Past presented

BBC turns focus to Chinese history in six episode show

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China’s Leonardo: Su Song

Any statement that begins with the words “it is a truth universally acknowledged” is instantly recognisable as the opening line from one of Jane Austen’s most famous novels, Pride and Prejudice. In his recent BBC and PBS TV series about China, English historian Michael Wood uses it to give a novel twist to a quotation from one of China’s most revered novels, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that everything long united will fall apart and everything long divided will come back together again,” says Wood in the opening episode of The Story of China. As he traces China’s 4,000-year history through six episodes, Wood uses this quotation as the overarching theme for his series. The world’s oldest continuous civilisation, he concludes, is governed by constant cycles of destruction and renewal.

One particularly destructive cycle, which spanned most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has now given way to a period of renewal, says Wood. It is turning China into a global superpower, and one which the West needs to understand better.

China’s new prominence on the global scene is the reason why this documentary series was commissioned and may also explain why it has received such attention from critics and audiences alike. It helps that Wood is to TV historians what Michael Palin is to travel documentaries: a genial, enthusiastic and educated broadcaster who excels in making big themes accessible.

The series opens with a view of the night sky, which prompts a discussion of the all-important ‘Mandate of Heaven’. Throughout its history, Chinese rulers have sought to gain the Mandate of Heaven and to keep society in balance with the eternal order of the universe.

Succeeding episodes demonstrate that ‘barbarians’ have perpetually disrupted this state of affairs by invading China. During the first four episodes, they continually arrive from the Steppes – not least the Northern Wei who overthrew the Jin Dynasty, then the Mongols who defeated the Song and finally, the Manchus who toppled the Ming and created the Qing Dynasty. In the last two episodes, it is other foreign powers – mostly from Europe – that carve China up, shattering Imperial China’s claim to hold the Mandate of Heaven once and for all.

Before the series aired, few people in the UK had likely heard of the Tang or Song dynasties let alone their many achievements –which included scientific and engineering advances made centuries before their ‘discovery’ in the West.

And why would they know, when Mao Zedong tried to destroy as much Chinese history as possible in the aftermath of his 1949 revolution (as a means to smash his own people’s attachment to their traditional customs and ways of life).

Indeed, one of the most moving scenes comes in the last episode when Wood visits the Bao family of Anhui province. They unfold a beautiful eighteenth century painting. It depicts generations of their ancestors during the Ming and Qing dynasties when they had been salt merchants. The only reason the painting still exists is because Bao and his grandmother buried it in the garden before the Red Guards arrived to burn the family’s artefacts. They sacrificed every other item of art and calligraphy to make sure this treasured painting survived.

The fact that relatively little of China’s physical history is left standing makes it tougher for Wood to bring the past back to life. And it is not just the fault of the Cultural Revolution and Maoist urban planning (i.e. bulldozing ancient buildings to create wide roads and squares). Nature has been equally destructive.

Wood explains that it is very easy to imagine what ancient Rome or Constantinople once looked like because many of their buildings have withstood the test of time. But almost nothing is left of the great Song Dynasty capital of Kaifeng, for example. Much of it got washed away because of continual flooding by the Yellow River.

Ironically, perhaps, the Yellow River is also where China’s civilisation began. Rome had Romulus and Remus, but the Yellow River produced Fuxi and Nuwa, who are said to have crafted humans from its mud and used the leftovers to make dogs and chickens. We learn this from a local woman that Wood meets at a market. China may have fewer ancient buildings than Rome, but it has never lacked people, and Wood uses them and their oral traditions to good effect.

The programme excels in putting Chinese history and its people into a context that’s more understandable for a Western audience. The great Song Dynasty thinker Su Song is described as China’s Leonardo da Vinci. Or rather, Leonardo is the West’s Su Song, who was making discoveries in fields like astronomy four centuries before his Italian counterpart.

Many Westerners do not know much about China (beyond associating it with a big wall, lots of bicycles and sweet and sour pork), but at least programmes like Wood’s are starting to bridge the gap. One avid viewer was 14 year-old Erin Horne from England, who has been learning Mandarin at school since she was five. She says, “The only dynasty I really knew very much about before this was the Ming Dynasty because I went to a British Museum exhibition about it. But I’m now doing lots of reading about all the places in the documentary because I hope to visit China with my school.”

When she does go there she may get to see a life-size replica of one of Zheng He’s massive Treasure ships, which are being rebuilt in Nanjing using fifteenth century methods. The Ming admiral set sail almost a century before Columbus, in a ship that was four times larger (how far he got remains a source of academic dispute).

Wood’s uplifting conclusion is that China’s own people are now reacquainting themselves with their long history. In one memorable scene, he takes part in grave-sweeping ceremony with 300 members of the Qin family in Wuxi. Each year, they hold an annual gathering at the tomb of their ancestor Qin Guan, an eleventh century poet (his most famous verse is: “If love between both sides can last for an age, why need they stay together night and day?”). The Chinese, Wood says, are seeking a new identity anchored in their past.

For those seeking to do business in China in the decades ahead, knowing some of the nation’s history will be increasingly helpful. A TV reviewer with the Daily Telegraph said this show is as good a starting point as any, adding this note of qualification: “Michael Wood, an Anglo-Saxonist by background, can’t possibly know everything about China, but he’s a welcome companion through the firecrackers, dragons, courtesy and bloodshed of Chinese history.”

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