I used to think that Disney committed its own version of ching chong with this scene. In order to calm an infuriated Yao, Chien-Po picks him up and chants: “Yaaaaaaa Moouuuu Ahhhhhh Doooou Fuuuu Daaaaa.” What I found most offensive was not Chien-Po’s chant (which, I think, is based off of this), but the way it was repeated by Yao felt like the mockery I used to receive. He begins the phrase, but it trails off into gibberish.
Yao’s failed attempt at repeating the phrase is seen as acceptable because it plays on the consensus that Asian languages are hard for English speakers to learn. In this way, Disney is able to index the more foreign character. Indexicality works by using the viewer’s knowledge about linguistic forms and their social meanings. Chien-po’s knowledge of the chant, coupled with his softer accent allows viewers to conclude that he’s noticeably foreign, or not American. Yao, on the other hand, is portrayed with a harsh, working class American accent. Therefore, it makes sense to viewers that he is extremely confrontational, as it is generally accepted that people who have that accent are tough, and not going to be pushed around.
This may appear to be inconsequential. After all, Yao and Chien-Po are supporting characters. However, it must be noted that between Yao and Chien-Po, Yao has a greater role in the movie. Though Yao’s variety of English is not the standard that Lippi-Green discusses, we can see that even among the minor, supporting characters, the more “American” character gets greater screen time (109 mentions for Yao, 70 for Chien-Po). Chien-Po, the less American character, gets marginalized, despite the fact the setting of Mulan is ancient China.
Another character, and perhaps, the one with the most noticeable Chinese accent is Chi Fu. In the movie, he’s portrayed as the Emperor’s loyal, but ruthless assistant. Perhaps his most villainous scene occurs in this scene, after Mulan is injured by Shan Yu and is revealed to be a woman. He is the one that reminds the Captain what must be done, and he is the one that stops Yao, Chien-Po, and Ling from interrupting what appears to be Mulan’s execution. Despite the fact that Mulan heroically saved them all, Chi Fu shows no mercy.
When we consider the standard language ideology (SLI), we can make better sense of Chi Fu’s indexicality. The standard language ideology (SLI) states that non-dominant groups are marginalized through disinformation and misrepresentation in order promote the interests of the dominant group. Here, the misrepresentation occurs through Chi Fu’s characterization—evil and speaks with an accent. But it is in the interest of the dominant group to do so. Portraying foreigners as villains sends viewers the message that you can’t be evil if you speak English the way Mulan or Shang does—a version that is closest to the Standard American English (*SAE). While it is easy to dismiss Chi Fu’s characterization as a consequence of casting, Lippi-Green reminds us that the body of research regarding Disney’s use of race and ethnicity to depict good and evil is growing, with “the manipulation of accent [as a] part of that process…” (126).
No child should be marginalized by their favorite Disney films. When they hear different languages on film, Disney needs to make sure they are accurate. Accents cannot be intentionally discriminatory, and stereotypes cannot be harmfully perpetuated. I think all of us needs to play a role in helping Disney make films that are not harmful. If you were the CEO of Disney, what would you do to make sure things your movies are racially and ethnically sensitive?