Mickey and Mona on the Great Wall

Nov 13, 2013 8:45:30 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

“Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

In this month's column, he tells a story of finding the popular icons Mickey and Mona on The Great Wall, how this ties in to globalization and the greater meaning this tale has in the context of education abroad.


The country singer, author and sometimes politician, Kinky Friedman, asserted that the three things that just about everybody in the world has heard of are Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola. They are, however, not alone in having almost universal recognition. Mickey Mouse, the Mona Lisa and The Great Wall of China are icons of their respective civilizations. They also exist as images that permeate most corners of the world.

Mickey Mouse was created in 1928 in the Walt Disney studios. His life corresponds to the growth of popular sound film across the world and Hollywood’s domination of that art form. Simultaneously, he embodies a version of American values: positive, open, lovable, cheerful and optimistic. That this represents an archetypal, even stereotypical, construct does not diminish its power or its international appeal. Mickey still greets visitors to Disney worlds in the USA, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Paris (and will do so shortly in Shanghai), and persists as the logo of the Walt Disney Empire. He is also ambiguous and is used colloquially to indicate something trivial or superficial: a Mickey Mouse idea or organisation, for example, lacks seriousness or depth. The meaning of Mickey is all on the surface.

Mickey Mouse IMG_0648
Photo: Mickey Mouse by OZinOH

In contrast, Mona Lisa signifies enigmatic and multi-layered complexity: a mystery to be interpreted and unraveled. Painted by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence, probably between 1503 and 1506, the portrait of “La Giaconda” represents something at the opposite end of a spectrum of meaning from Mickey. The portrait implies profound depth beyond the surface of appearance – a soul that is not readily open to interpretation; it invites introspection. It is, in one context, representative of European High Art. Impenetrable and elusive in significance, it reflects an archetypal (even stereotypical) version of European culture and may be seen as symbolic of what American travelers and students seek across the Atlantic; it encapsulates an idea of what may not be easily found at home.

The contrast between Mickey and Mona signifies a persistent distinction between the constructed meanings of America and Europe (precisely the distinction that permeated the work of Washington Irving, Mark Twain, Henry James, and many other American authors): America is seen as relatively simple and accessible built around positive notions of optimism and openness – a place where, with persistence and endeavor, it is possible to realize aspirations embodied in notions of the American Dream. Like the frontier myth, that encapsulates a sense of possibility: the barriers to advancement are identifiable and clear – the path ahead discernible. In contrast, the archetypal meanings of Europe, as embodied in the figure of Mona Lisa, are weighed down with an accumulated sense of history. What is represented is a set of paradoxes that are difficult to penetrate, understand and deconstruct.

Mona Lisa
Photo: Mona Lisa by Doug

A point of intimacy between Mickey and Mona is hard to imagine. The barriers go beyond those inherent in inter-species engagement. They reflect a set of significant dichotomies: popular culture and high art; modernity and history; simplicity and complexity; transparency and enigma; America and Europe.

The Great Wall of China suggests another set of meanings. Its history expresses even greater longevity than Mona. It was begun sometime around 200 BC and continued to be built and rebuilt over centuries. As an icon of Chinese civilization it represents longevity, size and impenetrability. A wall exists for two purposes – to keep things in and to keep things out; it signifies exclusion. The Great Wall embodies a sense of mystery: a complex narrative based upon the vastness of time, space, and the question of what the wall conceals.

What these three icons signify variously is an idea of America as simple, positive and open; an idea of Europe as complex, enigmatic and dense in meaning; an idea of China as impenetrable, vast and ancient. What does it mean, therefore, to find these diverse icons in intimate conjunction and in what unlikely setting will these coexist?

Great Wall of China
Photo: The Great Wall of China by DragonWoman

The answer is somewhat banal. As part of CAPA’s Beijing workshop we arranged a group visit to the Great Wall. In the several souvenir shops that litter the environment we found mugs festooned with representations of Mickey next to tea towels bearing a portrait of the Mona Lisa. This unlikely conjunction suggests a number of meanings.

Most obviously, icons have commercial potential and universal value. People wish to posses these images outside of the context in which they were created. Mickey and Mona are, thus, reconstructed without the kinds of iconic resonances discussed here. Their co-existence suggests that globalization creates a form of de-cultured synthesis: tourists pay to enter the Great Wall and buy representations of Mickey and Mona that exist outside of their national, cultural and historical contexts. These things belong to nowhere and everywhere, nobody and everybody –icons stripped of particularity; globalization reduces the significance of culture as a distinctive signifier of difference.

Mickey and Mona are immortal and exist in many places: they also reflect some archetypal notions of American and European identity, and a distinction between a form of the modern and an idea of the density of history. Mickey has no real history. Mona only has history. Mickey is transparent. Mona is opaque. To find them in intimate proximity at the Great Wall is to experience the manner in which globalization has modified meaning. It also suggests an alternative agenda for education abroad.

It is, of course, important to teach students that different countries have different assumptions, systems and beliefs. These are worthy of study and essential aspects of what students need to learn: the realities of difference. That simple message is consistent with traditional preoccupations of education abroad. When Mickey and Mona nestle together in a souvenir shop at the Great Wall they indicate a parallel set of contrasting imperatives. Globalization and related impulses (technology in particular) have created phenomena in which cultural difference begins to evaporate.

Mickey and Mona signify what is profoundly different in our concepts of America and Europe. On the Great Wall, they signify a melding of those distinctions. When transformed by context they indicate the ways in which globalization creates a new space in which the meaning of cultural icons is transformed.

In education abroad, what is specific to place and time is an important part of what we teach but that has to co-exist with an alternative agenda. Student learning objectives that focus only on inter-cultural or inter-national distinctions are failing to recognize the dynamics of contemporary reality in which the forces of globalization re-shape our worlds. A visit to the Great Wall suggests another set of imperatives. Mickey and Mona teach us that differences persist and, simultaneously, cease to exist.