Soldier M.I.A.

The aesthetics of allyship
by Dandan Liu (19.11.2023)

Once war has started, it is too late to talk about humanity.

As a group of artists from various Chinese backgrounds, our study of the legend of Hua Mulan (花木兰) and the traditional Chinese theatre began in July 2021. It continued in 2022-23 as part of the research project “S.O.A.R. Queen (Study of A Rice Queen)”. During the research process, there were three issues related to the story of Mulan that proved to be particularly complex and difficult for us to address: the disciplining of the individual to conform to a national identity, the nurturing of self-awareness through Confucius family values and the patriarchal drive within a traditional art form that is very beautiful at the same time. 

In different societies associated with Chinese culture, such as Singapore, Taiwan or China, these three themes have different manifestations and social meanings. How can the tensions between the individual and the three forms of authority, derived from the nation, the family and the tradition, be redefined today from a queer-feminist and diasporic perspective? For us, Mulan is not a story. Mulan is a situation in which these three threads intertwine, leading to an ending where Mulan serves her country’s war machine. Working on Mulan has given us a space to reflect on our positionality on the topic of women and power, in particular, military power in a wider historical and political context.

Possessing remarkable military finesse, Mulan is an unusual representation of women in literature and theatre. She is not a victim of violence, but the owner and executor of it. However, the only way Mulan could enter the public sphere and use her power was to abandon her female identity, cross-dress as a man and demonstrate the utmost loyalty to her country and filial piety to her father. Not only Mulan, but other iconic heroines in Chinese folklore, such as Mu Guiying (穆桂英), Fan Lihua (樊梨花) and Liang Hongyu (梁红玉), all joined the military to replace or support their fathers or husbands in times of national crisis. On the one hand, they can be seen as an empowered role model for women; on the other hand, their power has never really belonged to them, but has always been tokenised and exploited by the patriarchal and feudal system.

The narrative of “Soldier M.I.A.” keeps returning to the moment when Mulan has left home but not yet arrived at the army camp. It is a suspended space where she is no longer aligned with national and family duties. Movement, costume, text and sound become a medium of imagination through which the four performers embody the divide between themselves and the original story of Mulan. We believe the topic of war can only be addressed when we talk about and reflect on our position in relation to the oppressor/aggressor, who is in a hegemonic position of power.

To whom does the story of Mulan belong? 

Using traditional Chinese cultural references on the European stage carries the risk of being othered and exoticised. As first-generation art migrants in Germany, our path to emancipation does not come from merely reflecting on our relationship to the society in which we are socialised. Why do we want to tell the story of Mulan here, and what kind of relationship do we want to have with the audience in Berlin? These questions are crucial to the long-term development of an artist with a marginalised perspective. If we agree that the essence of performing arts is found in the live and spontaneous communication with the audience, then we must recognise that the artists also need to have certain expectations of the audience, in order to develop a relationship to the society here through an empowered position.

“Soldier M.I.A.” aims to explore a relationship in which performance is no longer a one-way delivery from performer to audience, but rather a mutually beneficial interaction between both parties. Since 2011, choreographer Ming Poon has been exploring different models of audience collaboration, where the audience takes on different roles and power positions within the performative situation. The role of the audience in this work is inspired by the act of allyship in social movements. Some parts of Mulan’s dilemma can be attributed to Chinese culture. But there are also universal elements that could be part of any social context. Using the fictional framework of Mulan, the performers ask the audience for help with their real-life questions and problems. In each performance, they receive support from the audience with different lived experiences and social realities.

The new Mulan-in-action (M.I.A.) is an amalgamation of the results from various audience collaborations, with which the performers try to incorporate into the performance without any prior rehearsal. Audiences who participate in the different collaborations would perceive and understand the performance in completely different ways. In this sense our engagement frames our perception and (re-)cognition. Like in a decentralised social movement, there are always multiple forms of resistance, even though they may not be recognised as such. No one has an overview of what is going on at every moment, nor can anybody predict the meanings and effects that their contributions will create in the end. While different strategies and positions may appear to contradict each other at one point, they can also turn out to support and strengthen each other at another point.