It is known…

Where the mountains meet the sea, there is a valley that leads down to the rocky beach. A giant bronze statue of Laozi, author of the Dao De Jing, stands overlooking the coast, his left hand pointed up to heaven, his right hand towards the earth.

“What’s that about?” I ask the Abbot, who looks a bit like David Duchovny with a wispy beard.

“The left hand is upwards, because it is yang. The right hand is downwards because it is yin. Yang Heaven and Yin Earth, and what is between them? You are,” he says.

He is clad in sky-blue robes that have not changed a whole lot in the last two thousand years, when the first Daoists reached this high point on the coast and decided to site their temple here. His hair is tied in a topknot that pokes through the top of his hat. And we are sitting cross-legged on a rock that juts out above the forest and the crashing sea, where he is supposed to be showing me how to meditate.

“Empty your mind,” he says, “and concentrate on the sounds of the natural world around you.”

The sounds of the natural world currently include a crew of two dozen people: the clapper loader, the director, the assistant director, the A cameraman, the B cameraman, their various grips, the battery guy, the sound guy with his little hostess trolley full of gubbins and wires, with two giant aerials like shark’s fins, Mitch the producer, who is trying to describe the plot of a film called G.I. Executioner, in which a topless girl falls into a fishnet in the middle of a gunfight, Frances the fixer showing pictures of her cat to some random passer-by, and several runners telling everyone to keep quiet. Meanwhile, there is the chainsaw buzz of the drone as it hovers around us like an angry dragonfly.

“Hurry up!” shouts one of the tour guides. “The tourists will turn up soon, and then it will get noisy.”

With a messy clatter, the drone crashes into a tree and stays there. With weary sighs, two members of the Drone Team begin the long walk down to the car park to get their ropes and ladders.

I am getting a sixth sense about interviewees. These days, I can tell usually at first glance whether someone is going to be like getting blood out of a stone, or a fun and easy conversationalist. Abbot Huo is mercifully one of the latter, ready to answer any question with a well-argued speech. He tells me about the origins of Daoism, the practices of their rituals, and his own version of the famous meeting between Confucius and Laozi. Or as it turns out, not so famous.

“Confucius was a pupil of Laozi. It is known,” says one assistant like some ill-informed Dothraki.

“They met once, apocryphally,” I say, and she sulks for the rest of the day. There are some mumblings that she has “read some books”, but they plainly aren’t the actual books that I am passing around in the bus on my Kindle – The Book of History and the Zhuangzi, which are the places where the story of Confucius’s meeting with Laozi is actually told. That’s because this is my job. That’s why I have marked those passages, because National Geographic require two printed sources, not something someone overheard at a party once.

In the grounds of the temple, there is a statue of Confucius meeting Laozi, with an inscription next to it telling the story.

“This is from the Analects,” says a camera assistant, trying to help.

“It’s from The Book of History,” I tell her, pointing at the words Book of History on the inscription. I do this for a living and have no time for the Twitter version. It is my job to show up at dawn for the reconnaissance mission, see what there is to talk about, and then to wait, sometimes for hours with nothing to do, until the moment when I am obliged to leap into action and deliver a 20-second speech with no mistakes, about an obscure matter of classical Chinese philosophy. Everybody has a difficult job to do, but this is mine.

The Abbot walks with me through a grove of camellia trees, discussing his childhood love of the Chinese opera The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, and the opposition of his parents towards his chosen, celibate profession. All of a sudden, I realise that this origin-story could have been told at any point in the last three hundred years.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“A Daoist never tells,” he replies.

How I wish all interviewees were like him, ready with a quotable, editable answer, keen to explain things, experienced enough to know that having to repeat an action thirty times is not unknown in the television world. Although I am resisting orders as much as possible, and conducting interviews in Chinese, the director is demanding that I ask the main questions in English, which the Abbot does not speak. The Abbot suggests that we prime him with a list of subjects, and that I ask the next one along in English after he unobtrusively flips his right sleeve during an answer. It means we get through the whole interview in a single long take, and I can ask him anything I want with the audio recording as we walk through on second and third pick-ups for different lenses.

He shows me how to hold my hands in the Daoist symbol of respect – an immortal gang sign I find myself flashing at nuns and monks for the rest of the day. He explains that the chanting from the earlier ceremony was the three names of the Daoist Emperor-Officials: The One Who Confers Blessings, The One who Absolves Sins, and The One Who Eliminates Misfortunes. He shows me the acupressure points on my legs to relieve the pain of sitting cross-legged on a rock for half an hour, and he gives his own version of the story of Confucius’s fabled meeting with Laozi.

I do my version at the statue, leaping between the two philosophers’ statues like a sarcastic umpire, relating the story as it is set down in the Zhuangzi – the longest variant, while a series of gawping Chinese tourists shuffle pass and pretend to know what the inscription says.

“It’s from the Analects,” says one, wrongly.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events appeared in Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018).

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