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24/02/2017
BBC Radio 4

    Editor's note: This week Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Ming Voyages. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM

    As soon as the programme finished, Craig Clunas told us that scholars were turning the subject we had been discussing on its head. Not just a little bit of an alternative reading, but, in his words, "A 180 degree turn".

    Pity we hadn't time for a postscript.

    One of the points he made was that the idea of the Ming Dynasty springing fresh anew into life, having driven out the Mongols, is simply not true. They adopted a lot of the Mongol ways. They wanted to be Khans, like the great Genghis. They acted like Khans and it seems were built like Khans: not the long tapered fingernails of the traditional Chinese emperor, but tough guys, out on the steppes, fighting away.

    Yongle was a warrior who led his troops into battle, although he seems to have been sensible enough to stay at home while the fleet was out for a year or two. Absence makes the throne less secure.

    And it appears that the Mings might have pinched the idea of world domination from the Khans. They saw themselves as rulers of the world and the Mings ran with that.

    There was talk of why it mattered whether the capital was in Beijing or in the south. Beijing meant that they were concerned with their borders and with the issues of land territory. The south meant that they were concerned with trade and exploration overseas.

    I think it was Craig again who said he had been in China while they had shown what he said was "109 episodes, or it felt like 109 episodes, of the history of the Ming dynasty", which portrayed the Mings as peace-loving explorers encountering exotic and primitive peoples around the world, but unlike any other empire, especially the British Empire, they declared that their intentions were not to do with war and colonisation.

    There were a number of Chinese scholars who believed that Yongle missed a trick with the fleet. He should have gone right around the world, even to America, and really established world domination while he was at it.

    Perhaps, 500 years on, urged on by the 109 episodes on the Ming dynasty on Chinese television, they might have another go?

    On to the cutting room to see a film I made about William Golding at the end of the 1970s for The South Bank Show. There's to be a Golding evening on BBC Two and this will be part of the archive. It is very, very curious to see yourself as an archive. But I found it interesting how much I remembered of that encounter with Golding: his house, Stonehenge - around which we could roam freely - sitting on a rock by the sea when he described how his racing boat had collided with a ship. Only chance enabled him, his wife, his daughter and three friends to survive. No more on the sea for William Golding after that. Something which had mattered to him and been part of his life became something he feared.

    From the cutting rooms down to the Lords. Had to whisk by the side of St James's Park. No ducks, but saw four proud pelicans sitting on a rock and about forty persons from, I think, Eastern Europe, snapping away merrily.

    The debate this afternoon is on the impact of the Government on universities, and it's a chance to say something that might make sense because I've been well-briefed by the Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University, of which I am Chancellor.

    And on we go, but that's enough for Ingrid today! (Ed's note: Regular subscribers to the In Our Time newsletter will know that Melvyn dictates the newsletter and that Ingrid produces the transcript - PM)

    Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time

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