20 episodes

Series of essays exploring Chinese history through the life stories of key personalities.

Chinese Characters BBC Radio 4

    • Society & Culture
    • 4.9 • 21 Ratings

Series of essays exploring Chinese history through the life stories of key personalities.

    Deng Xiaoping: Black Cat, Yellow Cat

    Deng Xiaoping: Black Cat, Yellow Cat

    He was nicknamed "the steel mill" for his capacity to just keep going on and on. He was Mao's lieutenant who was purged twice and rose three times, the final time to the very top. He enabled China's economic miracle to happen after 1978 by allowing capitalism to reemerge in the world's biggest Communist country. "It doesn't matter if a cat is white or yellow if it catches mice," he observed. He put down protests with ferocity in 1989. And he negotiated the last piece of unfinished business between Britain and China - the return of Hong Kong in 1997. As China becomes ever more prominent today, we need to understand that we live in Deng Xiaoping's world - and why.
    Presenter: Rana Mitter
    Producer: Ben Crighton
    Researcher: Elizabeth Smith Rosser.

    • 13 min
    Bruce Lee: Screen Warrior

    Bruce Lee: Screen Warrior

    He may still be the most famous non-western film star in the world. Yet he made only a handful of films in the early 1970s, none of which are artistic masterpieces. It wasn't his acting that made Bruce Lee the first Chinese to conquer global popular culture. Instead, his balletic, choreographed mastery of kung fu provided a new image of the Chinese, not as victims, but as avengers, ready to show their own techniques and customs to the world. Lee was a contradiction; part-European, he spent his twenties in the United States. Yet he came to embody the idea of Chinese skill and grace onscreen, and became an icon across continents. His early death has only added to his mystique.

    Presenter: Rana Mitter
    Producer: Ben Crighton
    Researcher: Elizabeth Smith Rosser

    • 13 min
    Mao Zedong: The Man Who Made Modern China

    Mao Zedong: The Man Who Made Modern China

    In the early 1920s, he was just a library assistant at Peking University. Yet by the end of his life, he would rule a fifth of all humanity, turn China into a major power, and destroy the lives of millions in a Cultural Revolution. Mao Zedong was the person, above all others, who made modern China. Yet what shaped him? The romantic novels he read in his youth, the years on the run, reading Marxist theory, or the desire to write the story of the Chinese people on a "blank sheet of paper"? Rana Mitter retraces his early years, including those days studying at the heart of China's "new culture" movement of the interwar era. Mao's embrace of modernity and renewal, but also of violence and anger, would create a new China, but also shape horrific tragedy, leaving a legacy that is still central to China today.
    Producer: Ben Crighton
    Researcher: Elizabeth Smith Rosser.

    • 13 min
    Factory Girls: Modern Girls, Modern Dreams

    Factory Girls: Modern Girls, Modern Dreams

    They came out of the countryside and helped to build China's industrial revolution. In the late 19th century, textile factories started to appear in the Yangtze delta, and working in them, teenage girls and young women. It was a hard life with the ever-present prospect of lung disease or industrial injuries as they wove cotton and silk. Yet there were new horizons too: these young women had money in their own right, the chance to take holiday breaks, and even to venture to the big city, Shanghai, to press their noses against the windows of the ultra-modern department stores. At a time when Chinese companies are desperate to woo the female consumer, it's worth remembering that their counterparts were there a hundred years ago.
    Presenter: Rana Mitter
    Producer: Ben Crighton
    Researcher: Elizabeth Smith Rosser.

    • 13 min
    Cixi: Ambivalent Empress

    Cixi: Ambivalent Empress

    She rose to power behind the scenes in China's late 19th century imperial court, and became one of the most powerful women ever to exercise authority in the empire. Cixi was a dowager empress, and her influence shaped China through the tragedies of the late 19th century. She prevented her own nephew from launching reforms to modernise China, and endorsed one of the most xenophobic movements ever to convulse China: the Boxer uprising of 1900. Yet she ended up, ironically, as the woman who nearly turned China into a constitutional monarchy. Cixi's story embodies the wrong turns and empty hopes of one of China's most turbulent eras.
    Presenter: Rana Mitter
    Producer: Ben Crighton
    Researcher: Elizabeth Smith Rosser.

    • 13 min
    Hong Xiuquan v Zeng Guofan: The Duellists

    Hong Xiuquan v Zeng Guofan: The Duellists

    This was the duel that shaped China. Hong Xiuquan was a poor boy who went into a trance and became convinced he was Jesus's younger brother, with a mission to conquer China. Zeng Guofan was a loyal Confucian bureaucrat who rose up the imperial hierarchy. In the mid-19th century, Hong's visions led him to launch a war under the name "Taiping" - heavenly kingdom of great peace. He created a quasi-state in some of China's richest heartlands, run on Christian principles, imposed on pain of death. The ruling house sent in Zeng to beat the rebels. The result was one of the bloodiest, most savage civil wars in Chinese history, shaped by the rivalry between two men, one set to conquer China, and one to save the old regime.
    Presenter: Rana Mitter
    Producer: Ben Crighton
    Researcher: Elizabeth Smith Rosser.

    • 13 min

Customer Reviews

4.9 out of 5
21 Ratings

21 Ratings

SuperWindow ,

Wonderful, looking forward to series 2, 3, 4, 5,....

I am totally hooked, cannot get enough of it. Prof. Rana Mitter is a wonderful story teller. It's fascinnating to also hear the lives of some foreigners who played important roles in Chinese history, such as Matteo Ricci, Robert Hart, etc. Looking forward to more series.

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