Hot Blobs

Zibo is famous for glass. It’s where they make the glass vases with paintings on the inside, and the ones with the different coloured coating that’s carved into the outside. The glass flowers that form vast corporate installations, and the horrible little paperweights and dust-collectors beloved of many a mad old lady.

Li Daxi loves glass. He loves its malleability and the speed with which he can put together a vase or a figurine. This wiry, friendly man shoves a metal pole into a furnace at 1400 degrees, withdrawing it with a hot blob at the end, and he sits at a chair made of scaffolding where he can roll the blog and pat it with a trowel, where he can blow into it and tap it.

“Today,” he says, “we’re going to make a fish.” He taps and rolls the first blob, and as it cools to 800 degrees, the white hot gunge congeals to a bright red. Belatedly, I see the signs that hang on each of the furnaces – “Tea”, “Red”, “White Jade.” The true colours only manifest as it cools, but while the red blob is still too hot to touch, he dunks it into another molten bucket marked as Transparent.

I roll the hot blob for him on the scaffold chair while he sets about the clear outer layer with tongs and clippers, teasing it into fins, shaping a fish’s head and poking two little eyes into it. It’s done in less than five minutes, and yours for thirty pounds. He lets me have a go and my first fish looks more like a dinosaur. The second is more like a teapot. The third is a fish.

Li Daxi is a certified master of glass, and he leads me around the gallery in the factory, in the company of four eager students. They have been scooped up from the local polytechnic, and arrived unaware that they were going to be on television. It’s only as we stand there waiting for a lens change that I decloak as a Chinese speaker, and they suddenly burst into animated conversation about what this show is, and why we’re here. Belatedly, they realise that Li Daxi’s comments on their hand-drawn designs, and my tin-eared questions about them, are going to be broadcast in 30 countries. Everybody is very excited, and intrigued by the process of television, and boggled to discover that their taxes are being funnelled by their local government into putting a film crew in their factory to make a five-minute advert for it.

“Your job is so hard,” says Li, whose arm I have just watched tan in front of me as he holds his pole in the furnace for slightly too long. “So much standing up, and repeating yourself, and running backwards and forwards.”

But his job is hard, too, as he attests, revealing that the youngest student he has is in his thirties.

What about those nice young men this morning, I ask.

“Oh, they were all designers. They come with ideas for vases and jugs, but they still expect someone else to make them. They come to me and I tell them the handle won’t support the weight, or that the whole thing will have to be exterior-cut or interior-painted, but they won’t do any of that themselves. Nobody wants this job. The heat is incredible, every day. We wear asbestos gloves, we’re throwing around molten glass…”

The day started at 0530. By sunset, we are filming the pick-ups of me arriving at the factory and doing a rushed piece to camera in front of a sunset that we are hoping will pass for a sunrise. Then it’s back indoors after the light fails, to film me and Mr Li looking around the gallery and talking about his favourite pieces. We wrap at 1830, then there’s just time for a rushed dinner before the four-hour drive to Qufu, the home of Confucius.

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

The History of Modern Manga

“If you are a newbie to manga,” the authors write, “you can certainly find the perfect series to dive into.” And that’s certainly true – this is an excellent introduction to manga, especially for the curious teen.

Over at All the Anime, I review the new History of Modern Manga from Insight Editions.

Now in Turkish

I see that the cover is up for the Turkish translation of my Brief History of Japan, out this month from Kronik in Istanbul.

“Yazar Clements, Japonya’nın dünü, bugünü ve yarını arasındaki bağlantıyı zekice ve nüktedanlıkla kuruyor ve geniş ama detaylı bir anlatıyla bu paradokslar ülkesini gözler önüne seriyor.”

[“Author Clements cleverly and wittily connects Japan’s past, present, and future, revealing this land of paradoxes in a broad but detailed narrative.”]

Available to buy here.

Japanese Film and the Challenge of Video

“Toho Video Shop statistics might have been skewed by a tiny handful of early-adopting male customers, as if Hollywood film production were steered exclusively on the rental choices of Quentin Tarantino and Kim Newman, or as if me repeatedly typing ‘redhead discussing chess moves in her underwear’ into Netflix’s search function, every day for a year, was the sole cause of The Queen’s Gambit getting made.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Tom Mes’s informative and entertaining book on “V-Cinema”.

The Dean of Shandong

Canadian-born Daniel Bell was appointed as the dean of the School of Political Science and Public Administration at Shandong University from 2017 to 2022, a period characterized by Xi Jinping’s austerity drives and the sudden global shutdown of COVID-19. Freed from academic bondage, he writes up his experiences in The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University.

Now, if you asked me to write up my China experiences (an approach twice made to me by British publishers), you’d get a series of angry rants and raves about supermarkets and tea houses, fake goods and racists, but as a political philosopher in the homeland of Confucius, Bell has many more productive things to say about China and the Chinese. He does, occasionally, fulminate about injustices, most notably the restrictions brought on academic banqueting by anti-corruption laws. But he also has much to say about the drift in China’s political economy from what he calls “Leninist Legalism” into a philosophy that derives much of its foundations from Confucius.

Bell dates the official “Confucianisation” of China to 2008, where the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics tried to present Confucius as the cuddly face of modern China, rather than Mao or Marx.

He sniffs out some truly quirky but illuminating areas of Chinese political life, starting with a chapter-long discourse on why Chinese men dye their hair. Bell tracks it all the way back to Spring and Autumn statements on rites and rituals, that suggest that black-haired men, young and vigorous, should run the state, while white hair is a sign that it’s time to put someone out to pasture. That might have played well in the Bronze Age, when life expectancies were so much lower, but today it means that the arrival of grey hairs sends Chinese politicians into a panic.

Speaking as someone whose hair went white while I was in China, this puts a huge number of things in perspective. For the first time in my life, after reading Bell, I seriously considered dyeing my hair, all the better to squeeze a few more years out of my career before I am deferently consigned to the lower table.

As a political philosopher with a deep sympathy for China, Bell has harsh words for the complacent West. He rails against “cuteness” in politics, arguing, much as once did Charlie Brooker with Cassandra-like powers of prophecy, that all those people who voted for Boris Johnson because of his apparent bumbling bonhomie were setting themselves up to be swindled. The culture of “cuteness,” he claims, has had “little social impact” in the world’s happiest countries like Denmark or Finland, only in places trying to hide systemic toxicity.

Bell concedes that the Chinese government apparatus might be a humourless monoculture of dark-suited robots, chosen in secret and unaccountable to the electorate, but he also leans into John Stuart Mill’s comment on “the tyrant of public opinion” – giving the people their say, no matter how ill-informed, is what gave us Brexit and Trump.

He is not an apologist for China, by any means. But he is someone who has tried to accommodate and engage with a one-party state with a very different set of cultural cues and traditions. With wry annoyance, he notes that the more experienced he became in Chinese matters, the less he was asked to comment on them by the Western media. He details his feud with the New York Times over editorial policy, and his banishment from The Guardian after daring to complain about an inflammatory headline added to one of his articles.

The result is a fascinating snapshot of the late 20-teens in Chinese bureaucracy, an era already fading into history, but as Bell argues persuasively, strongly rooted in paradigms that stretch back much, much further into the Chinese past.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. The Dean of Shandong: Confessions of a Minor Bureaucrat at a Chinese University is available now from Princeton University Press.

Speaking in Subtitles

“She alludes to the unspoken shadow at the heart of modern anime translation, that whatever some companies may claim, English is still sometimes used as an unacknowledged ‘pivot’ between Japanese and the target language. I remember this vividly myself, not only because of my discovery that a script I’d translated for Plastic Little was being swiftly rendered into Dutch as part of a movie-business horse-trade, but that a well-known (and still operating subtitle company) once told me that their Japanese ‘translation’ service would require me to first provide them with a spotting list for a Japanese film in English. So, not translation at all, then.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Tessa Dwyer’s Speaking in Subtitles.

Eurovision Shouty I-Spy 2023

“Cha Cha-cha Cha-cha-cha-cha!” We’re back for the game of the year, the Eurovision Song Contest hosted this time by Britain, on account of Ukraine being all invaded and that. Enter our Blue Screen of Death sweepstake by predicting the hour when a vengeful Russian cyber-attack will crash the voting system.

We’ve already had to say goodbye to Ireland’s Cameltoe Elvis and a Maltese entry that began at a notional party attended by cardboard cut-outs of previous Maltese entries. And we’ve had to retire our “Slava Ukraini!” bonus round, because you’d shout yourself hoarse and/or drink yourself under the table by the end of the first song if you had to acknowledge every time a Ukrainian flag shows up.

The bookies are backing Sweden’s Loreen, but insiders suggest that the finale will be a Nord-off between Sweden and Finland. Look out, too, for the possibility of a few sympathy votes for Ukraine, even though they have sent a “My Lovely Horse” place-holder, which would mean that the real battle will be for second place.

Step One: you will probably need to be quite drunk. Step Two: The following sights and sounds will occur during this Saturday’s Eurovision Song Contest. Can you spot them first? Remember to shout it out. As ever, there is more than one key change, and plenty of orbital cleavage. Keep your eyes (or ears) open for any of the following. And when you notice it, SHOUT IT OUT! Points can be scored all through the contest, on and off stage, including during the voting and in the greenroom.

In no particular order, in Saturday’s final you should be ready for:

  • KEY CHANGE! (every time you hear one)
  • Braid whips
  • Mullet dresses (short at the front, long at the back)
  • Accordion!
  • Glowing white hand.
  • It’s the Leninist Village People!
  • LYRICS: “WE ARE NOT YOUR DOLLS.” (every time)
  • Human centipede
  • Dances like a gibbon
  • PINK! Lots of people wearing it this year. Shout at them.
  • Foot licking (blink and you’ll miss it)
  • Doing the Splits
  • “Zut alors!” Brexitland presenter makes a colossal meal out of being able to speak French.
  • Human cat’s cradle
  • Self-playing piano
  • Onstage Missiles
  • LYRICS (all together now): “Poe Poe, Poe-Poe-Poe, Poe-Poe, Poe-Poe-Poe”
  • Someone wearing clothes made out of mosquito netting (several)
  • Swede in a Box
  • Finn in a Crate
  • Somersault
  • LYRICS: Every time someone says “ŠČ”.
  • Mohican!
  • Drummers drumming with their heads
  • Pointing
  • Pointy heads
  • Dwarf playing a recorder
  • Rammstein logo tattooed on someone’s chest
  • CLAWS!
  • Glowing aircraft traffic direction batons
  • FLAME ON! (every time there’s pyrotechnics)
  • Bimbling*
  • Buddha Jazz Hands***

Our optional bonus categories are:

COVID BINGO – which entry will be suddenly withdrawn from live competition owing to a plague scare?

HOLA OLA! Surprise sighting of former supervisor Jon-Ola Sand. Can he really stay away?

RUSSIAN FLAG: Will someone dare to wave one?

Greece awards 12 points to Cyprus / Former Yugoslavian Republic awards 12 points to Former Yugoslavian Republic.

(*swaying one’s head from side to side in a snakey fashion)
(**ostentatious cleavage sufficient to see from a satellite in orbit, which, according to Eurovision bra consultant Tom Clancy, requires a minimum of C-cup)

(***the dancers all pile behind the singer in a line and then fling their arms out, creating a multi-limbed oriental deity-look)

“Cha Cha-Cha Cha-Cha-Cha-Cha.”

Coin Toss

This morning, all I have to say is this: “Because of its proximity to large bodies of water, Nanchang became a vital centre for inland shipping. One of the most important commodities was porcelain, as reflected in the design of this shopping mall. But in recent years, Nanchang has become the focus of a massive archaeological dig that has uncovered one of the most complete finds of Han dynasty relics. I’m going to the provincial museum to find out more.”

The wording is very precise. I cannot make definite pronouncements without two printed sources, so every word is carefully chosen, but it’s carefully chosen by a director from Singapore who has changed her mind three times about the precise speech, even as I am trying to learn it.

If you want a taste of the presenting life, I’ll give you two minutes to memorise the above. But then you need to get in a car and drive down a public street, with cars overtaking from both sides, mopeds illegally flying in the face of the traffic, and gaggles of women in mustard yellow puffa jackets blundering blindly into the road, sometimes at the zebra crossing, sometimes not. And then deliver the speech while operating heavy machinery.

Every time someone beeps a horn, you have to start again. Every time you stop, you have to start again. Every time you overshoot the shopping mall you are supposed to be pointing at, you have to start again, which involves making a semi-legal U-turn and repositioning the car at the other end of the road.

Congratulations, you got it right first time. Except there is no memory card in the audio deck, so you need to go back to the hotel, pick up a memory card, and do it again. And the grips are at the side of the road, wildly gesticulating at you to turn your lights on, because Buick didn’t give you a stand-out red car, but a pointlessly drab brown one and it’s difficult for the B-camera to pick you out from the traffic.

Start again.

Today’s main event is a trip to the Coin Museum, which is a tough sell. Coins can present fascinating data about past times – they are little nuggets of crystallised history, imparting details of everything from the date something was put in the ground, to the image of an emperor, to the aspirations of that emperor, to the economic conditions at the time it was minted. In some cases, like the Greek heirs of Bactria, numismatics is the only clue we have to the names of the kings and their likely reign periods. But if you fill up room after room with the same bloody things, it is very difficult to make it look like fun on camera.

Mr Jin doesn’t pay much attention to me until we are shooting a pre-amble around his museum, and I ask an innocent question about Wang Mang spade money. Like the metadata around a coin, it tells him a bunch of things all at once – that I know who the hell Wang Mang was, which means I understand the politics of the switch between the Eastern and Western Han dynasties, occasioned by a cousin-usurper.

Suddenly, he is much more animated, dragging me over to show me the tiny “goose-eye” coins. I say they remind me of Ancient Greek obols, and I think he is ready to kiss me.

In fact, we have trouble shutting Mr Jin up. He mentions that Jiangxi TV have offered him a 26-episode TV show, called something like Fun With Coins, and the director archly suggests that they asked him a single question and were obliged to split his answer across thirteen hours. From the way he seems chronically unable to hold anything so that the camera can see it, I suspect that he doesn’t really have much of an audience for his coin fetish, and it takes multiple efforts to get him to understand the nature of a drop-in close-up to explain something that he has already said.

It takes some wrangling and multiple explanations, but eventually the director gets him to understand that she wants him to test me by handing me a bunch of genuine and fake coins. So fun is finally had, as I try to work out which coins have been buried in soil with north Chinese acidity, which in soil with south Chinese acidity, and which have been artificially defaced with artificial oxidising agents. Which ones are too thin, or two thick, which ones have unfiled edges, which ones have the characters in the wrong place. I successfully identify three out of five fake coins, although in my defence, after talking for three hours about the Han dynasty, he showed me a haul halfly comprising coins from the post-Han period.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E04 (2019).

Nothing to My Name

Deng Xiaoping’s reforms created a multi-headed hydra of dissenters, assembling in Tiananmen Square on 4 May 1989 under the guise of mourning a recently departed Party dignitary, but refusing to leave and camping out for a month. Many of the protesters were students who felt that Deng’s reforms had not gone far enough, either in policing corrupt officialdom or in implementing democracy – an always-difficult issue in the People’s Republic, where the rule of the Communist Party was regarded as the ultimate and final implementation of the will of the people. It was this faction that erected the hastily constructed effigy of a “Goddess of Democracy,” holding a torch aloft, defiantly facing the portrait of Mao himself on the front of the Tiananmen gate. But others in the Square were laid-off workers protesting that Deng’s reforms had gone too far, and demanding greater state controls.

Some of the protesters in the square sung ‘The Internationale,’ a Communist anthem establishing them firmly as inheritors and supporters of the ideals of the People’s Republic, but insinuating that perhaps Deng had lost his way. The Chinese lyrics go something like this:

Arise, slaves afflicted by hunger and cold,
Arise, suffering people all over the world!
The blood which fills my chest has boiled over,
We must struggle for truth!
The old world shall be destroyed like fallen petals and splashed water,
Arise, slaves, arise!
Do not say that we have nothing,
We shall be the masters of the world!

Others, however, found a touchstone in a much more recent song, ‘Nothing to My Name’ (Yi Wu Suoyou) by the pop star Cui Jian, who came to the Square to sing to the crowds, leading to a ban on him performing in Beijing for much of the following decade. Framed as an unrequited love poem, sung by a boy to a girl who spurns his advances, the song evokes a sense of loss and marginalization.

I have asked you endlessly, will you go with me? / But you always laugh at me / I have nothing to my name.

I want to give you my dreams and my freedom / But you always laugh at me / I have nothing to my name.

Its proverbial title contains a double meaning. “Yi Wu Suoyou” contains no subject; it could be a lament that boy is poor, but it could equally be a comment that both of the couple are missing out – on money, on success, on opportunity. He could be complaining that he has nothing to his name, or he could be commenting on their shared situation – neither of them has anything. Both are being swindled by powers beyond their control. But the real provocation, and something that seems to have passed most observers by, is that “yi wu suoyou”, was a direct lift from the Chinese translation of ‘The Internationale’ – “do not say we have nothing” and “nothing to my name” were two sides of the same argument.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. He spends too much time thinking about song lyrics in a historical context.

Antreas and the Sinful Jolanda (1941)

Antreas (Olavi Reimas) is a blind man who sells brushes in the Helsinki marketplace. He charms everybody around him with his sunny disposition, including his neighbours, whom he invites in for the occasional booze-up. But Antreas is at the centre of an unwitting love-triangle, pining for the yuppie secretary Jolanda (Kirsti Hurme), and unaware that his neighbour’s daughter Martta (Kaija Rahola) harbours unrequited feelings for him. Jolanda, however, is busy climbing the social ladder in search of a suitably placed husband, and has no time for the kind-hearted salesman.

Matters change when Antreas turns out to be a millionaire, thanks to the discovery of a vein of silver ore on his late brother’s Australian farm. Jolanda suddenly changes her tune, agrees to Antreas’ previously spurned advances, and betroths herself to him before any other gold- (sorry) silver-digger can get her claws in. She then sets about busily spending his money, while embarking on an increasingly intimate series of liaisons with the musician Reimar (Kille Oksanen).

Suomi-Filmi’s melodrama begins with a bewitching slice-of-life of Helsinki’s harbour-side marketplace, where to this day you can be cheerily over-charged for a sausage. It’s as if director Valentin Vaala and cinematographer Eino Heino are drunk with enthusiasm for the restoration of normality after the Winter War, cramming in little bits of real-world detail just for the hell of it. This also comes across in some of the blocking, for which their sound recordist seems ill-prepared to capture scraps of dialogue amid throngs of students – Martta is supposedly a starry-eyed teenager, although, with the best will in the world, the 31-year-old Kaija Rahola has trouble not looking like one of the lecturers.

A kindly constable (Aku Peltonen) warns the blind Antreas that time is marching on, and hands him a fallen brush-head. Antreas thanks him and cheerily calls out; näkemiin (“see you later”), which the constable acknowledges with a melancholy smile. Much like a country struggling to come to terms with a hard-fought armistice, Antreas puts a brave face on his condition, and on his recurrent self-medication through alcohol, smiling unapologetically as he tap-tap-taps his way into the Alko store to buy a restorative tipple.

Shooting on Antreas and the Sinful Jolanda started in the summer of 1940, for some pick-ups in Helsinki, Turku and Nantaali, although as the year wore on, some of the later shoots had to move indoors. One sequence in a backyard has been plainly filmed in a studio. They did, however, risk the weather for a location shoot on Tehtaankatu in central Helsinki (home to today’s Russian embassy), where a kind-hearted passer-by did not realise that filming was underway, and tried to persuade the “blind” Olavi Reimas not to go into a booze shop. The film also seems notable for an animated credits sequence in which the stars’ names write themselves out in swirling calligraphy – something I don’t remember seeing previously in Finnish film, although possibly I have merely not noticed it before.

Early set-ups celebrate a blue-collar world of hard work and chirpy enthusiasm, not unlike the plucky Brits gurning their way through the Blitz. As all too commonly seems to happen in Finnish film, the antagonist gets all the best looks and the best lines, while the supposed romantic lead is forced to drip about on the sidelines. Fresh from her simmering bad-girl role in In the Fields of Dreams (1940), Kirsti Hurme delineates Jolanda’s “sinful” nature in several discreet tics and mannerisms, particularly her arched eyebrows at the banter of her office colleagues, and her surreptitious checking of her make-up. She is harshly lit in her scenes with Antreas, artfully imparting her features with a sinister cast that only we can see as she whispers sweet nothings, and even managing to turn a song about light-hearted fun into a sinister harbinger of doom.

It’s left to the ever-faithful Martta to take Antreas to Turku, where a German doctor is conveniently able to restore his sight – not for the last time in the 1940s, Germany is presented as a kindly and tech-savvy ally of Finland. The pair return to Helsinki, where Antreas pretends that he is still blind, although he now literally sees the terrible way that Jolanda is carrying on with Reimar – she is trying to get Antreas to sign a cheque for far more than the amount she tells him, and even openly snogging Reimar in front of him. Confronting Jolanda with her plan to swindle him out of 300,00 marks, he sends her packing, although he forgives Reimar, who earnestly refuses to accept a cheque written in bad faith. In a lovely moment, it is only when Antreas bends down to pick up the crumpled cheque that Jolanda realises he has been able to see through her dastardly plot.

Martta invites Antreas to the garden to see some puppies (no, really), whose eyes have just opened. “Only today have my eyes finally opened,” Antreas says. “And you, Martta, are the first person who begins to look beautiful in my eyes.”

The Finnish press in its day was largely approving, acknowledging that it was a difficult time and a difficult conditions to be squeezing out a dramedy. Even Toini Aaltonen in the Suomen Sosiaaldemokratti observed that for all its “naïve emotion”, there was something profound in the way that it focused on what was truly important to Antreas. Money is no object – Antreas literally hands Reimar all the cash that Jolanda has been trying to obtain by underhand means – but it’s more important to him that he has the love of a good woman. Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti was similarly impressed with a film he found “psychologically interesting.” I concur with Salama Simonen in Uusi Suomi, who enjoyed the “countless small details” in both filming and acting that made this more than the sum of its parts, even if the idea of a life-changing disability that can so easily be waved away is liable to leave many 21st-century viewers uncomfortable.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.