An omnibus edition of Professor Rana Mitter’s audio portraits of figures who have shaped the arc of Chinese history.
He starts with Wu Zetian, the only woman in two thousand years of imperial history ever to sit on China’s throne as ruler in her own right. His second subject is a couple: leader Chiang Kai-shek and his wife Soong Meiling who dominated Chinese politics and were two of the most prominent non-westerners on the world scene for much of the early twentieth century. Millions of Chinese speak the words of translator and Buddhist monk Kumarajiva every day. Far fewer have any idea that he is the man who translated key Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese. Even if his name has faded, Professor Mitter says his achievement is very much part of the contemporary Chinese religious scene. Matteo Ricci was an Italian Jesuit priest who used geometry to bring together the intellectual worlds of Renaissance Europe and Ming dynasty China. Professor Mitter ends this programme with a portrait of Ding Ling, arguably China’s greatest woman writer. Purged as a right-wing deviator in Mao’s China with her fiction and essays banned, she was rehabilitated in later life.
He begins with a Sima Qian, a historian whose objectivity got him into big trouble at court. When he confronted the emperor, he was subjected to a horrific and humiliating punishment. His second subject is a great Chinese leader who wasn’t actually Chinese – Kublai Khan, the Mongol head of a dynasty that both occupied China and connected it to a wider world. If there were a competition for most famous Chinese in history, Confucius would surely come out on top. He was the philosopher and ethicist who has given China a significant part of its cultural DNA. Li Qingzhao is the woman remembered today as one of the great poets. A passionate writer who destroyed her reputation by divorcing her husband, she nevertheless established a reputation as a true patriot that has lasted to the present day in China. Professor Mitter ends this programme not with a character – but with a pioneering TV documentary series, one of the most watched in history. When it was shown in 1988 it started a national debate about modernisation and democracy, but was then was banned after Tiananmen Square in 1989.
He starts with Zheng He, the Muslim Admiral who commanded a fleet of vessels larger than anything that Europe could manage, and whose maritime voyages created new routes for trade and influence. Robert Hart is the second westerner in this series, a man who helped develop the relationship between China and the outside world, but who grew up in the windswept Irish town of Portadown. Lu Xun is a writer who is still read by every Chinese schoolchild and has the reputation of being the country’s greatest modern author. Wang Jingwei saw himself as a patriot, but is remembered today as one of China’s worst traitors. Understanding why he chose to collaborate with Japan, and how he was in turn betrayed, illuminates one of the great tragedies of China’s twentieth century. Professor Mitter ends the programme with the story of two adversaries – a rebel leader and his nemesis. One defended the Qing dynasty against the other, a man who declared that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ.
He starts with the Empress dowager Cixi who 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. His second subject is not one person, but millions of them – the hard-working, hard-living factory girls behind China’s industrial revolution. Chairman Mao is arguably the most famous Chinese, after Confucius. In the 1920s, he was just a library assistant. Yet by the end of his life, he would rule a fifth of all humanity. Mao Zedong was the man, above all others, who made modern China. Bruce Lee was the first global Chinese film star with an influence which spread across the globe. Not through ideology or revolution: but thanks to the fastest fists in East Asia. His early death has only added to his mystique. Professor Mitter final character is Deng Xiaoping. He was Mao’s lieutenant who was purged twice but ultimately rose to the very top. He enabled China’s economic miracle to happen, but crushed pro-democracy protests with ferocity in 1989.