Have you spotted our staff on TV this year? Scroll down to watch/read…
Dr Anindita Ghosh featured on the BBC2 programme ‘Seven Days in Summer: Countdown to Partition’ on August 15, 2017 as expert commentator. You can watch it here:
Dr Anindita Ghosh also appeared on German television channel Das Erste in January 2017, discussing post-Brexit Empire nostalgia… you can watch it here:
Watch Dr Anindita Ghosh debating ‘Should we be proud of the British Empire?’ on the BBC in June 2016:
In May Dr Eloise Moss appeared on the BBC series Family Finders:
BBC One – Family Finders, Series 2, Episode 1
Behind The Story of China: Yangwen Zheng interviews Michael Wood about his new TV series!
YW: So Michael, I think its fitting that we start by asking you what led you to China?
MW: Oh, Yangwen that’s a big question! Well, if I was going to go really back in history I would have to say that it was in Manchester when I was back in school, that I bought volumes of Chinese poetry, and one especially, by A.C. Graham, on the late Tang Dynasty poems-
YW: That’s really old stuff!
MW: I fell in love with this stuff. In fact I can even recite a Du Fu poem in Chinese.
YW: In Chinese?
MW: I loved it, and that was when I was at school. So I always had an interest in China, but that was only as an amateur, and then when I was doing my doctoral research in Oxford I shared a room with a German sinologist, and he used to pass me books and say ‘You’ve got to read this. You’ll never have read anything like this before.’ And then in the 1980s I got to travel around China quite a lot, and I went out to the far West when it opened up in 1984, to Kashgar–
YW: That’s really early.
MW: and all these places, and I went to Kaifeng for the first time. My Beijing friends laugh at me for my affection for Kaifeng but I like Kaifeng. However the last time I was in China, properly, was in 1991, until we made this series. So I had been away for a long, long time. But I went away, back then, with great feelings of affection for the Chinese people; I actually had a fantastic time and the people were so hospitable, I love that about them. And then in 2007 we made a series called The Story of India that went all over the world-
YW: Yes I saw that!
MW: -and afterward people said ‘You’ve got to do the same for China, nobody’s ever done that.’ So that’s how it happened. We filmed throughout 2014-15, and we’ve been twelve times, so it’s been quite a long job. So that’s what led us to this series — and of course it’s a great moment to do it! It’s an even better moment to do it now than it would have been had we actually done it when everybody said yes about five or six years ago, because suddenly we’re like in a different phase of Chinese history aren’t we, you know with President Xi Jinping, the China dream, suddenly it’s all happened.
YW: The ‘golden age of Chinese-Anglo relations.’
MW: Yes! Something is happening, and having been at school and a student through the Mao era, and then having been a journalist through the Deng Xiaoping era, now we’re in a different time. So suddenly everybody wants to know about China, and we all need to know about China. And if you want to know about China, you have to know about the history.
YW: Right, excellent. I’m not sure if everybody would agree with you – I would, I think everybody needs to know a little bit about China, but sometimes it’s not always…
MW: Well if you want to understand the world, you need to study China – and if you’re not interested in understanding the world, then there’s no point me speaking to you, I mean I’m a public service broadcasting man, my job is to try and convey things to people!
YW: And from now on China will play a big role on the world stage, so it benefits everybody, especially students, to have a little bit of mental furniture about China.
MW: I think so. I also think being able to have empathy towards other civilizations and cultures is a very important principle in life, to be honest. In the case of China it’s very important because there have been so many misunderstandings, there’s been so much anti-Chinese stuff in the West since 1949, you know, I really think that.
YW: I think so too, as a China scholar.
MW: I had my own feelings about having spent a lot of time in China a long time ago, having really enjoyed being there with the people, and when you’re making a series of films like this it’s not enough to just tell a narrative. To me, you want to create a feeling of empathy. The Chinese population are a fifth of the whole world. You want the people watching it to feel empathy, and-
YW: Do you think the film will accomplish that?
MW: I hope so, yeah. You want people to feel, ‘Oh I like these people!’ you want them to feel ‘I’d like to be there!’, otherwise they’ll switch off. And therefore you need to put yourself in their shoes a little bit. There’s a book written by Joseph R. Levenson, Confucian China and its Modern Fate, and he wrote of the end of the ‘great leap forward’ in the early 1960s that ‘Chinese people have lost the warmth of home.’ And I said to everybody in our first meeting on the production, ‘I want to show that. I want to let non-Chinese people feel the warmth of home, vis-a-vis the Chinese.’ So we begin it, not with X-thousand BC and the archaeology, but we begin it with a train journey to Wuxi. I had these contacts with a family in Wuxi, so we begin the series with the journey for the Qingming Festival for tomb-sweeping day (when the Chinese visit the graves of their ancestors to honour them by sweeping their tombs and leaving gifts of food and drink, usually held at the beginning of April each year). We go and stay with the family, we go with them to their ancestor’s tomb, and we talk to the family about the meaning of family and the meaning of history, and about what the family’s gone through, and how the family’s story mirrors the nation’s story. Then we all have a banquet and we all drink far too much! So before you ever start thinking about history, as the viewer you’ve been received into a Chinese family, and they’ve shared important things with you.
YW: That’s a great way to start telling the story of China.
MW: I hope so.
YW: Because normally you start with the big event — revolutions, wars — and sometimes it doesn’t achieve the same connection. This leads me to the second question, which is about the stories of making the film, and what were the highlights?
MW: Lots! Travelling a lot in the 1980s, just in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, it was very easy to think that a lot of the deep culture of China had been erased in the Communist era. I spent years in India and cultures in the Near East where you can still touch on things that are thousands of years old, and it was easy to think that these things had gone in China — but they’ve not.
YW: That’s great, that’s good.
MW: And so the highlights were always, always the best things were the people. The people’s stories were so revealing that we could have made entire films about some of the families we filmed with. You’ve got to tell the big narrative, you’ve got to talk about the Ming Dynasty and the Yongle Emperor, all these kind of people, and you’ve got to tell the Ming story, the building of Nanjing, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Zheng He’s Voyages, stuff like that. But we also, having done our programme about The English Village, went down to a Chinese village, in the Hangzhou region, we went to one village where the family had their old wood-block printed family history-
YW: Their genealogy-
MW: Yes! And we’d say ‘What happened in the Ming?’ and they’d say ‘Well, little Bau was made the brick captain, he’d get to deliver the bricks, and he had to go to Nanjing!’
YW: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Each family has its own history — in volumes — my family has 36 volumes!
MW: I know, that’s fantastic. So those family stories were great, and the more you found them- I mean, I love that area of Hangzhou and some of the villages there were great- you can stay in some of them now, see the Anshun, those kind of places, they’re beautiful. Through a local photographer I got in touch with this guy in a town nearby, and he lived in this crumbling house behind the shops in what looked like a modern town to begin with, and the house was like 300 years old, with the rain pouring in through the courtyard, and he took us up the stairs to the ‘altar room’, and there were all the plaques for the ancestors — 40 generations!
YW: That’s amazing!
MW: Two of them had top degrees in the Song Dynasty, and he’d hidden them in the Cultural Revolution, you know; and then our family in Tongyao were ordinary people in the early Ming, and then they became salt merchants in the Qing Dynasty, and they not only saved their books, but one branch of the family had saved this painting three yards by two yards done by a court painter in the 1760s/70s! He told the story of how they’d saved it in the Taiping Rebellion – they fled the Taiping rebels, and they were caught up on the road, and told to throw all their belongings on the road, and the father said, ‘I’ll give you everything we have, but please don’t destroy the painting.’ And he told how the rebel stamped on it with his foot, and then he looked up and he said ‘You are a dutiful son. Take it with you.’ And then with the Cultural Revolution, the grandma came one night and said ‘Come with me and take the picture and the family genealogy and these other things in a bag, we’re going to bury them in the fields, we can’t let them go.’ And people would bring these things out to show us, you know, so these people’s stories were fantastic.
YW: Well that’s great! So I think one of the questions we would like to ask is, how do you think this film will impact, or would reach our students — what would you like them to make out of it?
MW: Television a great medium for seeding ideas, and if you want to know more you can look elsewhere, so the issue is ‘Can we entertain? Can we show you that this is so interesting that you’ll want to know more?’ I’ve made many films — I’ve made well over 100 documentaries in my career — and I’ve often had that thing where people have written and said ‘I became a teacher because of seeing this.’ I remember we did some films about Greek archaeology years ago and I met an American college girl in the Met Museum who said ‘I saw that and I’m going to become an archaeologist!’, and then about ten years later we were filming at Troy, and she came up and she was digging Troy!
YW: So you never know, it can change lives!
MW: It can change lives, it does change lives because it’s a wonderful medium for inspiring people I think, so there’s that element. I think if it provokes interest that’s great, and if it provokes a bit of understanding and empathy with China then that’s wonderful. If people come away going ‘I really liked that, those people were great, that Ching family in Wuxi they were really nice people!’, if we can pull that off, that would be really great. And if Chinese people watch it and think that it was worth doing at all, then I’ll be really grateful and relieved, because of course the worst thing is if you make a film about another culture and the people of that culture say ‘Why did you bother?’
YW: So will it be shown in China?
MW: Well, we don’t know.
YW: It would be really interesting to get the feedback from the people you interviewed.
MW: I really hope so. The Story of India has been seen online in China and there’s three translations in Chinese, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and on the mainland, so we have a kind of access point in China, and my Shakespeare biography is in mainland China as well, so I would love this to go out in China. As I look at it, I think so far there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. We’re in that cleft stick where for a Western audience, if we don’t tell the truth about the Great Leap Forward and the Great Famine, and the nature of the regime, and then a Western audience is going to say ‘Hmm.’ The same if you don’t mention Tiananmen Square. I don’t want it to be ruled out by the Chinese, because I’d like it to be seen there, and because there’s such an interest in history in China, such a big interest in history. I think the Chinese will like the fact that it’s a celebration of China — triumphs and tragedies, like India there are great achievements and great tragedies, I think they will appreciate the feeling of empathy in that, I think they will really like the Chinese people’s involvement. I wanted people to carry on into that story of Mao and not have it just confirm their expectations, I want people to think. But the big thing I always go back to is the real heroes of the story are the Chinese people.
YW: The people — yes.
MW: And they are creative, heroic, long-suffering, amazingly resilient — the story doesn’t end with Xi Jinping going in a golden chariot down the mall with the Queen, the story ends going back to the family in Wuxi and celebrating with them, and it morphs into the Chinese New Year.
YW: Yes, because that’s history, and that will go on forever. Sounds like we’re moving towards the fourth topic, which is what’s going to happen in the future, what is this going to lead to?
MW: Well, I don’t know. It depends on if we carry this off, and I always say its an ‘if’, I mean you never know maybe nobody will watch it —
YW: (Laughs) I’ll watch it, we’ll watch it! Our students will watch it!
MW: Well tell your friends, get them to email the BBC! You just can’t tell what counts as a success and what doesn’t, and whether people will like China and want to stick with it, but I hope they will — I mean it’s going to be an ‘A’ level subject isn’t it, Chinese History, so there’ll be a lot of interest I hope. I’ve been thinking about family history more, and it would fantastic to follow one Chinese family through history. I’d really love to do the Chinese version of The English Village. There’s some wonderful stories, but almost each one of the stories, like the Qing family, could be a whole film.
YW: Yes — my family’s history starts almost from the Tang Dynasty as well. It’s because that’s the time when China became more stable, and so could families be, and because they were moving down to the south they needed to keep the family together, and so that’s why they kept the history alive.
MW: That’s fantastic. So what I think this represents for the historian — and I’m not a China historian at all, I’m an amateur really — is that you can tell the story of emperors and all that, but actually I think for students this micro-history of regions and people offers an opportunity to learn so much more about the ethos of things.
YW: People’s lives, people’s history — microhistory, it’s what we should be doing. Well thank you very much!
MW: A pleasure!
The Story of China begins on Thursday 21st January, 9 p.m. BBC Two, and BBC iplayer. Interview transcribed by Dr Eloise Moss