In Our Time: Sources of Early Chinese History

5 years ago

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Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the sources for early Chinese history.


In Our Time: History

Related programmes:
China's Warring States Period
The Great Wall of China


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Tom Morris, the producer of In Our Time, tells me that this is the first time we've had a Belgian majority on the programme. Both Roel Sterckx and Hilde De Weerdt are Belgian and indeed Professor De Weerdt came over from the Continent to do the programme. Tim Barrett, the other Englishman on the programme, suggested at the end that we do something about the Chinese industrial revolution in the eleventh century, which Hilde De Weerdt enthusiastically backed up and rattled off a most impressive number of inventions and moves forward. Tom Morris and I thought this was a great idea, and then the three contributors said we would be very hard pressed to find three people in this country who would know enough about it to do it. First of all, I think it's wonderful how modestly these clear experts on Chinese history rule out themselves. They think in this case they are not expert enough and secondly, it just eggs Tom and me on. If we have to go further afield than Belgium for our cast, then, by Jove, we probably will.
There is also an idea, cropped up from another quarter, on the history of eunuchs. We'll have to see about that.
One of the things I regretted was that I did not raise the questions which I'd hoped to raise about the importance of religious documents. It turns out that the huge discovery in 1900 of 'new' documents, in a sealed cave on the edge of the Gobi Desert, contained many religious bamboo strips. In fact, one of the contributors told us that the entire history of Zen Buddhism had to be rewritten, because there was discovered to be one Zen Master, who was Master of the Masters, and had been either written out of history or completely forgotten about. What seems to excite the scholars about these tranches of archive is that they are unsifted and unmediated. The Chinese scholars and historians seemed to use the archives very conscientiously, but then discard them, because they considered the book they had written was all that was needed. And so to discover 130,000 items in the Gobi Desert alone and to have them digitised (and to realise just how many languages were involved at the time), some of them at the British Library, is a great thrill to our scholars.
It seemed a bit downhill after that. I went to have a coffee with a chap who never turned up. I walked from there the short distance to my office and in that short distance I got very wet indeed. It had dried up so I walked from there down to the House of Lords. It takes about half an hour if I go through Soho. Chinatown has now floating balloons of various sizes, celebrating Chinese New Year (I think it's the Year of the Horse) which is almost upon us.
There are new street cries at the moment. These are the cries of, almost invariably, young people, literally screaming into their phones as they march along the pavements and sometimes coming out with strings of language which would make Robert De Niro, in the darkest Scorsese film, blush. They seem completely unconscious of anyone around them; just march down the avenues having flaming rows. Did we used to behave like this? Sometimes I think that if Charles Dickens came back and walked down the streets of London and saw all these people apparently talking to themselves, or with their hand cupped to an ear, talking into their hands, he might well think that the world had gone completely mad and who is to blame him?
Lunch with one of my daughters, then a meeting with someone who had been to a talk by Bill Gates and was rejoicing in Bill Gates' witty one-liners. I wonder if they are witty because he's Bill Gates, because they are one-liners, or because they are witty.
Now to do a bit more research on the next book I'm writing (or I hope to be writing quite soon), but first of all, a three-bridges walk, down past Lambeth Bridge, over Vauxhall Bridge, along the South Bank of the Thames, over Westminster Bridge, and back here to Broadcasting House where I am dictating this letter.
By the way, Tim Barrett said that the reason why philosophers like to look at the pelicans in St James's Park is because the pelicans remind them of Bertrand Russell.
Best wishes
Melvyn Bragg



In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time, a series where he and his expert guests discuss the history of ideas, and explore subjects in culture and science.
Read more about Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg on the Radio 4 Blog

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