My Home I Played My Flute (Radio 3)

A captivating tale of a Chinese flautist's love of sound.

A programme narrated entirely by its charismatic subject - the Chinese flautist Guo Yue - was stunning (11 June, 9.15pm). All recorded in what sounded like his modest back hall, with other sounds played in now and again for variety (sounds of vendors in the street, of people singing, and so on), it explored Guo's difficult childhood growing up before and during the Cultural Revolution in Beijing.

Guo has always been a listener; as a child, he fixated on the sound of food being chopped in nearby houses at mealtimes, trying to discern if the chopper was thinking about their offspring going to school, or "completely mad and loving the vegetables so much and doing this crazy dance". After the death of his father, a musician who played the erhu, his mother, an English teacher - and the first female in her family not to have bound feet - became so poor, she said it wasn't possible to scrape together the penny it would cost to buy Guo a longed-for bamboo flute, and so he lay down in the snow in the courtyard and refused to get up for days until the funds for the instrument were found. From the start, he "loved the smells of the bamboo! So beautiful! I just fell in love with this little bamboo flute! It made my world so big!"

Guo committed to becoming a master of the instrument, sometimes playing one note for so many hours while standing up that he would nod off on his feet. But now new sounds - Red Guard rallies - were crowding his hearing and he found it hard not to be thrilled by the stomping and yelling, until in 1982 he moved to the Guildhall School of Music.

Before leaving home, he was ordered to write back about the people sleeping under bridges in corrupt London, but when Guo arrived and saw the (indeed many) homeless people, he found he did not want to write confirming any bad opinion of a place that played George Michael on the radio. ("Like a god. How can you sing like that?") I lost count of the times he used the words "beauty" and "love" - and not in a kissing air, aren't-you-wonderful kind of way: I mean really using those words, and applying them to a thousand plaintive scenarios. From recalling being small, and lonely, and trying desperately to befriend dragonflies, to remembering one young boy who helplessly sang "Nessun dorma" over and over while working in the fields ("he was 16 years old, like a beautiful little bird feeling free in that moment").

Guo came across as a tender, honest man, whose many dilemmas made sad listening. Where did the BBC find him? The subject was so modest and the producer, Julian May, so focused on the human story that you wouldn't know Guo had played on film soundtracks and written many books. It was the kind of inspirational programme that perfect stran­gers might start telling you about in the street.

Another dazzling half-hour with origins in the communist far east - Wandering Souls (World Service, 11 June, 12.32pm) - investigated a situation described as a "public health menace" in modern Vietnam: the many ghosts of the war dead that are persecuting the living. While some try to placate these spirits, buying flat-screened TVs made from paper and burning them as offerings, they find it's never quite enough, because the 300,000 dead soldiers of the North and South Vietnamese armies have made their peace with each other (how the people know this was not fully explained), but apparently not with the living.

To be clear: these spirits are neither helpful nor sweet. They want to enjoy Marlboros with the living, not crummy Vietnamese cigarettes. They threaten to slap the living and knock their teeth out. The official government line is that it's all baloney, mere mass hysteria, something not unlike the half-belief in fairies that swept the UK after the First World War, and yet the situation is now recognised as an epidemic. It seems a whole nation actively fears the rummaging in the cupboard at their feet, or glancing in the mirror to find a different face staring back in the oily glass. The second and final programme (19 June, 8.32pm) explores the apparently unignorable sounds of the dead, folded just out of sight in the jungle. Your correspondent is poised with fumbling pencil.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia