Out today to the Wastes of Yin, where can be found the ruins of the Shang dynasty, now contained within the Yinxu Museum Complex that includes a replica of the two-storey Shang palace, the grave of Lady Fuhao, and red gates painted with the ancient hieroglyphs that can be found on the oracle bones.
I am climbing down a stepladder into a pit containing six chariots, each accompanied by the bones of the horses and a human sacrificial victim. The chariots themselves are mere ghosts, the wood long since having rotted away, carved out of the mud by archaeologists shaving away the light-coloured mud from the darker mud that once was wood, in order to create the shapes of where they once were. The chariots were buried three thousand years ago, so there is not a whole lot left of them.
Wu Hsiaoyun wrote her D.Phil at Oxford about the history of chariots, and it’s fair to say that she is the leading world authority on the subject, and I am only in the room to make this a conversation rather than a lecture.
It is a long and tiring day, repeatedly walking around the chariot enclosure, discussing the wheels, the spokes, the cockpits, the horses (which are really Mongolian ponies), the disposition of the sacrificial victims, and the likely changes in chariot appearances between the late Shang and the Eastern Zhou, a period spanning five hundred years. We have to do it in a wide shot, in a close-up, in a two-shot, in a medium shot, from above, and then with the jib – a long counter-weighted crane that can sweep in above the exhibits. Then we have to do it all again with the Osmo, a little camera on the end of a prehensile, bouncy arm to create a sort of mini-Steadicam. Then the director has to do pick-ups of us pointing at the chariot, the horses… etc. By the end, we are talking about anything except chariots, and I am pretending to be buying a sporty model to impress girls, while Hsiaoyun is pretending to be a car dealer flogging me the latest BMW with human sacrifice. At this point, the audio doesn’t matter as we are only acting with our fingers.
We finish up by walking past the ceremonial gate, which is decorated with a snake-like image that is the jade dragon ring of Lady Fuhao, the leader of king Wuding’s armies.
Late in the day, I hear squeals of delight from over by the calligraphy kiosk, and see Hsiaoyun talking to a little old lady with a horsey accent. She is Dame Jessica Rawson, professor at Oxford and Hsiaoyun’s former doctoral supervisor, in town entirely coincidentally to talk about bronzeware.
“She was very tough,” says Hsiaoyun. “Sometimes she would draw a line through an entire page and write RUBBISH in big capital letters.” But as a result, Hsiaoyun’s PhD thesis (which I had devoured the night before in preparation) is beautifully readable and cogent.
“She was my favourite pupil,” says Jessica. “Because she did bronzes, like me. Well, good luck with your… television programme.” She says it like she has just discovered we are anime fans or something.
Maybe the concept of “impact” hasn’t yet filtered up to Oxford, an institution which doesn’t seem to see the value of its staff getting their faces and the university’s name on television in front of the general public. It’s not like Oxford ever has trouble getting people to apply for it, whereas hungrier, more media-minded universities are ready to endow Chairs of Public Engagement. Some organisations recognise that even though there is no academic value in press stories and talking-head appearances, they do still function as part of a university’s marketing. Chinese scholars, on the other hand, usually seem more worried about the opposite effect, and that one misstep or fudge on camera will be preserved for all time and lead to public ridicule by one’s peers. Repeatedly in my Chinese travels, one of the fundamental parts of my job has been to put a jumpy academic at ease by making it clear that I am not some blank-eyed sock-puppet, but a colleague who understands what they are saying.
The director wants pre-credit soundbites from us – a single sentence that can be used to rev up the audience’s excitement at the top of the programme. Hsiaoyun’s version takes multiple attempts, and comes barnacled with qualifications, inferences, and caveats, because as someone who is in academia for a living, rather than a tourist like me, she cannot allow herself to be misquoted or misunderstood, because it will return to bite her. Some of these chariots might be quite old and quite early and they had some possibly interesting uses in a five-hundred period, between the late Shang and the eastern Zhou, and… she sounds like a reluctant salesgirl trying to interest me in a cellphone package that I don’t need.
My turn: “The arrival of the chariot in China is a revolutionary technology. Like the invention of the aeroplane in the twentieth century, it opened up an entire new arena in combat.”
You are quite good at this, says Hsiaoyun. Well, I point out, I am more aware that what television people are looking for is often not information, but permission, to tell the story that they are going to tell anyway.
“Kosei Ono writes a chapter specifically about the impact of Chinese cartoons in Japan, beginning with the watershed success of Princess Iron Fan, conceived in China as an anti-Japanese parable, but screened in wartime Japan as an innocent children’s cartoon retelling an episode from Journey to the West. Of course, it also spooked the hell out of the Japanese Navy, which threw money into making a rival feature so that Japan could regain the cultural high ground – the result was Momotaro: Sacred Sailors.”
Over at All the Anime, I review Daisy Yan Du’s new collection Chinese Animation and Socialism, which manages to link wartime propaganda, Chairman Mao and contraband dubs of Jenny Agutter in The Railway Children.
“In other words, just as Ascendance of a Bookworm shows a character changing the world through the pursuit of a certain invention, and How a Realist Hero Rebuilt the Kingdom saves a nation through accountancy (no, really), Tearmoon Empire’s protagonist sets out to change her world by not being such a terrible bitch.”
Over at All the Anime, I review Nozomu Mochitsuki’s Tearmoon Empire.
Back out to the park in ten degrees below, to film the shamanic procession and dancing from yesterday. Yes, we already filmed it, but today we have to do it again for the benefit of the drone to get some picturesque aerial photography. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, because the drone batteries go flat within ten minutes of hitting the cold air, and it often takes ten minutes to calibrate them, because his phone is the interface with the controller for the flying camera, and it refuses to operate unless it is cuddled and cosseted within a pile of camping heater-packs.
Our drone pilot must also operate the phone using its touch-screen, which means he can’t wear gloves in the freezing temperature, and can’t actually feel where his finger ends and where the screen begins. The shamans are also complaining, because they never realised that they would be standing around in the snow.
“We don’t do this in winter,” says one tubby lady, whose name is Yufang. “And some of us are in our sixties. And what’s with all this ‘OKAY’ business? That director woman is always shouting ‘OKAY’ all the time. She says it when it’s time to start, she says it when it’s time to finish.” Her fellow shamans all titter and giggle, and start chanting “OKAY” while banging their drums and shaking their hips to ring the bells on the end of the long ribbons.
A man walking his dog stares at me like I am somehow responsible for the dancing wizards in gold crowns and rainbow ribbons, banging drums on a Tuesday morning in the park.
I explain what okay means, and ask Yufang what it is in Mongol.
“Bolok,” she replies, which is too good to be true.
The drone barely manages two ten-minute runs in the cold air, while the shamans shiver and wait for their cue. The locals don’t help by insisting on treating a public park like a public park, so that at least a couple of shamanic rituals are interrupted by a hatchet-faced woman in a purple tracksuit, power-walking along the path. The usual crop of men with giant telephoto lenses are in evidence, but we don’t think they are spies. Everybody and his dog seems to own a massive telephoto lens in Songyuan – maybe this is where they make them.
The afternoon is spent in an embroidery workshop run by the twins, Black Silver and Coral Red. Their grandfather was the scriptwriter on a Genghis Khan movie and they are plainly posh literati, whose workshop specialises in the Planet Mongo fashions of the Mongols, all Vulcan shoulders, and hats that seemingly have dildos sticking out of the top. Black Silver and Coral Red fuss around their guests with a pot of tea, and I interview two of the shamans, including Furong, the witch-woman from last night.
Furong isn’t drooling bogies and ash any more, nor is she spitting firewater at the camera. Instead she has transformed back into a well-turned-out forty-something in a fluffy fur coat, with the occasional habit of rolling her eyes to commune with unseen spirits. She is only 42, but I can see from the light behind her hair that she dyes it, and wonder if she is hiding bolts of grey witchy hair. But if she had it, why would a shaman hide it?
Her hands are amazingly warm and soft. Furong starts stroking my hands, peering underneath my eyelids, examining my stuck-out tongue, and pulling out one of my hairs.
“You must be careful with your heart,” she says, after conducting this odd examination. “You have an odd heartbeat, and stomach problems, too. Maybe your kidneys. But these are all signs of a haunting.” Sickness of some sort, particularly in the heart or stomach, is one of the signs of a shamanic disciple in waiting. “Your fingers are cold, but your hands are warm,” she continues. “This is because of the bad circulation from your heart.”
“There are spirits watching over you,” she says. “And you have great power within you, to be a black shaman, the most powerful kind of all. Your dreams already see the future. You cried when I danced. You must be exorcised to banish the sickness, and then you can begin your training, assuming you find a suitable mistress.” Her eyes flash.
In the mirror behind her, I see the crew exchanging quizzical glances. Nobody was expecting this, least of all the other Mongols in the room, who are wide-eyed with excitement. The sound man doesn’t help by humming the theme from Bewitched while he fiddles with the sound dials.
“Been a while since we found a black shaman!” beams Mrs Bao.
“Bit of a turn-up,” agrees Mr Bao. “Bolok!”
A black shaman apparently something of an untouchable in East Asia, who mediates with the lower and more terrifying spirits, as opposed to the white shaman who consorts with the nobility and the nicey-nicey spirits. It doesn’t sound like a particularly appealing career to me, particularly if I have to eat ashes and spin in circles while talking to the evil dead. But, you know, if writing doesn’t work out, it’s nice to have exorcism to fall back on.
Furong already has a disciple (some shamans have dozens), a soft-spoken man called Ping who was the subject of last night’s exorcism. While Furong sips daintily at some red tea with her long-suffering husband, Ping tells me about his damascene moment.
“I was in an accident,” he says, “and I couldn’t do sports any more. For three years my limbs were stiff like there was something squeezing my bones. But then I saw Her, and I realised I had seen Her before. I felt like I already knew Her, and we talked as if we were long acquaintances. And then I remembered, I had seen her in my dreams. You see your teacher in your dreams, and your dreams lead you to Her. She agreed to teach me. They chased out the ghosts and welcomed in the good spirits, and I felt such happiness. I was so happy… I, I…. can’t say in Mandarin.” He switches into Mongol, and we have to wait until we get home to get it subtitled.
Michelle the assistant producer is getting on with her usual tasks, scribbling the next shot title onto the clapperboard.
Furong suddenly seizes Michelle’s hands.
“You are a shaman,” she tells her. “You are from a family of shamans. I see your ancestors in you.” Michelle recoils in horror and scurries out to the toilets.
Furong doesn’t seem to be bothered by this.
“She knows,” she shrugs. She looks at me again, her eyes hypnotic. “Your dreams come true, don’t they? You have seen the future in dreams, but you only know it when it occurs. That is the first sign.”
The director is getting increasingly annoyed by all this hocus-pocus, and starts shooing people out of the room to the next location. The cameraman is similarly unmoved, claiming that Ping the Possessed only shook and wobbled at the exorcism last night when he saw that the camera was on him.
‘He found an unlikely celebrity supporter in the form of the author Yukio Mishima. “The pay-library comics that once could only be purchased in the flea markets of Ueno had ten times more vulgarity, cruelty, wild abandon and vitality than today,” Mishima wrote. “But in Hiroshi Hirata’s samurai comics, with their direct, serious art style, I find a nostalgia for kamishibai of old, and a sensibility in the manner of the violent warrior prints of the late Edo period.”‘
Over at All the Anime I write the obituary for the manga creator Hiroshi Hirata.