The Wastes of Yin

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.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Chinese Chariot Revealed (2017).

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