Bridge Builders:
Michael Wood

Telling China's story to the world

People achieve popular recognition in different ways. It's more than 40 years since Michael Wood came to British attention as a TV historian, catching the eye with his combination of good looks, easy camera manner and evident love of his subject.

Looks may not last, but love can, and it's Wood's clear passion for bringing his topics to life that has earned him his biggest audience yet: in China, where he is renowned and respected by millions as the man who understands Chinese culture better than any other Westerner. 

Indeed, he knows Chinese history better than some Chinese people themselves, by their own admission. He says he has had Chinese people "saying 'Oh, I didn't know that, I didn't know that,'" – but just as importantly, he has had "a lot of people saying 'It makes me feel so proud of my culture, how much I love my culture.'"

The mutual fondness began in earnest in 2016, when Wood filmed the BBC documentary series The Story of China. By then he had already made several series worldwide, from the Amazon to the Zambezi, on topics ranging from Alexander the Great and Anglo-Saxons to the 1940s Greek Civil War and Saddam Hussein via India, Troy and the conquistadors. 

But from the start, he had felt a special pull to China.

Michael Wood is interviewed for Chinese TV in Kaifeng.

Michael Wood on Chinese TV in Kaifeng.

Michael Wood on Chinese TV in Kaifeng.

Wood in Tiananmen Square.

Wood in Tiananmen Square.

Wood in Tiananmen Square.

In Kashgar old town with a local potter.

In Kashgar old town with a local potter.

In Kashgar old town with a local potter.

Falling toward China

Born in the industrial north of England in 1948, Wood discovered China at the age of 16 through a time-honored escape portal: the bookshop. 

"I went into the bookshop in Cross Street in Manchester, and there was a new Penguin Classic of Tang poetry," he recalls, eyes twinkling at the memory. "What causes you to pick up a book like that? I don't know. But as I turned the pages, it was like a kind of world that I never even dreamed existed. It was so fantastic."

Fittingly, he was an open book, with no preconceptions. And as soon as he could, he headed east. 

"I first went to China in the early 1980s, and out to the far west when Xinjiang first opened up to outsiders," he says, "and then I first filmed in China in the late '80s. The reform and opening up was starting to pick up, and it was an incredibly exciting time to be there. You met people in the streets and they were so anxious to open up to the world. 

"You'd be at a bus stop and people would come up. There was a show on television teaching English, and they had photocopied word lists – they'd come up to you at bus stops going, 'What's this? How do I pronounce this?' It was really great, very, very touching."

Of course, he was happy to help: like all the best TV historians, Wood uses the entertainer's charisma to fulfil the educator's instinct. 

"People want to know, that's the thing," he enthuses. "There is a huge TV audience and people who really want to know and understand more about the world, and that's why we make our films, it's as simple as that."

It's also, as Wood acknowledges, the best way to reach a mass market – both to entertain and to educate. "Television programs are very influential," he says. "There are wonderful books written that have been read by a handful of people, but if you distill them into a TV program, you can reach millions. So those are important, worthwhile things to do."

As an academic himself, he appreciates the need to bring clarity without dumbing down, or talking down to the audience. A subject as huge as Chinese history could become overwhelming, and it's the TV historian's job to capture the essence through key elements. 

"Understanding Chinese culture is a lifetime's endeavor," he admits. "For ordinary people going about their daily business, they can't devote so much of their lives to understanding it, as important as it is. So that's why it's important that you have interpreters, experts, and people like me who are not experts but are situated between the people and the experts, and we can try and simplify it and make it available to people."

Xi'an has some of China's oldest city walls, dating to the 1300s.

Xi'an has some of China's oldest city walls, dating to the 1300s.

Ebo Tai in Shangqiu was China's first astronomical observatory.

Ebo Tai in Shangqiu was China's first astronomical observatory.

Spirit way at the Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi, built in 684.

Spirit way at the Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi, built in 684.

Kaifeng's Dragon Pavilion was part of an imperial palace.

Kaifeng's Dragon Pavilion was part of an imperial palace.

Xi'an has some of China's oldest city walls, dating to the 1300s.

Xi'an has some of China's oldest city walls, dating to the 1300s.

Ebo Tai in Shangqiu was China's first astronomical observatory.

Ebo Tai in Shangqiu was China's first astronomical observatory.

Spirit way at the Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi, built in 684.

Spirit way at the Qianling Mausoleum, Shaanxi, built in 684.

Kaifeng's Dragon Pavilion was part of an imperial palace.

Kaifeng's Dragon Pavilion was part of an imperial palace.

China's unique history

China is the oldest continuous state in the world. It's a civilization that goes back more than 4,000 years. But there are other factors which attract a historian like Wood to the story of China.

"In China, the history is kind of uniquely powerful and influential on the Chinese present," he explains. "So you have to know about the history, because it's a big determinant not only for the way the Chinese see the world, but even in terms of character – you know, the collectivity of the people and so on."

Wood finds this runs perhaps surprisingly deep. "Even down to the love of food and the love of society and things like that, you can see all these things deep into the Chinese past because for all the ups and downs of Chinese history, the continuum has been this ideal of a just state".

Furthermore, this continuum has allowed China's story to be so thoroughly documented that a historian like Wood feels simultaneously thrilled and overwhelmed. 

"The records go back so far – you've got great 11th-century BC accounts of the fall of the Shang, which obviously come from a daily royal record," he says. "So it's the sheer volume – even if you learn to read Chinese at an early age, you could never even cover the immense quantity of stuff that there is.

"And archeology is bringing new stuff up to the light all the time – letters from the real-life soldiers of the Terracotta Army writing home to Mum. The Terracotta Army becomes a kind of mnemonic in the outside world for China: vast numbers of soldiers regimented, impassive, hardly differentiated. And that's a controlling image, whereas in fact, the letters are full of life and fun and family."

The Longmen Caves, near Luoyang.

The Longmen Caves, near Luoyang.

The Longmen Caves, near Luoyang.

At the Leal Senado library, Macao.

At the Leal Senado library, Macao.

At the Leal Senado library, Macao.

With Lik Hang Tsui and a Chinese typewriter at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

With Lik Hang Tsui and a Chinese typewriter at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

With Lik Hang Tsui and a Chinese typewriter at the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Wood's series took global viewers into the heart of China.

Wood's series took global viewers into the heart of China. /Maya Vision International

Temple fairs help explain China's mythical origins.

Temple fairs help explain China's mythical origins.

A rural temple fair in Zhoukou.

A rural temple fair in Zhoukou.

Wood was welcomed by the Chinese.

Wood was welcomed by the Chinese.

Wood's series took global viewers into the heart of China.

Wood's series took global viewers into the heart of China. /Maya Vision International

Temple fairs help explain China's mythical origins.

Temple fairs help explain China's mythical origins.

A rural temple fair in Zhoukou.

A rural temple fair in Zhoukou.

Wood was welcomed by the Chinese.

Wood was welcomed by the Chinese.

Telling China's story

The Story of China took this already well-known historian to a whole other level. A six-part series commissioned by BBC2 in the UK, it cemented his popularity in his homeland, but was also picked up by many worldwide broadcasters, including PBS in the U.S. – and it made his name in China itself. 

"The Xinhua news agency review said it had created something inexplicably powerful and moving for the TV audience and transcended the barriers of race and culture," recalls Wood. "That's the best review I've ever had, because that's what you hope to do. If the people whose culture you're making the film about think that it doesn't represent them, then you're wasting your time. 

"But we got a fantastic response from the Chinese people themselves. They said 'That touches me, that corresponds to something that I feel about my own culture.' In one or two cases, people were saying 'It corresponds to things I didn't realize that I did feel about my culture.'"

"Quite a few people loved the way the Chinese people themselves were integrated into the films. I can remember somebody online saying, 'You see, they're showing what we're really like – that we're fun!' And I think at times like this, where there's a lot of demonization of China across the world, it's very important that we see each other's humanity and our common – the things we share."

There have always been marked differences between China and the West. Wood cites "a great Sinologist called Simon Leys, who wrote that China is the other pole of the human mind – and unless you understand China as a Westerner, you won't understand what are truly universal values in human society on Earth or what are just Western idiosyncrasies."

Typically, Wood summarizes it succinctly – "we just need to understand each other better" – and to that end, he wants to dial down the differences and focus on the many similarities between the two cultures.

"There's a great word in English, which is being 'fair'. You know, when English people say 'that's not fair', that means something. And I think the Chinese have a great sense of fairness as well."

Wood says there's another link that literally brings people together. "My experience of the Chinese people is how fantastically sociable and fun they are. The Chinese love dining together and drinking together, and so that side of it makes it very easy for an English person to feel at home in China. 

"I felt quite a sense of loss when I first left China. I can't wait to go back. I love Chinese civilization, the way they do things, the sense of humor, the food, the sociableness. I feel comfortable being in China."

With dancing ladies by the city wall in Kaifeng

With dancing ladies by the city wall in Kaifeng.

With dancing ladies by the city wall in Kaifeng.

'The Chinese love dining and drinking together.'

'The Chinese love dining and drinking together.'

'The Chinese love dining and drinking together.'

Maya Vision International

Maya Vision International

Meeting students at Yanshi school.

Meeting students at Yanshi middle school.

Meeting students at Yanshi middle school.

With Korean scholars at the Confucian cemetery in Qufu.

With Korean scholars at the Confucian cemetery in Qufu.

With Korean scholars at the Confucian cemetery in Qufu.

Watching a football match between Guo'an and Jianye in Beijing.

Watching a football match between Guo'an and Jianye in Beijing.

Watching a football match between Guo'an and Jianye in Beijing.

Mutual understanding

Empires and spheres of influence rise and fall. That can cause division, and Wood detects it in the current global mood.

"We're in a phase again where there's a lot of hostility to China, and in America there are books coming out by the boatload talking about 'the forthcoming conflict' and stuff like this. And this has to be avoided at all costs – America and China should work together. It's really, really vital now for the whole world."

Wood worries that in a polarized world, the fear of otherness can lead to increased division. 

"If we don't even begin to understand people's differences, you're lost, you're just making things up...We've got to avoid this, so that's what groups like SACU do – calm it down."

SACU – the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding – is a non-political, charitable organization designed to promote understanding and friendship between British and Chinese people. It was established in 1965 by Joseph Needham, described by Wood as a "great scientist and chemist and the originator of this huge series, Science and Civilisation in China." 

Born in 1900, Needham was a Cambridge-educated biochemist and academic whose life changed in 1937 when he met three Chinese exchange students. He learnt the language and became fascinated with China's scientific heritage, which he correctly assessed as a relatively untapped source of knowledge – hence Science and Civilisation in China, which grew from one book in 1954 to seven volumes encompassing 27 books; the project is still ongoing.

"He had a long experience of China," explains Wood, "and he founded the society to create dialogue and mutual understanding, mutual respect between the civilizations." After The Story of China, Wood accepted an invitation to become SACU's president.

"Attitudes to China have changed, and I think that's why an organization like this is quite important really – you have to remind people of our common humanity and explain each other to each other," he says.

"Bridge-building between any cultures is important, always, because respect, understanding, even affection are things that motivate us as human beings. If you don't have that, you can very easily lapse into demonization of the other side if things get difficult."

Wood is acutely aware that Sinophobia has risen in tandem with China's increasing prominence on the world stage. "The rebuilding of China has been unbelievably successful in so many ways. China has achieved incredible things – since Deng Xiaoping's opening-up, they've taken more people out of poverty than has ever happened in human history. 

"China can play a very, very positive role in the world. I'm sure everybody in the world wants more cooperation and more friendliness."

The alternative, to Wood, is madness.

"The world hasn't got the time – we cannot afford there to be any kind of conflict to this point, especially with the dire effects of climate change. We can all help each other, but removing conflict is the big thing. So that's why building bridges is really vital. The longer we can stay, the more we can be friends."

A storyteller in Yangzhou.

A storyteller in Yangzhou.

A storyteller in Yangzhou.

Actors in the Civic Hall in Huizhou.

Actors in the Civic Hall in Huizhou.

Actors in the Civic Hall in Huizhou.

Musicians in Kaifeng.

Musicians in Kaifeng.

In a restaurant in Kaifeng.

Visiting a women's mosque in Kaifeng.

Visiting a women's mosque in Kaifeng.

Men playing mahjong in Kaifeng.

A pharmacy in Hangzhou.

A pharmacy in Hangzhou.

A pharmacy in Hangzhou.

Item 1 of 5
A storyteller in Yangzhou.

A storyteller in Yangzhou.

A storyteller in Yangzhou.

Actors in the Civic Hall in Huizhou.

Actors in the Civic Hall in Huizhou.

Actors in the Civic Hall in Huizhou.

Musicians in Kaifeng.

Musicians in Kaifeng.

In a restaurant in Kaifeng.

Visiting a women's mosque in Kaifeng.

Visiting a women's mosque in Kaifeng.

Men playing mahjong in Kaifeng.

A pharmacy in Hangzhou.

A pharmacy in Hangzhou.

A pharmacy in Hangzhou.

The poetic thread

An important part of China's huge written archive is poetry: "Chinese poetry is older than the Iliad or the Odyssey," notes Wood, "and the continuous thread of poetry is so important to the Chinese people."

That was part of the inspiration for another hugely successful Sinocentric documentary. First broadcast in 2020, Du Fu: China's Greatest Poet has made Wood even more popular in China. 

It helps that Wood picked such a cultural touchstone. Living from 712 to 770, Du Fu has been compared to Western greats who similarly seem to capture the essence of a great civilization: the eminent Sinologist William Hung wrote that he was "the Chinese Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Wordsworth, Béranger, Hugo or Baudelaire."

Wood praises him even more highly. "People call him the greatest Chinese poet, but he's more than that, really," says Wood. "The Chinese talk about poet historians. Poets can say things that nobody else can say, and a Chinese person today can quote a line from Du Fu and everybody will know what they're talking about. It's about the 8th century, but it can be about politicians now, and everybody understands – it's ingrained in their psyches."

It's also ingrained in Wood's – remember how the 16-year-old had bought a book of Tang poetry? Du Fu was a central figure in what's known as High Tang poetry, meaning Wood was returning to a subject he has loved for half a century ("You kind of keep your old passions, don't you?").

And that warmth is at the core of the Du Fu documentary, which was broadcast on the terrestrial CCTV network accessible by a billion viewers. "People loved it because it was about the heart, about feeling," says Wood. "As a film-maker, you tell it as a life story – trying to conjure feelings out of the verse which will move people."

It worked. "Some pundit in Shanghai said it's the best film about Chinese literature that's ever been made – a bit of an exaggeration," smiles Wood. Du Fu's poems were read on-screen by Ian McKellen – Wood had wondered whether it should be a Chinese voice, but his Chinese co-producers insisted the venerable English actor was ideal – and again it worked perfectly: "So many Chinese people said 'He looks just like Du Fu!'"

That human connection sings down the centuries from Du Fu to contemporary audiences. "From my conversations in places like Chengdu, Chinese people like his character, his love of family, his love of food. They like his extraordinary imagery. Poetry, it seems to me, is really, really important to the Chinese people. And it has been for this huge length of time."

They also, says Wood, "like his ironical but very committed take on politics," which broadens into a moral overview. "The Chinese order through history has fundamentally been a moral order. The Confucian ethic and all the great interpreters afterwards of the ideal of what a state should be is a moral order. And I don't think the Chinese people themselves have forgotten that."

Speaking to people in Chengdu about Du Fu, Wood was struck by the poet's commitment – "He was loyal to the state as long as the state was virtuous" –  and his "unswerving moral vision": "I think the Chinese people still have that."

With a calligrapher in Luoyang.

With a calligrapher in Luoyang.

With a calligrapher in Luoyang.

Sailing through the Dateng Gorge.

Sailing through the Dateng Gorge.

Sailing through the Dateng Gorge.

Who was Du Fu?

The poet-historian who occupies a key place in the Chinese psyche

Words by Sun Lan

Growing up in China, it's very difficult not to pick up some ancient classical poetry from an early age. 

Parents usually start teaching their children lines from renowned poems as soon as they start talking. Then from time to time, you turn on TV, and there they are, the prodigies who can easily recite hundreds of poems from many years ago. I remember when I was a kid, watching one such TV program with my parents, my mom would say. 'See what that kid can do? Such a genius.' I would quietly roll my eyes, thinking how boring that star child must be. 

Du Fu's poetry rings down the centuries.

Du Fu's poetry rings down the centuries. /CFP

Du Fu's poetry rings down the centuries. /CFP

Later on, however, as I grew older and my Chinese got better, I started to understand the beauty of these poems. A good Chinese poem should be a perfect combination of sound, form, rhythm and rhyme. It can be descriptive, reflecting day-to-day events, but it can also point to an imaginary perfect world. It can paint a beautiful picture in the reader's mind, or it can be pure joy just to listen to. 

One example could be a well-known poem that every Chinese speaker can recite. It's said the author of the poem Ode to the Goose, Wang Luobin, was only seven when he composed it. He was one of the prodigy poets and such was his fame that his father's friends would visit their house to test little Luobin on his mastery of the art of words. So one day as they took a walk around a pond, a family friend pointed to the goose in the water, and asked Luobin to write a poem. Undaunted, in just a matter of seconds, Luobin came up with the following:

This poem is still popular with Chinese children today. /聶亦行/ YouTube

In these short sentences, Luobin depicted a simple but beautiful picture of a white goose swimming in a green pond. The picture is so vivid that readers can almost hear the goose's cry and see it move through the water. Moreover, the last words in the first and second sentence match perfectly. The guest was in awe, and long-lasting has been the poem's charm among generations. 

This is just one of thousands of ancient Chinese poems that are still popular today. China's earliest poems are recorded in a book called The Classic of Poetry, believed to have been compiled by Confucius: a collection of folklores, ceremonial poems, entertainment songs and historic ballads. 

These 311 poems reflect various aspects of life in the period spanning from 11BC to 6BC, and lay the foundation for future poems. As matter of fact, they enjoyed such high status that Confucius himself said that anyone who hadn't read the poems couldn't be expected to say anything meaningful. 

Since then, poems have always possessed a prized spot in Chinese literature. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), poetry entered its golden era. Poems from this period have been revered by generations – but even among the numerous Tang poets, Du Fu is a monument. 

Throughout his lifetime (712-770AD), Du Fu experienced the highs and lows of the Tang dynasty, which informed his writing. His poems often tell stories of interwoven personal and national destinies. He wrote about his childhood, he wrote about the war that brought the downfall of the great Tang, he wrote about poverty, the separation of families, and his lasting love and loyalty towards the country. 

But Du Fu was no less a master of the form and beauty of Tang poem. In one of his most famous poems, he crafted four lines with the beauty of a traditional Chinese ink and brush painting.

Professor Hu Kexian is the former dean of the school of Chinese at Zhejiang University. He explained why Du Fu remains such a huge figure in Chinese literature.  

"Du Fu reached the pinnacle in Chinese poetry," he says. "His poems are perfect in both form and content. We can say he inherits the past and opens up the future. If Confucius is the sage in China's history and culture, then Dufu is the sage in Chinese poetry. These two can be considered in the same light."

Even now, Du Fu's fan base is expanding. Michael Wood, a renowned British historian, broadcaster and film-maker, made a documentary of Du Fu in which he traced the poet's life story to study what gave rise to China's greatest poet. His documentary grabbed the attention of a Chinese audience who delighted in his profound knowledge of a poet held very close to their heart. 

Du Fu's thatched cottage attracts loving tourists.

Du Fu's thatched cottage attracts loving tourists. /Anyuan/China News via CFP

Du Fu's thatched cottage attracts loving tourists. /Anyuan/China News via CFP

Hu says the success of the documentary displays the eternal value of Du Fu's poetry. 

"The human values and emotions embodied in Du Fu's poems are universal," he says. "They can easily touch the heart of a global audience. Michael Wood's documentary depicted Du Fu as China's greatest poet: it's a position we agree with."

In recent years, there has been a rise in the number and popularity of Chinese TV programs featuring classic poems. Du Fu, his peers and successors are once again capturing Chinese people's passion. But Hu said that throughout Chinese history, ancient poems have always enjoyed popularity and love, and that the wisdom and life experiences in these poems will never fall out of fashion. 

However, despite Chinese poets' status among the Chinese audience, not many non-Chinese speakers know about Du Fu or his poems. Hu says that's where a good translation, and more cultural exchanges, can play a big role. And that role is urgently needed: as Harvard professor Stephen Owen said, "We have Dante, Shakespeare and Du Fu. These poets create the very values by which poetry is judged."

Credits

Editor Elizabeth Mearns, Sun Lan
Chief Editors Guo Chun, Duncan Hooper
Michael Wood words Gary Parkinson
Du Fu words Sun Lan
Producers Elizabeth Mearns, Sun Lan
Videos Neil Cairns, Paul Izard, Terry Wilson

The Story of China promotional video Maya Vision International
All images Maya Vision International
unless otherwise stated