Tuesday, October 22, 2013

History at the Movies

This happens every time.

At some point in my World History Prior to 1500 class (a class I teach because I have a degree in History, which makes me an expert in all eras and locations in much the same way that the Professor in Gilligan’s Island had a degree in Science and could therefore make a radio out of two coconuts and a bicycle even if he couldn’t figure out how to build a boat) we discuss Han China.

Han China was one of the high points of Chinese civilization – an era of stability, prosperity, and expansion.  Oh, it had its problems – notably an entire usurping dynasty stuck approximately in the middle that lasted all of fourteen years before collapsing – but it was a generally positive time as far as most Chinese historians will tell you. 

One of the things that the Han did was push the nomadic peoples away from their borders in order to get them to stop harassing the Empire.  There were a bunch of those nomads, including one particular group known as the Xiong-nu (SHONG-new).  The Xiong-nu will head to the west and eventually bump into the Romans, who will call them Huns.  Making that connection is an important thing in a class like this, as it reinforces the idea that these civilizations did not exist in a vacuum – that they interacted with each other in ways both expected (trade, war) and unexpected (long chain reactions of dealing with nomadic threats, for example).

Of course, as soon as you mention “Chinese” and “Hun” in the same sentence these days, the first question that comes up from the class is “Isn’t this what Mulan was based on?”

Every time.

Now, there was a time when I could have answered that question fairly easily.  I once had two very young daughters.  I must have seen Mulan three or four dozen times in the early years of this century and at one point could have sung the entire score.  In order.  But my daughters have grown bigger and have moved on to other things (Doctor Who!) and it has been quite some time since we saw Mulan.

So I have to bluff.

“Yes,” I say, full of pedagogical certainty.  “To the extent that there is any actual history in Mulan, this is where it comes from.”

This answer has the dual function of being more or less accurate, as far as I am aware, and sufficiently vague that it can’t actually be proven wrong.  I also make a point of noting that if you can get an entire army trained in one song, you’re doing pretty well.  This, I feel, is indisputably true.

Somehow this conversation inevitably segues into other Disney and Pixar films, upon which ground I feel more assured.  Yes, Monsters, Inc. is the greatest animated film ever made – sorry, your candidate doesn’t measure up to it.  And if you can get through the opening ten or fifteen minutes of Up without tears in your eyes there is something wrong with you – a quarter hour with essentially no dialogue and still a better love story than Twilight, a book that cost me two days of my life that I will never get back and no, vampires DO NOT SPARKLE, thank you very Nosferatu-loving much. 

Next question!

No comments: