Historian and filmmaker Michael Wood, who’s produced several series on PBS, has no idea where he acquired his interest in history.
“I was a kid in the 1950s and the Second World War seemed like a long time ago but it was very, very close. As I look back on it now, I realize my mum was caught in the blitz in Manchester. My dad was in a naval hospital on D-Day … my Uncle Bill was at Dunkirk and the march to Berlin and D-Day. My Uncle Sid’s ship was torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean. And when you’re a little kid you hear stories of your parents and grandparents talking – because history’s storytelling in the end – so I maybe trace it back to family first. Then great teachers.”
The British Wood, whose series have illuminated the Dark Ages, retraced the steps of Alexander the Great and reconnoitered the Trojan War, is approaching his biggest challenge yet. On June 20 his six-hour series, “The Story of China,” will try to decipher the world’s oldest continuous state on PBS. (Check local listings.)
China, he says, is a dynamic and modern nation that still clings to its ancient past. “They want the party still to be in charge,” he says. “They want growth still to continue because that will keep the people happy. But they also are making a huge emphasis on the greatness and distinctiveness of Chinese culture.
“The latest best-selling version of Confucius, that moral text from the 5th century BC, has got a wraparound from President Xi Jinping saying, ‘Read this book.’ I mean, Chairman Mao’s Red Guards dug his grave up and condemned him. So, you know, these are interesting times.”
It took three years to film the series. And while at first the filmmakers were accompanied by a representative of the Chinese authorities, once their objective was understood they were left to their own devices, says Wood.
“The only place they supervise is Tiananmen Square, and that’s the only place where they ask you what you’re going to say, for obvious reasons. But they trusted us in the end … I had filmed in China several times with PBS. We did the ‘Legacy’ series back 25 years ago, and it’s easy to think China isn’t changing, but it’s changing all the time,” he says.
“And the ease with which it was possible to make these films and the access that you got was really great … We had no government supervisor with us on the last few shoots, and we’d asked for quite a few what might have been awkward things, but they were fairly kind of cool about that.”
Rebecca Dobbs, producer on the show, says China is a complicated mix of modern communication and ancient myths. “There’s an awful lot of kids filming on a phone what’s happening,” she says.
“There’s a big difference between what’s happening in Shanghai and Beijing, and you go out to Guaping or somewhere (less populated), and you’ve gone from the future to the past in a six-hour train journey,” she says. “It is quite extraordinary that you’re there in a country which is right on that cusp and is soooo big, but it can accommodate both of those things in one country.”
The whole point of the project, says Wood, is to understand the real China, not the one that many assume exists. “When you look at China today, it’s really important to understand things such as the way the Chinese see their civilization, as heirs to a great civilization,” he says.
“They’ve gone through these traumas of the 20th century with the Second World War, in which the biggest casualties in the Pacific were Chinese. And they were our allies. They suffered the Japanese invasion. It (the war) began earlier for them. They went through the revolution. They went through famine. They went through all these things. Now they’ve emerged as a superpower and an economic power. They are rediscovering the greatness of their civilization. And it’s a civilization that has immense resources.”
Lik Hang Tsui, a contributor to the series and an authority on the history of the Song Dynasty, agrees that China’s past is as invasive as its present. “I think understanding China’s past, especially not just its recent past, but the whole span of it, helps us understand how the Chinese always draw history for its contemporary political, economic, diplomatic scene. When it builds its version of modernity, it tries to retain the Chinese identity in it. So it really is a living tradition.”
At one point they were filming in an ancient alleyway in the Old City when they were surrounded by five men who demanded to know who they were and what they were doing and why they were filming the decrepit alleyway.
Dobbs responded, “‘Well, we’re doing history.’ And I had in my rucksack a map of the Old City, and I pulled it out and showed him, and immediately the mood changed. It was like, ‘Oh, fantastic! You’re doing history! Right! Well, around here is a temple. Around here is something else you might want to see.’ It was fantastic.”
Wood thinks that China remains inscrutable to most of us. “We think we know China, don’t we? But as the Chinese always say to us, ‘Oh, you Westerners have a certain image of China. It’s mad growth and development and high rise and the one-party state and authoritarian. That’s your vision of China.’ But actually, it’s so incredibly diverse.
“You go to the lake in Beijing and notice all these young Chinese Joni Mitchells and Neil Youngs doing their protest songs and then you slip around the corner to the Starbucks and then go and see a Hollywood movie. There everything is possible.”