Chinese Characters

Chinese Characters

A BBC History of China in 20 Lives


Twenty audio portraits telling the story of China through key personalities - plus a bonus edition of In Our Time

Award-winning author and historian Professor Rana Mitter introduces us to some of the remarkable individuals who have shaped the arc of Chinese history. Selecting men and women from ancient times to the modern era - some rich and powerful, others poor and unknown - he explores their sensational life stories, from Mongol emperors to 19th-century factory girls.

Here is China's only female emperor, Wu Zetian, whose path to the top was littered with elite corpses; Mao Zedong, the man who revolutionised China, but at the cost of millions of lives; and Deng Xiaoping, who enabled China's economic miracle, but crushed protests with ferocity in 1989. Alongside them are numerous other extraordinary characters, including celebrated philosopher Confucius, Muslim sailor Zheng He, Jesuit mathematician Matteo Ricci, global film star Bruce Lee - and a pioneering TV documentary series, River Elegy, that started a national debate about regeneration and democracy.

What can Ding Ling's lustful literary creation, Sophie, teach us about 1920s China? What role would kidnapped monk Kumarajiva play in the future of Chinese chanting? And how did Chiang Kai-shek and Soong Meiling become Asia's first power couple? Rana Mitter reveals the answers in this engrossing series, which ranges across time and geography to zoom in on the people and ideas that have made China what it is today. Insightful, stimulating and superbly researched, it shows the astonishing diversity and complexity of Chinese society, painting a multi-dimensional picture of the world's most populous nation.

Also included is an episode of In Our Time, in which Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss China's Warring States period of 400 BC-200 AD, examining how this turbulent epoch sparked a Golden Age of intellectual and cultural productivity and laid the foundations for the first Chinese Empire.

Production credits
Presented by Rana Mitter
Edited by Hugh Levinson
Produced by Ben Crighton
Researcher: Elizabeth Smith Rosser

1. Wu Zetian: The Female Emperor
2. Chiang Kai-Shek and Soong Meiling: Asian Power Couple
3. Kumarajiva: Translator Monk
4. Matteo Ricci: Jesuit and Geometrist
5. Ding Ling: Sophie, Sensation and Sex
6. Sima Qian: Grand Historian
7. Kublai Khan: Cosmopolitan Conqueror
8. Confucius: Becoming the Sage
9. Li Qingzhao: Patriotic Poet
10. River Elegy: River and Ocean
11. Zheng He: The Admiral Goes to Africa
12. Robert Hart: Chinese Customs
13. Lu Xun: Compassionate Cynic
14. Wang Jingwei: Revolutionary Renegade
15. Hong Xiuquan v Zeng Guofan: The Duellists
16. Cixi: Ambivalent Empress
17. Factory Girls: Modern Girls, Modern Dreams
18. Mao Zedong: The Man Who Made Modern China
19. Bruce Lee: Screen Warrior
20. Deng Xiaoping: Black Cat, Yellow Cat
21. In Our Time: China's Warring States Period

© 2022 BBC Studios Distribution Ltd
(p) 2022 BBC Studios Distribution Ltd

About the author

Rana Mitter

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