October 19, 2005

Prof Lends Helping Hand To Emmy-Winning Movie

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Few academics have the chance to see their research transformed into media appetizing to the popular consumer. Even fewer can bask in the honor of having contributed to an Emmy-award winning documentary.

Prof. Chen Jian, the Michael J. Zak Chair of History for U.S.-China Relations, can boast both of these accomplishments.

Jian contributed extensive research on Chinese-American relations to the documentary Declassified: Nixon in China, which won the 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in News and Documentary Research. Jian’s findings from archival and other primary sources, such as internally published documents by Chinese party historians, are a main source for the historical content of Declassified.

The documentary delves into the political maneuverings of the United States and China during the late 60s and early 70s, a high-tension time of the Cold War, and the “most dramatic chapter of the 20th century,” Jian said. Both governments kept the intricacies of their actions during this period undisclosed.

“It’s hard to imagine this documentary a few years ago,” said Prof. Fredrik Logevall, history, discussing the groundbreaking nature of Jian’s findings.

“I think I’m the first, certainly in the U.S., possibly in the world, to dig into a variety of Chinese sources, to come up with a more comprehensive understanding of Chinese actions and motives in the China-U.S. opening,” said Jian. He added that the producers of the documentary drew on “documented sources already amassed for [his] own work,” such as his book “Mao’s China and the Cold War.”

ABC News Productions, a partner of the Discovery Times channel, chose to use Jian’s work after a seven hour interview in October 2004. Before the interview, ABC asked Jian to send documents for review.

“My contribution is on the China side,” Jian said.

According to Jian, the Chinese decision to “play the U.S. card,” as evidenced in his sources, “made NBC News excited.” America played the Chinese card against the U.S.S.R. but few expected the Chinese action of playing the U.S. card, Jian said.

This card play led to an opening of diplomatic communication between the countries. Jian now cites the “card game” between U.S. and China as a key phrase in the documentary.

The guiding principle central to Declassified’s production dictated that “the documents talk for themselves on both sides,” said Jian. Continuing in his role as a China expert, Jian worked on the outline and themes of Declassified from the beginning.

Jian’s contributions to the documentary extend beyond the scholarly: the professor sings a childhood ditty about American imperialism in a 15-second voice clip.

“This is least relevant to me as a historian,” said Jian, adding that his solo changed his role from China expert to participant.

Declassified clearly presents the most significant elements found in the historical documents and primary sources used in Jian’s research and, given the documents’ breadth of detailed information, makes them understandable to a general, non-academic audience.

“Television has a capacity to reach a sizable audience,” Logevall said, and he added that the documentary form provides access to significant archival findings to people who may not know about them. Logevall also said that, at the same time, a documentary has a limited capacity in regard to space and depth, unlike an article or book.

Jian was disappointed that the documentary featured only three to four minutes of his work and that a lot of the discoveries in his research were not included.

But, the work put into “Declassified” merited an Emmy. “I’m proud of who produced it,” Jian said, adding that he was extremely happy with the documentary overall.

“Declassified” is a magnificent project because it’s a historian’s dream, Jian said. “I’m a historian. Our nature makes us want to tell a good story. This material allows us to tell a good story.”

Archived article by Jessica DiNapoli