A sense of history

Updated: 2013-02-01 09:18

By Andrew Moody (China Daily)

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 A sense of history

Through her China coverage, BBC News presenter Carrie Gracie tries to break down the China mystique. Nick J B Moore / for China Daily

A sense of history

Urbanization is biggest story in China because it is transforming everything, says award-winning broadcaster

Emmy-award winning broadcaster Carrie Gracie does not believe China is as uniquely shaped by its history as is often assumed.

"I think Chinese people live with the ghosts of their past in the same way as we might live with the Tudors or the Stuarts," she says.

"I feel that British people - and I am a British person - also have this sense that history is part of our present. All of Shakespeare is embedded in our contemporary language, isn't it?"

Gracie - still heavily made up - was speaking in the open-plan newsroom in BBC Television Centre in west London after her regular morning stint as a presenter of BBC News, the 24-hour domestic news channel.

Chinese history has been a recent focus of the former BBC Beijing bureau chief since she has just completed a 10-part series, China: As History Is My Witness for BBC Radio 4 in the UK, which is now available as a podcast.

The presenter, who is separated from her Chinese rock musician husband but has two children who are half-Chinese, hopes many will listen to the series in China but thinks it a myth Chinese people are obsessed with their history.

"I actually think it is quite shocking the extent that Chinese people are ignorant about their history, I really do," she says.

"People will tell you in China they have got an immensely long and magnificent history but they don't know much about it in my experience."

Gracie, who witnessed key moments in Chinese recent history such as Deng Xiaoping's funeral and the return of Hong Kong in 1997, tells the story of China in the radio series through the prism of key individuals.

These include the great historian Sima Qian, the Mongol invader Kublai Khan, ancient Chinese poets Li Bai and Du Fu, and China's first emperor Qinshihuang of Terracotta Warriors fame.

"You can say a lot through particular characters, if you choose them carefully, and through them you can say a lot about the present also, which is what I wanted to do. I wanted to drive home how the past relates to the present but not in an over-pedantic way."

Gracie says she deliberately avoided taking a chronological approach because Chinese history is so dauntingly long. "I wanted to tie the different aspects of Chinese politics and culture together and that is why I chose the range of characters that I did," she says.

"If you approach Chinese history from the point of view that I am going to go to a bookshop and get a book on the 3,000 years of Chinese history and start from the beginning, by the time you get to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) even with the best intentions, there are so many peasant rebellions and court intrigues, you will have forgotten the ones from the beginning," she says.

Gracie spent three weeks in China for the series but did a number of interviews with China experts before setting off. "We did a lot of interviews beforehand, we structured the programs and wrote the scripts and when we got off the plane we had to work so hard because we had to produce a program a day for the first few days to get them on air on time."

Gracie, who was born in Bahrain, the daughter of a Scottish oil executive, was brought up and educated in Scotland before eventually going to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics.

Her first China connection came as a result of musing about what to do after graduating. "When I was finishing university, me and my then boyfriend were sitting in the map room at the university and were thinking of cycling from Paris to Beijing. That didn't come off but in the process of thinking about it, we got interested about China," she says.

They sent off applications to teach English at various Chinese universities.

"We wrote off loads of letters but heard nothing for months and months and then suddenly all these job offers came flooding in. We wondered where to go. So we got out a Rough Guide and Chongqing seemed like a fascinating historical city on the banks of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers and decided to go there."

This eventually led to her studying Chinese at the Polytechnic of Central London (now Westminster University) and becoming Beijing correspondent for BBC World Service in 1991.

"Even then (in Beijing), I didn't really speak Chinese. I was shocked by the fact I had spent years and years slaving at it but was still so incompetent speaking it. I then had a Chinese lesson at 8 am before work which was the most exhilarating, bracing mental wake-up and I got to the point where I cracked it."

She went on to become the BBC's Beijing bureau chief and covered some of the country's major events, including Deng's funeral.

"To be honest, if you asked me what my favorite China reporting memories were, they would not be these set-piece events. I would say my favorite times have been those with ordinary Chinese."

It was her filming people in White Horse Village in Wuxi County in Chongqing whose lives have been transformed by urbanization that won her both Emmy and Peabody awards.

The filming took place over six years and it is something Gracie says is a project she will return to time and again in future.

"I think urbanization is the biggest story in China because it is transforming everybody's lives, economically, socially and politically.

"There is a complete passing of a way of life that had been there for thousands of years. It is like a Thomas Hardy novel and I wanted to bring that sense of the end of one era and the beginning of another one."

Gracie is not one to shirk questions herself. At the height of the MPs' expenses row in the UK, she was asked on air by a Labour politician whether she would want people to know what she earned and she straightforwardly replied that it was 92,000 pounds a year.

"I am just a direct person so I say what I think. I didn't have a problem with it," she says.

How does she think China is now represented in the media?

"I think it is getting better. Sometimes I think the coverage is a bit glib and overconfident. There is a tendency to go, 'Oh! big growing superpower China that has got no problems and is going to rule the world', whereas there are many problems and questions unresolved."

She says what she has tried to do with her latest history series and with the White Horse Village films is break down this mystique about China and the myth that the country can only be understood by Sinologists.

"If there is anything I have wanted to do with my China coverage is to end that idea that there is this impenetrable difference between Chinese people and the rest of us and bring them to the microphone and camera so you get the essence of them," she says.

"Their concerns are the same. They are not in any way different."

Carrie Gracie's China series podcast is available at www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/china


(China Daily 02/01/2013 page32)