Bai Ping

An opportunity to explore the Chinese spirit

By Bai Ping (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-10-19 10:45
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Recently, when I watched America: The Story of Us, a 12-episode TV series on the country's journey in becoming a superpower, I wonder why China hasn't done a similar sweep of its historical highlights.

The documentary, produced and aired by the History channel in April, purports to show an American spirit that stems from the bravery, perseverance and ingenuity of the country's forefathers that will only become stronger in the centuries to come. As an education effort to inspire people trapped in hard economic times, the series was introduced by President Barack Obama and given free to classrooms in the United States.

I believe officials in China will also be thrilled if domestic filmmakers can also produce a similar program to encourage Chinese people to overcome adversity and strive for a better future.

And with a history of several thousand years, China should not be short of historic heroes, ideas and events that can be used to make a compelling narrative.

What about a script that begins with Yu the Great who founded Xia, the first recorded Chinese Dynasty (21st century-16th century BC)? He is one of the most well known ancient Chinese heroes who led the people to tame rivers during an epic flood.

We may also include the campaign of "letting a hundred schools of thoughts contend" during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), the golden age of Chinese philosophy because many new thoughts and ideas were developed and debated freely.

Fast-forward several hundred years. The Chinese at that time already began to invent papermaking, gunpowder, printing and the compass that changed the world. In comparison, America traces the roots of the country's fascination with technology to the rebellion against Britain, when Kentucky rifles and mini balls were regarded a key factor for the ragtag militia to defeat the mighty Redcoats.

However, these ancient feats are probably just faint and musty historical tales to an average Chinese young person who has grown up with the Internet and games.

Now imagine actress Zhang Ziyi popping up to comment on the bang of the first Chinese firecrackers, while Internet entrepreneur Jack Ma, who founded China's largest e-commerce platform, reflecting on the ancient Chinese printing technique.

Like America, the Chinese series may try to dramatize historical events by using actors dressed in vintage attire and cutting-edge, computer-generated animation effects.

But there haven't been serious attempts on China's long, rich history on television and I don't see it coming any time soon.

One of the main reasons may be that the approach to Chinese history and culture with deep roots in feudalism remains a controversial topic. For example, Chinese tradition might have high regard for the common good, but it also tended to play down or ignore individualism. The character of a leader was important, but materialism or rule of law was not.

Wu Jianmin, former Chinese ambassador to France, says that the good things in Chinese culture that have been tested for thousands of years must be carried forward, whereas "the dross must be weeded out". He suggests a patient approach so the Chinese can have a deeper understanding before they set out to promote their tradition.

Ironically, the intriguing complexities of Chinese history and culture have long been a source of inspiration for Chinese television scriptwriters and producers bent on getting eyeballs and revenues.

Drama series focused on ancient martial arts or the intriguing palatial struggles are often slated for primetime viewing across the country.

While it takes America 12 hours to present what the History channel calls a comprehensive telling of the country's 400-year history, the Chinese award-winning television drama series on the life of Emperor Yongzheng from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had 44 episodes totaling more than 30 hours. A slew of such films, including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower have also become box-office successes.

Unfortunately, these dramas or films spiced up by tales of violence, sex and murderous plotting often represent values that defy contemporary social norms and aspirations. While supplying entertainment, the mass media doesn't seem to be doing a good job in helping people learn about their history and drawing on useful values, beliefs and experiences from their ancestors.

Wu believes mainstream Chinese culture will consist of the good things from China's history, modern Chinese thought and valuable inputs of foreign cultures. "Chinese civilization has lasted thousands of years precisely because it has rejected no foreign cultures," he says.

But for the Chinese culture to continue to prosper, we need to know now what virtues make up the Chinese character and effectively pass them on from one generation to another.

The author is the consulting editor for the China Daily US Edition.