'Revolution', Michael Wood observes, 'has been a fact of life in Chinese history'. Between 1850 and 1950, three cataclysmic revolutions shook China to the core, but out of them, today's China emerged. The film begins in Canton with the meeting of a US missionary and a Chinese student. Inspired by the Christian story and calling himself God's second son, Hong unleashed the bloodiest war of the 19th century, the Taiping Rebellion. Wood heads into wild mountain villages in the south, where the revolution began. As imperial China weakened, foreign influence grew. Treaty ports expanded, bringing growth and wealth, trams, railways and western sensibilities.
China's last empire, the Qing, lasted from 1644 to 1912. It began in violence and war as the Manchus swept down from the north, but invaders became emperors, with three generations of one family ruling the country. Among them, Michael Wood argues, was China's greatest emperor - Kangxi. Under the Qing, China doubled in size to include Xinjiang in the far west, as well as Mongolia and Tibet, creating the essential shape of China today. The new dynasty tolerated a diversity of cultures and religions, including Islam. In Kaifeng, Michael visits a women's mosque with a female imam, a delightful scene that ends with laughter and selfies! The Qing also undertook huge cultural enterprises.
The tale of one of China's most famous dynasties begins with the amazing story of Hongwu, a peasant rebel who founded one of greatest eras in Chinese history. The film takes us to his great capital Nanjing, with its 21 miles of walls, each brick stamped with the name of the village that made it. Following the trail, we go to the Bao family village and see the villagers act a Ming murder story. Like many authoritarian states, the Ming were obsessive about architecture. We see the giant fortifications of the Great Wall, the ritual enclaves of the Forbidden City in Beijing and travel with bargeman Mr Hu down the Grand Canal, China's great artery of commerce right up to the present day.