June 8, 2008

Spence does Reith

Filed under: China,culture,east-west — Kim @ 4:46 pm

This year’s Reith lectures are about China and are being given by Jonathan Spence, a Sinologist of some renown. His best known books are probably “The Search for Modern China” and “Mao Zedong”.

The Reith lectures are held annually in honour of John Reith, who was the first and probably the finest Director-General of the BBC. He was the guy who coined the wonderful mission statement for the BBC, namely that it should “Educate, Inform and Entertain”. Astonishingly, Reith was given the position despite having absolutely no experience of broadcasting. He simply had a feeling that he would be able to run any company he put his mind to and so when he saw the advert for the job in the paper, he applied. That sort of thing doesn’t happen any more.

The lectures are being held in the British library this year, home to the oldest book in the world… printed in 868 AD in China. The Reith lectures are a rather “British Establishment” affair and if you listen to them you will hear they are chaired by the prim and plummy sounding Sue Lawley and feature questions at the end from people such as The Archbishop of Canterbury and Oxford Professors of Chinese.

Spence himself is a rather phlegmatic sounding scholarly type and his lectures are solid and well-crafted rather than inspirational. More informing and educating than entertaining. He is also himself an establishment figure, having been educated at Winchester and Cambridge.

Why am I banging on about their backgrounds? Well, these are the kinds of people who ran the British Empire and I can’t help thinking how much things have changed since those not-so-distant days. Spence himself is married to a Chinese, something that would have been rather shocking/baffling until quite recently. And, generally speaking, the Chinese are talked about with respect and Chinese journalists are invited to ask questions at the end. Again, until quite recently, the British Establishment wouldn’t have given a toss what the Chinese thought about what they thought about China…intercultural dialogue was not really their forté.

Spence is giving 4 lectures in all and the first, on Confucius, has already been given and is available online.

Worth a listen. Especially as Confucius is such a hot topic these days.

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