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ACost recommends podcast's we love. I used to be an abandoned air host of Superbrain, the podcast for everyone with a brain. I have a passion for people and a fascination for the human brain. That's why I became a psychologist and neuroscientist. On Mondays, I pick the brains of inspiring guests about thriving and surviving in life. And on Thursdays I share insights and hacks to help you to understand and unleash your inner superbrain to join me each week. Simply search for Superbrain on about a cast or wherever you get your podcast.
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The average American audience knows history.
We got history royalty on the podcast today for the first time. I'm very pleased to say we have Michael Wood now here in the U.K. He is just Oggi history broadcaster. He made it popular and cool for historians to walk Renfield's wearing flares and cool shirts back in the 70s in the search of awesome historical topics and subjects. I watched him growing up ever mushroom growing up. And the thing about Michael is he's not just a very gifted broadcaster. He's a brilliant writer.
And he's just written a new history of China, single volume history of China. It's not a glittering milestone in one of the most exciting public history careers on Earth. It's huge. I talk to Michael on this podcast about history. This was a live episode. Once a week, we let history hit subscribers join us for a live record of the podcast. I steal all their best questions. They write them up in the Zumiez comments. I steal and pass them off as mine sites.
Everyone wins. Well, I win. If you want to join in those live Zoome podcasts, please go and subscribe to history at TV. You get many other benefits. You get access to Netflix for history and Galaxy of History documentaries available on that new stuff all the time. You guys listen to all the backers of the podcast. You get to join the live chat once a week. We got Margaret Macmillan coming up this week. All sorts of great people, some of the world's best historians on that, that live weekly podcast use the code pod, one that gets your money for free and your second one, which is one pound euro or dollar, and then become a subscriber, join the revolution.
In the meantime, here's Michael with.
Michael, thank you very much for coming on the podcast. Great pleasure to be here. This latest book you've written, a sort of magisterial, great narrative, almost global history of China, which was the most important stories in human history. You mentioned, of course, in it that you have a great passion for China for a long time. Have you been building this all your life? Is this a life's work? Well, it's a labor of love.
I wouldn't say it's a life's work, but long interest in China going back to school days and university and filming first in the late 80s. But we started work on a series of films for the BBC called The Story of China back in 2013. And since then, we've done we did those six films. We did five films about the reform and opening up 40 years ago with eyewitnesses. And we've just done a film on China's greatest poet dofor with Sir Ian McKellen, doing the readings brilliantly as you'd expect.
You know, and I thought about doing a book when we made the first films, which we shot over 2014 15. But it was too big a task, you know, and then when we'd finished it, we got such a great response even from within China, you know, really, really warm response. You know, even President Xi Jinping was talking about the films in a TV festival. Can you believe it? You know, talking about how we need to tell the story of China better.
And friends said to me, you know, you really should, you know, bring those unfinished chapters out. So the last three or three or four years, really I've been working on it. So it's been an intensive thing, a labor of love, but also to try to write the kind of book that would love to find. You know, there's a lot of great books on China, a lot of great sinologist, of course, which I'm not.
But I wanted to write that kind of book where you get the grand arc of narrative. It's really the way we work in TV, isn't it? You know, within the scope of doing TV programs, you try to get the grand arc of narrative, but you're also trying to get close in on those stories, people's stories, family stories, individual landscapes and stuff like that. So you're going from the big to the small. So I wrote the kind of book that I really wanted to read, I think.
And there's lashings of voices because and I'm sure you agree then that when we're interested in history and we study history, most of all, you want to touch the people of the past and you and you want to hear their voices, you know, what were they like? How did they feel about the events that swept up their lives? You know, in what way are they like us? In what way they're not. So the voices are everything.
So the book's full of voices. And some of the voices are really amazing because they were brand new discoveries. You know, they've to give you an example, they've just published the letters of Chin Dynasty soldiers from the campaigns in which the first emperor, Chinja Huang D, conquered China and united it. You know, and these are just been published there, like the Vindolanda tablets from Hadrian's Wall. And the much more loquaciousness you'd expect the Chinese people, you know, we're just on campaign.
We're fighting against this town in Hernon. Me and my brother don't know how many of us are going to be killed or taken prisoner or wounded. That's for the future. But, Mum, if you can go to the market and look, I need a really nice shirt and smock made up. Can you do this and do that? If you can't find the right material, send me the money, you know, how's Auntie So-and-so? Is the marriage taking place?
That's the kind of detail. So that's what I've homed in on in the book. But being in China is the best thing. You know, I suppose I'm in the last few years, I've done about a dozen visits and and I love it. You know, I remember one of my daughters saying, oh, God, the story of China is over. Daddy must be really pleased to go back. And I said, I can't wait to go back.
I love the whole of China and the sociability of the people and affable and sociable and fun and and and the more you immerse yourself in in the real culture, then the more you understand about the things that have been passed down. You know, when I first went in the early eighties, I thought the old cultures of China have been smashed by Chairman Mao, you know, Cultural Revolution, all that stuff, that it was gone. You know, the war against old ideas, old customs, old beliefs, whatever Chairman Mao said had been won by the communists.
And now you go back and you you know, I mean, we went back in 2013 to see old friends and we went to the Ching Ming Festival, which is the ceremony of the ancestors were which Mao had banned, where you go back to the grave of the ancestral founder or the oldest member of the family. And you do the rituals for the ancestors and it's come flooding back, you know, and we I remember filming it with the family in 2014 and the daughter, Zimbabwean's daughter, the head of the family saying, you know, look, if you're going to come with a film crew, you mustn't let us down.
Don't change the schedule. You've got to come, because if Dad knows that you're coming here, really pull all stops up. And when we arrived on this wooded mountainside outside the little town of Ruchi, that that April, you know, 400 people turned up from all over China, all. Bearing the same surname to to do the rituals for the ancestors, and this is everywhere now, so when you ask this question about familiarity, the more you did that, the more comfortable you felt in it, the more you understood, the more family stories are told.
And that was a very enriching. So the books actually got quite a few families that run through the last thousand years with their family histories, would not block printed that they saved from the Cultural Revolution, you know. And so their interviews with these people and in fact, the last three pages of photographs in the book are the photographs of living families doing these things. You know, so in answer to your question, it's a long answer. Yeah, you have to immerse yourself as you do in any period.
I mean, you know, the 10th century in England is not like us in many ways, you know, but the more you do, the more you see the continuities of the culture and of course, the more you understand the humanity of the culture.
If I was a historian from Fiji and I was suddenly doing Western European history, I think I might find the relationship between church and state pretty weird, right? What are the elements of Chinese history that were hardest for you as a Western scholar?
Do you think that felt different to how the forces tend to drive European history, have got religion, hasn't been at the centre of Chinese conception of the world and humanity? It's not that religion is an important and it's a really rising force. Now, it's not that Buddhism wasn't a massive cultural influence on China, but the essential core of Chinese belief about humanity and society didn't come from a theocratic system with a with an overarching deity or any of that. Confucius never talks about the afterlife.
And in the West, of course, a theological system. I mean, you know, Tom Holland's just done a really dazzling book, Dominion, about, you know, the way we in the West still think like Christians, even if we think we're not the Chinese think like Confucians. And that monotheism you start to see as a Western and Near Eastern idiosyncrasy rather than a universal value. It's a cultural civilizational form. And China's not like that at all.
And so what I would say to the person from Fiji is that there's a pull in Chinese history from very, very long ago, probably from the late Bronze Age, but certainly from a 10th century BC onwards, between authoritarian, often ferociously authoritarian governance where the state is everything disorder is to be feared above all else. You know, better a year of tyranny than a day of anarchy, you know, that kind of thing. And on the other side, the conception of virtue being a guiding rule in society, which, of course, Confucius codified Confucian values, benevolence, kindness, virtue.
The ruler must be good and virtuous, and then the ruler possesses the mandate of heaven. If the ruler is not, the ruler loses it. So the pull between those two big ideas, you know, what they call the legalised form of government, the first emperor you know all about, the first emperor you've been and seen the terracotta army. And that's one side of the story. And the other side is, is this conception of morality at the heart of civilization.
Chinese civilization had morality at the heart of it and not given by a God devised by men, you know? So I would those things I think, are interesting. And I think the absence of religion is in that overarching sense is is a really interesting thing when you come from a society where religion, as you say, has been so important.
What about familiar? When did you feel this is stuff that feels very universal, that feels very familiar, whether it's factions vying for the throne, whether it's regions breaking away and being brought back in under imperial central control? One of the things that remind you of the universality of government, the nexus between cash and our forces, what what is it?
In one level you say the story is one of coming together and breaking up a famous novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms begins the first lines. It is a truth universally acknowledged. We might translated as that the empire which is united will fall apart and the empire that falls apart will come back together again so that breathing in and out of Chinese civilization is a characteristic. You know, somebody once said that in the West, our conception of history is the rise and fall of many different civilizations Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Charlemagne and the Middle Ages and Spain is known in China.
The conception of history is the rise and fall and rise again of one civilization. And I think that's the thing that you observe as you see the curve of Chinese history. You know, we look at China, everything, you know, so. Big and so long lasting is the longest lasting state in continuously existing state in the world, you know, and you imagine, as they did in the 18th century looking at China, that the Europeans did, that it's always been like that.
There's a kind of monumental stability to it. And actually it's not like that at all. You know, they've been cataclysmic breaks in Chinese history with unbelievable violence and how China ever got reunited by all the normal rules of history. You would have expected it to have ended up like Europe with a load of separate countries which are forever fighting each other. But it didn't. And that, many people would say, is because of that sense of a single hand civilization, hand speech, hand script and hand culture, as they say, you know, and that that was the thing that even when the country broke apart in times of unbelievable violence and chaos, like under the five dynasties in the 10th century, final time, east and west, nevertheless, you get not only philosophers, but fighting men and governors and and, you know, men were involved in the nitty gritty of warfare, all of them still holding that idea that we must try to attain the United Rule again.
You know, so that's deep in the DNA of China, really, really deep in the DNA of China. And they value it more than well, you know, the as you can see today, as you've seen throughout the last hundred years, order is is is above all else. You know, there's a famous moment that Deng Xiaoping's translator was telling me when we were interviewing him a couple of years ago when Deng had gone to America and he was talking to Jimmy Carter and Jimmy Carter started moaning about American politics and done through the translator, translator shook his head and said, You think so?
You should try ruling China. So order matters above all things.
A recommends podcast's we live.
I used to be an abandoned air host of Superbrain, the podcast for everyone with a brain. I have a passion for people and a fascination for the human brain. That's why I became a psychologist and neuroscientist. On Mondays, I pick the brains of inspiring guests about thriving and surviving in life. And on Thursdays I share insights and hacks to help you to understand and unleash your inner superbrain to join me each week. Simply search for Superbrain on Apple, a cast or wherever you get your podcast.
ACRS powers the world's best podcast, including the two journeys I'm Grandmama's and the one you're listening to right now.
How do you answer that central question, centrifugal force of hand culture, is it, you know, Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, Europe's got some mountains in it. China is easier to unify these big internal waterways. Is geography at play here? And if not, then it's the most successful state creation project in history of the world. If for 2000 years compared to Europe, which is an oft lamented, fragmented society, I mean, it's extraordinary.
It is the most successful state making project in the world. That sense of the deep unity of the culture is really, really important. I think really important. And they worked very hard at it. You know, you see those periods where they developed the greatest civilization that had yet been on Earth or one of the greatest in Song Dynasty between the 900000 and the twelve hundreds with astounding achievements in culture and science and everything. And then they conquered by the Mongols.
And that's an incredible shock to the Chinese. And when a native dynasty is established again, the Ming they revert to, they almost overcompensate from the openness of the song. And they have a really buttoned down, bureaucratic authoritarian despotism and a Ming bequeath that to the succeeding dynasty with the king in 16 44 who were outsiders, again, you know, they were Manchus. And from then until 1911, you have movements wanting to restore the Ming is their kind of their word.
You know, we want a native dynasty again. So there's forever people kicking against that. But the Manchu rulers included some of the greatest rulers in Chinese history can see, for example, reigned for 61 years. They are more Chinese, the Chinese, in terms of their rulership projects. You know, they want to rebuild the culture, not fall prey to the corruption and failure of nerve and leadership of the Ming. And, you know, the emperors must work and work and burn the midnight oil.
They must uphold Han Chinese culture. They they produce the aphorisms which are read out twice a month in every village about how to be a good citizen. President Xi has done something similar where you can get on an app now on your mobile phone. But this didactic pushing of the you know what it is to be a good, loyal, obedient citizen. And they did these huge cultural projects, you know, encyclopedias and collected tongue poems.
And these are foreigners ruling China but are wanting to push to everybody this sense of unity of Han culture. So I think it is the most astounding civilizational project in history. And the communists, of course, kicked them out, kicked against a lot of these things after 1949 and wanted to ape the Western model. What did you say at one point? You know, with the Great Leap Forward, we've got to overtake Manchester in five years, you know?
I mean and of course, now since the opening up in seventy eight, seventy nine, the current government really pushing the greatness of the Chinese past and and all this stuff because they realized that the thirty years of communism, which attempted to erase that rich past and create a new society with new people, was a miserable failure because the Chinese too loyal to their deep culture of what it means to be Chinese. If I can give you an example, we just did this film about dofor China's greatest poet with Ian McKellen.
And and the show went out on the BBC, first of all. And it was immediately pirated in China. And everybody was talking about lots of interviews on the papers and all that. And then friends from Beijing phoned up and said, you're not going to believe this. But the most powerful commission of the Communist Party, the Central Commission for Discipline, who runs Xi Jinping, is anti-corruption campaign.
I've done an editorial on the film, and although they're on their website asking why the campaign against corruption had been a failure and citing these Confucian values which were espoused by the poet dofor these had not been internalized by the Communist Party cadres. And this is why we have essentially failed in this task. We've set ourselves brutal punishments, current state killing the monkey to catch, you know, all those phrases they have. But they themselves were citing their greatest poet, the poet who they see as the conscience of the nation who lived in the 8th century, who enshrined in literature the values of Confucian society.
And they are taking that perspective on their own failures today. These debates are amazingly. Active in China. And history is a really dynamic force, you know, you can quote a story from the past.
And you don't have to say anything else, people immediately understand, but you're really talking about the government in the same way the of Chinese history that Sinologist seem to think is more important for us to know about and realize is, of course, the century of humiliation, the burning of the great acts of vandalism in world history, the burning of the summer palace by the British Indian Army, a force that has a clear purpose in today's China, doesn't it?
So the 19th century history of China is a very hot topic that you have experienced and talked about to friends and interviewees out there.
Yes, it's quite interesting, though, because I know Chinese historians now this this narrative of the century of humiliation and China's victimhood. There's a lot of Chinese historians that are completely fed up with that and really think the government should move on. You know, the Opium Wars happened, and I know one or two Chinese historians who say, look, we've got to view this more creatively. You know, that every dynasty that ran into trouble, that lost the nerve at the top, the great power of good rulership needed an injection of something new to transform itself or for a new dynasty to take over.
And one Chinese historian I know, she says that, you know, the British were the catalyst for today's China. It was the British. You were the catalyst and it was what happened in the treaty ports like Shanghai, where the Western world really came in to China in the 19th century, the banks and the Telegraph and the international communications and international culture. And and so this is not in any way to excuse what happened because it was horrendous what happened.
And we can talk about what the motivations were of the British when they felt that they could only act that way. There were critics in China at the time who said we shouldn't we should take this very, very carefully and not be doing what the government is doing. You know, people have argued against the government's position, but think it lasted for a long time, that idea of the century of humiliation. But they definitely have now. Risen away from that, and they're now flexing their muscles.
It became apparent fairly soon after she came in in 2013 or whatever it was that a new world was being made. I mean, what's interesting about the 19th century reformers, though, was, of course, there were many debates even before the Opium War about what the future held for China. And did the old imperial system still serve the state? Were the changes that should be made? Should some more constitutional form of monarchy be brought in? And then, of course, after the Opium Wars and the catastrophic Taiping war, 1950s, 60s, worst war of the 19th century, then reform became an absolutely massive consideration for the Chinese.
And you get all kinds of trajectories rising at that point. Some of the reforms, of course, were banished, went to Japan to try and fight their cause. But many of these threats arose and into the early 20th century of which communism was won. And it may be it was an accident that the communists won in the end. I mean, Mao once indicated that he thought that it was. But a lot of these trajectories are still active.
I mean, feminisms. A really interesting question I'd look at in the book, you know, there's some really great Chinese feminist writers from the end of the 1990s, very beginning of after nineteen hundred heard great feminist manifesto of nineteen seven. At the same time, the suffragettes are fighting here. You read on a piece of paper you couldn't believe that this is written in the late imperial China, but it was so late. Imperial China was a very, very dynamic, very dynamic place and the biggest battle of the Chinese people was with their own deep traditions of government, which they felt by now were really past that date and were cannibalizing the young dissolution.
Put it was my last question is in terms of historical view changing as well is I've been all Orientalist in this conversation, regard China as this kind of exotic entity that I know little about. But really, in terms of the scholarship of the second century B.C., we're talking more about trade and transmission across the Silk Road and possibly from Greek artisans or Greek trend artisans helping the first emperor with his burial Acropolis.
Should we think more about China? Not as this kind of isolated thing that, quote unquote, discovered in the early modern period during the course of writing this book, were you seeing that kind of transmission like you get with feminism in the early 20th century? Was was that transmission at play throughout the last 2000 years?
I think it was. People have this view of China as a kind of closed civilization down there behind the Great Wall. But actually it's always been open to influences and in certain periods, amazingly so. A while back, I did a vox pops with the Chinese public in the Shanghai Expo, where there's a fabulous animation of the Kaifeng scroll from the 12th century, a giant. Electronic reproduction of it, and I asked everybody, what's your favorite period of Chinese history, and I'd say about 90 percent of the Chinese punter's, said the Tang Dynasty.
Now, the tongue starts in the early six hundreds and ended in nine 07. And then the Silk Road is really in operation. You know, they go out in the late 616 into Central Asia and astounding connections are made. I think you can almost make a comparison between with the influence of Chinese on East Asia, in Japan and Korea and South East Asia and so on. The spread of Chinese script, Chinese language, Chinese culture with the influence of, say, Latin Christian civilization in the West, in what we used to call the Dark Ages.
But they're going out in all directions and people are coming in. There's a stone stelae in Siân, which records the first Christian formal Christian mission to China in six thirty five. And the and the Emperor hears the story. He has the Gospels translated and he says this seems crede that's beneficial to the whole of mankind. I've no objection to you preaching the faith in our country, building churches and so on. And I've often thought, you know, if you think about six thirty five Anglo-Saxon Winchester Chinese and wanting to build a kind of Buddhist temple, it's inconceivable even in Constantinople.
And that's just one of many, many of these kind of missions. You know, Wenzhong, the great traveller who goes all the way a six year journey all the way through Central Asia down into India, and goes back with 600 manuscripts of the Buddhist scriptures to translate and initiates a phase of real opening up of cultures where hundreds of Buddhist monks and scholars travel across India, Indonesia by boat, by the Silk Road. It's an amazingly open minded time, I think.
And it's very easy to to forget that there are those moments like that in Chinese history. I think, you know, even in the Ching dynasty in 17th century, they've got Jesuit scholars, scientists in the court, Jesuit artists bringing Western artistic ideas to the the Ching court. We underestimate their adaptiveness and their willingness to open up at our peril.
Michael, we could go into almost all night, but I mustn't. I have to let you go. Thank you very much for coming on the podcast. The book is called The Story of China.
There we go with a wonderful dragon on the front. You've got to have a dragon coming to you, the Imperial Dragon.
So, Michael, thank you very much indeed. Good luck with the book. Thank you very much.
Find in the history of our country. I it's been done, so just a quick request. It's so annoying, I hate it when our podcast do this and I'm doing it, I hate myself. Please, please go to iTunes, where you get your podcasts and give us five star rating and review. It really helps basically boost up the chart, which is good, and then more people listen, which is nice. So if you could do that, I'd be very grateful.
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