In Chinese folklore, she is a heroic soldier who disguised herself as a man and bravely took the place of her ailing father to go to war.
On Chinese TV recently, however, Hua Mulan became a bumbling coward who was duped into joining the army.
Made famous globally by a big-screen Disney adaptation in 1998, the beloved character underwent a drastic transformation on a Chinese variety show - turning into a loud, clumsy and lustful soldier who was tricked to enlist by her equally cowardly father.
The 20-minute comedy skit, Mulan Joins The Army, quickly sparked controversy in China.
Public opinion about China's culture, morals and artistic licence was split after the undignified portrayal of the folk heroine lit a firestorm.
The skit pitted those who value traditional morals against those who prize freedom of expression, experts told The Sunday Times.
Viewers had dubbed the skit Mulan Gnaws On Roast Chicken, from the opening scene when the greedy Mulan - played by portly comedienne Jia Ling - chomps down on a piece of roast chicken that she and her hawker father were actually supposed to sell. After her father lied to the authorities that Mulan was a man, she got dragged off to war. While in the army, the lustful Mulan suffers nosebleeds while ogling muscular soldiers.
"This is nauseating and irritating. She not only distorted Mulan's image but also defiled our nation's culture," history and culture expert Guo Yifang, who wrote a biography of Hua Mulan, was quoted as saying by local media. "The show misleads the young and the organiser should feel ashamed."
Separately, an institution that studies Mulan in her purported hometown of Yucheng in central Henan province fired an open letter to Jia after the programme was broadcast, demanding that she apologise to Chinese audiences and Yucheng's residents.
"Hua Mulan is patriotic, filial, protects her people and does not seek fame," said the institution's deputy head Zhang Jianguo. "How can we tarnish her name?"
The controversy also brought to mind previous incidents where historical characters were lampooned.
In 2012, renowned Tang dynasty poet Du Fu was spoofed as his 1,300th birthday approached.
Netizens photoshopped him riding a motorcycle and eating a hamburger, among many wacky poses, in an Internet meme that became known as "Du Fu is very busy". It prompted an angry rebuke from literary circles and the public.
"What about all the movies, TV series and Internet novels that made fun of Reverend Xuan Zang and Journey To The West?" asked actor Liu Xiao Ling Tong, renowned for his portrayals of Monkey King Sun Wukong. Some shows have painted Xuan Zang - the monk credited with spreading Buddhism to China - as puritanical or dim-witted.
A spokesman for the variety programme initially defended the Mulan skit, saying it "should be viewed in its entirety" because Mulan later transformed into a battle heroine.
Still, the backlash eventually forced Jia to apologise. She admitted her skit was "inappropriate" and the variety show was also suspended. But the surge of negative views also fuelled sentiments from the opposing camp, with many saying Jia should not apologise.
An online survey of more than 70,000 people on a news website showed that 60 per cent of respondents felt there was "no need to be so serious about a comedy show".
"Scriptwriters and actors cannot be blamed for recreating or reconstructing traditional culture and adding a little modern touch to cater to the audience's changing tastes," said a commentary in state-run China Daily.
Supporters of the skit suggested the Chinese remain too uptight, pointing out it was not uncommon for entertainers in the West to spoof historical characters. "We're a race and community that cannot laugh at ourselves," one person wrote on social network Weibo.
But Dr Chen Lianshan, a Chinese culture expert from Peking University, feels this is not an East versus West debate, but that the unhappiness arose because Mulan holds a unique place in folklore that few other historical characters have.
Comparing Mulan and Xuan Zang, for instance, he said that "Mulan represents a strong moral ideal of patriotism and filial piety that Xuan Zang does not have".
"Making fun of Mulan is a bit inappropriate because she is a figure many Chinese look up to," Dr Chen told The Straits Times.
"But on the other hand, many Chinese wouldn't want any archaic bans on spoofing people in shows either. It's a fine line that artists here will have to continue to tread."
This article was first published on August 2, 2015.
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