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Cross -cultural palimpsest of Mulan: Iconography of the woman warrior from premodern China to Asian America

Lan Dong, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation centers on the theme of "the woman warrior," historically grounded in premodern Chinese culture and represented in contemporary Asian American literature as well as in visual art forms. I apply a historical perspective to this interdisciplinary project in order to examine the global evolvement of one particular woman warrior, Mulan's legend, starting from the Northern Dynasties (386-581 A.D.) until the beginning of the twentieth-first century. This work conceptualizes the transmission and transformation of Mulan's story as a palimpsest, thereby highlighting the enduring interplay of continuity and erasure in the construction of her tale in China and the United States. The thesis investigates what the development of her tale reveals to us not only about womanhood, heroism, filial piety, and loyalty in premodern China but also about the construction of female agency, ethnic identity, and cultural origin in contemporary Asian America. Contextualizing Mulan alongside other heroines in premodern China my discussion considers the woman warrior as a paradigm of women warriors at large, thereby addressing Mulan as a culturally and historically rooted image coming out of a fascinating typology rather than as a singular character. Through the phenomenal example of Mulan this dissertation explores representations of female identity in the complex and frequent negotiation between womanhood and warrior value in premodern Chinese society, thus contributing to the current discussion on transnational feminism. By way of scrutinizing the multiplicity and complexity characterizing the "origin" of this particular figure, my research complicates the debate on cultural authenticity in the context of Asian America and the Asian diaspora. By looking at Mulan as a character claimed by various regions in China as their local heroine, the discussion deconstructs the monolithic "China" in Chinese America, and by extension, that of the "Asia" in Asian America. Through examining Mulan as a cross-cultural palimpsest, I hope to broaden our understanding of the interrelations between cultural heritage, gender politics, and ethnicity as exemplified by the global journey of her story and to inspire further scholarly engagement with her warrior sisters in Chinese as well as other cultures.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|Asian literature|American literature|Womens studies|Motion pictures

Recommended Citation

Dong, Lan, "Cross -cultural palimpsest of Mulan: Iconography of the woman warrior from premodern China to Asian America" (2006). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3242314.