Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
So Disney is filming a live-action remake of the 1998 animated Mulan, actually casting an Asian woman in the role of an Asian woman (because you never know with Hollywood).
This news prompts me to revisit the ancient source of the story of Mulan. Certain aspects of the source material now seem surprising in light of departures made in the Disney version, and I don’t just mean the little dragon Mushu that works as a cartoon character but in fact does not exist in the original.
The 1998 film sets the action during the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), and the invading enemies are said to be the Huns. The Han Dynasty did fight protracted wars against the Huns. But these battles took place centuries before the figure of Mulan first appeared in Chinese literature.
Being in Budapest again right now allows me to indulge in one of my pet obsessions: John Hunyadi, or Hunyadi Janos in Hungarian, or Ioan de Hunedoara in Romanian.
His is not a name widely remembered today outside of Hungary and Romania. And yet his role in history was such that Europe, and Western civilization as a whole, would likely look very different today had he never lived or taken a different path.
Both Hungarians and Romanians claim him as one of their own. John’s father Voyk was born in Wallachia, today’s southern Romania, perhaps of Wallachian aristocracy. King Sigismund of Hungary granted him a demesne in Hunyad in Transylvania. In his lifetime, John, though a member of the Hungarian nobility, was often referred to as a “Vlach” or Wallachian or Romanian.
Jana, my guide on the walking tour of Bratislava’s old town, had a way of movement that reminded me of a great blue heron. She also reminded me that right around here was once the western extremity of the Mongol Empire.
We were standing at the foot of the hill atop of which stood Bratislava’s white-washed castle and its four towers. Jana pointed at it. “This castle withstood the Mongols, the Ottomans, and Napoleon’s army. But in 1811, a group of Italian soldiers garrisoned there decided to cook pasta. They started a fire, the fire got out of control, and the castle burned down. We didn’t start reconstructing it until 1953. So, in Slovakia, we like to joke — it’s kind of sad — that our castle withstood the Mongols and the Turks and Napoleon but couldn’t handle an Italian dinner.”
Yes, of course. Bratislava is only an hour’s drive from Vienna. And Prince Batu’s siege of Vienna marked the high-water mark of the Mongol Empire’s western expansion.
John and Tom’s Excellent Adventure: On John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Travel, and the Meaning of an Education
On April 4, 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson set off on a road trip together.
Both in England from which their America had freshly won its independence, the object of their tour was — as dull as it sounds to me — a series of English gardens. Instead of Lonely Planet or even a Baedeker, their guide book was Jefferson’s copy of Observations on Modern Gardening by one Thomas Whately.
As David McCullough recounts in his excellent John Adams, the road trip had no great historical significance. But it was “the one and the only time” when the famous frenemies, the "North and South Poles of the American Revolution,” would spend “off on their own together.” And, perhaps given my circumstances on the road, I can’t help dwelling on this image of the two Great Men driving around the English countryside, John and Tom, just a couple of dudes, a couple of American tourists.
Liu Xiaobo died last Thursday in prison in China.
Liu was a political activist who spent his adult life campaigning for democracy in China. Having already been in and out of prison for his activities since the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, Liu published the so-called “Charter ’08” in 2008, a document modeled on Vaclav Havel’s “Charter ’77,” calling on the Chinese government to allow multi-party democracy. The government responded by sentencing him to 11 years in prison for “subverting” the state.
In 2010 he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Beijing refused him permission to go to Norway to receive the award. An empty chair symbolized his absence in Oslo.
A bronze statue of Pierre le Moyne d’Iberville looks over the harbor of Havana, the city where he died in 1706 while preparing for an expedition against the English colonies of the Carolinas.
His was a life that illustrated the interconnectedness of the histories of the countries of North America. Born in Montreal in 1661, d’Iberville made his name as a young man in the French struggle against English encroachment in the Hudson Bay area. In 1686 he joined an expedition to James Bay and captured three forts, over which he was made commander. In 1690 he distinguished himself in a battle fought in today’s Schenectady, New York. And the Hudson Bay campaign of 1697 made him the greatest hero of New France.
Facts are stranger than fiction.
The last couple of weeks I was in “California,” or rather “the Californias,” moving from the Mexican state of Baja California (Lower California) to the modern U.S. state of California. Originally the name applied to both of these as well as Baja California Sur (South Lower California) and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Spanish conquistadors affixed the name to this vast territory in the early 16th century, when they knew hardly anything about it. In fact they thought it was an island and drew early maps accordingly.
There was a tank outside Havana’s Museum of the Revolution with a bilingual sign next to it that said, “from [this tank] Commander in Chief Fidel Castro shot US vessel Houston during the mercenary invasion at Bay of Pigs in April 1961.”
Wow, I thought. Really? Fidel Castro, commander in chief of all Cuban forces, personally operated a tank at the Bay of Pigs, and personally fired on, and hit, a US ship. I was skeptical.
A bit later, a stone’s throw away and still on the museum grounds, I found another tank. It had a nearly identical sign next to it. Apparently Fidel also personally operated this tank and personally fired on and hit the Houston.
Continuing the previous post’s theme of Indiana Jones and tales I should have told when I visited the relevant scenes, here is the story of how the Ark of the Covenant — yes, the one with the Ten Commandments inside — may or may not really be in northern Ethiopia.
According to Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses built the Ark with wood with gold covering. The Israelites then carried it with them during their 40 years in the desert before Joshua led them, with the Ark at the head of the column, across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.
This is a tale familiar to my fellow Yale graduates, which is why I neglected to tell it when I visited Machu Picchu some months ago. But it’s worth telling, nonetheless. It is the story of the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones.
In 1907, Yale University sought a replacement for its resident expert on Latin American history, Edward Gaylord Bourne, who would soon die an early death in his 40s. Yale wound up appointing one Hiram Bingham III. Bingham was the son of missionaries and had grown up in Hawaii, where his grandfather Hiram I founded the Punahou School, which he attended and from which both Barack Obama and Sun Yatsen, the father of modern China, also graduated.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."