Thursday, August 13, 1998
Disney''s 1998 animated film Mulan, based on an ancient Chinese legend about a faithful daughter who takes her ailing father''s place in battle, is having trouble this week with the Chinese authorities, who have banned the film from Chinese movie houses.
Now there''s a publisher in Marina who says Disney used her translation of the Mulan legend as inspiration for its film.
In 1992, Eileen Hu, owner of the small, multicultural publishing house Victory Press in Marina, translated and published a bilingual English-Chinese version of the classical Chinese poem Mulan Ci. The resulting book, The Legend of Mu Lan: A Heroine of Ancient China, written and illustrated by a father-daughter team in China, was cited as a "multicultural classic" for the year''s best translation of a traditional piece of literature by the Multicultural Publishers and Education Council, a consortium of more than 100 North American publishers of ethnic and minority writers.
A press release sent out last week by Victory Press states, "Despite evidence that members of Disney''s research teams requested this 1992 publication, the Disney conglomerate denies that it used this award-winning translation in its recently released movie Mulan."
The timing of her book''s publication and the Disney movie is rather coincidental, Hu says.
"Our book was the first English translation of the poem widely available, and the first English-language picture book," she says. "In 1992, only academic versions of the poem existed in English, in rather obscure anthologies. There were Chinese language books available with pictures, but again, only in anthologies, also very obscure."
In contrast to the existing academic translations, Hu says her book received "wider distribution." It was available through Barnes and Nobles stores, was favorably reviewed by the School Library Journal, and was displayed at the Smithsonian Institute in 1993. "Disney chose to make their film after this book was displayed at the Smithsonian," she notes. "The timing seems very unusual."
In fact, Hu says, four different Disney departments contacted her to request copies of her book. In one instance, she had an attorney write back to Disney to suggest that Disney buy a license right if they wanted to use text or illustrations from the book. "It is a fair use of copyrighted materials to use them in research," explains Hu''s attorney, Catherine McCauley-Libert. "What the law prohibits is using actual text or illustrations from a copyrighted work without permission of the owner of the copyrighted material."
A spokesman at Disney''s public relations department in Burbank says he has "no comment" on Hu''s press release. "I don''t know anything about that statement or that group," he stated. At press time, Hu is not taking legal action against the film giant.
Victory Press is a real family operation. Hu started the company 10 years ago in her father''s Monterey home. She still uses the family home as her warehouse, but moved her office to Marina when the business grew too large. Hu''s older sister does the proofreading, her younger sister designed the company logo, and her brother contributed financial backing.
Hu''s first publication was a book written in 1968 by her father, Zen: Key To Your Undiscovered Happiness. She decided to have it published in 1988 when her father was quite ill, so that he''d have something to leave behind.
Zen was a success, so Hu continued her publishing efforts, concentrating primarily on works by Asian writers.
In 1991, her father''s illness worsened. He refused a "Western" operation, so Hu accompanied him back to his native China for holistic treatment. There she met illustrator Cheng An Jiang, well known for his work on more than 100 Chinese children''s books.
A deal was struck for the Mulan project: Cheng An drew the pictures, while his daughter Wei wrote the story in Chinese. Hu translated it into English, Wei did her own translation into Spanish, and a third version was done in French. All were published in bilingual editions, with the Chinese characters facing the Latin. The English version is available locally at Thunderbird, Book Works and The Booktree, and a deal has just been struck with Borders for nationwide distribution.
Hu has also designed a Mulan doll, inspired, she says, because the doll put out by Disney "has a historically inaccurate costume." The doll will be sold as a package together with the book and a cassette recording of the story, in English and Chinese, so children can hear both languages spoken. To continue the family connection, Hu''s mother''s voice appears on the cassette recording.
Hu first heard the Mulan legend orally, as a bedtime story from her mother. She read the classical Chinese poem in college, but had never seen an English-language version until she published one.
To Hu, Mulan''s story is more about filial piety, a daughter''s devotion to her father and country, than it is a warrior''s tale.
"I feel the story is about a father and daughter, how she was willing to help her father," Hu says. It''s an unusual tale, she says. "In China, you hear very little about females in general." That''s one reason why Hu is publishing a five-part series of children''s illustrated books about Chinese heroines. Mulan was the first. The second, Empress of China, about China''s only female emperor in the 7th century, is due out Oct. 15.
"Mulan is brave and smart, and willing to help her father," she says. "That''s the spirit of the story."