China’s uneven history
A six-part PBS documentary is ambitious and at times compelling.
China has had its ups and downs, says historian and PBS series host Michael Wood. And now that the world’s oldest nation is on its way back up, it’s time to take another look at its history in “The Story of China.”
The six-part documentary, which will air over three consecutive Tuesdays, is part of the network’s Summer of Adventure series. The summer series includes multi-part documentaries on Havana, Alaska, Ireland and Yellowstone.
Covering China’s history, however, is a herculean task given that it dates 4,000 years. Wood attempts to look at the country from ancient civilization to modern boon and does so through varied themes that include historical texts, interviews and his own on-the-ground perspective.
The one-hour episodes “Ancestors” and “Silk Roads & China Ships” open the series Tuesday. They’ll be followed in the coming weeks by episodes devoted to the “Golden Age,” “The Ming,” “The Last Empire” and “The Age of Revolution.”
If you happen to be knowledgeable or passionate about the history of China, this PBS series will likely light up several parts of your brain. It’s a vast collection of fascinating facts, breathtaking scenery and thorough research.
For the rest of us who simply enjoy discovering other regions, cultures and eras via well-made PBS docs, “The Story of China” is not as compelling. Though “The Story of China” runs in a loose chronological order, it can feel jumbled and a bit disorganized in its attempt to harness so much history. Let’s just say the series is highly variable, just like the place it features.
Wood takes us through the narrative arc of China via his own travels across the country, interviews with everyday citizens and historians and gorgeous footage of monuments contrasted against the modern infrastructure built up around them.
“China has been in a headlong rush into the future,” says Wood at the outset of Episode 1. But it’s doing so by looking at the past.
Several of the series episodes employ the idea of using modern scenarios to explain the past. For instance, in the debut show, Chinese are shown honoring their ancient ancestors in a Festival of Light ceremony. It’s an interesting bit of culture and history on its own but doesn’t quite help string together a larger story.
Instead, moments like these can pull the viewer out of the bigger story arc and make the pacing feel bumpy and irregular. That’s not to say that moving through the dynasties — Xia, Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han — isn’t fascinating. It is. But the folksy firsthand experiences of Wood can take away from the grandeur.
“The Story of China” does, however, provide the back story to the place we see today — the most populous and perhaps soon-to-be most powerful nation on the planet.
“THE STORY OF CHINA” contrasts monuments, including the Longmen Caves, against the modern nation.
HOST MICHAEL WOOD, with Korean scholars at the Confucian cemetery in Qufu, China, provides his own on-the-ground perspective in the documentary.