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An Interview with the Makers of 'The Story of China'

Daniel Hautzinger
Xi'an city walls. Photo: Mick Duffield
Xi'an city walls. Photo: Mick Duffield

The Story of China is available to stream.

China is the oldest continuous state on Earth, dating back to the third century B.C.E. It developed the first printed money, movable type, gun powder, a magnetic compass, soccer, and many other innovations. Throughout history, its cities have been some of the largest and greatest on earth. Native ideas such as Confucianism and trade goods such as silk and porcelain have spread around the world. Today, it is a country of 1.3 billion people, a superpower once again rising to staggering heights.

“Europe is the size of China in terms of population, but it’s always been divided, except when it was under the Roman Empire,” says historian Michael Wood, the host of the six-part The Story of China, which explores 4,000 years of Chinese history. “Whereas China has got this incredible antiquity, in the sense of a culture. Even though it has many regional cultures and differences and dialects, everybody you speak to will say, ‘We belong to Han civilization.’ [The Han was the second imperial Chinese dynasty.] There is this sense that they are all part of the same thing.”

Michael Wood in Tiananmen Square. Photo: Mick DuffieldMichael Wood in Tiananmen Square. Photo: Mick DuffieldWood believes that in order to understand a country today, you have to first know its past, and the exceptional continuity of China makes such a claim especially true. Certain core values have guided Chinese civilization for millennia, and even after the relentlessly forward-looking decades of Communist rule under Mao, the Chinese people still venerate their traditions and history.

“I was amazed at how interested in their own history everybody was,” says Rebecca Dobbs, the producer of The Story of China. “I went there thinking that the Maoist era would have wiped it all out and nothing would be left. And yet everywhere you go, people were so keen to talk to you about their own history and show you stuff that they’d preserved or hidden, that they’d actually risked their lives to keep intact.” Wood adds that, since the Mao years, there has been an “amazing blast of modernity,” but there is still an “incredible tenacity with which the Chinese people preserve the old.”

Wood and Dobbs believe that it is vital in a historical series to tell an engaging story. “We all think of Chinese history as somehow being rather stable and going on and on for thousands of years, but actually there are these cataclysmic things that happen,” Wood says in his most dramatic voice. “Dynasties get pulverized and barbarians invade, and the most wonderful and glamorous civilizations on earth get totally destroyed.”

Spirit way at the Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi. Photo: Mick DuffieldSpirit way at the Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi. Photo: Mick DuffieldBut all of this monumental change happens over millennia, and The Story of China is only six hours. “We couldn’t trundle through every emperor and every dynasty and everything that they did,” Dobbs says. “So Michael chose what I would call the nodal points, the turning points. We then go to the places where these happened, in the present day. You end up with the excitement of being in China today, and you see things that you don’t normally see on the telly, because most people just fly into Shanghai or Beijing to film and talk about pollution or financial markets.”

The Story of China is thus both history and travelogue. And producing it required a lot of travelling. Modern China is roughly the width of the United States, and takes around seven hours to fly over. Dobbs, Wood, and their crew made ten trips to the country over more than two years, spending two to three weeks there each time. Additional footage was shot by a Chinese crew while the team was editing in Britain.

“It’s massive, China,” Dobbs says. “The diversity of language really amazed me.” (She was also surprised by “how easy it was for me to work there as a woman,” she says. “I honestly think it’s the least sexist place in the world that I’ve ever worked.”) Whereas most people in Beijing speak Mandarin, 50 miles outside the city villagers might speak an entirely unfamiliar local dialect. “We were forever having to try to get a local who could speak the dialect and Mandarin, and then get it from Mandarin into English,” Dobbs says.

Street scene in Xi'an. Photo: Mick DuffieldStreet scene in Xi'an. Photo: Mick DuffieldNeither Dobbs nor Wood speaks any form of Chinese, so they retained two Chinese-speaking employees in their London office, one of whom was the associate producer, Tina Sijiao Li. Li helped Wood work on his pronunciation for voice-overs in the show, although he regrets a few incorrect vowels that crept into some of the monologues he recorded in China. While he only picked up a few words and phrases, he jokes that, “I did learn a poem by my favorite Chinese poet, which, if I’ve had a glass of wine or two, I could give a really convincing rendition.”

Poems and firsthand accounts often provide narration in The Story of China. “I really liked reading from the diaries or letters of the peasant who rose up against the state or the emperor or whatever, because it is funny how you kind of recognize these ways of trying to persuade people,” Dobbs says. “We look for those corollaries that make you understand what’s going on in China.”

Such sources also provide the Chinese perspective. “You’re a foreigner making a film about another culture, you’ve got to put yourself in their shoes,” Wood says. “If you made a film about a foreign culture, and the people in that culture said that it was a waste of time, it wouldn’t really matter if people liked it on the BBC. It would be pointless if it wasn’t fair to them.”