Princeton Theological Seminary (1914-1916) and was later nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Imai joined his relief efforts for the victims of the earthquake and, in 1926, led the opening of his “Friends of Jesus Nursing Mission” (イエスの友看護婦ミッション) in Osaka.[2] In 1927, she traveled to the United States to study as a missionary and did not return for four years, during which time street-performance kamishibai was not only invented, but was rapidly gaining in popularity. When Imai tried to open a Sunday school in 1931 in Tokyo, many of her would-be pupils cut class as soon as they heard the wooden clappers (hyōshigi 拍子木), announcing the arrival of the kamishibai man. Imai followed her students out into the streets and immediately recognized that kamishibai was a powerful medium for communication and persuasion that could be adapted to her purposes of spreading Christianity.

From 1932, Imai began hiring kamishibai artists to create dramatic stories from the Bible, beginning with “A Christmas Story,” which was published in 1933. Imai emulated the rental system of the street performance artists, where the same stories were circulated by many storytellers, so that her stories could be disseminated to a wide audience. By 1933, she had organized a troupe of performers called the “Kamishibai Missionaries” (kamishibai dendō dan 紙芝居伝道團) and had co-founded the Kamishibai Publishing Company (Kamishibai kankō kai 紙芝居刊行会) to publish “Gospel kamishibai.” In 1934, she published a book titled The Reality of Kamishibai (Kamishibai no jissai 紙芝居の実際), which not only encouraged the use of kamishibai in missionary work but also contained a valuable survey of the state of the street-performance art and artists at the time.

Imai Yone, performing kamishibai around 1933. (Image source: core100.net)

Imai made several significant innovations to the kamishibai format. She increased the size of the cards to what we now consider the normal size for the standard kamishibai stage (10 ½ x 15 inches), nearly doubling the size of the cards used by street performance artists. She also doubled the length of the stories her audience would hear in one sitting. Whereas the street-performance artists typically told episodes of about 10 cards each over what could sometimes continue for hundreds of episodes, Imai’s stories are usually 20 cards in length. Imai wrote the scripts for the stories herself, but she commissioned street-performance or manga artists to create the images because she recognized that their cinematic visual techniques would make the Bible stories come to life for audiences young and old.

Seven of the nine recent acquisitions of Imai’s kamishibai sets fall into the category of Gospel Kamishibai (Fukuin kamishibai 福音紙芝居). These sets include intriguing indications of Imai’s various efforts to promote and improve upon kamishibai at the time. The last card of her “Tale of Baby Moses” (1934) features an advertisement for stages she designed in two colors—dark green recommended for outside performances and subdued yellow for inside, particularly at night. Later sets advertise Imai’s book The Reality of Kamishibai, describing her as “standing on the forefront of the streets” and touting kamishibai as a “huge sensation for social education and missionary work.”

What may have accounted in part for the “huge sensation” was Imai’s use of street-performance kamishibai artists’ talents to visually tell a tale. One distinguishing feature was their use of outlining to ensure that large audiences of 50 or more people could see the stories from a distance. In his illustrations of “Tale of Baby Moses,” one of the earliest sets, published in 1934, artist Yuzuki Kaoru 柚木芳 experimented with multicolored outlines to soften the effect, and his depictions of Moses’s sister Miriam (left) and Pharoah’s daughter (right) clearly evoke ideal Hollywood beauties of 1930s films. Miriam, also depicted on the right of Pharaoh’s daughter in the second image, illustrates the challenges of visually maintaining consistent characters over sequential narratives and the notorious difficulty of human anatomy (what happened to her bosom?).

From “Tale of Baby Moses” (幼児モーセ物語). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586438)

Other techniques taken from film were zooming in, panning out, and approaching the scene from different camera angles, as can be seen in “Tale of Baby Moses” when Yuzuki zooms in on the iconic scene of Moses being found in the boat of rushes (left) and on Miriam’s feet as she dances for joy (right).

From “Tale of Baby Moses” (幼児モーセ物語). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586438)

A year later, in 1935, Imai employed Yuzuki’s talents again when she published “The Life of Jesus” over several sets, of which Cotsen has acquired volumes 3 and 7. In Vol. 3, Yuzuki switches to the more typical black outlining, although his style is immediately recognizable in the dramatic episode where Jesus saves the boy possessed by a demon.

From “The Life of Jesus” (イエス傳), Volume 3. Kamishibai kankō kai, 1935. (Cotsen 11586429)

In volume 7, artist Miura Hiroshi 三浦浩 takes a distinctive approach to black outlining in his depiction of Jesus turning water into wine, using it selectively to direct the viewers’ eyes to particularly significant movements or gestures.

From “The Life of Jesus” (イエス傳), Volume 7. Kamishibai kankō kai, 1935. (Cotsen 11586444)

Imai frequently switched back and forth between the New and Old Testaments, publishing a series of “Biblical Tales” (聖書物語) in 1934, which included the story of Abraham and the humorous tale of Zacchaeus of the sycamore tree, both illustrated by Miura.

From “Biblical Tales: Abraham” (聖書物語: アブラハム). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586463)

In “Abraham” above, Miura depicts the dramatic moment when the Holy Ghost appears to stay Abraham’s hand, just as he is about to sacrifice his own son at God’s behest. Note how the edge of his sleeve on the left is flying upward in that harrowing moment, mirroring his knife. In the next scene, the Holy Ghost swoops in to push the knife from his grasp.

From “Biblical Tales: Zacchaeus and the Sycamore Tree” (聖書物語: 桑の樹のザアカイ). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1934. (Cotsen 11586452)

In the story of Zacchaeus, Miura changes his use of black dramatically to bring out the buffoonish qualities of Zacchaeus, a notoriously short sinner, who converts to Christianity after climbing a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus over the heads of the crowd.

One of the most memorable, if horrifying, examples of cinematic visual effects is Saitō Toshio’s 齋藤敏夫 “Moses, Man of God” published in 1939. Saitō relies less on black outlining and more on creating an electric effect with background textures and colors, as we can see in the plague of the locusts and the appearance of the Angel of Death in the night sky.

From “Moses, Man of God” (神の人モーゼ). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1939. (Cotsen 11469471)

Whereas bold outlining brings the audience into close proximity to the action, Saitō’s technique is particularly effective for depicting the monumental scope and distance of the miraculous dividing of the Red Sea and then the tumultuous closing on Pharaoh’s unsuspecting army.

From “Moses, Man of God” (神の人モーゼ). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1939. (Cotsen 11469471)

“Noah’s Flood,” by Hirasawa Sadaharu 平澤定治, which came out the same year is tame by comparison and harkens more to Disney’s and other film cartoons of the time.

From “Noah’s Flood” (ノアの洪水). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1939. (Cotsen 11586478)

Of course, the text on the backs of the cards, which was written by Imai herself, had to match the nature of the images, and it is clear that she experimented with different methods to make the archaic biblical language accessible to viewers. In some cases, she summarized the story at the beginning or quoted directly from the passages in the bible before launching into the more streamlined, conversational style of kamishibai storytelling.

As the advertisement for Imai’s stages suggests, Imai and her traveling kamishibai missionaries actively took to the streets, spreading the Gospel and promoting the kamishibai format. On one fateful visit to the Tokyo University “settlement,” a community where Tokyo University students helped to educate the children of the poor and underprivileged, an idealistic young man, named Matsunaga Kenya (松永健哉, 1907-1996), saw one of the performances. Matsunaga had strong Communist leanings and was eager to improve the plight of the children of the proletariat. He became obsessed with kamishibai as an educational tool and in 1937 founded the Japanese Educational Kamishibai Federation (日本教育紙芝居連盟). By 1938, his organization was renamed the Association of Japanese Educational Kamishibai (日本教育紙芝居協会). Just three months later, Matsunaga was sent as a war correspondent to southern China, where he continued to develop kamishibai in the languages of Japan’s occupied territories.

One of the Association’s co-founders, who assumed the editorial role, was Saki Akio (佐木秋夫, 1906-1988), a similarly left-leaning scholar of religion, who had graduated (like Matsunaga) from Tokyo University. Progressive, leftist ideas were increasingly at odds with the Imperialist government’s agenda and Saki spent time in jail in 1934 for violating the Peace Preservation Law. Amidst increasing pressure, however, Saki and the other members of the Association started publishing kamishibai that aligned with government propaganda supporting the war. As WWII escalated, both Saki and Imai joined the kamishibai division of the government’s Cultural Association for Little Japanese Citizens (日本少国民文化協会), which was set up with the explicit purpose of generating propaganda for the war effort. [3]

It is easy today to condemn Imai and Saki for what appear to have been drastically shifting allegiances or, alternatively, to sympathize with them for succumbing to what must have been intense government pressure. However, the situation at the time was complicated on many levels. For one thing, it must be remembered that these early proponents of kamishibai were all pushing against a tide of negative public perception about the format, and it was an uphill battle to make ends meet with their own publishing efforts. The government’s interest and financial support must have seemed like a positive development, at least initially. Furthermore, as many of the propaganda materials in the Cotsen collection reveal, Japanese wartime propaganda directed at Japanese civilians, and even at people in the occupied territories, could be quite subtle and may have even appeared to promote their idealistic goals. In leaflets, toys, postcards, and picture books, Japan consistently depicted itself as the beneficent oldest brother in a Greater Asian family (the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere), whose primary role was to protect its younger sibling nations from the inevitable encroachment of evil western powers. Given its limited natural resources, Japan was actively opening up opportunities for children of farmers in Japan’s poor rural areas by grabbing up land in China and offering parcels of it to young Japanese “pioneers.” These large stretches of fertile land offered an unprecedented chance of upward mobility for the children of large, impoverished farm families in Japan, the very children whom Matsunaga and Saki had been trying to assist through their educational reforms. Whatever their complicated motivations may have been, there is little evidence that either Imai or Saki resisted pressure to develop propaganda kamishibai during the war years (Orbaugh, 56).

Two of the new acquisitions at the Cotsen Children’s Library are examples of Imai’s propaganda kamishibai. Both show how historical precedent was frequently used to justify Japanese occupation or inspire audiences to sacrifice self for the larger goal. Although Japan’s militaristic regime would appear to be antithetical to Christian values, Imai’s choice of stories is not completely inconsistent with her biblical interests. The story of Ginō Sakubee (義農作兵衛, 1941) is reminiscent of the sufferings of Job from the Old Testament. Based on a true story, Ginō Sakubee is a hard-working farmer, who lived during the Edo period (1603-1868). He builds his way up in the world by avidly cultivating his rice fields. When his wife dies, a series of crop failures—floods and locusts—leaves him and his children at death’s door from starvation. When a neighbor carries him home after he finds Sakubee collapsed in his rice field, he discovers that Sakubee has kept a barrel of seed rice untouched, even though he and his children were starving. When asked why he chose not save himself from death, Sakubee answers that it is his duty to think of the coming generations, who could plant that rice, which would multiply and continue to provide for generations to come. The moral of this tale from a war propaganda perspective is that the current sacrifice of self and of one’s children (i.e., soldiers) is important for a greater, long-term cause, but it also aligns with Christian ideas of sacrificing self for the greater good.

“Ginō Sakubee” (義農作兵衛). Kamishibai kankō kai, 1941. (Cotsen 11586531)

Illustrated by Kyōgoku Kaseki 京極佳夕, both of Imai’s propaganda kamishibai evoke a distant past through a more classical nihonga (Japanese traditional painting) style.

The three newly acquired examples of kamishibai edited by Saki Akio, by contrast, demonstrate the range of genres for propaganda stories at the time.[4] Some stories had unequivocal messages to promote the war effort, whereas others were created with a greater emphasis on entertaining or comforting the beleaguered Japanese troupes.

Japanese soldiers rehabilitating in a military hospital in China were treated with a kamishibai show. In Photographic Reports on the Front Lines Taken by Soldiers (兵隊の撮つた戦線写真報告), page 72-73. Tōkyō: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1940. (Cotsen Cohn200906 Box J6 Item 5)

One such kamishibai is based on the famous rakugo (humorous oral storytelling) tale, “The Case of the Bound Jizo.” Ooka Echizen, an Edo-period samurai judge, who notoriously came up with clever solutions to difficult cases has a stone statue of Jizo tied up and brought into custody in order to create a sensation and uncover the true culprit. Ooka Echizen continues to be a popular figure in film and television today.

From “The Case of the Bound Jizo” (しばられ地蔵), edited by Saki Akio, drawings by Nishi Masayoshi 西正世志. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1941. (Cotsen collection)

In a much more serious vein, “The Total Destruction of the British Pacific Naval Fleet” (英東洋艦隊全滅す) spreads the news from the Japanese perspective of the sinking of the British naval ships “Prince- of-Wales” and “Repulse,” as well as announcing of the attack on Pearl Harbor just a few weeks after the event. A year later, Saki would also be involved in developing a kamishibai about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which is already part of the Cotsen collection (Cohn200812 Box J15 Item 20).

From “The Total Destruction of the British Pacific Naval Fleet” (英東洋艦隊全滅す), illustrated by Koyano Hanji 小谷野半二. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1942. (Cotsen collection)

To add a human touch to the destruction, the story ends with mirrored images of children, praying at a shrine, and Japanese naval troops saluting their flag. The slogan “One Hundred Million Japanese Citizens” (Ichi oku kokumin 一億国民) is used repeatedly to emphasize how civilians and troops were united in one “sacred” cause.

From “The Total Destruction of the British Pacific Naval Fleet” (英東洋艦隊全滅す), illustrated by Koyano Hanji 小谷野半二. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1942. (Cotsen collection)

Kamishibai were also designed to promote practical messages of health and hygiene. In “The Friendship Village” (仲よし部落), which was created under the direction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare (厚生省), we learn that “Friendship” is a misnomer for a village where they actually quarrel all the time. It is the rice-harvesting season, however, so all adults are needed in the fields to work, even pregnant women. The public health nurse warns against it, and sure enough the heavy work in the fields makes one of the women in the village go into early labor. The problems force neighbors to help each other so that by the end, they can all agree on cooperation through collective work and collective cooking. Although such stories were meant to rally communities to work together for the war effort, they were also not far from Saki Akio’s (and Matsunaga Kenya’s) earlier socialist or communist ideals.

From “The Friendship Village” (仲よし部落), illustrated by Kihara Yoshiki 木原芳樹. Nippon kyōiku kamishibai kyōkai, 1941. (Cotsen collection)

The final two acquisitions are propaganda kamishibai by publishing companies not connected to Imai Yone or Saki Akio but still indicative of the many roles kamishibai played during the war. One set, titled “The Comings and Goings of Bonds” (債券往来), was published in 1943 by The Association for Picture Dramas Promoting a Culture of Government Support (翼賛文化画劇協会) run by Yamaguchi Kiyoo 山口清雄. Like the “Friendship Village,” this tale is meant to educate the audience on a practical level about the importance of purchasing war bonds. At the same time, much like the Ooka Echizen story, it is a rakugo kamishibai (落語紙芝居) for entertainment, indicating that kamishibai was by no means the only medium adapted for the war effort. The story follows the misadventures of a foolish young man, who goes door to door selling government bonds and, in the course of explaining them to the people he meets, also explains them to his audience.

From “The Comings and Goings of Bonds” (債券往来), illustrated by Kishima Takeo 木島武雄. Yokusan bunka gageki kyōkai, 1943. (Cotsen collection)

Finally, “A Child of the Japanese Empire” (皇国の子), written and illustrated by Kaneko Shirō 金子士郎, was published in 1944 to encourage civilian support of wounded Japanese soldiers, who were by then returning home in ever increasing numbers. A youth named Yoshio meets a blinded soldier, who is trying to buy sushi to share with his war comrade, who will be passing through Tokyo station early the next morning. There is no sushi to be had, so Yoshio asks his mom to make simple rice balls and brings them to the station the next day. The wounded soldiers are touched by Yoshio’s devotion and sincerity but forget to ask his name. Thereafter, the blind soldier waits on the street corner, hoping to meet Yoshio again and thank him.

From“A Child of the Japanese Empire” (皇国の子). Dai Nippon gageki kabushiki kaisha, 1944. (Cotsen collection)

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, the GHQ, as the American Occupational Forces were called, worked to cleanse all media of the taint of propaganda, including kamishibai. Saki Akio was one of the kamishibai publishers to testify at the GHQ hearings. Just five years later, however, Saki was writing in a very different vein about the important role kamishibai had to play in the “new education” (新教育) with its emphasis on audio-visual learning. In volume 3 of a series of “New Books on Audio-Visual Education” (聴視覚教育新書), which was devoted to the topic of kamishibai, Saki writes that there are broadly four types of education, characterized in order by 1) Feudalism, 2) Capitalism, 3) Fascism, and 4) Social liberalism. He goes on to argue that Japan has passed through the first three phases and now needs a “new education” for democracy and social liberalism. He claims that kamishibai is an educational medium uniquely suited to develop students’ freedom of expression. It appears that Imai Yone did not continue her kamishibai efforts after the war, but the seeds of educational kamishibai had been sown nonetheless and continue to flourish to this day.

The new acquisitions at the Cotsen Children’s Library both complement and add immeasurably to the Princeton Library’s current kamishibai holdings. We thank the Friends of Princeton University Library for their generosity in helping the library to acquire these important materials, which will greatly contribute to researchers’ understanding of the complexities of this turbulent and troubling time in Japan’s recent history.


[1] I will use the Japanese name order with last name appearing first.

[2] http://core100.net/lab/pdf_siryo/hirao_01.pdf; accessed 8/19/2019

[3] For an excellent in-depth treatment of War propaganda kamishibai in English, see Sharalyn Orbaugh’s Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War (Leiden: Brill Press, 2015)

[4] For a list of “Types of Propaganda Plays,” see Orbaugh, page 102.


Hatano, Kanji, ed. Chōshikaku kyōiku shinsho III Kamishibai (聴視覚教育新書III紙芝居). Tokyo: Kaneko shobo, 1950.

Ishiyama, Yukihiro. Kamishibai no bunkashi: shiryō de yomitoku kamishibai no rekishi (紙芝居の文化史資料で読み解く紙芝居の歴史). Tokyo: Hōbun shorin, 2008.

Kamichi, Chizuko. Kamishibai no rekishi (紙芝居の歴史). Tokyo: Kyūzansha, 1997.

McGowan, Tara. Performing Kamishibai: An Emerging New Literacy for a Global Audience. New York: Taylor and Francis, 2015.

Nash, Eric. Manga Kamishibai: The Art of Japanese Paper Theater. New York: Abrams Comicarts, 2009.

Orbaugh, Sharalyn. Propaganda Performed: Kamishibai in Japan’s Fifteen-Year War. Leiden: Brill Press, 2015.

Suzuki, Tsunekatsu. Media toshite no kamishibai (メディアとしての紙芝居). Tokyo: Kyūzansha, 2005.

Yasuda, Tsuneo. Kokusaku kamishibai kara miru nihon no sensō (国策紙芝居から見る日本の戦争). Tokyo: Bensei shuppan, 2018.

More Titles of Interest:

The Notehelfer collection of Christian kamishibai (1930s – 1954) in original art and prints. Painted by T. Yoshioka and others. Formerly owned by Fred G. Notehelfer; gift of J. Karl Notehelfer. (Cotsen)