xi's moments
Home | Europe

Following in Du Fu's footsteps

Poetry fuels British historian's fascination for Chinese culture

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-06-07 09:55

Michael Wood's passion for all things Chinese was first sparked by his discovery of ancient poetry when he was a teenager. PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Editor's note: As the People's Republic of China celebrates the 75th anniversary of its founding this year, China Daily asked prominent international figures to reflect on their relationship with the country and to talk of the direction in which they see it going.

Since the late 1970s, British historian, author and broadcaster Michael Wood has been traveling the world, sharing his passion for history and the stories of civilizations and kingdoms across the globe in a string of hugely successful series.

He has written more than 120 documentaries, which have been shown in 140 countries and territories, covering topics including Alexander the Great, the conquistadors, India and the life of William Shakespeare, but one of his most enduring fascinations, both professionally and personally, is with China.

In 2016, Wood presented a series called The Story of China, and just before the novel coronavirus pandemic, he made a film about the man who first inspired his love of the country, the 8th-century poet Du Fu.

The film, Du Fu: China's Greatest Poet, has now inspired a book, In the Footsteps of Du Fu, recounting Wood's travels while making it. He said it was a journey he was more than happy to retrace with viewers and readers, to enlighten them about his passion for Chinese culture.

"We know so little in general in our culture about China — it's not the only knowledge gap, but it's a particularly obvious one, and that's a real loss," he said. "The great sinologist Simon Leys wrote a fantastic passage that I often come back to, saying that China is the other pole of the human mind — until you know something about China, your knowledge of humanity is skewed — you won't be able to tell me what are our universal values and what are just Western idiosyncrasies."

For Wood, his portal to a lifelong love of things Chinese was a paperback book.

"In 1960s Manchester, China seemed distant and exotic, but my first serious encounter with Chinese culture was the New Penguin translation of Poems of the Late Tang by Arthur Graham. It was a brilliant book, I was captivated by it," he said.

In the film, Wood travels to Du Fu's Thatched Cottage and meets other enthusiasts. PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Later, when he was doing his postgraduate studies at the University of Oxford, Wood shared a house with a sinologist who used to put books his way, which gave him a wider conversance with Chinese literature.

Once Wood talked to a house guest and asked him what he did. It turned out he was David Hawkes, who had been a professor of Chinese at Oxford but gave it up to translate what he called the novel of the millennium — The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin.

"He'd also produced a book called A Little Primer of Du Fu, which contained about 30 poems that you first saw in Chinese, then in transliteration, then literal translation, then a literary one, with an analysis of each, which was amazing.

"We all have encounters with books that open a window onto a world you never dreamed of, and that was one for me. I used to carry it around on foreign trips, and later I gave copies to other friends. It was a book I treasured."

Michael Wood's book In the Footsteps of Du Fu. PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Vital translation

Wood's passion for Chinese poetry does not stretch as far as being able to speak or read the language, but, now more than ever, he said, translators are essential.

"Of course, translation is an approximation of language — most of us receive foreign literature through translation, so it is vital and a central aspect to dialogue between cultures," he said. "Translation is not only completely justifiable, but it's essential. If you look at the times we live in and the difficulties we have in the world, one of the biggest is the difficulty of understanding other cultures.

"There's a terrible danger with Chinese literature and culture that we think it's inaccessible to all but experts, because of the script and the language barrier. We need dialogue, which comes through translation, so I'm a firm believer in translations, in the same way a filmmaker should make popularizing films to help make one culture accessible to another."

In his Du Fu documentary, Wood said: "For the Chinese people, poets have been the ones who most truly express the feelings of the people."

China has the longest tradition of poetic writing in the world, with a timeline dating back before ancient Greek writers like Homer, and Wood said that it is this continuity and reverence that has helped keep the works of Du Fu, written 1,300 years ago, so relevant and so admired in the 21st century.

"All literate and educated Chinese people have a deep sense of the importance of that poetic tradition, and also a deep sense that historically, the poets are the truth speakers to power — they frame the great issues of the day for the ordinary people," he said. "Du Fu curated his own work carefully. Virtually nothing survives from before he was in his 30s, so you get the feeling that the works we have are what he would have wanted us to read.

"The majority of his work is from the period after the An Lushan Rebellion (755), which caused devastation when he was forced to take to the road with his family."

The eight-year turmoil during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) saw millions of people displaced or killed, and one of Du Fu's own children starved to death in an experience that Wood thinks left an imprint on his later works that these days would be called post-traumatic stress.

"He's not the only poet to live through catastrophes and write about them, but he's the first to become the voice of his time," he said. "He talks about surviving natural disaster and war, and what it's like to be a refugee. He was writing about the sort of scenes we still see all around the world in the modern day because he'd lived them himself. He took the part of the ordinary people, that's a huge part of his story."

Honoring the memory

In the film, Wood visits the Thatched Cottage Museum on the outskirts of Chengdu, Sichuan province, where devotees honor the memory of Du Fu, and he speaks to many people to find out what it is about Du Fu's work that still has such an emotional pull.

"Lots of people go there, and talking to them you get a sense of how traditional Chinese people still value him hugely. They all say there are a great many qualities to his poetry, but his great strength is that it's with the ordinary people that he really endures."

Wood's films have been screened in China, where he said audiences were intrigued and very receptive to see his outsider's view of their own culture and history.

"I'm trying to extend knowledge of China in a sympathetic way, so when we sat down to start planning The Story of China, I said to the team that the key thing was that there should be empathy — I wanted viewers all over the world to think that they would like to be there with us. That's the most important thing, everything else will just follow," he said.

"When it was shown in China, people were really happy that they were being shown so honestly because they're so used to China-bashing.

"I did a series of films for the 40th anniversary of the opening-up and managed to get some incredible interviews with people who had lived through it. In the first 24 hours on the Tencent website, just the promo for that series got 100 million hits. People really warmed to the fact that we were formally addressing what happened as a great event in world history."

The Du Fu film was a co-production with Chinese broadcaster CCTV, and Wood admitted it "must have been slightly weird to have a Westerner telling you the story of your greatest poet", but once again, the response was appreciative.

"We made comparisons that wouldn't have occurred to them, like with the World War I poets writing about the shattering of Western ideals and values in war, which was a new angle for the Chinese audience, and they really liked it," he said.

"Sometimes, with some of the comparisons, I had to check with people that I wasn't stretching them too far, but no, they understood that the films were made in a spirit of loving Chinese culture, and empathy for the Chinese people."

Future dreams

There was also one unexpected bonus reaction to the sight and sound of acclaimed English actor Ian McKellen reading Du Fu's poems.

"We were slightly worried about whether it was appropriate having an English person reading a great Chinese poet, but not only did viewers think he was great, they also thought he looked just right for Du Fu," he said.

The book of Wood's pre-pandemic Du Fu journey has only been written in retrospect, and he said, had he planned it at the time, he would have kept a more detailed diary, rather than just travel notes, but he still has many China-related projects he would like to explore further.

"From a British point of view, I'd love to do something about Lord Macartney opening the first British embassy in China in 1793. It's such an incredible meeting of civilizations, with so much mutual misunderstanding out of which so many things that have shaped our modern world sprung, it would be fascinating," he said.

Wood added that the Story of China series only briefly touched on the 20th century, so he would also love to do something about the history of modern China.

"I've done literary festivals where I've spoken about Du Fu to rooms full of people who had never heard of him before, which is a great pleasure, and it's the same with filmmaking. It's a privilege to be invited in to do any kind of filming in any foreign culture, but there's always a special intrigue to filming about China."

Global Edition
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349