Your BBC Radio 4 series, Chinese Characters, has been very popular. How did you select which characters to feature and what were your criteria when choosing them?
Thank you! Well, it was very much a personal choice, but I wanted to fulfil certain criteria. First, I wanted to give more substance to names that might be known to a British public, such as Confucius or Mao, but whose details aren’t well known. Then I wanted to bring in people who would be pretty well known to most Chinese, such as the writer Lu Xun or the emperor Wu Zetian (China’s only female emperor). And finally, there were some names that even the Chinese might not remember, such as the translator of Buddhist texts, Kumarajiva.
I worked with a great editor, producer and researcher (Hugh Levinson, Ben Crighton, Elizabeth Smith Rosser) who helped me shape and hone the ideas. But I have to take responsibility for the final interpretation.
A few years ago it would have been hard for such a show to get on mainstream BBC radio, do you think that the UK has changed its impression of China?
I think there’s a lot more realisation of China’s global importance, something tied to its economic growth. I think that that has increased the sense that in the British public sphere, we need to know more about China.
“I think today’s China will be seen as a period when a long period of western dominance began to fragment, though not fade away.
We are starting to see books, films and TV shows featuring China more now in the UK. Do you think the UK’s appetite for information on China is growing?
I think that there’s a greater globalisation of history in schools – there is now Chinese history available at GCSE, which was not the case twenty years ago – and Brexit has also probably put the wider world in the minds of many. So the relationship with China is now being considered as part of a wider understanding of a world that seems very different from what we might have assumed a few years ago.
Do you think we are witnessing a global power shift from the west to the east with China becoming more globally outward-looking and the US becoming more inward-looking?
I think this can be exaggerated. The Western world is still the most powerful and richest part of the globe and US influence will remain very strong even if there is currently a turning away from a global role. However, there is no doubt that China will play a more prominent role in shaping order in Asia, and its economic clout in everything from trade to climate change will certainly be felt.
How do you think academics will look back at today’s China in decades or centuries to come?
I think it will be seen as a period when a long period of western dominance began to fragment, though not fade away. The rise of China as an economic and military power, and then perhaps India in the generation after that is a major change. This doesn’t mean that the west will be unimportant – far from it – but there will be more of a balance between the different parts of the globe.
Rana Mitter is the Director of the University China Centre, and Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford. Chinese Characters can be downloaded from the BBC Radio 4 website