It can be difficult to convey the broad sweep of China’s history in six hours. More than one professor has struggled — even when given a whole semester of lectures — to properly tell the story from Yao to the Ming and then on to the Yao Ming. It’s hard, then, to fault the producers of the BBC Two documentary The Story of China (being broadcast this summer in the US on PBS, viewable online) for perhaps falling into the trap of the old Chinese saying, “走马看花” — to view flowers while racing a horse — i.e. attaining a superficial understanding through cursory observation.
At least once a decade the public broadcasting networks of the Anglo-American world put together a multi-part documentary on the Middle Kingdom. (See: China: A Century of Revolution, and China from the Inside). The Story of China is simply more ambitious in its scope. It also differs by having TV historian Michael Wood out front — he’s one of the producers and chief writer of the series — as a stand-in for the audience in this exploration of China’s past.
Wood is an amiable enough travel companion, even if he sometimes wanders into pie-eyed hyperbole. (Chang’an was the greatest city of its time! Luoyang was the greatest city of its time! Kaifeng was the greatest city of its time and the greatest city among multiple parallel universes!) And as a historian — or at least somebody who plays a historian on TV — Wood often seems a little too eager to believe whatever he’s told. Folklore and mythology are interpolated with research and archaeological evidence even as Wood’s charmingly naïve Slow Boat to China act sometimes leaves the viewer to wonder if he can’t tell the difference between the two.
There are times when what appears to be the town drunk is given equal screen time as the recognized experts. Fortunately, many of those experts are top notch, especially Jingyi Jenny Zhao, a fellow at the Needham Research Institute at Cambridge University, and Harvard University’s Lik Hang Tsui; they provide much needed heft to Wood’s sometimes moony platitudes.
Nevertheless, there is much to like here. The discussion of Confucianism and its evolution from outlier philosophy to state ideology is done well. Film buffs can have a bit of fun spotting clips from Chinese costume dramas used as B-roll for the narrative. The myth of a closed China is dispensed with early in Episode 2, which then segues into a lengthy bit on Tang-era (618-907) cosmopolitanism, imperial expansion, and China’s religious and cultural diversity. Fans of the Song (960-1279) are in for a treat as Episode 3 is mostly a deep dive into the Song, even though the founding mythology of the Zhao brothers, the first two emperors of the Song Dynasty, is given an unwarranted amount of credibility. The foreignness of the Manchus is not forgotten, and the role that the Manchus played in creating the boundaries of the modern state is done well. A long bit on the Taiping War (1850-1864) is useful for its discussion of one of the deadliest and most important 19th-century conflicts. A few fascinating and important figures who may be relatively unknown outside of China are given the spotlight, including the poet Du Fu (712-770 CE), traveling monk Xuanzang (602-664), Song-era polymath Su Song (1020-1101), female poet Li Qingzhao (1084-1155), and the Kangxi Emperor [r. 1661-1722].
No documentary can be perfect, especially one as ambitious as this project.
Perhaps the greatest conceptual flaw is the relentless emphasis on continuity. Wood goes out of his way to hammer home the point that China’s present connects with the past in a myriad way. It is unclear though whether this is a latent bit of Orientalism (the “timelessness” of non-Western societies) or an undigested blob of Chinese exceptionalism. To say that Chinese culture and civilization displays a striking continuity is one thing, but to make the same argument about the Chinese state puts the documentary on less sure footing. Certainly there is an ideal of unity and continuity, but the story of China is also one of rupture and disunity. The documentary treats these periods as interludes rather than as eras to be considered on an equal basis with the great states of Tang, Song, and Qing.
The 13th-century Mongolian invasion and conquest of China is practically relegated to a post-credit scene in the episode on the Song. The 17th-century Ming-Qing transition is streamlined to such an extent that Li Zicheng and the rebel armies which toppled the Ming aren’t mentioned at all. The less said about the opening establishment shot (a cartoon dragon against a backdrop of fireworks complete with sound effects) the better. There are other bits with which the more pedantic expert might quibble as well.
Ultimately, this is a documentary for your aunt or dad: somebody who is interested China but might not ever come here. It might also have some use in the classroom, as the condensed nature of each episode might make good “background viewing” for survey courses on Chinese history and civilization. Finally, armchair travelers may enjoy following Wood around China as he searches for the perfect backdrop for his historical bromides.
That most of the sites he chooses have long since been destroyed, or at best were rebuilt in the last quarter century, suggests that China’s connection with its past is perhaps not as certain as this documentary would want us to believe.
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