10 episodes

Carrie Gracie presents a series exploring what ten great lives from Chinese history reveal about China today

China: As History Is My Witness BBC

    • Personal Journals

Carrie Gracie presents a series exploring what ten great lives from Chinese history reveal about China today

    Old Hundred Names - China's Citizens

    Old Hundred Names - China's Citizens

    At best they have been taken for granted and sometimes they have endured far worse at the hands of China's governments and invaders alike. What voice for the Chinese public now?

    • 13 min
    Hong Xiuquan - The Rebel

    Hong Xiuquan - The Rebel

    Chinese history can be read as a series of peasant rebellions. One in the 19th Century, led by a man who thought he was Christ's brother, lasted 15 years and caused at least 10 million deaths.

    Originally, all Hong Xiuquan wanted was to be part of the establishment. A village schoolteacher, he immersed himself in Confucian scholarship for the civil service exam, but just kept failing.

    Some time later he was given a Chinese translation of the New Testament by a Christian missionary. He decided on reading that, that the man he had seen up in the sky was the Christian God, and that he, Hong, was the brother of Jesus, and that the devils he had to exterminate on Earth were the Qing dynasty, which was then ruling China.

    The Europeans saw Hong's claim to be the brother of Christ as heresy, but he was not preaching for their benefit. He accompanied his spiritual message with a political one - a vision of equality and shared land, which appealed to poor farmers who were suffering from a sense of hopelessness.

    Hong and his disciples took to the road, selling writing brushes and ink and spreading the good news about the heavenly kingdom as they went and their movement grew fast in south-west China.

    By 1860, Hong's heavenly kingdom extended across huge swathes of China and his troops were preparing to march on Shanghai. But his luck was about to run out.

    The Europeans had decided he was a threat to business and so joined forces with the Qing armies they themselves had just been fighting. In the Heavenly Capital, the Heavenly Kingdom was anything but.

    As military victory turned into defeat, Hong became increasingly paranoid, his followers starved and his court spiralled into intrigue and violence.

    Presenter: Carrie Gracie
    Producer: Neal Razzell.

    • 14 min
    Wang Anshi - The Mandarin

    Wang Anshi - The Mandarin

    The behaviour and competence of China's bureaucrats have defined the state for 2,000 years. But in the 11th Century came a visionary who did something almost unheard of - he tried to change the system.

    For the first 50 years of his life, everything Wang Anshi touched turned to gold. To begin with, he came fourth in the imperial civil service exam - quite an achievement in a country with such a large population.

    The successful Wang Anshi was sent off to administer a southern entrepreneurial city, as the Chinese economy became far more commercialised than it had ever been before,

    But all this created problems. As large land-owning estates grew, so did the number of people who were unwilling to pay their taxes - and the more rich people evaded tax, the more the burden fell on the poor.

    There were also problem with the neighbours and the dynasty plunged into crisis.

    But cometh the hour, cometh Wang Anshi, and his programme for a new style of government. The civil service had a way of doing things, and in the 11th Century Wang Anshi was turning it upside down, asking mandarins to roll up their sleeves and manage every corner of the economy.

    He wanted state loans for farmers, more taxes for landowners, centralised procurement. But he was not watching his back. He was too sure of himself and too focused on the big picture.

    Then events such as drought and famine overtook him - and it was just the opportunity his rivals had been waiting for.

    Presenter: Carrie Gracie
    Producer: Neal Razzell.

    • 13 min
    Liu Bei - The Warlord

    Liu Bei - The Warlord

    Early in the 3rd Century, China's mighty Han empire collapsed. From the wreckage emerged three kingdoms and competing warlords with an eye on the throne.

    Centuries later their struggle was turned into China's favourite warfare epic - a story that underlines the historical fragility of the empire, and still provides an object lesson in good management.

    The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is for China roughly what Homer is for Europeans, a swashbuckling adventure story, with lots of blood, excitement and craftiness on the battlefield.

    Chinese boys live and breathe the story, with its hundreds of characters in cloaks and long robes and multiple sub-plots, spanning a century of convulsion before the empire was reunited.

    "It is a general truism of this world that anything long divided will surely unite, and anything long united will surely divide."

    These are the opening words of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The action begins just as the Han empire is about to break up.

    The government is struggling to suppress a rebellion by peasants called the Yellow Turbans. It is forced to do what it hates to do: outsource troop recruitment - and that gives an opportunist called Liu Bei his big break.

    Presenter: Carrie Gracie
    Producer: Neal Razzell.

    • 14 min
    Qin Shi Huangdi: The Emperor

    Qin Shi Huangdi: The Emperor

    There are two Chinese leaders whose final resting place is thronged by tourists - Mao Zedong and Qin Shi Huang, the emperor of terracotta soldier fame.

    But they also have another thing in common - Qin taught Mao a lesson in how to persecute intellectuals.

    Chairman Mao Zedong has been dead for nearly 40 years but his body is still preserved in a mausoleum in Tiananmen Square.

    The square is the symbolic heart of Chinese politics - red flags and lanterns flank the portrait of Mao on Tiananmen Gate where he proclaimed the People's Republic in 1949. But the red emperor owed the idea of this vast country to an empire builder who lived 2,000 years earlier.

    Claiming the title of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang kick-started nearly 2,000 years of imperial rule, unifying China through economic and political reforms, and also via the construction of a massive nationwide road system.

    But this was all at the expense of thousands of lives - and to maintain power he outlawed many books and buried scholars alive.

    So, over 2,000 years later does history remember him as a hero or villain?

    Presenter: Carrie Gracie
    Producer: Neal Razzell.

    • 13 min
    The Soong Sisters - The Consorts

    The Soong Sisters - The Consorts

    On one bank of the Huangpu river in Shanghai stands a forest of steel and glass skyscrapers, but on the other - colonial splendour. A century ago, foreigners unpacked a whole new fascinating way of life on the docks here.

    From Western ships came bicycles, engine parts and young Chinese with a vision of modernity - adventurers like Charlie Soong who had been out to see the world and had come back.

    Charlie had sons, and in any earlier generation he'd have ignored his daughters but he had been educated by American Methodists and he believed in Christian virtue, democracy and the dignity of women.

    From this waterfront, he sent his daughters to America to get a grounding in all three.

    As Shanghai boomed, their horizons expanded. And in 1914 the eldest, Ailing, made a strategic match with a young man, H H Kung. Money was no object. He and his bride would become China's richest couple.

    Qingling, the second sister, married a very different kind of politician - Sun Yatsen, the revolutionary leader of China, who had become President of China after the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

    As Sun was an older man and already married, Qingling's parents objected - so she jumped out of a window and eloped with him.

    All three sisters were very much in the public eye, and in the news magazines almost as often as film stars - but life wasn't just a round of photo opportunities and jazz.

    Qingling's husband Sun Yatsen died in 1925 and his movement split into warring camps.His successor, Chiang Kaishek, was a no-nonsense military man - some would say a fascist. Qingling was horrified by his tactics. And doubly horrified when she discovered her younger sister Meiling was planning to marry him.

    Presenter: Carrie Gracie
    Producer: Neal Razzell.

    • 14 min

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