The Story of China — a “Review”

I just finished watching the PBS series and I’m left with a churning anger inside, a resentment. Ultimately it’s propaganda. The narrator — a British historian named Michael Wood — clearly loves Chinese history from a British historian’s perspective. He waxes enthusiastic for what he understands to be ancient Chinese traditions (ancestor worship for example) without ever considering how some of those old traditions actually hurt people and led to suffering over the years.

He paints in wide swaths to reach the final conclusion that now that China is capitalist, everyone is happy again.

He makes no effort to understand China at the time Chairman Mao (and others, not even his followers) wandered the countryside doing things like teaching the peasants to read. This British historian speaks only about the rural Chinese as vast numbers of people and he calls their villages “remote” — the villages are not remote at all in a world that is traveled on foot; they are only remote if you want to take a plane… They were not remote to the people who lived in them in the early and mid twentieth century and that is one reason for the incredible success of some of China’s most interesting revolutions, including Mao’s revolution at the end of WW II.

I love China so much I cannot even express it. I came home in 1983 and wondered where in the hell I had been, what in the hell had I seen. I spent the next decade figuring that out. I had been in a world so different from anything in my experience that I owed it an open mind, as open as possible, anyway. I was lucky to have been there only a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I saw the damage done to what I would now call “tourist attractions” (historical sites); I heard the stories of people who had survived the persecution. I read the fiction written in China throughout the 19th and 20th century. I did everything in my power to see how the streets with which I became familiar had come to be.

I saw legless men walking on their arms, their torso supported by a block of wood hung from the shoulders by suspenders. I was dumbfounded when a man tried to sell me his child. I spent Chinese New Year in a remote, rural fishing and farming village with no plumbing, no electricity but surrounded by friends. I spent an afternoon with two old men who owned an art store in the Fragrant Hills, their dream come true, the reward from their government for their having gone on the Long March. I woke up every morning to The East is Red. I lived there in the middle of the “one child policy” — which this historian calls “misguided” but which I know pertained only to urban Chinese and was designed to prevent further population explosion and another famine like that in the late 1950s. I don’t have words, as I’ve said before.

I would never ever in a million years attempt a conclusion about the progress or regress of Chinese society based on its political ideology or power structure. That this “historian” has done that upsets me a lot. Yes, it’s better to have than to have not. It’s far better to eat than it is to starve. It’s better to have an education for your kids than not, but what Chairman Mao accomplished (and I don’t like the man, I think he was unspeakably evil, and DJT reminds me of him) was real. The Maoist years ultimately served as a bridge for all Chinese — not just urban Chinese — into the modern world. In 1950, China’s rate of literacy was only 20% — an important point this historian did not mention.

Communism has many commonalities with traditional Chinese Confucianism. No, they are not the same, but the organization of an extended Chinese family is not so different from the organization of a work unit and most Chinese villages are FAMILY villages…

I don’t even think a Chinese can write the ultimate truth about China. I know I can’t. But when it comes to history I hate it when a historian negates complexity and reduces history to the events that interest him and the line that supports his biases.

All this being said, it is a captivating series and well worth watching.

Photo: Fish market in Guangzhou, 1983


15 thoughts on “The Story of China — a “Review”

  1. Which I think is why, when people say something that they know I might be questioning, their response is, “Guess you had to be there.” Most definitely.

  2. I’ve seen so much of this and I agree with you Martha, whole heartedly. I detest bias and I’ve watched a number of people on you tube spouting their personal bias and it is aggravating indeed.

    • It infuriates me. All this guy would have had to have done would be to say, “It’s very difficult for anyone who has not lived through all the changes in Chinese history to fully understand China. This is just how it seems to me.” The same can be said of any other culture. I’m sure he wouldn’t like some Chinese historian pronouncing on British history (as they have done, actually, with some pretty interesting pictures of England as a ravenous imperialist animal…) OH well.

  3. I haven’t seen this PBS series, so I can’t comment on bias, but you do have me interested. I’ll have to take a look. I, too, find China fascinating. I’m living here now and I constantly find myself intrigued by the culture and history here. I enjoy reading about it, too. Have you read a book called China in Ten Words by Yu Hua? I read it before moving here and it gave me so much insight into the history and culture. It’s amazing how I can observe the very things the author discusses in his book. And it’s captivating read. I highly recommend it.

    • I just looked at the book on Amazon and the ten words on the cover? Wow. I look forward to reading it.

      It’s so amazing to me that foreigners nowadays just “live” in China. For me, just getting there, was an enormous production. I needed an invitation from a college or university. That only happened after I’d been evaluated thoroughly by the “Wai Shi Ban” of the central government, the province, and the county. I had a very special visa and yeah, essentially I was a part-time Chinese. It took two years for all this to happen AFTER a college gave me an offer. AND the college that hired me? I never sent them a letter. My letter to other colleges was passed around until a college thought I’d be a good fit. THAT took more than a year. This was my first introduction to the “gossip system” as I ended up naming it.

      The PBS series is mostly great. My only problem is that this British historian went looking for what he expected to find and ultimately he chose a very obvious direction and ignored many truly important 20th century writers and thinkers, the entire literacy movement which was enormous (around 90% of China was illiterate until the 20th century and that was major) and many other things.

      BUT… As you know from living there, China is immense and complex and intricate. I still miss it. I miss the feeling I got every day when I went out and saw stuff that made no sense to me whatsoever. Please give it my love when you’re out wandering around. ❤

      • I visited China ten years before moving here, so when my family moved here it was clear how rapidly China is changing. Only ten years made a huge difference. It’s developing and changing very very quickly. I think you’d be shocked.

        It’s an interesting story to hear how you came to visit. There are so many expats living here now.

        • I know. It’s amazing. I was one of 10 foreigners living in Guangzhou in 1982. I was a foreign expert in English at South China Teachers University. Sometimes I go on Google Earth to see what I can see of my old “haunts.” Some are still there; one is a national historic place and has been left alone. I’m sure if I returned I would not know “my” city at all. Where once I stood by a watercress field waiting for a never-on-time broken down bus, there is now a subway stop. The “round the city road” on which I rode my bike, a highway built by women with hammers breaking rocks and concrete, is now a major highway.

  4. I had similar thoughts about it. Only i thought it was BBC, which is usually quite good, and was a bit disappointed. I liked the enthusiasm of the narrator, though. But again he was coating everything with so much enthusiasm and wonder that i was left wondering whether what he was saying had any resemblance to historical facts.

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