China: distant, foreign, hard to know… but is that true? Even if all that is so, might you want to travel to China anyway?
“It’s a fantastic time to travel to China,” says Michael Wood. “People are loving their old cultures, and they’re bringing them back, because they love them so much.” Wood should know: a broadcaster and historian, he first traveled to China in the 1980s, and has recently spent a good amount of time traveling all across that country working on The Story of China, a series of six one hour long films now airing in PBS. A slightly different version also aired not long ago on BBC2.
How do you tell the story of a country with more than four thousand years of history which spans more than 2700 miles from east to west and holds millions of people with differing backgrounds, ethnicities, languages, religions, and interests? Drawn by an eager curiosity and a knowledge of history, Wood has chosen interesting perspectives: how the highlights of China’s long history play out and connect across time and to the present day, how the Chinese tell themselves the big, classic ideas and stories of the country, and what threads pull through into day to day life.
As you follow Michael Wood from big city to small town, from the high energy streets of Beijing and Shanghai to the deserts of the west, to a family reunion celebrating thousands of years of history, to a classical opera performance that lights up a small town, to a shrine to the Buddha, a Taoist temple, a sixth century monument in Chinese welcoming Christianity and explaining why it would be allowed, the stories ring true, the history unfolds, the people engage, and quite likely, so will your desire to go experience China for yourself.
Travel is much more open and available now than it was when Wood first visited thirty some years ago “when people still seemed a bit shell shocked, coming out of the days of Chairman Mao and the cultural revolution, ” Wood recalls. One of the lingering effects of that repressive time has been that people now seek out, return to and value traditions of family connections, religion, respect for ancestors, which have lasted through the history of China and which were not allowed or which were driven underground during those three decades. There are other legacies. “It is a one party state,” Wood says, “but I don’t actually think you’d call it a communist country. It’s a raging free market society. You go in these cities with skyscrapers and Starbucks and Gap and Armani, the urban world so glittering and modern, you think is this the country we were always taught about?” Away from the cities, across the vast and differing landscapes China holds, though, things can be quite different. Just ask anyone who went to teach English in China and ended up in a small town far away from the bright lights.
“Making these films, we had the opportunity to travel quite off the beaten path. I think if we had been a news crew and asked to go film in some of these villages they would have said no, on the grounds that they were rather poor and didn’t show China in a good light,” Wood says. “Because we were pursuing these historical stories, the local governments were going oh, yeah, fantastic, what an idea, we’ll take you there, you’ll find families whose ancestors fought in this great rebellion in the 1850s… if we’d had a different hat on they’d probably have said well, no, it’s a bit poor isn’t it? But they didn’t look at it that way because we didn’t look at it that way.” China is still a country of contrasts and disparities, in landscape, economy, and sometimes politics. “It’s a country in process, and it has a long way to go. “ Wood says. “But traveling in China is fantastic now.”
All that said, where would Wood suggest you go? “One of my favorite places in China, a couple of hundred kilometers inland from Shanghai, is the wonderful wooded landscape of the sacred mountain, Huangshan. It’s a magical landscape, and in the plain nearby there are heritage villages. Shanghai is a fascinating city in itself, and just inland from it is Suzhou, where you can stay in a Ming dynasty merchant’s house that’s been converted into lodgings.”
Beijing, he points out, is one of the world’s great cities, and nearby is the Great Wall. Xian is a busy city these days as well, in part because of people drawn to see the Terracotta Army. There are other attractions there too. “There’s also the Wild Goose Pagoda, where the Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang came back from India with many Buddhist manuscripts and began his great translation program from Indian languages to Chinese,” a story Wood follows in his films. In Xian he also advises following the production crew’s footsteps to explore the city’s backstreets and Muslim food markets.
Luoyang, connected with the history of the Silk Road, is another place Wood likes. “In the center of the modern city is a museum built over recently discovered chariot burials,” he says, “and nearby are the Longmen Caves with their giant Buddhas.”
Kashgar, in the far west of China — it takes seven hours to fly there from Beijing — is a place to experience another aspect of China. It’s a growing city, but, Wood points out, “The old quarter is still a picturesque Central Asian crossroads, with mosques, mansions, and a legendary Sunday Market.”
There’s more, of course, and you will no doubt come up with your own list. The thread that pulls through these varied places and experiences, and what Wood most wants people to take away from the films, is an understanding of the warmth of the people of China. How to experience this? “I think it’s probably the same advice you get for travel anywhere, “ Michael Wood says. “It’s great if you can get off on your own, engage with people, and soak in the atmosphere, stay in the flow. I’m speaking from a lifetime of traveling and a lifetime of making travel films — go into a place with an open heart. And if you can say even a word or two of the language it always helps. Enjoy being there! Shakespeare had this great line: travelers must be content. Which really is it. When you are somewhere, try to shed a few of your own preconceptions and see how they see things.”
The Story of China, produced by Rebecca Dobbs and written and presented by Michael Wood for Maya Vision, is broadcast on PBS. The Story of China is available for purchase on dvd, and has also aired on BBC2. If you happen to be reading this in the United States, funds for PBS and other arts agencies have been cut from the federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year. If you enjoy programs such as The Story of China, this is the time to let your legislators know that.
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