A 12-episode documentary called "The Rise of the Great Powers" screened on Channel 2 of the China Central Television (CCTV) from 13-24 November. Scheduled for the prime time 21:30 slot, each show lasted 50 minutes.
The 600-minute documentary reviews the history of nine great powers -- Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and the United States -- since the 15th century.
The documentary covers historic events such as Britain's Magna Carta, Portugal and Spain's Great Voyages, the Industrial Revolution and the collapse of the former Soviet Union. It aims to identify the factors in the rise and fall of these countries.
"This CCTV documentary is unprecedented," netizens said in various BBS on the Internet, "it has powerfully influenced our thinking".
"We hope the documentary will help the public know more about the world, and what happened in these countries," said Ren Xue'an, chief director of the documentary.
Outstanding international scholars appearing in the documentary include Yale historian Paul Kennedy, whose book "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers", published in the 1980s, is still influential, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz from Columbia University, and other leading experts from all nine countries.
The makers also interviewed well-known political figures such as former French president Giscard d'Estaing and former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
"This documentary has been a long time on the drawing boards", Ren told China Features. He said as China's economy booms, everyone is eyeing China's development. "But what is a great power? How does a nation become a great power? These are critical questions. Making the documentary was a search for answers", said Ren.
"Sometimes history is distorted, or poorly recounted. That's why misunderstandings and false concepts exist among the public", said Prof. Qian Chengdan, a historian with Beijing University. "This documentary describes world history seriously, and helps the audience understands historical events."
Qian was academic advisor for the documentary. He said that some of the nine powers did not have big populations or extensive land areas, but nevertheless managed to acquire global power and influence.
Ren's group spent three years making the documentary. He said his team visited all nine countries, and more than 100 scholars and political figures were interviewed.
Three years ago, Qian delivered a lecture on the history of the great powers since the 16th century to members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee.
"The CPC lecture helped inspire us to make the documentary", said Ren.
It is not only Chinese leaders who are interested in the history of the "great powers". In the famous Tianya club BBS (www.tianclub.com), an article introducing the documentary attracted more than 200 messages from ordinary netizens in just three days, including some long, carefully-considered posts.
To add to the Internet debate, a series of books are on sale in bookstores in Beijing.
"The documentary is quite objective, a far cry from the stereotypical rhetoric we heard when we were younger," said lawyer Li Chuchan, rifling through one of the books in Beijing's Xidan Bookstore.
Li, along with most educated Chinese people, learned about the history of these countries at middle school. They were told about the wars, violence and exploitation that accompanied the rise of these great powers. The countries in question were always branded as "colonialist" and "imperialist".
But the new TV documentary focuses more on the reasons -- institutional, technical or ideological -- for the rise and fall of these countries.
Eschewing the victim's view, the documentary takes an objective attitude towards the countries that made China suffer. It pays more attention to Japan's success in modernization and tries to extract lessons from its fall.
"I do not think we are introducing a new historical concept", Ren said. He said China has always been keen to learn from the achievements of others. "As China opens up to the outside world, we need a more rational understanding of the world."
"What happened in history cannot be changed. There are skeletons in the closet of all these great powers", Qian told China Features, referring to the sufferings that these countries once inflicted on other peoples, and even on their own people.
"Before we probably paid too much attention to the vicious aspects of these great powers, to some extent, we ignored their successful experience and achievements", he added.
"Now more and more people are trying to view the world in an objective way, which shows that China can take a more open and rational attitude towards the world", said Qian. "That's progress."
As China continues to develop, the title of the documentary has stirred debate about the country's own ambitions.
China's GDP now ranks fourth in the world after the United States, Japan, and Germany. Any crumb of news about its one trillion U.S. dollars of foreign exchange reserves can immediately affect global financial markets.
What's more, China's positive role in the Korean peninsular nuclear issue and its increasingly close relations with African countries have shown that it is also prepared to "shoulder the burden" of its responsibilities as a major nation.
"According to an old Chinese saying, if you use history as a mirror you can understand the vicissitudes of life," said former Chinese ambassador to France Cai Fangbo, who thought the fusion of history and current conditions is one of the strengths of the documentary.
"History helps us understand what development path a country has chosen, and its experiences and lessons. This helps us understand what we should do", said Cai.
Chatting with netizens about the documentary, Prof. Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Beijing University, pointed out that a good knowledge of history can correct misunderstandings.
He said that it was the peaceful period after the Civil War that gave the United States the opportunity to become the most powerful country in the world.
"Wars did accompany the rise of the United States, but we cannot say it became powerful through war", said Wang, who is also president of the Institute of International Strategy under the Party School of the CPC Central Committee. "The notion that the rise of a world power is inevitably accompanied by wars is erroneous."
"Every country has to follow its own course, although other countries' experiences and lessons can be useful", said Qian, noting that all of the nine great powers' development paths have their own characteristics and cannot be repeated.
"The documentary does not point out the "right way". Instead, it asks the audience to think", said Qian.
"In my opinion, the successful experiences of these countries have much in common", said Ren Xue'an, who admitted that limited historical knowledge initially caused his team a lot of trouble. But three years of work made all the documentary staffers quasi-historians.
"On the one hand, you have to respect tradition. On the other, you must have the courage to innovate. That's what I learned from these 500 years of history", said Ren.
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