China’s un­even his­tory

A six-part PBS doc­u­men­tary is am­bi­tious and at times com­pelling.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - LORRAINE ALI TELE­VI­SION CRITIC lorraine.ali@la­

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.

Mick Duffield

“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.

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