The Not-So-Great Wall

The Gansu end of the Great Wall is nothing like the posh Ming-era wall near Beijing. This is the Han-era wall, made of rammed earth, two thousand years old, and barely three metres high. It takes us the rest of the day to get there, and we lose our minibus to a broken gear-box on the way, forcing us to cram into the loaner Buick and the chase car just to get there before sunset. This is, I think, the fourth or fifth time that I have been at the Great Wall, although this version might be easily mistaken for a pile of mud.

I have to deliver a complex piece to camera which may form the opening speech of the series, and will certainly have to do for the opening of the trailer to be shown at the publicity event in October. I have to walk between a road and a railway, revealing that the Great Wall sits between them, and explain that the Great Wall here is “on the other side of China”, a gritty and real place, a thousand miles away from the tourist brochures. And then, I have to explain that I am a historian whose experience of China is really only from books, and that I am being forced to get my hands dirty finding about all these Chinese icons, and their place in a global trade network, past, present and future.

I have to do this in a single take, keeping my face to camera while my body is walking away from it, while the light is changing, while trains are zooming past on one side, and while trucks are zooming past on the other, while families of yokels keep stopping at the roadside and wandering over to see what is happening, and while a swarm of sandflies attack the crew, forcing me to deliver my lines while trying not to be distracted by the sight of nine people gesticulating wildly as they fight off a bunch of insects.

The Buick drivers take pictures with their cellphones, and I see a look in their eyes which is becoming increasingly familiar. They have spent all day watching the gangly fat foreigner, and wondering what the hell it is that he gets paid for. And then they have seen me deliver six passes at a 45-second monologue, while walking backwards beside the Great Wall, through broken glass and sandflies and passing dickheads.

The sun sets, we lose the light, and we have to pack up. The director has maybe three clean takes to work with, as well as several broken ones that might be stitched together in post. Considering the pressure (train, train, truck, truck, yokel, flies, light change, train, truck, GO!), I am pleased that we managed anything at all.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening season two (2016).

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