Movie Review



Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts, Karen + Cathy. 


Today we have a very special episode as we are going to discuss the recent Marvel Superhero movie, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings! 


For this podcast episode, we will go in depth to discuss the Chinese and Chinese American culture and history we saw in the film and give some color on it. We won’t spend too much time on Marvel related easter eggs because I’m sure there’s plenty of content online that will do a much better job. 


We will do a movie recap and along the way, explain the Chinese history and cultural nuances portrayed in the film. We’ll talk about the actors and actresses, historical setting, costumes, anachronisms etc. A lot of what we say is based on our interpretation of Chinese history and culture so feel free to reach out and discuss with us if you have additional thoughts at Chasingdramas on instagram or twitter or email us at Also check out our website if you’re new to the podcast and want to get a feel for what we normally discuss. This podcast will be in English with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. Since there’s quite a bit to cover, we will do the first 45 min or so of the film in this episode and then wrap up with at least one more episode!


The film first premiered in September of 2021 and is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A little deviation from our normal course of the podcast but we have some time over the holidays to put together this episode so here we are! Now I am a huge Marvel fan as well, having seen pretty much all their available movies and shows but I’m not going to lie, when I saw the trailer for Shang Chi, I was a little hesitant. So many western movies about Chinese history left me rather disappointed – case and point – Disney’s Mulan which we skewered in 2 podcast episodes so feel free to listen to those on our thoughts. But, the theater going experience for Shang Chi left me almost in tears for how well they portrayed Chinese culture and history through this Marvel lens. It was a highly entertaining film and overall I was extremely impressed with how they portrayed Chinese history and culture.


That is to say, there will be MASSIVE SPOILERS ahead so if you don’t want the film spoiled, please turn back!




Let’s start off with the cast! It has a blend of newcomers and prominent actors from China and Hong Kong. It was certainly a pleasure to watch them make the jump over to Marvel!


Our main character Shaun or Shang Qi – is portrayed by SiMu Liu or 刘思慕. He was born in Harbin China and immigrated to Canada. He had roles in TV shows such as Kim’s Convenience but this movie is his breakout role.


The legendary Tony Leung is Wen Wu, the father of Shang Qi and the main antagonist of the film. I was very impressed to see Tony Leung’s name attached to this project. I cannot stress enough how big of a name Tony Leung is to the Asian Entertainment industry. He is and has been the A-list celebrity spanning over decades. Think Tom Hanks or Brad Pitt in the US. Everyone knows who he is. He is THAT popular. He started acting in the 1980s and his career has continued to skyrocket throughout the decades. I grew up watching many of his films and I highly recommend those of you who are unfamiliar with his work to take a look at his filmography. He has worked with many of the most famous directors hailing from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan including Wang-Kar Wai, Zhang Yi Mo, and Ang Lee. I recommend watching In the Mood for Love, Infernal Affairs, Hero, Red Cliff and The Grandmaster. Infernal Affairs is the movie that the Departed is based off of starring Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon. If I must say – the original or Infernal Affairs is better. If you enjoyed the Departed, please watch Infernal Affairs. What I do like about Tony Leung is that he is rather picky with his projects and doesn’t have too many duds. Just pick something from his filmography and you’ll more likely than not enjoy it. He’s the standout actor for me in this movie.


We have Awkwafina as Katy, Shang Qi’s best friend – she’s an American comedian, rapper, writer, and actress. She stars in the comedy series Awkwafina is Nora from Queens and has been in several high profile movies such as Ocean’s 8, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Farewell. She won a golden globe for her role as Billi in that movie.


Zhang Meng Er plays Xu Xia Ling – this is Zhang’s first film role. She’s from nanjing china but studied in the UK and Russia. I think she does a decent job here in the movie.


Next we have Fala Chen or Chen Fala who portrays Ying Li 映丽, the wife of Wen Wu and mother to Shang Qi and Xu Xia Ling. I was surprised to find out that Fala actually hails from Chengdu china because i’ve mainly seen her in TVB dramas over the years, which is the predominant network in Hong Kong. Her cantonese is very good although she speaks mandarin in this movie. She’s been in dramas such as Triumph in the Skies II, Steps, and Heart of Greed. 


Moving on, we also have the formidable Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan 映南 – the sister to Ying Li and aunt to Shang Qi and Xia Ling. She is a Malaysian actress who rose to fame in Hong Kong action films in the 1990s but has had her fair share of international blockbusters including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the bond film Tomorrow Never Dies, and more recently Crazy Rich Asians. She also was on the TV show Star Trek: Discovery. Michelle Yeoh has also been a staple household name in the chinese, hong kong, and taiwan entertainment industry for the past 4 decades. Over her career, she has done many action films and does many of her own stunts. I highly recommend watching Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to see her in all of her glory.


We have some fun appearances from Ben Kingsley as Trevor Slattery, as a continuation of his fallout and portrayal of the Mandarin all the way back in Iron Man 3. There’s benedict Wong as Wong from the Doctor Strange movies. There’s also some other asian cast highlights that we’ll spotlight throughout our discussion.


Overall – I am happy and very pleased that Marvel was able to assemble the cast that they did because it actually felt inclusive. Sure, they got some of the biggest names from East Asia but I am happy to see Tony Leung on my screen any day.


Now that we geeked out about the cast. Let’s get to the movie itself!



Ok! Starting off with the introduction, the film opens to a monologue of the history of the Ten Rings in Mandarin! I cannot express how surprised I was to hear that the mandarin being spoken was actually proper Chinese mandarin and how ubiquitous it was throughout the movie.. Oftentimes, people speak mandarin in films but with a cantonese accent or just don’t know how to speak mandarin which is always a cringe for someone who speaks mandarin to hear. A lot of times I’m like, are they speaking Mandarin? Lol so for the movie to start out like it did, I was quite touched. I read a headline saying that this was a risk Kevin Feige, executive producer of these Marvel films, had to take and I’m very glad he kept this in. It paid off at least to me. Fala Chen narrates the mandarin and as I said – I was surprised to find out that she’s a native speaker.


We are immediately shown a flag of the 10 rings and then the backstory of the organization. We will again reiterate that there’s plenty of Marvel lore in this organization but we are going to analyze this from a Chinese history perspective. There are some present day political challenges underneath some of these representations which we are also not going to talk about. 


In any case, let’s begin. 


On the flag are the words:

权, 力, 壮, 伟, 杰, 势, 宏, 雄, 强, 威


All of the above words pretty much mean the same thing – power and strength. Wow, There are plenty of words in Chinese that mean the same thing.


The style the words were written in is traditional Chinese not the simplified Chinese we see today. The specific calligraphy style is I would say a mix of Zhuan Shu and Li Shu 篆书 and 隶书 which are older styles of Chinese calligraphy writing dating back over 2000 years vs what’s been more popular in the last millennia which would be the 楷书. But from looking at the written language, someone from Marvel may need to explain why the characters look the way they do because it certainly looks like a westerner tried to write these chinese characters. Chinese historians would not write the words in this way. The wiki page has better versions and you’ll see the characters are much more structured. 


Now in between the words are hu tou gou or tiger headed hooks. This is an anachronism as baidu tells us it was first developed in the Ming dynasty which ruled china from the 14th century to the mid 17th century by a guy named 武殿章 and not time immemorial as the legend of the ten rings would have us believe.



We are introduced to the main leader, the man who obtained the 10 rings. Xu Wen Wu aka Tony Leung. 文武 is an interesting name because it literally means scholar and fighting. We talk about this constantly in our current drama The Story of Ming Lan that at court, people are generally either Wen, the scholar, or Wu the fighter. Someone is highly skilled to be both. This may have just been a Marvel choice when creating this character back in the day because it’s not a particularly artsy Chinese name and it is a little ironic because for most of the film, we see more of the Wu, not the Wen. This is a new character created for the movie to remove many of the racist undertones of the original Mandarin and Fu Manchu.


After lots of pillaging and killing, Wen Wu and his organization of the legend of the ten rings, in the 20th century sets out to find another powerful treasure, namely Ta Lo and ends up in a mystical bamboo forest. There, he meets Li, played by Chen Fa La. The pair square off against each other and he is actually subdued with her superior martial arts skills.


A couple of things – though we do not know exactly the type of martial arts she practices, it certainly has many elements of taichi, especially with some of the moves employing a 借力打力 tactic which simply means leverage another’s strength to fight as your own strength. Western audiences also are probably not familiar or perhaps find it odd for the characters to be flying around while fighting and also to be able to use their hands to deploy forcefield like fights. This comes straight from the Wu Xia genre where heroes are often flying around in such fights. It’s very commonplace in Chinese movies and dramas with the actors and actresses using wires to help them fly. Pretty much every historical chinese drama that has any ounce of fighting will use wires to allow people to fly. As for the forcefields, that’s the Zhen Qi or Qi gong that people have practiced. It’s not real but certainly a part of CHinese wuxia or martial arts lore. So many books talk about Zhen Qi as an important skill to learn. The most powerful fighters have strong Qi. 


I haven’t talked about the costumes yet but I think they’re a great artistic choice. WenWu in particular is wearing a modernized version of clothing  in the han style. It’s the style that’s been passed down for thousands of years and changed after the Manchus overthrew the Ming Dynasty and established the Qing dynasty which ruled china from the 1644 all the way to 1912. The key difference is the collar. Historical Han chinese clothing were more like wraps whereas Manchu had the mandarin collars. 



In present day, we now see grown up Shang Chi or as he’s currently known as Shaun played by Simu Liu in SF. There’s lots of Chinese immigrants in SF so it makes a lot of sense he would end up there but if it was set in NY I’d also say the same thing. Anyways, he and his friend Katy aka Akwafina are now valets at a hotel. The film spends the next few scenes showing us how close they are. One of my favorite scenes is when they end the night going to karaoke and are singing A Whole New World from Aladdin which is LITERALLY me and my friends when we go Karaoke so I died laughing. I felt personally seen. Haha.


He visits Katy’s family who lives in Chinatown and this whole interaction just reminds me of my family as a Chinese immigrant family so it again hits close to him. What do I mean? When he rings the doorbell, there’s a pointed shot of him taking his shoes off outside before going into the apartment which is extremely traditionally Chinese. I would get yelled at if I wore shoes inside my house. You always put your outside shoes away and inside you wear slippers. 


When Shaun takes a seat at the table where Katy’s grandmother and brother are already sitting, Katy’s grandmother tells him to move because that’s grandpa’s seat. This is something that can be easily missed as just her being senile but in Chinese culture, where one sits at the dining table is quite important. When you go to meals, the most important people in the party sit at the head of the table which is considered Shang Zuo. At home, family members also do have designated spots for each meal. I’m not allowed to sit where grandma and grandpa (who are both alive) sit. 


Shoutout to the actress for Katy’s grandmother. She is 周采芹 – a chinese actress, sing, and director who has also had an illustrious career. She is perhaps most well known as Auntie Lindo from the Joy Luck Club, but she’s been seen over the years on Grey’s Anatomy and Memoirs of a Geisha.


Katy’s mom is laddling Zhou or congee for Shaun which is another staple Chinese breakfast for chinese people. It’s like porridge and has many different styles. When Katy’s mom says that “moving on” is an American idea and Katy comes in to say “you’re american Mom” I again almost died. I literally just told my mom that the other day when we were having a conversation. Hahahaha. And of course, pushing Katy to get a better job is another staple of immigrant family expectations. Always wanting their children to have a job that’s “worthy” and will “make money” and often ignoring what makes them happy. The practical parents, you know?


And of course, when Grandma asks when SHaun and Katy are going to get married, personal flashbacks to all my relatives, blood related or not wondering when I’ll get married. Grandchildren are the number one priority after all!



Before we move on, let’s talk about 清明节。 The grandma tells SHaun that it’s almost 清明节 and she’s preparing all of her deceased husband’s favorite things to give to him on this holiday. We’ve talked about 清明节 extensively in our regular podcast series but for those that are unfamiliar, this is what it is. 清明节 is known as the tomb-sweeping day and is a traditional festival in which the family members sweep the tombs of their ancestors, make offerings, and pray to the ancestors. It is also a day for people to be closer to nature and go on hikes or 踏青. This festival has been observed for over 2500 years with some variations of course. Royalty and common people would all spend this time to honor their ancestors. This festival occurs during the spring – around April 5th but it can change based on the lunisolar calendar. 


As the pair head off to work on a bus, the first major fight scene happens where thugs are trying to take Shaun’s necklace. Shaun is a certified badass and fights off the attackers and you can tell the fighting style is different than say Black Widow’s fighting style. From what I’ve read, it takes elements of Yong Chun which is the fighting style the Bruce Lee trained in. I thoroughly appreciate the Simu Liu looks like he knows what he’s doing and is not faking the fight.


After their harrowing escape where Shaun found out that his necklace has been taken, he and Katy return back to his apartment where he explains that the men were probably sent by his father. They need to head to Macau to try to find his sister and protect her. Before we move on, I love that there’s a Kung Fu Hustle poster over his bed. Kung Fu Hustle is one of THE classic HK movies starring Stephen Chow that came out in 2004.. 


We get a montage of young Shang Chi training under his father after his mom died. The setting is rather traditionally Chinese and the training style as well. We see groups of people training with various weapons including barehand, staffs, rope darts etc. A pair of men are practicing their horse stance while holding heavy logs. This is another rather traditional basic martial arts technique. Pretty much the foundation of kung fu starts from a good horse stance, aka Ma Bu. I feel like the live streaming dude who is like “i took martial arts when I was younger so I ‘ll try to explain what’s going on.” Yes, I did take martial arts when I was younger so I’ll try to explain what’s going on. 


The wooden pole where Shang Chi trains reminds me of the scene from the new karate kid film with Jackie Chan. It’s more or less the same principle. Practice the same steps over and over again so that it becomes second nature. It’s also a staple wooden dummy for Wing Chun – a form of martial arts popularized by bruce lee and his teacher Ip Man. Please go over to watch Ip Man with Donnie Yen or The Grandmaster with Tony Leung on more of this style of 武术



And then Shaun explains to Katy who clearly doesn’t speak mandarin that well how to say his Chinese name, Shang Qi. 尚气 which was also hilarious. Teaching the audience how to speak mandarin for once! How nice! 


The pair travel to Macau! For those of you who havent been, Macau is like the Vegas of the East. Lots of casinos are located there. I don’t know how many of you know but Macau was actually a Portuguese colony up until the late 1990s! You can get really yummy portuguese egg tarts there and there’s lots of architecture built under portuguese rule that still exists. But the brightest displays there are now, as I mentioned, the casinos. 


When the two reach a building that’s heavily under construction and head up the elevator, they are greeted by a guy named Jon Jon who tries to speak to Katy in Chinese but when she says her Chinese sucks, he says he speaks ABC. That means American Born Chinese. A little note for people who don’t get it. 


Shaun gets dragged onto the main fight stage after we see Wong from the Dr Strange properties in the Marvel universe fight the Abomination which helps remind us that we are firmly in the Marvel universe still. After their fight, Shaun is forced on stage to fight without his shirt and lets just say dang Si Mu Liu. Look at that form. Before he really registers what’s going on, his opponent appears and it’s none other than his younger sister, Xu Xia Ling who is also a certified badass and fights just as well if not better than her brother. Well we don’t know for sure because he’s holding back a bit and she totally just whoops his butt. 夏灵’s name translates to Summer Spirit [ ].



The fight ends with Xia Ling defeating her brother winning Katy quite a nice sum of money it seems like. Soon after they head to her office where it is revealed that this entire fight club operation is hers. Quite impressive I would say. Shang Chi tells his sister that their father is after them and he’s here because of a postcard she sent. When she looks puzzled and says she didn’t send the postcard, we find out it was a trap. Fighters appear at the behest of their father in order to take Xia Ling’s necklace as well. 


Another impressive fight sequence ensues, this time outside on the construction of the building. While already a great fight scene, this to me is elevated by the fact that the exterior scaffolding is all made-up of bamboo. In contrast to American construction where scaffolding is created using metal or steel rods, Chinese scaffolding is largely held together by bamboo. It was something I noticed as starkly different in my first visits to China as a child because it was so different to what I’m used to. To use this bamboo scaffolding as a set piece is another important display of the mix of the west with the skyscraper towers and the east with the bamboo. You’ll see quite a few fights featuring bamboo scaffolding, I belie 


The last thing I want to talk about in this episode before we wrap up is the character the Death Dealer or in Chinese, 李清麟。 He is the ruthless fighter that also trained Shang Chi as a child. His mask is one that is inspired by masks worn in Chinese opera. There isn’t a singular source for when these masks first originated but it is generally accepted to have over a millenia of history. The art itself is called 脸谱 and in certain instances are painted on the Chinese opera singer’s face itself and in other instances are painted no masks that the singers wear. They are to automatically give the viewer a sense of who the portrayed person’s personality is, particularly based on the color of the paint or mask. For example, the color white is often associated with someone who is manipulative, suspicious and untrustworthy. It has a more derogatory meaning for someone to have a white base on their mask. And guess what, the Death Dealer has a white mask. A white mask generally signifies someone who is loyal and just. A black mask represents someone who is unwavering, stern but powerful. 


We will leave the episode there. In the next podcast episode we will see more of Tony Leung as Wen Wu and learn about his plans. Like I said earlier, if you have any comments or questions on what we discussed, please let us know and we’d be happy to chat. 


Intro to the Movie



Welcome to Chasing Dramas. This is the podcast that discusses Chinese History and Culture, through historical Chinese dramas and films. We are your hosts, Karen and Cathy. 


Today, as part of a special Chinese New Year episode, we are going to be discussing the 2016 film. Xuan Zang. X-U-A-N Z-A-N-G. If that’s a little difficult to pronounce, you can think of the x sound as an sh sound. The film stars Huang Xiao Ming and follows the extensive trials and tribulations of the famous Chinese monk, Xuan Zang during the early Tang dynasty in his quest to reach India to study Buddhist texts and bring them back to China. A journey that took him 19 year but his unwavering tenacity for his journey led him to complete his task.


This podcast episode is in English with proper nouns and certain phrases spoken in Mandarin Chinese. In this podcast episode, we will first provide a brief background of the titular character, then introduce the main actor for Xuan Zang, Huang Xiao Ming and finally tell the story of Xuan Zang in the context of the film while providing historical Chinese context. There is also quite a bit of indian culture and history portrayed but as we are not experts there, we’ll only lightly cover those portions of the film.


If this is your first time listening to our podcast, welcome and I recommend checking out our website for more information. Our main goal is to provide more Chinese cultural and historical context to English speaking fans of Chinese historical films and dramas so hopefully, by the end of this episode, you’ll have learned something about Xuan Zang. The film is easily accessible with English subtitles on JubaoTV, spelled J-U-B-A-O TV which you can reach online or on tv from xfinity or cox contour.  If you have any questions or feedback on what we discuss in this episode, please feel free to reach out to us at or else message us on instagram or twitter.



Let’s get started! Who is Xuan Zang? Xuan Zang is one of the most famous individuals in Chinese culture and history not only because of his contribution to buddhism in China, but because he and his journey inspired the the famous novel, The Journey to the West or 西游记. It’s hard to talk about Xuan Zang and not talk about 西游记 or journey to the west。 The novel, written in the 16th century Ming Dynasty by 吴承恩, though that is disputed, is one of the four great classical novels in Chinese literature, the other three being Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Water Margin, and Dream of the Red Mansion. As with the other novels, Xi You Ji has endured for centuries and is still very much a part of the Chinese cultural identity. Though not every Chinese person has read the original text, they would have consumed some type of variation of the story – whether in a comic or a book or a tv show, an opera, or a retelling. The story of The Journey to the West is embedded into the fabric of Chinese culture and history. One of the most iconic television dramas in China is the 1986 version of the Journey to the West. Even though special effects were rudimentary at the time, the acting was superb and the costume and set design just as good. To this day, it is still considered the best iteration of the Journey to the West on screen. The actor for Sun Wu Kong, 六小龄童, did an absolutely stellar job bringing the monkey king to life that it is still the standard for what people think of when imagining the Monkey King. 


On a personal note,, Cathy and I grew up listening to mandarin chinese children’s audiobook versions of this story and also rewatched the 1986 version on DVD growing up. I would like to think that a huge part of our Chinese language and history knowledge started early on through the likes of the Journey of the West. That’s just to give an idea of the cultural impact this story has. 



Many of the Journey to the West’s story elements were taken from Xuan Zang’s own account of his travels west and then to India. In the novel, Xuan Zang, or else now as Tang San Zang, also heads west to seek sacred texts to bring back to the Tang dynasty. Along with him on his journey are his disciples, 孙悟空,a powerful monkey born of stone that possesses insane supernatural abilities, 猪八戒, a former general in the heavens but is now a part human part pig creature as punishment for his lust, and 沙僧,another former general in the heavens punished on earth and lived by a river. These three, along with a white horse, were tasked with protecting Xuan Zang on his harrowing journey. In the novel, the group must battle many demons and spirits as well as turmoil within the group before returning back to China. As you can tell, there are many mythical elements to this novel which tied together folk religion, mythology, daism, buddhism among others. 


Why did we just spend so much time talking about the Journey to the West? It’s because most people know of the Journey to the West but perhaps not that much about Xuan Zang himself and his real journey. That was indeed true for me so I appreciate that this film was made to reveal the man behind the myth if you will. For those who grew up knowing at least a little about the Journey to the West will see many references to the inspirations of events or places in the novel portrayed in Xuan Zang’s journey in this film and that is pretty much how we took to watching this film. It’s a familiar yet different story and it’s almost as if we were looking for easter eggs in this film that ties to the Journey to the West, even though this man’s journey came first.



With that context, let’s talk about the main actor.


The film largely features Huang Xiao Ming as the titular character, 玄奘。


Let’s chat about 黄晓明 for a bit. We have followed his career pretty much since the beginning now more than 20 years ago. He played Prince 刘彻 in the series 大汉天子 which came out in 2001. Liu Chethe subsequent Emperor Wu of Han, one of the most well known Emperors in Chinese history and one we’ve talked about within our podcast series. I cannot describe how obsessed we were with that drama, rewatching it multiple times and also listening to the soundtrack on repeat. At that time, recording it on tv onto cassette tape so we could listen to it in the car. This was another one of those dramas that really sparked our interest in Chinese history and ultimately our podcast today. 


So from the very beginning, we’ve always had a soft spot for him and watched more of his earlier dramas. Huang Xiao Ming was born in Qingdao in 1984 and attended the Beijing Film Academy where he studied with other famous classmates such as Vicky Zhao. He has had a successful career and is one of THE A-list stars in China right now, winning numerous acting awards for various roles including this one at the 13th ChangChun film festival in China.  We also cannot talk about Huang Xiao Ming without talking about his now ex-wife, Angelababy. This is SUPER hot off the press. As of January 28, 2022, Huang XiaoMing and Angelababy, yes that’s her English name, announced their divorce after 7 years of marriage. They have a son together which I’m assuming they’ll share custody of. It’s a little funny what the public reaction has been. Rumors were swirling for forever that they were getting divorced but now that it’s come to fruition, top trending weibo or the equivalent of Chinese twitter, were like “this is the most unsurprising divorce”. Angelababy is quite well known for her looks on the red carpet and her involvement in the extremely popular Chinese reality show, Running Man and its subsequent iterations, though from an acting perspective, Huang Xiao Ming is the powerhouse of the now de-coupled pair.




Because I’ve largely seen Huang Xiao Ming in roles as a Prince or Emperor or Martial Arts Master, what have you, it was a little jarring to see him play this monk. His countenance and stature to me took me a little out of the story because I’m so used to thinking of him as this powerful individual. And in general, he likes to give himself the aura of the powerful business man. There’s a saying in China of the 霸道总裁 which people normally attribute to him. He’s also been tagged the term 油腻 which means oil but I don’t think people give him enough acting credit. Through the film you can see his dedication to this role and his desire to do it justice. Many idols and younger actors today would not want to play this role because just from the set itself, you could tell it was a tough and dry environment. The role of Xuan Zang is not a handsome one and not many people would have wanted to film such a tough role. 


The rest of the cast features pretty well known actors from China, Hong Kong and even India! They’re mainly cameos though.


The film itself began production in 2015 and was released in China on April 29 2016. The film was produced by the China Film Corporation and Eros International. The film is absolutely gorgeous to look at and was filmed on location in Turpan, Changji, Altay、Aksu、Kashgar which are all in the Xinjiang province of China, the 甘肃 province of China、and India. The second half of the movie prominently features India. As we are not experts of Indian culture, we will refrain much from commenting on this.



With that background, we’ll start off with a film recap and then point out interesting things along the way. The movie has many parallels to Journey of the West so we’ll also point those out where we see them.


The film opens with a student at the Mumbai University in 2016 requesting a book written by Alexander Cunningham from the librarian.


The book the student picks out is the Ancient Geography of India written by Alexander Cunningham with the first half published in 1871. We get a voice over of Alexander Cunningham describing his discoveries of the Mahabodhi temple, the Nalanda. He had come across an ancient text – Journey to the West by the monk Xuan Zang.


A small nitpick here – it wouldn’t be the Journey to the West because as we said, that was written centuries later. Xuan Zang DID leave an autobiographical recitation of his travels called the Great Tang Records on the Western Regions (大唐西域記). Fellow monks wrote down his words to write this book. So that might be what the movie is referencing.


From the discovery of the ancient text, we then move towards Xuan Zang’s story.  Xuan Zang was born at the end of the Sui Dynasty in 602AD in HeNan province. His family name was Chen. In the film, Xuan Zang recounts that his mother told him he was placed in a bucket and floated down a river during a flood when he was a baby and was rescued by a monk. Others say his brother took him to the monastery to study. Regardless, he feels he was destined to become a monk. To note, the story of being placed on a baske t and floated down the river to a monastery and then becoming a monk is the one that is recounted in the Journey to the West. 



We see adult Xuan Zang telling us his story of his journey when he set off from Chang An, the Capital of the Tang Dynasty. 


Xuan Zang is a devout monk and wishes to head west to India, the source of the original buddhist texts, to study, learn, and bring texts back to China. The year is 627ad and in the early years of the reign of 唐太宗 李世民. He is one of the most famous Chinese emperors in Chinese history. We will touch up on his reign when we talk about The Long Ballad. For now, some major talking points is that he was involved in a coup where he overthrew his brothers to claim the throne. Despite this bloody beginning, he brought the Empire to one of China’s greatest heights under Zhen Guan era. With that background, the Emperor has issued a special decree that allowed people to leave the city to find better fortunes / food due to the recent famines.  There is a throwaway line where the decree says that people of any class can leave. For those who listen to our Story of Ming Lan podcast episodes, you’ll recognize that this is talking about the class you’re born to as part of your personal registration deed.


We see Xuang Zang among the crowd heading out of the city as well. He is in simple monk attire and also carrying a rather heavy looking backpack of sorts. This is called a 负笈 is actually a real life adaptation from a painting that showed Xuan Zang’s getup during his travels called 玄奘负笈图 , complete with the dangling oil lamp at top. This pack is normally made of bamboo and can fit quite a bit plus it helps protect you from the rain. This pack is historically used by scholars or students for traveling, particularly when heading into the capital for the imperial entrance exams. One of the more famous depictions of this look is in the Chinese film, 倩女幽魂 or A Chinese Ghost Story. where the main male lead is a young scholar carrying this type of pack and meets a young ghost. 





Now there is some dispute on which year he actually left – 627 or 629 but we’ll just go ahead with the movie version here. To me, the film is broken out into a few parts. The first revolves around the human made obstacles for his journey but then also the kind people who help him succeed. His master is the first to tell him that perhaps he shouldn’t leave but he ignores this and pushes forward. When he does leave Chang An, the capital of the Tang Dynasty, and present day Xi’an, home of the Terracotta Warriors, he finds his way to 凉州. This is an ancient province in the northwest of china. It is roughly in modern day Gan Su province. The province itself was important as it helped connect the silk road from the Chinese empires to central china. 


There, he meets his next obstacle. The governor (played by 徐峥 a very respected director nowadays) questions 玄奘 about his intentions and whether he obtain permission from the Emperor for his journey. 


Unfortunately, 玄奘 did not receive any permission. The governor cannot grant him permission to head west and instead orders all officials along the western border to arrest him on sight. Xuan Zang stays in the city at a local monastery to teach for many months. By then the governor has all but forgotten about him, and with the help of another venerable monk, assists Xuan Zang in leaving the city to continue on his pilgrimage. 


He is now in 瓜州, which is on the route towards the 玉门关 or the Jade pass. The Jade Pass or Yu Men Guan is one of the most famous passes in Chinese history which we’ll talk about in a bit. A local official, 李昌, played by 罗晋, sees him and brings him in for questioning. He recognizes him as the monk on the wanted posters. Once again, the official tries to persuade 玄奘 into returning east but upon seeing xuan zang’s devotion and some pretty bad CGI cherry blossom flows or is it lotus flowers? I don’t know – the cgi is quite bad, the official agrees to let 玄奘 continue on his journey.  This is a turning point in seeing the aid of strangers and their softheartedness. I would like to think that without the help of some of these individuals, Xuan Zang would not have succeeded.  



Something to note is that the official took to helping Xuan Zang partly because he saw what he was eating. Monks normally carry a bowl I believe called an alms bowl, one of the six items a buddhist monk is allowed to carry. It is the tool he uses to request food from strangers on his journey. As we see in the movie, 玄奘 holds this bowl out to a shop owner and is immediately given food. It’s a universal sign as to who this person is and most people are generally very generous in giving to monks. Of course, this would be vegetarian food. I really liked this touch that they added in the film.


Leaving the safety of Chinese cities, we follow Xuan Zang out west, we get to see some of the most stunning landscapes in China that oftentimes are not portrayed in other historical dramas focused on the grandeur of palaces and prominent households. Out west are plateaus and forests that are difficult to pass but breathtakingly beautiful. The film does make me feel like I’m going on a tour of hard to travel places in China and beyond. 


In order to continue his journey, Xuan Zang finds merchant caravans on his journey and joins them as they head along the silk road out west. As he explains in the film, this is customary for traveling monks.



Shortly after, he makes it to 玉门关 or the Jade Pass was one the road that connected central asia with China on the silk road. It was made famous during the Han dynasty and erected around 110s BCE during the reign of Emperor Wu of Han and an absolutely essential part of Chinese trade with the west. This is a name that continually pops up as the division between the east and the west. The Emperor bestowed the name Jade pass because of all the jade that was traded through the area. There’s not much left of it now, just a lonely gate. 


There’s one poem that I really like from the Tang Dynasty describing the Jade Pass. I briefly studied this poem when I was younger. This isn’t mentioned in the movie at all but, for my selfish reasons, I want to share the poem. It’s written by 王之涣 – who lived from 688-742. 







My translation goes like this – the water from the yellow river meets the white clouds. The lonely jade pass stands resolute on the mountain. Why should we use the Qiang flute to lament the delay of spring? It’s because spring does not come to the Jade Pass



From there, Xuan Zang crosses 沙洲 or modern day 敦煌 – a major hub along the silk road during the Sui and Tang dynasties. A number of buddhist caves can be found in 敦煌 with art and murals that can be found on the walls. 


And along the way, Xuan Zang and a female companion pass 月牙泉 or the Crescent Lake which is found near 敦煌. Xuan Zang doesn’t enter but there are two monks who watch him pass. The crescent lake was a tourist destination dating back to the Han dynasty over 2000 years ago and paintings depicting the lake can be found dating back to the Tang dynasty between 7th and 10th century AD. I don’t know when the temple portrayed in the film was built but apparently you can travel there now as a tourist! 


Along the journey, Xuan Zang gains a disciple Vandak or 石磐陀 who assists his master in crossing the Hulu River. This disciple reminds us of the 3 disciples of Xuan Zang from the Journey to the West. This guy, Vanda k, or his Chinese Name Shi – means stone. I’m immediately making the connection to Xuan Zang’s first and most powerful disciple, the Monkey King who is a monkey turned from stone. In this movie, we see that this disciple fled home to follow Xuan Zang but ultimately could not keep his vows to the Buddhist faith and ultimately leaves. While this does not happen in the Journey to the West, the Monkey King does leave his teacher several times throughout the novel out of anger or disputes but for the story’s sake, returns to protect his teacher. After doing some research, 石磐陀 or Vandak was an actual historical person and did join Xuan Zang on his quest to the west. 


On Vandak’s departure, he advises Xuan Zang to find an old horse who knows the path well to help him on his journey.  And this horse readily appears after Xuan Zang randomly runs into the young woman he met earlier at the Crescent Lake. It was quite nice of her to just give him the horse which was ultimately his saving grace. 



After a long trek with his new old horse, Xuan Zang travels to the 1st of 5 watchtowers and is promptly spotted by the guards and brought to the captain. This watchtower looks to be 白虎关 and the location looks similar to photos I’ve seen. These watchtowers are a major obstacle for him and there is another parallel to the Journey to the West. In that novel, the 5 watchtowers are changed to the 5 mountain peaks or 五行山 which represent the hand of the RuLai Buddha. The Monkey King 孙悟空 wreaked havoc and tried to escape the heavens but the used his hands to create five mountain peaks that the Monkey King could not escape. The monkey king was imprisoned under the mountain until he was rescued by his teacher, Xuan Zang. Sound familiar?


Back to the watchtower. The captain offers Xuan Zang some food as they discuss Xuan Zang’s journey. A little bug in the scene! We see corn and potatoes being served. Those are new world foods – as in they were only brought to east asia after the discovery of the Americas which of course happened in 1492. China would not have had them in the middle of the 7th century. 


The captain and Xuan Zang have a rather deep conversation about dreams for the future. Fortunately, that’s Xuan Zang’s specialty and is able to help the Captain think more positively about his current situation being stuck in this desolate land. The captain then gives xuan zang advice on how to avoid the next 4 watchtowers. Xuan Zang must cross the Taklamakan desert and find the wild horse spring.



Now we move onto the second part of the film which is more about individual tenacity.  玄奘 now is trekking through the Taklamakan Desert by himself with just his horse. This portion of the film reflects his dedication to his dream of reaching his destination and the inner strength it takes to stay on course when faced with not just the elements but also inner loneliness. It was a treat to watch  黄晓明“s as he played this dedication but also desperation very well with his sunburnt and tanned skin and extremely chapped lips in the face of the desert heat.


The Taklamakan desert is located in XinJiang province in western China and close to its western border. The shifting sand desert is one of the largest in the world and sprawls 130,000 square miles. It is a barren wasteland that travelers sought to avoid. Therefore, it is indeed impressive for 玄奘 to cross it by him with just a horse.  The journey through the desert is perilous to say the very least.. He loses water, he loses his way and his horse ignores him when he urges the horse to continue forward. Not long after, Xuan Zang begins hallucinating. In his hallucinations, he sees a monk on a white horse galloping in a lush field. Just when all seems lost – I personally thought the horse was going to die first, the horse finds the wild horse spring and saves Xuan Zang. Just like his disciple who abandoned him said, he must find an old horse who knows the route to help him cross. Well, Xuan Zang has this magical horse who carries the delirious Xuan Zang to the Wild Horse Spring. Xuan Zang cannot believe his eyes when wakes and immediately jumps into the water in happiness. My only comment there – don’t jump in the water! You need it! 


It’s more or less smooth sailing for Xuan Zang at this point as he arrives in the kingdom of 伊吾 which is in Northwest China (Xinjiang 哈密) and is shortly summoned by the king of gao chang as a guest of his kingdom. By looking at a map of his journey, he crossed the desert but ended up farther north than I thought he would. 



This brings us to the third part of the film and his trials. He is tempted with wealth, riches and power to keep him from his journey. 




In any case, 高昌 is an ancient city along the silk road and is also in modern day xin jiang. During the 5th to 7th centuries, several han families came to this area and claimed to be king. We see a relatively wealthy kingdom where the King of Gao Chang is a devout follower of Buddhist teachings. This little interlude actually did occur and we know that the real life person is a guy named 麹文 。 Xuan Zang stays for several months to teach the king and other monks with pretty much the entire kingdom listening to his teachings. He is given respect, food, clothing and a great place to rest. The King of Gao Chang requests for Xuan Zang to stay even long, even threatening him to do so. But despite the threats, nothing could stop 玄奘 as he goes on a hunger strike in order to force the King to allow him to leave. While it is in Buddhist teachings that one should not seek wealth and riches, it would have been very easy and comfortable to stay in such a spot where Xuan Zang would have been venerated by all. It does take quite a singular mind to give all of this up to continue on his journey. 


The King finally relents and orders a vast caravan to travel with Xuan Zang on his journey west. Overall, this King was pretty good to Xuan Zang. He even sent letters on Xuan Zang’s behalf to kingdoms on his route in order to give him safe passage all the way to his final destination. I read that they became brothers but sadly, they would never see each other again because the Tang dynasty in 640 AD, conquered Gao Chang, turning it into one of the cities under Tang rule.


高昌 is situated in modern 新疆 – in the turpan region. This is where the Flaming mountains are located or 火焰山. This mountain is prominently featured in Journey to the West as an impassable mountain and only the wind from the magical 芭蕉扇 or banana fan owned by the Princess Iron Fan can temper the flames. I admit – I loved these episodes in the Journey to the West tv series. In the Journey to the West, there are also plenty of kings and queens who tried anything and everything to keep Xuan Zang within their borders which reminds me a lot of the Gao Chang king.



For the next couple of scenes, we see Xuan Zang visiting a myriad of kingdoms on his journey west. We’ll list them out here and briefly talk about each one. 


Xuan Zang stops in the kingdom of 阿耆qi2尼 and records say that he stayed at the temple there. 


Xuan Zang continues his travels west do the kingdom of 龟兹(qiu1ci2) Kucha where he enjoys the company of the king and other venerable monks. He is treated to a great display of music and dancing. Kucha is located in the Xinjiang province of China, on the northern edge of the Taklamakan Desert. In history, this was an ancient buddhist kingdom. There were records of the kingdom dating all the way back to the 2nd Century BCE when Zhang Qian – a Chinese diplomat and official – traveled west to establish the Silk Road. Due to the kingdom’s strategic location on the silk road, the kingdom remained prosperous over the centuries. Buddhism was introduced before the end of the 1st century. Similar to 高昌 – Kucha was conquered by the Tang Dynasty in 648AD during the Emperor’s campaign against the Western Regions. Xuan Zang did travel to this kingdom and he wrote about the Buddhist culture there.


Next, Xuan Zang mentions the kingdom of 跋禄迦 ba2lujia or modern day Aksu – located in the Xinjiang province. It was one of the ancient kingdoms along the silk road 


After crossing the desert, Xuan Zang and his caravan pass 凌山 and the Pamir Mountains which is to the west of Xinjiang and borders modern day Tajikistan.


From 凌山 – the caravan cross the central asian steppes,  modern dan Kyrgyzstan, afghanistan, pakistan and finally arrive in India. Xuan Zang finally arrives at Nalanda after 4 long years of travel. And this begins, in my view, the 4th part of the film – learning. 



Xuan Zang spends 5 years at the temple studying and spends another 5 years traveling throughout India including the Mahabodhi temple, where the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment. I will give props to the film – the characters apparently are speaking Sanskrit, which is quite surprising. Now, I don’t know if it’s era appropriate – I would love some of our listeners to let us know but at least it is sanskrit as is mentioned in the movie.


While learning, he also continues to travel around to further enrich his experiences. During his travels in India, 玄奘 recounts how buddha attained enlightenment amongst the backdrop of the Ellora Caves and the Ajanta Buddhist Caves. One day, 玄奘 encounters a slave and a woman. The woman is the daughter of a villager who owned the slave. The house burned one day. The slave saved the woman but by touching her, he was cursed to wear a mask forever and the woman was cast out. Only a brahmin can lift the curse. After hearing this tale, 玄奘 travels with both of them to find a Brahmin and requests for the Brahmin to lift the curse, which he does. The slave Jayaram must bathe in the ganges for 10 days and then he will be able to remove his mask.  


Xuan Zang begins his travels back to Nalanda with his scriptures and the couple. An elephant also travels with them. While traveling up the river, the sky suddenly turns dark and a storm quickly rolls through. Several of the boats crash including the one with the elephant. In I guess the funniest moment of the film, the elephant falls into the river. Don’t worry, I don’t think anything happened to the elephant because the CGI for the elephant is quite obvious. Jayaram jumps into the water to save Xuan Zang’s scriptures. During the rescue, his mask falls off and he is cursed no more. There’s a tranquil shot of the couple on the boat with the elephant walking up the banks so yes, the elephant was fine. 



Having returned to Nalanda temple, Xuan Zang is ready to head back to China but the Emperor in India has organized a debate to debate theology. Nalanda will send 4 monks to represent and take part in the debate.  


The group traveled to the Kumbha Mela Festival in Kanauj in 642AD. The debate lasted 18 days and was a triumph for everyone involved and the spread in buddhism. Xuan Zang and Nalanda temple won the debate. Xuan Zang finally begins his journey back to the Tang empire. The journey back is very different from the journey to India. The Emperor sends envoys to greet him and protects his caravan the return journey home. The journey home takes him 3 years and he returns in 645AD. That’s a 19 year journey. 


Throughout the film we constantly have the horse motif. In the Journey to the West, Xuan Zang has a trusty steed the White Dragon Horse or 白龙马. The White Dragon Horse was actually a dragon prince who serves as Xuan Zang’s steed for his journey. Unlike Xuan Zang’s other disciples who at times either abandoned their teacher or had a crisis of faith, the White Dragon Horse stayed by Xuan Zang’s side throughout his journey. I think the movie is pointing to this connection with the horse references too.


After he returns, Xuan Zang spends the next decades translating the scriptures and sutras into chinese. The Emperor himself wrote a preface for one of the sutras translated by Xuan Zang. 


The film ends with a biography of Xuan Zang. The movie states that he was born in 600. When he returned, he brought back 150 Śarīras or Buddhist relics and over 657 volumes of religious texts. He spent 19 years translating these texts.


Xuan Zang died in 664 AD.



Overall thoughts. 


I’m glad I saw the film as I was thoroughly impressed with the dedication the lead, Huang Xiao Ming, put into the role and was absolutely stunned with how beautiful the cinematography was. It’s a gorgeous film to look at. It was a visual treat to compare the locations in the film with the photos online. Several of these places are on my bucket list to travel to. In addition, producers of the film apparently did consult with venerable buddhist monks on history and scriptures to accurately depict history. Karen and I are not buddhists so we cannot comment on the veracity of those scenes. I would say I preferred the first half of the film a little more than the second half primarily because some of the scenes in the second half left me with question marks as to how it tied to the overall theme such as the storyline with the slave. Like yes, I understand that Xuan Zang is extremely kind hearted. Anything else?




Yes – also maybe Huang Xiao Ming is too buff for this role? You can see his massive biceps in the movie and i”m not QUITE sure if that’s how a buddhist monk was like back in the day. But hey, maybe he was a hottie. Apparently Huang Xiao Ming is a rather devout buddhist and really wanted to play the role.


I would say for audiences who grew up watching Journey to the West, several parts tread familiar beats, as they are similar to the story. For me, the scenes in India were very interesting to see because those aren’t really mentioned in Chinese folklore. The journey to the west essentially stops once the group reaches India and becomes enlightened.


It was a thoroughly enjoyable watch. I believe that the film stayed pretty true to history – so if you want to spend 2 hours watching the gorgeous landscape and learn about history, this is the movie for you.



Well, that’s it for this episode! 


As always, feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions on what was discussed on our podcast. This film is easily accessible on Jubao TV which is a channel that has a collection of Chinese films and dramas with English subtitles. I personally went to the JUBAO TV website and then moved over to xumo or x-u-m-o which is the streaming platform to watch this film. It’s also available on xfinity and cox contour on TV.


Happy Lunar New Year to everyone! It is the Year of the Tiger.


Catch you all in the next episode!


Intro to the Movie



Welcome to Chasing Dramas! We are your hosts Karen and Cathy. This is the podcast that normally discusses Chinese history through historical Chinese dramas. But today, we are actually going to be discussing a Chinese movie! Today, we are going to be talking about a movie called The Palace, or 宫锁沉香 which is a 2013 film set in the Qing dynasty.  


For this podcast episode, we will provide some background on the movie, an in depth explanation of the cast and characters, do a brief movie recap and then discuss the Chinese history portrayed in this film and point out inaccuracies.


This movie is intriguing 1) because the cast are all either extremely famous or were extremely famous Chinese stars now almost 10 years after its premiere and 2) the part of an insanely popular series that I never got around to watching so I thought, hey, why not check it out. And after watching it, I was like, I have a lot of thoughts so let’s talk about it on our podcast. To watch the movie with English subtitles, one can watch it on Jubao TV spelled J-U-B-A-O TV which is a newly launched FREE streaming service that has Chinese dramas, movies and documentaries available in the US. You can check out their content offerings on but to watch the shows, it’s available on xumo, xfinity or cox contour.  I primarily use Xumo on my computer  and was pleasantly surprised to see Palace on there with English subtitles and a few other dramas of interest.


If you don’t have access to JubaoTV, that is a OK! There are other options available to view this film online, just do a quick google search.


  1. Background on the film
    1. Gong Suo Chen Xiang is a part of the Gong or Palace series of which there are 3 dramas and this is the only film and it first premiered in 2013. The first drama in the series, Gong Suo Xin Yu, was explosively popular in 2011 and launched the careers of Yang Mi and Feng Shao Feng (who stars in the Story of Ming Lan) to the A list where Yang Mi remains today. It also made the screenwriter Yu Zheng a staple in the Chinese entertainment industry. I remember obsessing over 宫锁心玉 when it was premiering. The theme song to that drama is one that is now deemed a classic. 
    2. I feel kind of old talking about it realizing this was 10 years ago BUT Palace, along with Startling with Each Step or 步步惊心, set off a craze of Qing dynasty dramas and also time traveling dramas as the the main character is a woman who traveled back in time from modern day China. This movie, though, does not include that trope of traveling back in time. This film tells the love story of two young palace maids with 2 princes during the reign of Kang Xi during the Qing dynasty couple with a plot against the throne. 


  1. I had no expectation going into this movie as to what I’d see out of it. There’s actually quite a bit of Chinese culture and history portrayed in this film to digest which we’ll talk about later in this podcast episode. The costumes and production quality of this film are actually above expectations and the political component of the film were probably the highlights. Though for me, honestly THE biggest selling point is seeing 赵丽颖 or Zanilia Zhao play the antagonist. For those of you following are normal podcast episodes, you know how popular Zhao Li Ying is. This film came out early in her career so she wasn’t always the main character that had to be good and I feel like she knocked it out of the park in playing an evil backstabbing person versus the nice likeable characters and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Much better than the main female lead at least. Haha. 
  2. For me, the other main draw was the level of nostalgia watching 宫锁沉香 now years after it’s been out since there are SO many well known actors and actresses today in the film. 
  3. I will say the film’s romance plot has… much to be desired and it’s also kind of hilarious to see where this movie uhh copied from it’s more famous predecessors. If you watch the movie, you’ll see a few scenes that will remind you of Empresses in the Palace or 甄嬛传 that we’ve discussed at length on our podcast. Another one is 还珠格格. This is a staple of films written or produced by Yu Zheng though. He copies from eeeeverything and this movie was no exception. If you are looking for a drinking game to play, you should see where there are similarities between this film and other Qing dynasty dramas you’ve watched. I feel like that would have been a ton of fun. 
  4. I will say this is a much darker and more explicit film than I was expecting so that’s something just to be aware of when watching this film. 



  1. Before we go into the plot of this drama and discuss the history, let’s talk about the cast! It’s interesting now viewing this movie almost 10 years after its premier that a large portion of the leads are now A-list stars in the Chinese entertainment industry vs when the film aired, they were just getting started. Some of the cameos are of people that were my idols growing up but have perhaps since faded from the spotlight. The stars though are individuals getting their first start in the business and have reached massive levels of stardom today. Let’s go through the characters. 


The main female leads are as follows:

  1. Zhong Dong Yu as the maid Chen Xiang. 
    1. Born in 1992, her claim to fame is starring in a critically acclaimed movie Under the Hawthorn Tree or 山楂树之恋 in 2010 by the legendary Chinese director Zhang Yi Mou and has been a Chinese entertainment darling for many years, though primarily focused on the movie market rather than the drama market. She is considered one of the 4 main actresses born in the 90s and attended Beijing Film Academy.
    2. Her most recent on screen appearance at least of the time of this podcast, is 千古玦尘 or Ancient Love Poetry that premiered in summer of 2021. It’s a fantasy drama that I will be honest did not watch yet. Reviews and ratings for that drama, though, were probably not as ideal as Zhou Dong Yu would have hoped. But if you have watched it, let me know what you think. 
    3. In the film, she plays 兆佳沉香. She is a 包衣. The name 沉香 means – agarwood used for incense
    4. I feel like Yu Zheng the screenwriter just made up her last name in order to be somewhat related to history as it is documented that the wife of the 13th prince is from the 兆佳 family.
  2. Zhao Li Ying as Liu Li, Chen Xiang’s best friend growing up.
    1. She doesn’t need much introduction as she is the main lead in the drama we are currently discussing on our podcast, The Story of Ming Lan. Born in 1987 in He Bei province, she is one of THE biggest stars in China now having starred in many commercial successes through the years. Her attitude towards her career is to be admired. Unlike many of her peers in the industry, she did not attend a film or drama academy which makes her success even more commendable. 
    2. To reiterate, this is the only evil character that 赵丽颖 has portrayed. I think she does a great job in this role actually and gives much needed spice to the movie. I mean each movie needs a baddy and I’m glad to see her in this role. I actually wish 明兰 was more like her character 琉璃 in the beginning of the movie, when they were more carefree.
    3. The name 琉璃 means colored glaze or a stone similar to lapis lazuli. We don’t know much of her background so I’ll assume that she is a completely fictional character created for this story.


  1. Before we talk more about the male characters in the show, let’s provide some historical background. 
    1. The movie revolves around the famous fight for Emperor Kang Xi’s throne. Emperor 康熙 was the longest reigning Emperor during the Qing dynasty who was born in 1654 and ruled from 1661 to 1722. He had 9 sons that vied for the throne, creating teams and causing brothers to turn against each other. By now, this conflict for folks who were watching Chinese dramas in the 2010s is something that is super familiar because this conflict was the main one that was depicted in the original Palace with Yang Mi in 2011. I think one of the reasons both Palace and Starting with Each Step were so immensely popular is because the drama calls for handsome actors to portray the princes and so each drama had plenty of eye candy for all to enjoy. 
    2. This movie simplifies the conflict so that it revolves around a smaller number of brothers rather than the full battle which is described in more dramatic detail in other dramas. This is of course only a movie so it couldn’t have included all of the plot lines. 
    3. The main brothers we see in this drama are the Crown Prince, the 4th prince, the 9th prince and the 13th prince. We hear of the death of the 18th prince but he was not involved in the conflict so let’s introduce them. 
    4. Chen Xiao as the 13th Prince and main male character of the movie. 胤祥
      1. Chen Xiao Born in 1987 as well in An Hui province, he was deemed one of the most handsome men for historical chinese dramas in the early 20120s. He starred in several well known dramas including the 2014 version of Romance of the Condor Hero or 神雕侠侣 where he met his wife, The Legend of Lu Zhen or 陆贞传奇 pairing up again with Zanilia Zhao or 赵丽颖, and Nothing Gold Can Stay or 那年花开月正圆 with 孙俪。I’m primarily excited for his upcoming drama called 梦华录 with my favorite actress 刘亦菲 who starred in Disney’s recent adaptation of Mulan. 
      2. In the film, he plays the tragic character of the 13th prince of Kang Xi. Born in 1686, he’s handsome, and accomplished in many skills. He lost his mother at a young age and is extremely close to his brother, the 4th prince and eventual Emperor as they were raised by the same mother, Consort De. During the fight for the throne, the 13th prince was imprisoned for a decade and was released when the 4th prince ascended the throne. This is not shown in the film but the 13th prince served his brother as a trusted ally for 8 years until his death in 1730.
    5. Zhu Zi Xiao朱梓骁 (xiao1)  as the 9th Prince 胤禟
      1. Of all the actors and actresses in this drama, Zhu Zi Xiao is probably the one I’m least familiar with. His claim to fame is appearing in the 2009 remake of Meteor Garden which was another explosively popular drama that launched the careers of many of its main cast. Seems like he’s been in quite a number of good dramas but in smaller roles. One of his more recent and popular dramas is 琉璃 or Love and Redemption though he doesn’t play a main role.
      2. 朱梓骁 plays the 9th prince who is seen as manipulative and power hungry. In history, he supported the 8th prince to take over the throne. Born 1683, he was stripped of his title, kicked out of the clan and renamed 塞斯黑 which means Dog in manchu in 1725. He died a year later in 1726. 


  1. Lu Yi as the 4th Prince, eventual Emperor Yong Zheng
    1. We’ve followed Lu Yi for years. I remember that he starred in a drama with Ruby Lin and Feng SHao Feng back in 2003 and was already a fan so it’s been interesting to see his career progression through the years. He’s not an idol but has a handsome face and has starred in several high quality dramas. Though there have also been a few missteps along the way. His foray into the Palace series or at least dramas with Yu Zheng, the producer of this series, some would say mmmm could have been better. 
    2. Anyways, he plays the calculating 4th prince that we know as Emperor Yong Zheng. He and the 13th prince are the closest brothers. I would say we talked at length about this historical character in our Empresses to the Palace podcast series so listen to that if you want to hear more about Yong Zheng. Haha. 
  2. 林子聪 Lam Chi-chung  as the Crown Prince 胤礽 réng
    1. This chubby hong kong actor I feel like was everywhere in the late 90s and 2000s. Popular for his physique that added comedic effect to a lot of shows he’s in, he provides me with a comforting feeling everytime I see him on screen. He has quite a filmography so do check him out!
    2. He plays the discarded Crown Prince. This character was rather interesting in history as he was twice named Crown prince and twice discarded by Emperor Kang Xi. Born to Kang Xi’s first Empress, he was named Crown prince partly because his mother died shortly after giving birth and his father greatly missed her. But after a series of missteps, his father ultimately decided that he was not fit to be Emperor and deposed him thus leading to a bitter battle between the remaining brothers.
  3. 邬君梅 as 德妃
    1. I’m not too familiar with her work. I think i’ve seen her in dramas here and there She actually acted in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic The Last Emperor about the life of the last emperor of china pu yi and portrayed one of his consorts.
    2. In this movie, she portrays 德妃 who in history is the mother of 雍正 or the 4th prince and the Empress Dowager in Empresses in the Palace. She of course did not birth the 13th prince. I haven’t found much research on whether or not they were close in real life.


  1. Cameos 
    1. Bao Bei Er – The Eunuch Chun Shou
      1. This guy is a relatively well known actor now with many movie and drama acting credits under his name as well as directing credits. I was introduced to him when he participated on the reality tv show Running man a few years back. Again, surprised to see him in this movie so many years ago.
    2. Zhang Wei Jian or Dicky Cheung – Head Eunuch
      1. Can I say I almost cried of surprise when I saw Dicky Cheung show up on screen? He was legitimately one of my favorite actors growing up because his dramas were generally light and funny though when there were serious moments I cried like a baby. It’s a little bittersweet to see him in such a small role here and also that he’s aged but what can you do. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve watched 机灵小不懂 or in English it’s called Smart Kid? As a child. He was one of those actors that whenever there was a new drama out, I’d want to see it because he is so fun.
    3. Zhang Zi Feng – as Young Chen Xiang – Though just a tiny role, the young actress who played the Young Chen Xiang is currently studying at Beijing Film Academy but has a ton of acting credits to her name. I would say she’s one of the new movie stars to watch for in the CHinese entertainment industry as she has in my view adorable facial features but has already showcased her acting abilities at a young age. I’m sure we’ll see her career blossom in the coming years.
    4. 黄圣依 portrays the mother to the 13th prince 敏妃. 
      1. She’s  pretty famous actress who got her big break from Stephen Chow’s movie Kung Fu Hustle. But her filmography since then hasn’t been too great.
      2.  In history, 敏妃 died in 1699 when her son was only 13. I didn’t find too many details surrounding her death.  
    5. The above are what I would say are key cameos I want to mention. There are quite a few others such that I was very surprised to see. The actress for 齐妃 from Empresses in the Palace is there as another consort. Dicky Cheung’s wife 张茜, who we’ve seen in other dramas is also another consort. 



Let’s talk at a high level about the plot of the movie. At its core, this is a romance film that is set during a tumultuous time in history. My personal view is that the history and culture part of the film are more fun to watch than the romance portion but anyways. That’s neither here nor there. The film starts with the main character Chen Xiang entering the palace during Kang Xi’s rule as a young maid. She inadvertently trespasses into the old residence of the 13th prince’s deceased mother. Phew that was a mouthful. There, she is scared after seeing the young 13th prince’s figure but is dragged off. Later that night, she also meets another young maid, Liu Li, whom they pair to become the best of friends. 


As the years pass, Chen Xiang, Liu Li and their good friend, the eunuch 春寿 enjoy some blissful years. They learn the lesson of what women do in order to improve their station in the palace, which is to try to capture the attention of a prince or the Emperor to become a concubine. Chen Xiang doesn’t have such aspirations though her best friend Liu Li absolutely does. One day, Chen Xiang is shown a picture of the handsome 13th prince and immediately falls in love with him but to emphasize her good nature, she doesn’t take action. Liu Li, on the other hand, plots to land the affection of a prince and successfully spends the night with the 9th prince. She thinks he’ll marry her which is naive to the extreme and he pretty much discards her. That same night she was spending with the 9th prince, Chen Xiang, who was taking Liu Li’s post during her night shift, was over spending a more innocent time with the 13th prince, helping him attract butterflies to help remember his mother. She had her face covered during this endeavor as Chen Xiang was covering for Liu Li. 


That evening’s time spent, however, made the 13th prince fall madly in love with Chen Xiang as well and he wants to marry her. But not knowing who she was, he could only search for the maid on duty that night. Liu Li doesn’t hesitate to claim that it was her that night and is married to the 13th prince which leads to a heartbroken Chen Xiang. To add insult to injury, Liu Li brings Chen Xiang along as her personal maid. At this point, Liu Li forgets all pretense of friendship and sisterly love in the face of riches and wealth. Anything that threatens her position must go.  BUT, Liu Li continues to enjoy an affair with the 9th prince. 



The rest of the film revolves around relationship conflicts between these 4 characters. Chen Xiang loves the 13th prince who thinks he loves Liu Li. Liu Li is going to marry the 13th prince primarily for the status but is having an affair with the 9th prince.  While all THAT drama is happening, a furious battle for the imperial throne is also waging. As explained earlier, the 13th prince and the 9th prince are on different teams so naturally, there are schemes against each other. We see the Crown prince infuriating the Emperor and is deposed. We also see the 4th prince taking calculated steps to being the next Emperor.. We kind of know how the movie will end since history stares us in the face but how it ends is the point of the film. There are many retellings of how the 4th prince actually earned the throne so this is just adding another example to the long list



Overall, I think this was actually a very interesting movie. It did take a bunch of liberties on history and the plot was somewhat contrived but, there’s a treasure trove of history to discuss so let’s begin!



Right at the beginning of the film, we see maids being selected for the palace. During the Qing dynasty, palace maids were under the management of 内务府 which is the Imperial Household Department. 


I was doing some research on the topic and there seems to be some conflicting information on the topic. Maids were either selected to enter the palace either at the age of 11 or 13. They were actually mostly selected from the Booi Aha of the 8 banners under the Qing regime. In mandarin they are called 包衣. They are basically bondservants or servile household members of the Manchu elite or members of the 8 banners. The members of the 包衣 have a lower status than a regular manchu. Maids chosen for menial tasks usually had no education but maids of the aristocracy usually meant being relatively well educated so as to serve their masters. We see glimpses of this actually in 甄嬛传 Empresses in the Palace with 甄嬛’s half sister 浣碧. She could read and write. In The Story of YanXi Palace, the maids of the Empress could marry quite well which reflects their high status.


Unlike in other dynasties, maids could leave the palace at the age of 25 if they were still of good standing. Though, as is discussed in the movie many times. 25 is an old age for a maid if she still wanted to get married. Understandably, life as a maid was not that glamorous. They were often physically and sexually abused. The miniscule upside is of course potentially capturing the eye of a prince or the emperor himself. That actually didn’t happen often but hey we wouldn’t have these Palace dramas or movies if it wasn’t a fantasy right?


Based on the math from the drama, 沉香 and 琉璃 entered the palace when they were around 13. The two young actresses 蒋依依 and 张子枫 were actually younger than that when the movie premiered.





To serve, 沉香 and 琉璃 are first assigned to a placed called 乾西四所. This is an actual spot and is located on the northwest side of the Forbidden City. They were first built, of course, during the 明 dynasty and were continuously renovated during the centuries even in the 清 dynasty. The place where 沉香 and 琉璃 work was renamed to 建福宫 in the 1740s during the reign of 乾隆. 


There are plenty of bugs in the drama so let’s point out a few. 


In the beginning of the movie, 沉香 loses her earring and tries to find it. She actually steps on the dragon in the middle of the steps. That was a huge no no. The dragon represents the emperor in the forbidden palace. Absolutely no one could step on it. He/she would be severely punished and most likely killed. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw this on screen. For anyone who has visited the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, that’s something the tour guides mention. Only the Emperor could pass above the dragon. 


Separately, 琉璃 mentions her quarters as 淑芳斋 which is SO popular for everyone who has watched 还珠格格 or My Fair Princess but this place was renamed during the reign of Qian Long Emperor, 2 emperors after Kang Xi. 



Moving on, when the eunuch 春寿 he finds out that 琉璃 has taken 沉香’s place as the future wife of the 13th prince, he uses the idiom 李代桃僵. The english translation on screen was just “how dare 琉璃 take your wealth and position!” which I guess works, but that’s why we’re here to explain what it means.


The literal translation is the plum tree sacrificing itself for the peach tree by pretending to be the peach tree. In the beginning, this idiom had a positive connotation. Brothers helping each other and sacrificing for the greater good. It is actually one of the famous 36 stratagems for Chinese war. However, in the drama, the eunuch 春寿 uses the phrase to show his indignation at 琉璃’s betrayal.


After 琉璃 successfully marries the 13th prince, which we all know is probably way too easy and would have had little chance of happening in real life, she does something called 割肉喂亲 or with the literal translation, cutting my own flesh to feed my kin. This is when 琉璃 pretends to cut herself to help medicate 德妃。Now, this is very much just folklore. Do NOT do this. There are instances in history though of individuals who did do this to save family members when they were in destitute poverty. That’s why when mentioned, everyone was shocked at 琉璃’s filial piety but not shocked at the actual act. This is an extreme measure to take but not wholly unheard of. We actually saw 安陵容 do this for 甄嬛 in Empresses in the Palace in an effort to show 甄嬛 that she, 安陵容 was loyal to 甄嬛,even though she wasn’t. Lol. Another scene borrowed from that drama. 



On the topic of 安陵容 from Empresses in the Palace, you will remember her singing a song that captured the attention of the Emperor. It’s called  金缕衣 – or the poem’s name is “Golden Threaded Clothes” and those lines are reflected here in the film. BUT in my opinion, the film used this poem completely inaccurately. 


The full poem is this: 




This poem is from the Tang Dynasty, about 1000 years before the Qing dynasty. We’ve mentioned how these last two lines are very famous and voila here they are again! So what does this poem mean? 

Our translation is this: I urge you to not value the wealth and riches of the Golden Threaded Clothing, I urge you instead to value your youth and capture that time – just like flowers on a branch which require you to pick at the right moment. Don’t wait until there are no flowers left on the tree and pick empty tree branches.


The last 2 lines were written on a prayer note of sorts and attached to a bell. To the 13th prince, he believes that 琉璃 is worried that he’ll marry another since it’s talking about how one is waiting until there are no flowers left. But he tells 琉璃 not to worry. He is absolutely going to marry her. 琉璃 immediately suspects correctly that it was 沉香 who left that note. 琉璃 thinks 沉香 is trying to hint to the 13th prince that 琉璃’s flower is already gone to someone else. Uh…….What? That does not make sense at all. I totally do not understand why Chen Xiang wrote that as the 13th prince’s understanding of the poem more closely aligns with what I think the poem is trying to say. Does the screenwriter think that we don’t know Chinese poetry??? 

In any case, this note was enough to threaten 沉香 with their good friend 春寿’s life, which then brings us to the next topic. 



Again, we’ve discussed this at length in Empresses in the Palace but here’s a recap. 对食 is eating food opposite of one another. The first record of this phrase is found in 汉书 or the Book of Han finished in around 111 AD.  It originally actually was used to mean same-sex relationships between palace maids. Over the years, the phrase of 对食 changed it’s meaning to include relationships between Eunuchs and palace maids. 对食 typically refers to a short relationship between the maids and eunuchs. Once a maid and eunuch establish a long term relationship, they are known as 菜户。The couple behaves like a married couple but are not legally married. 


In this movie, 对食 seemed to be a pretty open topic but I don’t think it was really the case as it wasn’t as common during the 清 dynasty. People also looked down at the woman who agreed to marry the eunuch as was shown in the movie. 





The next big historical event that happens in the drama is the death of the 18th prince. 


胤祄 xiè


Born in 1701, he died young at the age of 8 in 1708. The 18th prince was very favored by the Emperor.In history, his death and the emotionless response from the then Crown Prince 胤礽 actually did lead to the first time 胤礽 was deposed as Crown prince for the first time. Well, it wasn’t just due to the death of the 18th prince, but his death was certainly a factor.


Chinese opera – 齐天大圣


In the movie, the Crown Prince was deposed after his blatant disregard for his younger brother’s death and his performance of Chinese Opera – specifically portraying 齐天大圣孙悟空 or the monkey king. 


This whole portrayal is of course an anachronism. Peking Opera didn’t officially become a pastime until late in 18th century and we’re only at the beginning of the 18th century. Ok, the movie doesn’t state that it’s Peking Opera but I think we get the point. 


I did a bit of digging and the scene portrayed in the movie is most likely from the Peking Opera called 大闹天宫 – or the Monkey King Wreaks Havoc in the Heavens. It’s actually quite a popular opera now. It did have roots in folklore but i guess the productions became more formalized in the 20th century.


As mentioned before, the Crown Prince gets deposed in 1708 and reinstated in 1709 before being finally deposed in 1712. It really is a testament to Emperor 康熙’s love for his first Empress that he actually named a Crown Prince and reinstated him! In the 清 dynasty, it was not common practice to do so.






As the fight for the throne heats up, the 13th prince says this idiom to the 4th prince when he decides to aid his brother in the fight for the throne. This is also one of the 36 strategems but not as famous as the earlier one mentioned. The literal translation means – go upstairs and remove the ladder.  


The story for this is as follows – during the three kingdoms period specifically around mid to late 2nd century AD, an aristocrat 刘表 preferred his younger son 刘琮 and didn’t like his eldest 刘琦. Now this 刘琦, feeling the pressure of his younger brother and his mother sought the advice of the brilliant strategist 诸葛亮, chancellor and later regent of the state of Shu Han. But 诸葛亮 didn’t want to meet this 刘琦. So what does 刘琦 do? He invites 诸葛亮 for drinks on the second story of a restaurant. Once 诸葛亮 arrives, 刘琦 removes the ladder, forcing 诸葛亮 to have this conversation with 刘琦. Seeing no other option 诸葛亮 does indeed give 刘琦 the advice to flee the city. From a strategy perspective, this idiom is used to say – lure with a small bait and then block all exit opportunities. 


In the movie, the 13th prince tries to lure his father during a hunt. The hope was to get his father in a secluded area, block all of his exit options, and actually have a conversation. It was well meant, i guess, but execution was not so great. 



The place where the imperial family goes to hunt is called 南苑. This place served as the royal hunting grounds for the imperial family starting from the Yuan Dynasty. So the late 13th century all the way up until the early 20th century. Presently, it is located within the city boundaries of Beijing and looking at the map, only 15 kilometers from the Forbidden City due straight south. 


In the drama the 13th Prince is sent to 宗人府 or basically exile after this fiasco. In history, he does lose favor starting in around 1709 and never regains favor with his father. It is recorded that his health fails and his 4th brother, the future emperor, looks far and wide for doctors to heal him. I’m not sure Chinese doctors can perform miracles like regain one’s eyesight but hey, maybe they can.





For the first time in our 清dynasty dramas / movies, we see firearms! The chinese invented gunpowder but firearms were introduced from abroad. It’s not 100% clear i believe on where the first firearms such as cannons were introduced.  Muskets were introduced to the Chinese in the mid-16th century by the portuguese. This was of course during the 明 dynasty. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were military branches that used muskets, matchlocks and cannons but they were still very rudimentary. Muskets and Matchlocks were the primary firearms used until the early 20th century.



Lamas are prominently seen during the final confrontation between the 4th Prince and the 9th Prince. They are part of Tibetan Buddhism. They surround the bed of the deceased emperor. I don’t have too much to say about the Lamas but they were prominent during the 清 dynasty. We see them in many forms in several chinese dramas. 



Wow – that was a ton of history to procure from this movie. This definitely isn’t comprehensive but it covers many topics that we found interesting. It’s a nice convergence of the two dramas that we’ve discussed – Empresses in the palace and of course the Story of Ming Lan. I am quite shocked but also pleased to see Zhao Li Ying take this evil turn and she absolutely kills it. Chen Xiao and Lu Yi are as handsome as ever and 周冬雨 the actress for 沉香 is one of the most accomplished young actresses in china now! 


Again, to watch this, if you’re in the US, Jubao TV is a free streaming service that has english subtitles. If you search online, there are other options to view this in other regions. 


That’s it for today’s special episode! We hope you enjoyed it. We’ll continue to bring new content on top of our weekly drama recap episodes for your enjoyment! Until next time!


Movie Review



Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts – Karen and Cathy. 


We’re pausing today on our discussion of Empresses in the Palace to discuss a more recent film. Mulan.  We recently watched the new Mulan movie that is available on Disney +. It stars the beautiful 刘亦菲 in the titular role as Mulan and has some other notable stars such as 巩俐 who plays 仙娘, a witch, and Donnie Yen, as General Tung. After watching this movie we just had so many thoughts that we just had to do research and discuss it here! Karen and I grew up watching the Disney version of Mulan. We basically know it by heart. Not even that, we’ve watched the mandarin dub and the cantonese dub. Fun fact, the mandarin and cantones dubs include Jackie Chan as Shang and yes he does the singing in it! We’re excited to share our thoughts and the history and culture that we see on the screen.


Following our general podcast format, we will go over a high level summary of the movie and then some in depth analysis on the history of Mulan. This episode is SPOILER FREE of the movie. We reference the beginning and what’s widely available in plot summaries or trailers. We will have a separate episode where we go in depth on our thoughts of the movie. For this podcast, we will be discussing the movie primarily in English but pronounce proper nouns in Mandarin Chinese.


If you are new to our podcast, please check out our intro to the podcast episode to get an understanding of what our podcast episodes are generally about. Follow us on instagram and twitter.



Alright, with that? Let’s get started.


Summary – 


This movie depicts the tale of 花木兰, a young woman who takes her father’s place in the Imperial Army and her epic battles to save the emperor from northern invaders. The movie starts with Mulan meeting the matchmaker in hopes of a good match. It doesn’t go so well. As Mulan is being told off for bringing dishonor to her family, her village hears news that the Emperor is conscripting men from every family to fight the RouRans. Wanting to protect her injured and elderly father, Mulan steals his armor, sword and conscription notice and takes his place in the army. We follow Mulan’s journey as she becomes a warrior,


The storyline is similar to the 1998 Disney animated version but they have made it slightly more historically accurate, at least in terms of the enemy they’re facing. Instead of huns invading China, it is actually the RouRans or 柔然。Who are these people? We’ll discuss that in our historical analysis. 



Let’s talk about the cast! This cast is quite fun as it includes a few very prominent names in Chinese entertainment. 


刘亦菲 plays 花木兰. She is primarily a mainland Chinese actress but has had a foray into Hollywood with the 2008 film, The Forbidden Kingdom. That film also starred Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I remember going to the theater to see that film with my friends. It’s a fun time but mixes a lot of Chinese lore/legends together which was a little jarring. Not my favorite film overall but entertaining.


she has been one of our favorite Chinese actresses for about the last 15 years. I was ecstatic to hear that she would play 木兰。 She started in the industry at a young age and is deemed as one of the most beautiful women in China. Her nickname is called 神仙姐姐 which means Goddess older sister. This is derived from her role as 小龙女 in a Martial Arts, 武侠 Drama called 神雕侠侣 that came out in 2006. She plays an ethereal martial arts master who only wears white. Seriously, look at her photos from this drama, I’ve posted some to twitter. She is stunning.  Her background was in ballet but since she’s been in so many martial arts dramas, she’s very adept with various weapons. You’ll see in the movie that she generally is very comfortable with her sword and is doing many of her own stunts. I feel that many people who have watched her dramas growing up will be happy to see her in this film.



Gong Li is the witch 仙娘. She is considered one of the greatest Chinese actresses living today. She debuted in 张艺谋’s Red Sorghum or 红高粱 in 1987 and has been in numerous award winning movies over the decades including Farewell my Concubine, Flirting Scholar, 2046,  Western audiences will know her from Memoirs of a Geisha and Miami Vice. There are quite a few movies that are available to stream if you want to catch up on her filmography. I really did enjoy Farewell my Concubine. I don’t know about her makeup here in Mulan but she does look great!


Jet Li is the Emperor. Who doesn’t know Jet Li? The Chinese action star for the 90s and 2000s. Born in Beijing, Jet Li was a Wushu champion before becoming an actor. For those of you that don’t know, WuShu is Chinese martial arts. He was in the fantastic film 2002 film called Hero or 英雄 by 张艺谋 and then in the 2006 film Fearless or 霍元甲。He broke into the international market with Lethal Weapons 4 in 1998. He’s also been in the Expendables franchise with Sylvestor Stallone among various other films. He’s now retired from being an action star but can still be an emperor in Mulan! I was shocked to see how much he aged in this film. Maybe it’s the make up or this is a reflection of reality but I was quite surprised.


Donnie Yen is Commander Tung. Donnie Yen or in Mandarin, 甄子丹, is a popular Hong Kong action star that starred in many popular movies including the Ip Man movies and was also in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He is known for doing most of his own stunts. If you’re interested in seeing some of his work, definitely start with the Ip Man movies. He is fantastic at various forms of martial arts. The character he plays in this movie is Commander Tung who trains the soldiers before heading off to battle. 


郑佩佩 – She is the matchmaker. This is a small role but guess what!? 郑佩佩 played 刘亦菲’s Grandma in 刘亦菲’s classic drama, 仙剑奇侠传 or Chinese Paladin, that came out in early 2000s. It’s heartwarming to see them in this film even though they don’t have many scenes together. 郑佩佩 has been in many many movies and dramas in China, Hong Kong, and the US including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon


The rest of the cast include Yoson An as Chen Honghui and Tzi Ma as Hua Zhou and a fun cameo that we won’t spoil now.



Now that we’ve geeked out about the cast, let’s get on with some history.




The story of Mulan was first recorded as a folk ballad in the latter end of the 北朝 era or the Northern Dynasty era, so around the 6th century AD.  There is no definitive author of this ballad nor are we certain of Mulan’s existence. Her birth, where she’s from, her last name are all a mystery. It is widely accepted that her last name is 花 or Hua which means flower but it is never mentioned in the ballad. Interestingly, if you move this last name behind Mulan, as 木兰花, it’s actually the magnolia flower. She is generally thought to have been from the 河南 Province but again, there is no definitive answer. 


The ballad, or poem, isn’t very long. On the whole it’s similar to what the disney movies have depicted though there are a few differences. Here’s my rough english translation:


Mulan is weaving cloth but is thinking about the conscription notice that arrived yesterday. The ruler is drafting men for war. Every notice or document has her father’s name on it but he does not have an older son. So, Mulan willingly decides to go to the market to buy a horse and saddle to take his place in the army.


The next day, she leaves her family and travels to the Yellow River, no longer able to hear her parents calling out to her。She only hears the rush of the Yellow River. The following day, she travels to the Yan Mountain, no longer able to hear her parents calling out to her. She hears only the horsemen and their horses.


They travel thousands of miles to reach the battlefield, climbing over many mountains as if they were flying.  Through the cold northern air, they hear the night clap, the moonlight shining on the soldier’s armor. Some fall after a hundred battles, others return after ten years time, victorious. 


The victors return to meet the son of heaven who sits on his throne. Each soldier is rewarded for their merits and Mulan receives a hefty sum. The son of heaven asks Mulan what else she desires. She says she does not want a role in his court. She only wants to return home to her family. 


Her parents, upon hearing that she is returning home, come out to greet her. Mulan’s sister dresses herself up. Mulan’s younger brother starts working to slaughter pigs and goats to celebrate. She opens every door at home to look around. She takes off her armor, dons her women’s clothes. She fixes her hair and puts on makeup. She walks out to greet her fellow soldiers who are stunned at her transformation. They exclaim that they have traveled and fought together for twelve years and never knew she was a woman.


The poem ends with – There are characteristics to tell the difference between male and female rabbits. But when they are running together, how can one tell the difference?



So what are some of the differences from the poem vs what we’ve seen in the movies. 1st, there’s no mention of a matchmaker so that seems to be added for general story purposes in both the animated and live action versions. There is also no intense battle to save the emperor documented in this ballad. Instead, she fought this war for 12 years. Further, her identity is never revealed to her fellow soldiers in some dramatic fashion. They only discover her secret after she decides to reveal it to her friends. Interestingly, in this ballad, she has a younger brother and a younger sister. There is, also unfortunately, not a love story in this ballad. This seems solely focused on her devotion to her family and her wish to protect her father. Evidently, any love interests are further fabrications or additions to this ballad.


But geez, keeping your identity a secret for 12 long years! That’s an incredible feat. This probably also speaks to Mulan’s intellect at being able to fool everyone for so long.


As a major point of deviation from the animated version, the enemy in this movie are the RouRans. This is actually true to history and was most likely the enemy that Mulan fought in this Chinese ballad.


Who are the RouRan’s exactly?



The origins of the RouRan people are not definitive but experts generally agree that they are descended from Eastern Hu, Xiong Nu and Xian Bei people. RouRan was a khaganate of mostly nomadic tribes that were fearsome on horseback during the 4th to 6th centuries and occupied Mongolia and Northeastern China. They hit their peak in the years 410 – 425 AD.  They constantly descended further mainland in skirmishes against the Northern Wei (北魏).  In between wars, there were tributary relationships between the Rourans and the Northern Wei empire. The Rourans were completely decimated in 555AD at the hands of Gokturks which effectively dissolved this group in history. In the movie, the leader of the invading Rouran’s is called Bori Khan. I don’t see records of that persome existing.


Let’s talk about the time period that this was set. It’s never clearly said in the movie but based on certain costume choices and the existence of the Rourans, the movie is most likely set during the Southern and Northern Dynasties 南北朝 which also fits in with when the Mulan Ballad first surfaced. This period lasted from 386 to 589AD. There were multiple kingdoms that sprung up during this time period without one unifying dynasty. The Northern Dynasties comprised of 北魏、东魏、西魏、北齐、北周 and the Southern Dynasties comprised of 刘宋、萧齐、萧梁、南陈. It was a dangerous and fragmented time. If you look at maps of this time period the Rourans were a constant threat to all of the Northern Dynasties. There are plenty of records of Rourans attacking Northern Wei and Northern Qi. This time period came to an end with the unification under Emperor Wen, creating the Sui Dynasty. The origins of Mulan are known to have come from this time but it isn’t clear of the exact time so we don’t know which dynasty she’s from. 



Time for some sets and costume design! These were all shown in the trailers so no spoilers here. When we first start off with the movie, we get a sweeping scene of Mulan’s home. We see the rice fields and rice paddies along with huts that look very much similar to Hakka huts found in Southern China. Today we can find them in Fujian Province. 


As for costumes and makeup, the one that pops into mind is 刘亦菲’s transformation for the matchmaking scene. When I first saw it, I was pretty taken aback. It’s quite different from what we’re used to, especially the yellow powder but after doing a little bit of digging, this makeup is relatively historically accurate. 


The specific style for Mulan’s cheeks is called 晚霞妆 or the Evening Sunset style. It was common during the time period. The main point was to powder the cheeks like a red sunset. Now, onto her forehead. The style is called 额黄妆 or literally translated to Forehead Yellow. Women would powder their foreheads yellow or use a yellow paper flower cutout that they would place on their forehead. This style is actually quoted in the Mulan Ballad. When she returns home and changes to women’s clothing, she looks at the mirror to add yellow flowers. In Mandarin the phrase is 对镜贴花黄. Finally, the red flower petals on Mulan’s forehead were also common. It looks to be 3 flower petals. The origins of this actually come around this time during the Song Wu Dynasty in the south. One princess was sleeping and flower petals landed on her forehead. She couldn’t peel them off but after 3 days, they finally washed off but left 5 petal marks on her forehead. Her maids and other ladies in the palace thought it looked lovely and all wanted to mimic the style. The Plum Flower style was born. It was very fashionable to draw flower shapes on one’s forehead and it persisted well into the Tang Dynasty. We actually discuss this in some of our episodes of 甄嬛传 Empresses in the Palace. 


That’s it for our discussion and history of Mulan and our brief recap about the film without any spoilers. Go and watch the movie before coming back to listen to our review. We will talk about our overall impressions of the film as well as easter eggs and historical inaccuracies.  Let us know what you thought of the film as well either via social media or email us at



Welcome to Chasing Dramas! This is the podcast that discusses Chinese history and culture through historical Chinese dramas. We are your hosts – Karen and Cathy. 


Today we will do an in-depth recap of the 2020 Disney version Mulan and give our review at the end. We did a spoiler free recap of Mulan, the ballad’s history, and some we provided some historical context in our previous episode so check that out if you haven’t already.


Oki doke! What are our thoughts from this movie?


Karen – As someone who adores 刘亦菲 and grew up loving the animated Mulan, I really wanted to like this film. I really did. When the announcement came out that she was going to play Mulan, I was ecstatic!  I had a blast watching the film because some parts of it are so absurd.  In terms of Disney live action remakes, I prefer Aladdin over this version. If the movie kept the songs, kept a digital dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy or an equivalent, that probably would have made this film a better film. 


Once again, this movie is available on Disney+ if you want to watch along.


We begin with Hua Zhou, Mulan’s father narrating the story. Hey it’s Tzi Ma! Yay!  Right off the bat we hear about Mulan’s unparalleled Chi or Qi. Chi is a fascinating word. With origins dating back all the way back to the Shang Dynasty on oracle bones no less, the word has had different transformations and meanings throughout time. Here, we’ll take it to mean “vital life force”. It’s also such a Chinese movie cliche – like ohh look at this person’s Chi! I feel like Chi in Chinese dramas has fallen out of favor. They are very popular in martial arts dramas but at least from my perspective, seems less prominent now than say 10 years ago.  You guys might have heard Chi in Tai Chi but this is not the same word. Let’s separate that out.


We next get a sweeping shot of Mulan’s hometown. We get a nice shot of terrace rice fields and a walled village. This looks to be a Hakka Walled Village or 土楼。The Hakka people are ethnically Han Chinese. The forefathers of the Hakka people lived in the modern day Hubei and Henan but began migrating south starting from the Qin Dynasty. During the Invasion and Rebellion of the Five Barbarians in the early 300s, more and more of the Hakka people fled South of the Yellow River and Chang Jiang. 


Rice is the main grain of the South so let’s assume that this walled village is somewhere in Southern China. 


Mulan is chasing a chicken in the walled village. Maybe as a callout to the original movie? The chickens were chasing the dog. And look! She wields the staff pretty well. I totally wish I can just fly around like she is doing here. I like this scene showing her practice wushu at a young age because no matter what movies say, being good at martial arts takes years of training. For her to be an exceptional fighter, she must have had some type of training beyond what she learns in the army. Mulan’s mom is worried about Mulan’s prospects for marriage because of her rather rambunctious behavior and asks her father to speak to her.


Hua Zhou finds Mulan outside trying to fix the statue of a phoenix. The phoenix is the emissary of their ancestors. He instructs her to hide away her Chi. She only needs to bring honor to the family, aka, marry well. Like what! Come on – also since when was Chi a gendered term? If you can tell us, please do so. Mulan looks disappointed and we get the title shot of Mulan.


We’re now on the Silk road. A trader is walking with his caravan of camels in the desert and then a creepy looking woman shows up. She straight up merges into his body. What?? The caravan enters a walled city or garrison somewhere in northwest china. The sentries spot riders wearing all black charging to the city. It’s the Rourans! For more information on the Rourans, listen to our earlier episode about Mulan. 


It’s quite a cool sequence. The Rourans climb up the walls and start murdering people. The creepy lady also starts attacking soldiers from inside the city. I know this is a movie but man – if the Rourans can just fly up the walls with like 20 people, why don’t they just do that for every city? 


News reaches the Imperial City in Central China. My first gut reaction was 长安 or modern day 西安 but since we don’t know which kingdom or empire this is, I can’t be sure. The chancellor is reporting the news to the Emperor. It’s Jet Li! I can barely recognize him – how many layers is he wearing! Bori Khan is the Rouran that leads the armies. 


The lone surviving soldier from the attacks suddenly speaks. There’s a witch that assists him! This is why he’s been unstoppable. Her chi is beyond imagination! Both the chancellor and the Emperor dismiss this witch and her powers. I guess that’s a nod to men dismissing women when they can actually pose as real threats? The Emperor issues a decree – every family will supply one man for the Imperial Army. You’ll see the scribes frantically writing away. Yes it is true that scribes were on hand to record decrees from the Emperor.


The soldier exits the Imperial Palace and goes out into the city. He then transforms into the witch. We’ll call her the witch since she doesn’t have a name. At this point, I’m wondering why didn’t she just go murder the Emperor if she got all the way to the Imperial City? The witch transforms into a hawk to deliver the news to Bori Khan. 


Bori Khan then goes into some macho talk about destroying the Emperor. She just wants a place where she can be accepted. He’s like, yea yea whatever. The dog will finally have a home once I kill the emperor. She does not look happy at being called a dog. 


After all that, we finally see Mulan! She’s riding her horse and two hares are running alongside her. This is a direct homage to the Mulan Ballad! Mulan basically quotes the last two lines of the ballad about the differences between male and female but not seeing the difference when they’re running together when she enters her home. Her mom’s like…we’ve got more important things to talk about. We found you a match!


It’s time to meet the matchmaker! Mulan’s mother dresses and styles her to be very fashionable. There’s a hint of the “Bring Honor to us All” melody in the montage – ahh the memories. We discussed the makeup already in our other episode, it’s pretty accurate of the Northern and Southern Dynasties time period.  I’ll just say that I can’t pull that off. Things are going pretty well with the meeting with the matchmaker. There’s no cricket this time to ruin things but a giant spider does the trick. How does no one see the spider! Because Mulan tries to prevent a scene with the spider, she causes a scene. It’s a disastrous meeting. Can I also just say, matchmaker – what is up with your hair?!


Things progress basically the same way as the animated version except there’s no grand solo by Mulan about her reflection showing her true self. The decree comes for each family to supply one man for the army. Hua Zhou has no daughters so he accepts. Mulan decides to take her father’s place in the army. There’s no epic music, just a sad 二胡 tune. We don’t even see Mulan cutting her hair!


Actually it’s correct that they didn’t show that. According to the traditional teachings from Confucius, both men and women were not supposed to cut their hair.  That is one of the pillars from 孝经 or the Classic of Filial Piety by Confucius. Your body and your hair come from your parents, you cannot harm yourself as it would mean disrespect to your parents. Throughout Chinese history, men and women kept their long hair without ever cutting it until the Qing Dynasty. 


Mulan’s off on her journey to the Imperial Army. I don’t know what route she’s taking. She’s in the mountains, the bamboo forests, the steppes. Regardless, the scenery is quite breathtaking. Mulan wakes up one morning to see a phoenix guide her path.  It’s the family guardian! There’s no dragon named mushu this time, just a kitelike cgi phoenix. 


I have a hunch as to why the producers/writers decided to do this. Traditionally, dragons symbolized the Emperor or males. The phoenix on the other hand symbolized the Empress or females. In mandarin, phoenix is called 凤凰. Originally, 凤 is the male phoenix and 凰 is the female phoenix but over the years both came to symbolize women. The writers might have wanted to have a symbol that was more feminine for Mulan. Sure no problem, BUT No commoner would have dared to openly flaunt a phoenix as a family symbol. Phoenix have always been a symbol for the women of the Imperial Harem, particularly the Empress. Your family probably would have been killed if you said you had a phoenix as your family symbol. 


After traveling many days, Mulan finally makes it to camp. She has no idea what she’s doing and immediately gets into a tussle with another soldier. The fight gets broken up by Donnie Yen’s character General Tung. This time, instead of saying her name is Ping as she did in the animated version, Mulan says her name is Hua Jun. At least the makeup and her lowered voice makes it somewhat convincing that she could be a boy? The word Jun is very interesting. Without seeing the actual word on screen, I cannot tell which character it means. Technically it could mean Soldier or 军 or it could me Handsome or 俊。 Either way, a good choice for a name. 


Training camp is hilarious. Here is where we meet her gang. The characters from the animated movie are back – Yang, Ling and Chien Po. Cricket is now a fellow soldier and the handsome Shang is now in the character of Hong Hui played by Yoson An.  While training, Mulan doesn’t get her own tent this time. She has to sleep in a large tent with the other soldiers which is more realistic than the animated version where Mushu also feeds her porridge that’s happy to see her.  Of course she volunteers for night guard duty because she can’t shower with the guys and it offers her a chance to get away from them. But I guess the guys like to spoon at night? Mulan’s face at night is hilarious when she is constantly dodging the guys next to her who like to spoon. My question is, if Mulan is on night duty all the time, how does she have any time to sleep???  


The movie combines the training montage from “I’ll make a man out of you” and “A girl worth fighting for” for the middle part of the movie. I loved it when the guys are like, what’s your ideal woman and when Mulan says she has to be courageous, funny, and smart, everyone starts laughing. Cricket says what does she look like? Mulan’s like that’s not the point! You tell them, girl. 


All the male characters constantly tell Mulan that she stinks because obviously she hasn’t showered with them. When she finally does, there’s a shot of her swimming in the water and Magnolia flowers blooming in the branches!


In mandarin, 木兰花 are magnolia flowers! These flowers are literally her blooming! A cool little symbol. The magnolia tree is always next to her during Mulan’s training montage. An instrumental version of “Reflections” from the original Mulan is also heard during this montage. I think it’s on the bamboo flute but I’m not 100% sure.


After all that training, Mulan gets into a sparring match with the Shang equivalent, 宏辉. In this match, she is super badass and kicks his butt. Everyone is shocked to see how good her skills are but she secretly chides herself for allowing her Chi to flow through.  Her Chi is noticed by the Commander who tells Mulan to not hide her Chi anymore. 


A phrase that pops up a few times during this training is that four ounces can move a 1000 pounds. This phrase, four ounces can move a 1000 pounds refers to daoist teachings and taichi skills where you can use less against more, soft against rigid. THIS is a historical inaccuracy. In chinese, the phrase is 四两拨千斤。 When we were watching the movie, I’ll be pretty honest, I was wondering how Chinese folks would react. Why? Because this phrase actually refers to a taichi skill. And guess what? Tai Chi wasn’t a thing until a thousand years or so after the setting of this movie or during Mulan’s time period. Apparently, this phrase was written in a Tai Chi scripture by a guy named 王宗岳 who lived during the Ming Dynasty born 1526 – 1606.  Let’s just say that when we saw this phrase repeatedly referenced in the movie, Cathy and I were nonplussed. The anachronism! Things like this may not be evident for Americans but perhaps this is more obvious for Chinese people. Or, Cathy and I are true geeks because this phrase was discussed in books and dramas about the creation of Wu Tang or 武当, the birth place of 太极,at least, according to the Chinese Martial Arts novel, 倚天屠龙记.  So yes, this phrase exists, but should not have been referenced in this movie. 


We turn back to the Rourans are planning their attacks. Bori Khan is spending all of his time belittling the witch. He basically called her his slave. She’s pissed. So would I! The Rourans attack another garrison. We see all of the witch’s in her own glory – she has hawk claws, she uses her sleeves, everything. She’s basically a one woman army. Why does she need Bori Khan again?


Commander Tung receives orders to move his troops to the front lines and his 5th battalion prepares for battle. The battle is quite intense. The horsemanship of these Rourans is very impressive. The scenes where the Rourans are almost falling off their horse but then catapulting on the horse but in another direction is a true skill of Mongolian riders. It is incredibly difficult and very dangerous.  


The left flank is sent first to fight these men but is literally like 10 people! What? The Rouran’s quickly destroy everyone in the left flank except for Mulan who has superior skills and is able to dodge the arrows coming her way. She gives chase and comes face to face with the Witch. Mulan is of course no match for her. The witch sees right through her armor (haha) and throws a shuriken at Mulan. It would have killed her if not for her chest wrap. When she wakes, Mulan sees the phoenix again. She decides that it’s finally time to be true to herself and fight as who she is, a woma n.


Mulan rushes back into battle to the sweeping orchestral version of Reflections. Without her armor and her hair billowing out, she kicks some Rouran butt. The dirt’s gone and her hair is perfectly flowing. Like. What? I have no idea why this happened. Whatever, I’ll take it. Also, how did she suddenly have a flowing Red robe on? Unless her armor wrapped her sleeves, where did this come from? I thought the uniform would have shorter sleeves.


The battle is pretty dire for the Imperial Army. The movie setting here though makes me think of Lord of the Rings. Did anyone else get that vibe? I feel like I was watching Return of the King especially with the Trebuchet plus the fact that i think some of this was filmed in New Zealand.  Mulan once again is able to use her wits to cause an avalanche. I don’t know how the Rourans didn’t spot her but she’s successful. After the snow comes tumbling down, the Rourans seem to be defeated! The Imperial Army is ecstatic but are surprised to see Mulan as a woman. She’s expelled from the army.


Alone on the steppes, Mulan encounters the witch. The Witch tries to woo Mulan to be on her side. Which side is that again? What is her purpose? There’s also some strong lesbian vibes here. Mulan doesn’t fall for it and rushes back to the garrison to try to rally the troops to stop Bori Khan. She persuades Commander Tung and her friends to rush back to the Imperial City.


Now we have some sweeping shots of the Imperial City. We haven’t talked much about where they shot but after watching so many Chinese TV shows am pretty confident that they shot portions of this at 横店. This is a studio location that has multiple palaces built for the different time periods specifically for Chinese costume dramas. Disney did CGI a few of the buildings but you can totally see some of these buildings in other shows. 


Let’s just enjoy the final battle. Mulan does some kickass martial arts. She’s climbing up the walls, doing these flips, running on rooftops, the usual, haha. 


With the help of her friends, Mulan is able to rush to the throne room to um save the Emperor. Who does she see instead? The witch. This time, Mulan is the one who tries to persuade the witch to the light. The witch says it’s too late for her but leads Mulan to Bori Khan.


Bori Khan is in no mood to entertain the witch. He instead shoots an arrow towards Mulan to rid her as a threat once and for all before turning back to the Emperor, whom he has as a hostage. The witch, not being able to give up her new interest, quickly flies in front of Mulan and takes the arrow for her. She collapses in the arms of Mulan and dies. The lesbian vibes are too much. She just DIES! Like. WHAT? Why? Why would you sacrifice yourself for someone you’ve JUST MET and tried to kill 15 minutes ago?!


Mulan rushes over to the Emperor. He’s currently tied to a pole on top of a palace construction. She puts up a noble fight but still isn’t a match for Bori Kahn and loses her sword. At this point, things are looking pretty dire for Mulan. The Emperor yells at her to rise up like a phoenix. What do you know, the phoenix literally flaps her wings behind Mulan. Is this game of thrones over here? 


This is a Disney movie so of course Mulan wins. The final sequence is pretty awesome so go and watch it.


At Imperial Palace after Mulan saves the day, a woman comes to introduce Mulan to the rest of the court. Who is it? It’s Ming-Na Wen! She’s the voice actress for the original Mulan! Such a fun cameo! Check out the work she’s done in Agents of Shield, she’s such a badass in it. I just screamed Agent May when she showed up. 


Just as Mulan leaves the Imperial City, HongHui bids her farewell. He asks for her hand, she takes it tentatively, but leaves swiftly nonetheless. Good luck next time buddy. 


Mulan returns home to her family. It’s a touching reconciliation. Commander Tung arrives with a small retinue to not discipline Mulan but to reward her. The Emperor gifts her with a sword. The sheath is made of what looks like Jade and the tassel – it’s yellow, the color of the Emperor. This is much more valuable than the original sword. 


The movie ends with Mulan gazing at her sword with the Phoenix in the sky.


That was the in-depth recap. Let’s actually review the movie. 




Shall I start off with the pros?


Well, the movie is gorgeous to look at. I read that they filmed the movie in New Zealand and China. The scenery really does add to the movie.


The matchmaker was hilarious – probably how I would have envisioned an actual matchmaker. Of course she fainted at the end when Mulan was being decorated at home for what she has done for the kingdom. 


The horse riding skills from the Rourans were a treat! I could really tell how skilled these riders were.


I liked that they made a homage to the original Mulan ballad and that there were cool easter eggs sprinkled throughout the film. The chickens, the training montages, her friends, the music. All great reminders of the animated film. 


That’s about it for pros. We’ll be honest, we’re quite disappointed with the film. 


Cons – 


The movie was kind of all over the place. I think it would have been much better if they stuck to the Aladdin live action formula where they literally copy paste the animated version into a live action version. That would have been very unique.


From my perspective, Disney tried to cater to all audiences but it’s not clear if either western or eastern audiences appreciate the final result. It’s clearly rated PG so there’s no blood but this was such a jarring war movie experience. 


From a story perspective – what the heck is up with Gong Li’s character? We have no idea who she is, where she is from, how she got her powers and what her ultimate goal is. In the movie, we never hear what her name is. She’s only referenced as a witch. After turning on subtitles, we see that her name is Xian Niang and then I had to check Baidu for the chinese name. But guess what, 仙娘 actually means fairy or goddess woman! It’s a positive connotation! Not a witch. That confuses me as to what type of character this 仙娘 is supposed to be. I get a feeling that they just wanted to create a character for 巩俐 so she could be badass.


Also, her chemistry with Mulan was through the roof. I don’t fully understand where this chemistry came from but Mulan had the feels when 巩俐 sacrificed herself. An overall comment from the movie was that the homosexual vibes in this movie were strong. Hong Hui showed major interest in Mulan when she was Hua Jun. Maybe he was pleasantly surprised that Hua Jun is actually a woman but you cannot deny he was interested in Hua Jun as a guy. 


Another interesting note is Commander Tung – Donnie Yen’s character.  Splitting Shang into Commander Tung and HongHui doesn’t impact the story that much but I feel like it was done just to give Donnie Yen a role. In the training montage, you get to see Donnie Yen doing some martial arts which is always a pleasure.  Commander Tung presents a small but interesting conflict for the movie. The character for his name is actually Dong in mandarin. But in the movie, he is called Commander Tung. That is the cantonese version of saying the name. Why not streamline all names to be in Mandarin? Mulan, Hong Hui and most everyone else’s name is in Mandarin. Same thing with why they changed Mulan’s last name from Fa to Hua in this movie from the animated version. Fa is the cantonese way of saying Hua, the mandarin version. In English, they could have kept all names in Mandarin because there will be Mandarin and Cantonese dubs for this I’m sure. Americans might not care about this, but Chinese folks will notice it.

A continuation of this, it’s a little jarring for me to hear 刘亦菲, Jet Li and such say proper names like Mulan and Hua Jun etc with an attempted American accent. I understand why they did it but perhaps it’s because I’m so used to seeing Liu Yi Fei speak Mandarin that I found it ridiculously funny. A Chinese person, trying to speak Chinese with an American Accent. 


We do also see that Commander Tung’s full name is 董永 which is actually the name of a guy in a well known legend! Obviously many people can be called 董永,but this guy is an integral part of 天仙配, the legend that depicts the famous love story of the cowheard and weaver girl. 董永 is generally the cowheard. We’ve talked about this story in our regular podcast and there are plenty of Chinese dramas that go into this but essentially, 董永,the cowherd, falls in love with a weaver girl, who is actually a goddess or fairy. Through trials and tribulations, they are only allowed to see each other 1 day a year on the 7th of July. My question is, there are a million names that they could have given Donnie Yen’s character. Why give him this one? Is he actually supposed to be a cowherd in some former life that fell in love with a fairy?


刘亦菲 is fine in this movie but I wish she could have done so much more. She showed some spunk in the beginning but that sort of disappeared in the end. Her english accent has improved a lot since the last english movie I saw her in. The problem is that I feel like this movie took away her intellect and replaced that with Chi. In the animated movie, there were more examples of her using her brains to overcome problems. This was true when she had to climb the pole to reach the arrow. When she used the cannon to cause an avalanche against the huns. When she asked her friends to cross-dress to bypass the guards in the imperial palace. When she used lured Shan Yu to the roof and destroyed him with the fireworks. That level of intellect wasn’t fully on display in this live action movie. I think they focused more on her desire to be loyal, brave and true, even her devotion to family, than her intellect. And of course her Chi. To me it felt like her natural Chi, whatever that means, was the reason why she could be the warrior she is. Not because she wanted to protect her family nor because she was smart. I wonder how many young girls will now wonder if they have the same type of chi as Mulan vs learning to use her brain to achieve her goals. 


The guys in the army were also fine but they just seemed like normal soldiers without any personality. We got some of the same names as Cricket, Yao, Ling, and Po but I honestly can’t tell who’s who.


This is a movie with a $200M budget. Where did it all go? Costumes? Scenery? I honestly don’t know. Some of the CGI was quite bad. Like the arrows? The Phoenix? It all looked pretty fake.


I need to rant about the martial arts here. You’ve got two of the most famous Chinese martial artists in your movie, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, can you at least allow them to shine? I know for a fact that Donnie Yen can do long fight sequences by himself but all we got were these random camera cuts for the different angles. Come on. Even 刘亦菲 has done amazing work in previous movies or dramas and you barely see a full sequence of her doing any martial arts. The wire work is quite shoddy here too. In other Chinese films, the movements are quite fluid – look at Ip Man but there are several times where you can clearly tell there’s a wire somewhere in this movie.


In conclusion, we are very meh on this film. It’s a good introduction to various aspects of Chinese culture. It’s fine for a bloodless action movie and we probably would have enjoyed it more if this were a story of a different culture. To us, this was clearly a movie about a Chinese story made by non-Chinese people. I’m happy I watched it but I would much prefer rewatching the animated version.


For a really good adaptation of Mulan, watch 花木兰 with Zhao Wei and Chen Kun. It tells the story much more faithfully and disposes of the Disney tropes. 


We give it a solid 5/10.