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).

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