Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Doco Review - China: A Century of Revolution by Sue Williams

I've watched my fair share of documentaries regarding Chinese modern history, this award-winning series is one the more comprehensive, and candid.

The documentary was made by Sue Williams, whose grandparents lived in China for many years, and her mother was born and grew up there. And so she grew up with Chinese stories. This adds credibility to her work.

This documentary trilogy deals with 3 distinct periods in Chinese modern history: 1911 - 1949, 1949 - 1976, and 1976 - 2011. This 3 eras constitutes the fault lines in the 100 years that shapes China's checkered history to modernity.

In the West, modernity started in the French Revolution in 1789, and was followed, or more correctly coincided with the Industrial Revolution. By 2011, the West had undergone 222 years of progress into modernity. China only started this game in 1911, so the West had 122 years head start. China wanted to catch up in the race to modernity, and so it had to move ahead at a breathless speed.

In 2011, China hadn't quite caught up with the West, but even if it does so in the middle of 21st century, it has covered the same distance in some 140 years that the West took to cover in some 270 years. In other words, almost exactly half the time to cover the same distance.

While the early-birds get the worms, late-comers could skip over the mistakes early-birds paid dearly. Having said that, the pace of modernising in China is the more remarkable when you consider that for the quarter of the century when Chairman Mao was on the helm, he steered China in circle, like a frustrated dog chasing its own tail. Except for the first 5 years or so, when Mao hadn't yet let his power go over his head, the generation in the Mao Era was a lost generation. The various political movements Mao launched took the Chinese on a merry-go-round of his power trips. Furthermore, it's much more difficult to move ahead fast when you're burdened with the heaviest historical baggage that resulted from being the longest continuous civilisation in history of mankind.

While China rushes headlong into modernity in breakneck speed, it encountered many speed bumps along the way that caused them brain damage as their head hit the car ceiling. This documentary series illustrates those speed bumps inducing severe concussions, and plenty of roadkills along the way.

The documentary also shows how the on-and-off and complex relationship that China has with the U.S. over the 100 years. It's also interesting to note that while Sino-U.S. diplomatic relationship had been restored as early as the early 1970s, but the appearances that they were still enemies were kept up to "please" the Chinese masses, whom had been brainwashed to brand Uncle Sam an Imperialist. In order to spare the Chinese public disillusionment - and resulted in discontent towards the Communist Party - Mao told Washington that they would continue the anti-American propaganda, and Washington can return the diatribe in the U.S. media on the evil communists. Yep, realpolitik at its finest.

It's incredible - for me, or anyone else - would agree everything in this documentary. For example, I find the documentary downplays Deng's role in shaping the modern China, and overplays his faults. And skips over an important period in Deng's life when he bounced back after being marginalised by CPC leftist conservatives post Tianamen Square Incident. Of course, one should expect plenty of omissions for a documentary that covers a 100 years of history in 6 hours.

It's pretty hard to try to capture the tumultuous history of modern China in 6 hours in a trilogy of documentaries (of course, there're youtube "documentaries" that summarise the entire Chinese history in several minutes). But it's a good introduction for those who are new to Chinese modern history, and is also serving a good reference point if one wants to watch other documentaries that deal with more specific periods or historical events. It requires at least several viewings to really fully appreciate the complexity and intricacies of this documentary.

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