Documentary on a brilliant Founding Father lacks a more perfect credit line — China

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Journalism professor Buck Ryan in Kentucky and English lecturer Lei Jiao in Wuhan, China, are back pursuing cross-cultural understanding through current events—this time the buzz around Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, “Ben Franklin.”

“Sorry, Lei, but I must broach a touchy subject.”

“What’s that, Buck?”

“China’s theft of America’s intellectual property.”

“Whoa, Buck! Let’s not forget a certain Founding Father who benefited from a lot of China’s intellectual property.”

“Who’s that, Lei?”

“Ben Franklin.”

“LOL, you’re kidding! I just watched Ken Burns’ ‘Ben Franklin’ documentary — both parts, all four hours — and I don’t remember anything about China.”


“So did you watch it?”

“Yes, Buck, and I loved it. Franklin was truly an American original. A gift to the world. It’s a very interesting and inspirational documentary.”

“But you just didn’t see any China in it?”

“Oh, Buck, China was there plenty.”


“In the ways Franklin put to work many of our ancestor’s inventions — the kite to conduct his lightning experiment, the movable type and printing press to build his young career, the compass used on his eight treks across the Atlantic, the paper on which to write the Declaration of Independence, and the gunpowder to fight his revolution.”

“Oh, Lei, you’re too much. You forgot to mention the tea that the patriots, disguised as Indians, dumped into Boston Harbor.”

“Yes, Buck. That tea came from Xiamen, known as Amoy in Franklin’s time, in China’s Fujian Province. It made for some party!”


“Ken Burns did miss something important, though.”

“What’s that, Lei?”

“Starting in 1737, Franklin published a series of papers on the Morals of Confucius in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette.”

“Ah, yes, the wit and wisdom of Confucius, circa 475 B.C.E. Some things never get old.”

“Buck, do you remember when Franklin charted his daily transgressions in a spirit of self-improvement?”

“Yes, Lei, he came up with his list of 12, then 13, virtues to uphold. They were 1. Temperance, 2. Silence, 3. Order, 4. Resolution, 5. Frugality, 6. Industry, 7. Sincerity, 8. Justice, 9. Moderation, 10. Cleanliness, 11. Tranquility, 12. Chastity and 13. Humility.”

“Well, Buck, you don’t have to be a Confucius scholar to connect those values to the contents of Confucius’ moral philosophy.”

“Call a cop! Franklin robbed him blind!”

“Buck, I didn’t say that. But you should read Todd Andrlik’s book, ‘Reporting the Revolutionary War,’ where he finds that plagiarism in Franklin’s time was as common as taxation without representation.”

“So, Lei, was Confucius China’s Ben Franklin?”

“No, Buck. Honestly, it’s a real challenge to traverse the dynasties to find one person who mirrors all of Franklin’s accomplishments.”

“I know.”

“He was a printer, newspaper publisher, writer with literary genius, scientist, inventor, government official, diplomat, revolutionary, library and university founder, mega-flirt with French women, father of an estranged son who was born out of wedlock …”

“Now stop right there, Lei Jiao!”

“Sorry, Buck, but as Winston Churchill observed, ‘Great and good are seldom the same man.’”

“I guess.”

“Ken Burns rides the waves of Franklin as a man of contradictions, documenting his brilliant victories, human foibles and humiliating defeats. It’s quite a story.”

“Lei, something funny occurred to me when I was watching.”

“What’s that, Buck?”

“Henry Clay.”

“Clay was no humorist, Buck.”

“LOL. I know, Lei. The documentary connects the lineage of Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and Will Rogers in that regard.”

“Were you thinking of Clay because you live in his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky?”

“Maybe so, Lei.”

“Buck, you once told me that Lexington was founded in 1775 by patriots inspired by The Shot Heard ‘Round the World in Lexington, Massachusetts.”

“Good memory, Lei!”

“But why Clay?”

“I was thinking about how Henry Clay tried desperately as ‘The Great Compromiser’ to keep the Civil War from happening, just like Franklin tried desperately to avert the American Revolutionary War.”

“Funny, Buck, but if I learned one thing from the Franklin documentary it was the U.S. had two great civil wars.”


“Well, Buck, father against son, brother against brother, fought both from 1775 to 1783 and 1861 to 1865.”

“You’re so right, Lei. Wasn’t that a sad story about how Ben and his son, William, built up their British fortunes, then took different sides in the revolution — son loyalist to the crown versus father patriot.”

“And they never reconciled, Buck. That part made me sad. Also the fact that Ben was not there for his wife’s death and funeral. I don’t think William forgave his father for that.”

“I’m sure Ben was smarting from his son’s letter informing him of the death, not to mention his son’s henchmen hanging a patriot and William’s snitching to the British authorities about Ben’s secret trip to Canada.”

“Oh the treachery!”

“Lei, the documentary ends with yet another touchy subject — slavery. Of course, it’s a red thread that runs through Franklin’s life, as he was a slave holder, then late in life, an abolitionist.”

“Well, Buck, you know China has had its own troubled history with slavery, trying to stamp it out over the centuries. Do you know the last year China tried officially to ban slavery?”




“Yes, Buck, after a civil war in China, like in America.”

“Lei, you mean when we ratified the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery at the end of our Civil War in 1865, right?”

“Right. For us it came with the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Our Founding Fathers had a big mess to clean up.”

“Like what?”

“As a historian noted, hundreds of thousands of opium addicts were forced to go cold turkey, both child labor and slave labor were abolished, factories were put under central control, land was taken from landlords and redistributed among peasants, and on and on.”

“So I guess slavery was a lot bigger deal for us than for you in China, right?”

“Right you are, Buck. And it still is a touchy subject.”

About the authors: Buck Ryan, a University of Kentucky journalism professor, and Lei Jiao, an English lecturer at Wuhan University of Technology, Hubei Province, China, collaborate on articles to advance cross-cultural understanding. Ryan, who is doing a “participatory case study” of the News + Record, has been a visiting scholar at three universities in China, including Jiao’s WUT.




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