The Flying Knives

If you need to avenge yourself against your enemies, you will need a basin filled with water and two knives used for killing pigs. Place the knives in the water and get your sorcerer to chant the correct incantation over the bowl. If he’s doing his job right, the knives will turn into fish and the water will turn into blood, and you will know that your enemy is not long for this world, because he will be killed by the “flying knives”.

Alternatively, stick pins in a doll and bury it on his birthday. Or kill a rooster, and stick pins in its head, on his birthday. Kam people don’t like to tell you when their birthday is.

Eric the camera assistant likes to say we are among the “Southern Barbarians”, an oddly medieval construction that recognises so much of this part of China is a very different culture. The Kam are just one of the peoples in this area, who plainly migrated from somewhere else, pushed south by the Han Chinese themselves, and who have only partly got used to the idea of huddling on remote hillsides. They are all incredibly short, quite dark and often quite impassive. Pan, our local fixer, has taken two days to come out of his shell, and only then revealed to the director that he was married with a kid, and that he would be taking us to meet his family.

Pan’s village is called Tang-an. To get there involves a 40-minute drive from Congjiang, the nearest big town, through Zhaoxing, the “capital” of the Kam, because it has five drum towers – any more than one in a Kam town is liable to be a family tower to mark the presence of several households with the same surname. And then out into the mountains beyond Zhaoxing, along a winding mountain road, up into the heights, when Tang-an is stretched out on the slopes above the rice paddies.

In the evening, we lurk around until half past nine, waiting for a practice session for the song contest that is coming up in the village. But none of the people who are supposed to be involved appear to be doing anything. Eventually an old lady called Lan Big Sister says she will take me to meet her friends, a bunch of cackling grannies who are singing a song in Kam in a dilapidated house near the fish pond. Matters are somewhat confused because Lan doesn’t really speak Mandarin.

“Here is some guy from Yinland,” she says, apparently not knowing where that is.

“Come in, come in!” shout the grannies. “We are singing a song in Kam about the benefits of government subsidies for pensioners.” So I try to sing along in a nine-tone language which sounds like the Bulgarian Shepherdesses falling down some stairs, while a heifer in the stalls next door keeps on letting out long farts that are picked up by my microphone.

Halfway through, a granny who has gone out for a dump comes back in to find the squalid room brightly lit with lamps, and a National Geographic film crew crouched in the corner while I perch on a little stool and try to sing a chorus that has two glottal stops.

“What the actual fuck is going on?” she gasps.

“Just pretend we are not here,” says the director.

It is past eleven at night before we struggle back through the streets, pausing only to help a villager carry a moped over a large pile of bricks that has been left in the middle of the narrow mountain road. My limbs are aching. I have a headache from our landlord Mr Wu’s moonshine, and we still don’t know what we are supposed to be filming tomorrow.

The director reveals that there is possible a mass slaughter of oxen at midday tomorrow. And before that, I shall apparently be jumping into the fish pond to hunt carp with my bare hands. What could possibly go wrong?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

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