Michael Wood Wednesday 24th November 2021.

The Story of China – Voices from the Chinese Past

Last night Michael Wood Professor of Public History and a film maker who has produced an unmatched range of History programmes over his long career attempted what might seem an impossible task.  How in forty five minutes do you cover the History of the world’s longest civilised state with the largest population in the world?  Michael brought it to life by selecting five distinctive voices from China’s past.  In a journey from the 2nd century BC to the 20th century he selected a poet, an historian, a female autobiographer, an emperor and a feminist. 

The Chinese voices brought to life this remarkable country about which so many of us would admit we know far too little. Starting with tradition of Chinese poetry that went back further than Homer he introduce Du Fu from the eighth century whose work he compared with Shakespeare and Dante in its importance and humanity. Quoting his experiences in losing his young son in a famine caused by war “Brooding on what I have lived through, if even I know such suffering, how much worse is the life of the common man”.

The historian Sima Qian of the Han Dynasty was his next voice. An historian whose accurate accounts had led modern archaeologists to undercover amazing finds and who used interviews with ordinary people as sources and wrote objective accounts long before such ideas were considered in European History.  Even more extraordinary was his decision to honour a promise to his father to complete the history by suffering the terrible punishment of castration. “A man has only one death. That death may be as weighty as Mount Tai or it may be as light as a goose feather. It all depends on the way he uses it.”

The twelfth century Li Qingzhao a female autobiographical writer was his next voice writing at the time of the invention of printing her ground-breaking account of her marriages and her ability to get a divorce from her abusive second husband was extraordinary enough but her comments at the fall of a dynasty and criticisms of men’s handling of affairs are pithy and lively. 

After this Michael went on to Xuanye the first Emperor of the Qing dynasty who ruled from 1654 for over sixty years and epitomised the sage emperor giving wise advice to his successors to “look after the people…considerate to officials…to be diligent…and treat their people with balance”.  Not always advice followed by his successors!

Finally, Michael gave us the voice of the Chinese feminist Qiu Jin born in 1875 who wrote that true equality could never be just about class

Don’t speak of how women can’t become heroes:

alone, I rode the winds eastward, for ten thousand leagues.

…abolish the rule of men. 

After the talk we had a really enthusiastic Q & A session and Michael brought us up to date with answers that showed the problems of modern historians in China and abroad writing honestly about the Communist era. The state refuses to admit that any mistakes have been made since 1949. Michael revealed that last chapter of his own book had been removed before going on sale in China.

Review Mary Feerick

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