Michael Wood on China: There Is No Such Thing as ‘Destined’ in History

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Michael Wood on China: There Is No Such Thing as ‘Destined’ in History

The historian and host of The Story Of China discusses the Chinese civilization and his view on China’s future.

Michael Wood on China: There Is No Such Thing as ‘Destined’ in History
Credit: PBS

China is now a powerful player on the world stage, making headlines in the United States and across the world on an almost daily basis. But while most people recognize China’s growing economic and political importance, it is a country about which most of the world – especially Americans – still know surprisingly little.  Tracing the crucial influence of the country’s deep-rooted civilizational ideas of order, ethics, the family, and ancestors, the British historian Michael Wood brings The Story of China, a six-part documentary series exploring the 4,000-year history of China to PBS on June 20. The Diplomat’s DD Wu interviewed Wood about his time in China and his view on the clash between the East and the West.

As a professor born in Manchester, who studied history and English in Oxford and is an expert on English history and literature, what inspired your interest in China? What made you decide to do a documentary on China’s thousands-of-years history?

The rise of the new China is the greatest phenomenon of our time, and a historian might say that China is the big story of the last century of world history. China is the country that we all want to know about, and the premise of the docu-series is that to understand China today you need to start with its history; its history explains so much, including the Chinese people’s view of their own civilization.

As for my own interest, I am a professor, it’s true, and I do write both popular and academic history about British history. I am also part of an independent film company that makes history and culture films. After our Story of India series (PBS, 2008), everyone said we should do the same kind of grand arc of narrative on China, and we were immediately excited by the idea and the challenge. I’d filmed in China before, starting in the late ’80s, and came away with many positive and happy memories from that time. But in terms of personal interests, I got hooked on Chinese poetry much earlier — when I was at high school in Manchester and a post-graduate at Oxford.  At that time, I shared a house with a sinologist who was always recommending things for me to read.

Who is your target audience? What are the main takeaways you want your audience to get?

Our main target audience is the enthusiastic viewer who would like to be entertained, transported to wonderful places and cultures, and learn more about such a fascinating part of the world. We also hope to reach students, high school kids, anyone seriously studying the subject for whom we hoped the episodes could be an entertaining introduction.

We try to make the series accessible and fun, colorful and interesting and full of detail. It is also somewhat challenging because history is complex and there are rarely simple explanations for events.

Most of all we want the U.S. audience to get a sense of:

  • How fascinating and rich Chinese history and civilization are
  • How the past helps explain the present and even points a way to the future
  • The Chinese peoples’ view of themselves and their pride in their history
  • The warmth of the people. Too often in the U.K. (and maybe in the States too?), we read slightly cold things about China like how the people are difficult to get to know, but that’s not true. I hope the PBS audience will really enjoy spending time with the Chinese people on these six historical adventures.

Michael Wood with a descendant of the family who sheltered the first Taiping rebels. Source: PBS

Do you have anything special to say to the native Chinese audience?

I hope they think that these films made by an outsider, by a middle-aged Brit, were worth making. (We had, however, lots of Chinese colleagues and collaborators — it really was a collaboration!) I hope they find the series interesting, possibly even they learn things they didn’t know. And I hope they find the viewpoint interesting even if they don’t always agree.

Can you take us behind the scenes? How long did you prepare for the documentary? What books did you study? How many cities did you visit? How many staff do you have to work on the documentary?

I wrote a 30-page treatment for PBS back in 2009 as they were one of our major partners in getting things off the ground. Then, beginning in April 2013, we had six months’ preparation, before the first shoot at the end of 2013. We shot the series through spring 2015 and edited through January or February of 2016. It was a long haul — almost four years in total.

Our team here in London included two Chinese speakers, one of whom is a native Chinese person. And we had a great production team in Beijing. Chinese production included a production manager on the road and sometimes a Chinese cameraman, a camera assistant, and a sound person, too. We had help from many people at the grassroots level: from local experts to young, up-and-coming scholars like Jenny Zhao at Cambridge and Lik Hang Tsui at Harvard.  It was great to have young voices. And it was all really good fun; we have missed them so much since we stopped filming!

Chinese history is such an immense field and so many brilliant things have been written these days. All one can hope to do is to scratch the surface and make a coherent, lively narrative. I’m the older generation, of course, so my earlier reading tended to be things like the translations of Arthur Waley, the great KC Chang on the origins of Chinese civilization, John Fairbank, Jonathan Spence, Theodore de Bary, and so on. In addition, we discovered new wonders, including Patricia Ebery’s general histories, Ronald Egan’s wonderful book on Li Qingzhao, and Henrietta Harrison’s books, especially her fantastic portrait of the farmer and diarist Liu Dapeng in The Man Awakened from Dreams, which led us to his home village near Taiyuan. Local history was important to us, as we were inspired by David Faure’s Chinese local studies team in Hong Kong Chinese University. One of the very great pleasures of doing this job is that you have the time to consider and engage with all this great scholarship — to sit at the feet of great scholars who have thought about China all their lives.

Michael Wood with Korean scholars at the Confucian cemetery in Qufu. Source: PBS

We traveled out to Turfan and Kashgar, down to the mountains of Guiping and to all the great historic cities including Beijing, Xi’an, Luoyang, Kaifeng, Suzhou, Yangzhou, Nanjing, Wuxi, Shanghai, Quanzhou, Guangdong, Guiping… and smaller ones, too!  We also went right out into the villages, following the story of local families.

Did you encounter any difficulties when shooting in China? I noticed that you successfully entered some places that usually don’t allow filming; how did you make that happen?  How did you cooperate with local governments? Any interesting stories?

No difficulties — it was remarkably easy. We weren’t denied access to any place for filming. As is the rule, we were supervised, but once they saw what we were doing, they relaxed and let us film with no government stooge. The local provincial governments were invariably very helpful. They entertained us, provided extra help, and couldn’t have been nicer.  I remember the mayor of Guiping especially fondly — she was lovely!

Could you please share with us some of the most impressive stories of experiences with local people during your trip in China? Are there any “wow” moments or anything that was completely different from your expectation?

We turned up fantastic local stories: families who had saved their documents and genealogies, their woodblock printed gazetteers, and their paintings and calligraphy from the rampages of the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution. I especially remember Mr. Xie in Qimen County, Huizhou, who was a descendant of Song dynasty scholars, standing in his crumbling mansion showing us his altar room containing wooden plaques dedicated to 36 generations of ancestors. We watched as he said prayers and lit incense to honor of their memories. We all found it incredibly moving.

Another favorite of mine was the time we spent with the Qin family in Wuxi during the Qingming festival; 300 members turned up for the “tomb sweeping.” Frank Ching (The Wall Street Journal’s first Beijing correspondent back in Deng’s day) had written a family history, and he initiated us into the world of a Chinese family.

Michael Wood walking down the 13 Hong old warehouse street, Guangzhou. Source: PBS.

You said in your documentary that “In the West, we see history as the rise and fall of different civilizations. In China, this one civilization has gone through cycles of order and disorder.” Do you think contemporary China is also a part of this continuing thousand-year civilization? Why or why not?

You could argue that the CP [Communist Party] replicated many aspects of Ming and Qing bureaucratic autocracy, but then many important parts of Chinese culture are still rooted in the deep past: attitudes to family and ancestors, to auspiciousness, to authority, to food… you name it! And the Confucian ethos of civility and respect for the old is still important in Chinese culture, despite the worried ads about intergenerational strains on TV.

What’s the biggest concern for contemporary China as well as for its people, in your opinion? Why?

Environmental issues like population, land use and pollution… which is why China supported the Paris agreement so strongly. No doubt, political questions like freedom of speech are also important, and there has recently been a huge grassroots push against party corruption.

What’s the biggest difference and the biggest similarity between the Eastern culture and the Western culture, based on your personal experience?  

In a nutshell, I’d say that the differences include the stress on the collective as opposed to the individual (but this is changing in China now as individualism grows). Also religion: China is not a religious society, though hundreds of millions follow religions. It seems to me that there’s a very big contrast between the monotheisms of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions and the traditional Chinese view of the cosmos. Then there’s the fascinating question of the Chinese people’s deep sense of belonging to a unitary civilization, despite its many regional differences. Their great loyalty to “Han culture, speech and script” carries a whole universe with it, and it conditions how they see the world.

Do you think the clash of civilizations between the West and the East, as Samuel P. Huntington put it, is inevitable?

Not at all. I don’t agree with Huntington’s thesis any more than with “The End of History” by Francis Fukuyama, which already looks out of date with the rise of the new China. But the one thing you can never count on is that governments are always going to act calmly and rationally; irrationality is always lurking, as we are all learning afresh in 2017!

Many Western scholars have proposed that the United States and China, as a dominant and a rising power, are destined to go to war. What is your opinion as a historian and an European?

Not at all, I don’t know why they say that. There is no such thing as “destined” in history. The Chinese government is composed of very well educated technocrats, and it seems very unlikely that they would take that risk, or even want to do it. Why endanger all their achievements when they are in a position of power? The real dangers are probably from rogue states like North Korea, or unstable fundamentalist regimes, especially nuclear ones.

The Chinese belong to a very strong ancient civilization with a unique cultural identity. They are a civilizational state, and their history of four millennia gives them an unrivaled perspective on their own position in the world. They have gone through more suffering and upheaval than any other nation in the last 175 years… and we must not forget the effects of an almost uncontrolled boom in materialism, which is also having a profound impact on the lives and well being of the people — culturally, socially, spiritually, and psychologically.

But the age of war and destruction is over now; in our time, they have achieved the biggest lifting out of poverty in human history. The Chinese people I’ve met over the last four years are comfortable in their skins again, proud of their own civilization, and for all their frustrations with the CP, they seem to be pleased overall with the way most of it has gone in the last 35 years, especially after the nightmares of the Maoist era.

The Chinese government’s view of its own status in the world is that it has risen again to what it has been for much of history: a paramount power in the world, along with the U.S.

(This interview has been slightly edited for length.)