What are the religious implications in the movie Mulan, and how is it applicable to Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, or Jainism?

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Another educator answered that she feels concerned extrapolating too much out of Disney films, and she is right about that. Profiteering, crowd-pleasing children’s movies are often taken too seriously from a literary point of view, especially nowadays. That being said, Mulan is set in a vastly different culture, and fiction ...

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Another educator answered that she feels concerned extrapolating too much out of Disney films, and she is right about that. Profiteering, crowd-pleasing children’s movies are often taken too seriously from a literary point of view, especially nowadays. That being said, Mulan is set in a vastly different culture, and fiction can be a good jumping-off point for learning about foreign worlds.

Religion in the far east, and China especially, is more of a melting pot than an orthodoxy. In the movie Mulan, Hinduism and Sikhism are not particularly relevant. They are both religions rooted in India, Sikhism being an Eastern monotheism and Hinduism not entering into the events of Mulan. In China, the major religions are Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, with shades of Legalism and Chinese Folk Religion. Some people follow one of these schools of worship very closely, but most Chinese people mix and match, believing in some hybrid of multiple doctrines.

Mulan leans into Chinese Folk Religion with its reference to ancestral ghosts. A lot of themes, such as the lucky cricket and the existence of dragons, are torn straight from the Chinese Folk miasma. Mulan herself exhibits some Confucian and Buddhist traits, striving toward self-betterment and seeking to help her family and her nation as much as possible. The idea of placing the family above the Emperor (since the family is a microcosm of the Empire) is also firmly rooted in Confucian teachings. The stringent, bureaucratic world Mulan is pitting herself against is somewhat more Legalistic.

Dissecting religious influence in Mulan is difficult, because so many different religious ideals mix together. But that in and of itself is very true of modern China.

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Like most Disney animated films, religion is not overtly examined and only invoked in the smallest ways (excepting the 1996 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, of course). Mulan references ancestor worship through scenes of Mulan and her father praying to their departed relatives for guidance and aid. Respect to elders and social betters is an element of Confucianism repeatedly invoked throughout the movie. Mulan both conforms with and rebels against this: she disobeys the social order by posing as a man, but she is doing so out of filial love for her father who is too weak to survive the army.

While Buddhism is not openly referenced (and almost none of the characters appear to be Buddhists), certain Buddhist principles are invoked within the story. Firstly, there is the virtue of compassion, which Buddhism stresses. Despite being a military man, Shang is shown to be compassionate, treating his men with fairness and sparing Mulan's life when her gender is revealed. On a more humorous note, Chien-Po's chanting to calm Yao down during one of the latter's rages is a nod to Buddhist chants, though this is done to set up the two men as foils rather than as a thematic or moral reference.

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At the beginning of the movie, Mulan and her father visit a shrine dedicated to their deceased ancestors. These ancestors appear as ghosts, with the conditions of their afterlives decided by the karma that they collected in their previous lives. As such, some are old and ornery, while others are friendly. Overall, however, these ancestors seem hesitant to bless Mulan on her pendant quest to join the military in the place of her father. As such, respect for the dead would qualify as a belief or practice that is applicable to all of these religions, as it would be impolite to ignore the karmic conditions that her ancestors wrought. Respect for family is another aspect of these religions that is applicable to this movie, as Mulan's whole quest was a result of her feelings of duty toward her family members.

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On a personal level, I always feel a bit concerned with trying to extrapolate too much out of Disney films.  The reality is that the profit making motives preclude much in way of overall meaning and, particularly, religious exploration and implications.  That being said, I think if we stretched Mulan, we might be able to find some faint religious notions present.  As with most Western depictions of "the East" or "the Orient," the most natural fit is the Buddhist interpretations.  Usually, this becomes the most easy fit because Western depictions of "the East" capitulate to the idea of "finding one's path" and pursuing a direction that normative society might not necessarily embrace.  It is here where Mulan's quest to represent what she considers to be part of her identity becomes vitally important.  Like the Buddhist who must follow their own true calling to find the peace for which they search, Mulan must break off from social conventions that define "womanhood" and embrace what she feels is her own destiny.  The notion of not conforming to social expectations is something that is found in Buddhism and also found in the Disney film.

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