Master of Puppets

At the plush new Quanzhou Marionette Theatre, buttressed with hefty government subsidies, and built on a main road, with ample parking and amenities, we look in upstairs at the wardrobe department, two girls hunched over sewing machines making miniature Song-era courtiers’ robes. In the next room, two wood-carvers are cranking out heads for characters in the next big play, which is scheduled to be The Water Margin.

Do not despise the snake for having no horns,” I immediately begin. “For who is to say it will not become a dragon?

“Someone shut him up,” sighs the director.

So may one just man become an army!” I insist. “Is that Hu San-niang?” I ask one of the puppeteers, pointing at the camphorwood head he is carving. Yes, he says, a little bit surprised that I would know who Hu San-niang was.

“I always fancied her when I was a kid,” I explain. And it’s not like she is that difficult to spot. There’s only really one girl who does any fighting in The Water Margin. Another product of my misspent youth spent watching Japanese dramas based on Chinese legends on BBC2, with what would now be considered scandalously racist dubbing directed by Michael Bakewell. But I digress. Most of the puppets have fixed expressions, which requires the creation of multiple heads displaying multiple emotions.

Master Xia Rongfeng tells me that there are 700 scripts in the tixian mu’ao (hand-string-wood-puppet) theatrical tradition, mainly dating from before the Ming dynasty. Puppet theatre migrated to the south-east in three waves, all connected to unrest elsewhere in China, and from Quanzhou, once China’s largest port, out to the overseas Chinese communities in south-east Asia. The Qing dynasty, which is to say, the Manchus who ruled China from 1644 until the fall of the Last Emperor, provided very little material for new plays and looked sternly upon adaptations of current affairs, forcing the repertoire to fold back on itself, clinging to tales and legends of increasingly bygone eras. Today, the performances on offer are largely set in a dreamtime from the late Middle Ages. When they are performed properly, they are performed in a “pure” form of Chinese that is no longer spoken by modern people.

When Lei Haiqing was born, he was black all over. His parents abandoned him in a field, where they child was kept alive by a friendly posse of crabs and ducks. He was adopted by the elderly couple who found him, and was soon revealed as a musical prodigy. At the age of 18, he went to the capital, where his skills caught the eye of the Xuanzong Emperor, grandson of Empress Wu. Despite his lowly origins, he was appointed as the Number One Scholar, and the master of palace music. When Xuanzong’s bright, august, golden age collapsed into the rebellion of his portly Central Asian general Rokshan (a.k.a. An Lushan), Lei Haiqing was murdered by Rokshan’s supporters after he refused to play his pipa for the usurper’s jury-rigged court. Subsequently, his ghost somehow saved the life of Xuanzong (I have yet to find any source that explains why), and the grateful emperor, his power and realm greatly diminished, conferred upon him an honorary name. But in a typical Xuanzong-era cock-up, he got his name wrong. That was 1200 years ago.

Regardless, Lei Haiqing is now known as Tian Duyuan, and he is China’s guardian god of performers. His effigy, a red-faced (not black, don’t ask me why) and fearsome puppet, sits on the stage-altar in the old headquarters of the Quanzhou Marionette Theatre, which is now largely used merely for rehearsals. The theatre-temple which dates from the 1950s but is built in a classical Minnan style with pointy eaves and courtyards, would begin each performance with prayers to this God of Performers, who is said to watch only over performers – anyone else who prays to him is liable to get short shrift unless they are a relative.

Master Xia has brought me here to show me how to operate a marionette. He unhooks a scholar character from the rack behind the stage, and talks me through the operation of the gou-pai (hook-board), a spade-shaped wooden control from which all the strings hang. The foremost and rearmost points each hold a string tied to the front and rear torso, which is wound on a dowel to keep both taut before the puppet walks onstage. When both strings are taut and the gao-pai is at a 45-degree angle, the body is held upright and the ear-strings, which hang from the haft are also taut, allowing the puppet’s head to be moved right, left and up and down simply by twitching the dowel.

The two next strings back from the top of the spade move the legs. The next four move the hands and arms. Master Xia holds the strings in an elaborate cat’s cradle, allowing him to make gestures. With seemingly effortless flicks of his wrist and fingers, he can make his scholar walk like a man, mince like a girl, stagger like a granny, or skip like a child. He can even make it do cartwheels, which is some feat with a cat’s-cradle of string attached to it.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E05 (2016).

Josee, the Tiger & the Fish

“In an era when every single anime out of Japan seems to come attached to some sort of tourist initiative, it’s also lovely to see Osaka finally get its moment in the sun, with loving backgrounds that take the viewer through a year of four distinct seasons. Japan’s ‘second city’, its Glasgow or Birmingham if you will, Osaka itself has something of a chip on its shoulder, not as big as the bustling Tokyo, not as classy as the old-time capital Kyoto, which is so close to it that the two cities share a metro system. When Hayato off-handedly thanks Tsuneo with ‘O-kini‘ instead of ‘Arigato,’ it’s a tiny fist-bump for a dialect and an attitude that is so often sidelined in anime settings that are either all-Tokyo, all-the-time, or some obscure dormitory suburb that’s fronted enough cash to become the next ‘holy land’ for otaku visitors.”

Over at All the Anime, I write up the forthcoming cinema release of Josee, the Tiger and the Fish.

Walk Like a Man

Suzhou is lovely. It’s so clean and calm. Chai Shaohua, principal at the drama school, tells me that Suzhou is a city of 10.4 million people, sprawled out over 800 square miles. There is only a tiny handful of skyscrapers. The rest of the city barely climbs above four stories, nestled in among wide avenues and picturesque canals, with steps leading up to the banksides as if they are still used for transporting goods and people. The Grand Canal itself, or at least a trunk channel that feeds into it, still slices through the middle of the old town as wide as the Thames at Westminster, with a chunk of the old city wall still flanking it, the waters as calm as a lake, unless the wind whips them up into little ripples.

Today we are in the Kunqu living museum, a 19th century town-house built around several courtyards, which was converted into a theatre and drama school in 1927. Kunqu, the local opera tradition, has recently been decreed to be an Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and the place seems suitably posh. It is across the road from a shiny new Chinese opera theatre, but the museum itself has at its heart a proper open-air theatre. Or rather, a courtyard around a central pond, where one side the stage, another is the seats, with little pathways through the bamboo in between, a pavilion to one side for the orchestra, and another on the other side for those all-important balcony scenes and lovers’ trysts.

A trio of mynah birds sitting in courtyard cages have been suitably trained by the occupants.

“Hello,” says one of them as I walk in.

“Hello,” says another. “We welcome your august approach.”

Our director loves interviewing actors. They understand the nature of rehearsals and faffery with the lights and sound. They can stop mid-sentence, hold a thought for two minutes, and then continue as if nothing has happened. They can rewind and fast-forward their speeches and blocking. And they understand that even if I have got something right, the crew needs to show me getting it wrong again in close-up. The theatre is also an understandably soundproof location, so we can rattle through our set-ups without having to wait for passing moped, fireworks or troupes of schoolchildren.

Fang Jianguo is waiting for me in one of the ante-chambers, a room which used to be a scholar’s study. He is clad all in black, in expensive leather shoes and a fitted shirt. He looks like a proper thesp, because he is one.

“I’m going to teach you how to walk like a man,” he tells me. “You’ve been getting it wrong all your life. Your head needs to be up, UP like this. Your eyes must remain level at all times. Lead your head with your eyes, never move your head before focussing. And when you walk, you must walk like this, raising your left foot first, up to a forty-five degree angle, your foot turned to the left. Hold it, then place it firmly down, like this. Then switch your arms, bring your right foot to rest at right angles to it. Then raise your right leg to a forty-five degree angle, turning the foot outwards once more, hold it… then…”

This slow-motion goose-stepping is impossible to do with normal human posture, but becomes remarkably easy when I maintain the ramrod-straight bearing that he has been perfecting his whole life. Behind the camera, the crew are all giggling like schoolgirls as I fall over, forget which arm moves in tandem with which leg, and generally act like an idiot.

After half an hour of this, we move on to running like a man, which involves a kind of scurrying in a circle, the arms held upwards and outwards towards the audience, the body straight, and the face fixed, staring on a central point.

“Light up your eyes!” he tells me. “Make them shine, like this!” and he stares at me with a sudden electric glare.

He was supposed to also teach me how to move like a thief, another stock character from Kunqu opera, but time is already running short.

We move on to a speech, something relatively simple from a Chinese opera whose name I didn’t catch, which looks on the page something like: “Oh young lady, what a beautiful view, made all the more glorious by your presence.” Well, that’s what the Chinese says. But a Chinese opera script looks more like a Shakespearean soliloquoy embedded in a sheet of quadratic equations. The page is festooned with numbers and punctuation 28..6376.#~41~1~15276438, all denoting tones and lengths of notes. Even the simple phrase “your presence”, which in simple Mandarin is ni li, takes almost fifteen seconds to say: a high-pitched and sustained first syllable, followed by a second syllable that starts high, goes even higher, wanders up into a place where only dogs can hear it, and then bumps down a series of low hills before a little flourish at the end. Meanwhile, although the characters on the page are recognisable, their pronunciation is in the archaic Suzhou dialect, so “young lady”, or literally “big sister” (jiejie) transforms into zeze, the second syllable rocketing off somewhere into what Mandarin speakers of this parish would call second tone, before dropping off a precipice into what Cantonese speakers would call the sixth.

“Not bad,” he lies. “I think with ten years’ training, you might get pretty good.”

“How long does it normally take to train someone?” I ask.

“Ten years,” he says.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E05 (2016).

Nahoko Uehashi

“Consistently, Uehashi’s works display a respect for native traditions and pre-modern beliefs, not as rivals to science and medicine, but as systems that similarly seek to make sense of the world, sometimes inefficiently, sometimes with a greater degree of success for incorporating spiritual (or in some fantasy settings, magical) elements outside the purview of modern understanding.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up Nahoko Uehashi, author of The Deer King.

Chinese World Records

“This ‘China Pride’ move might also be a record bid in itself. Guinness World Records was once the bestselling regularly updated book in the world, but has since been overtaken by the Xinhua Chinese dictionary.” I don’t think Guinness have worked out that the potential loss of face in failing a bid, or losing a record once attained, is going to put off a lot of people who might otherwise scramble for the chance to be known for the Longest Noodle, or Loudest Cough, or Most Creative Tuktuk Route.

Over at the Times, I list some of China’s more recent additions to Guinness World Records.

Everything Stops for Tea

The Blang harvest the tea; the Dai press it. As the suspicious linguists among you might have already guessed, the Dai are basically Thai – all fiddly-roofed pagodas and bows with hands clasped together. The Dai are another of China’s ethnic minorities, and 33% of them are huddled in this single prefecture.

In the factory, the tea is shoved into sieve-bottomed buckets, shrunk on a steamer, shoved into muslin patties and then crushed into plate-sized discs under stone weights. The pressure is applied by standing on the mill-stone sized weight and doing a little jig on top of it.

The afternoon shoot sounds like a cake-walk, because we are literally across the road from our hotel, filming a tea ceremony in a tea shop. But it is open to the street, and we are passed constantly by mopeds, speeding taxis, and water-cannon trucks playing an endless rondo of It’s a Small World After All. The owner, who has volunteered her tea shop because she thinks it will make our life easier, is instead left aghast at the trillion filming issues that she never had to consider before a film crew descended. The tea shop is too cramped for good angles, it’s noisy and open to the street and passers-by. Fortunately, our camera will have something to look at, in the form of the owner’s daughter Yangxi, a perky Dai girl in a two-tone mini-dress.

Yangxi is an adept at the Chinese tea ceremony, which is to say, the same ritual not all that different from the one specified in Lu Yu’s original Tang-dynasty Classic of Tea. It is a faffy affair in the tea is washed, the bowls are heated, and a series of medieval implements ill-fitted for their purpose have to be held just-so or you will insult your guest’s mother and/or scald your hands.

It takes Yangxi about half an hour to put two and two together, and to realise that she is going to be on TELEVISION, in a programme slated to be broadcast in over thirty countries. Some interviewees react to this realisation with paralysing stage-fright, but she dives right in. She becomes increasingly animated and performative, to the extent that by the time it is my turn to attempt the tea ceremony, she is ready with a series of sarcastic comments, grimaces and howls of dissent, as I hold the cup wrong, point the jug spout at her, mis-use the tongs, and otherwise cock it up.

“YOU’RE STICKING YOUR SPOUT OUT AT ME AGAIN!” she wails, after I have put the jug in the wrong place for the nth time.

Finally, I have successfully done all the necessary twists and turns, and deposit a single thimble-full of Pu’er tea in front of her.

“Remember,” she cautions. “You must smell the tea, appreciate its aroma, and then gently sip, before sitting back and assessing its flavours.” She sniffs the cup, and then knocks it back.

“OH MY GOD, THAT’S AWFUL!” she says.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E06 (2016).


In 1784, the British Prime Minister William Pitt cunningly destroyed the tea-smuggling industry by slashing import duties from 119% to 12.5%. This sent the revenues from the legal, taxable tea trade soaring, making fortunes for the East India Company. Even as the British fought home-grown crime, they committed it overseas, funding their tea-buying operations in China by dumping literally tons of opium on the Chinese market, creating a narcotics crisis and an entire criminal underclass.

This is the background to George Macartney’s ill-fated embassy of 1793, an attempt to get the Qianlong Emperor to accept diplomatic agreements and trade deals with the evil empire that was turning his southern Chinese subjects into junkies.

Author Eoin McDonnell is a former diplomat, now a secretary in Ireland’s foreign ministry, with a deep and vested interest the way that diplomacy gets done, as revealed in his new book, Kowtow: Georgian Britain, Imperial China and the Irishman who Introduced Them. His uniquely Irish perspective on Macartney’s mission foregrounds the imperialist attitudes of its leader. Much like Qianlong himself, Macartney was a member of an occupying regime, undoubtedly competent, but propelled to high office by nepotism and cronyism, relentlessly sure of his right to his own privileges. He arrived in China, utterly sure that he was doing the Qianlong Emperor a favour by showing up at all, determined to drill into the ignorant Chinese the advantages that awaited them if they started buying British woollens and, I don’t know, clocks.

Determined to deal directly with the Emperor, Macartney claimed that the gifts he was bringing were so intricate and delicate, so jaw-droppingly awesome, that he could not risk dragging them all the way across China from Guangzhou, the usual point of contact for foreigners. Instead, he insisted on arriving at Tianjin, the sea-port close to Beijing, all the better to deal directly with the Emperor himself.

Except the Emperor wasn’t there. While his technicians toiled to assemble their posh machineries in the Summer Palace near Beijing, Macartney and a small entourage journeyed north to the Emperor’s retreat in Rehe (modern Chengde). There, he planned to hand the Emperor a letter from King George III, which lied that he was the King’s cousin. Instead, he found himself facing an audience in which the Emperor assumed he was a faraway lesson, bringing tribute to the glorious Qianlong.

This is the nub of McDonnell’s story – the elaborate bickering over whether or not Macartney, a British nobleman, should prostrate himself on the floor in the ritual kowtow demanded of the Emperor’s subjects, a humiliation that Macartney himself regarded as distastefully evocative of Catholic ceremonial, and of suggesting that Britain was subservient to China. McDonnell examines the diplomatic and political implications, in unsurprisingly modern terms, regarding the extent to which foreign powers need to “kowtow” to China even today. He draws modern parallels all the way up to 2014, and the behind-the-scenes shouting matches over whether the Chinese Prime Minister was worthy of meeting the Queen, a diplomatic catfight that even extended to questions about whether his red carpet at Heathrow Airport was “long enough.” But these things are important to diplomats – elaborate rituals of glad-handing and small-talk continue to affect the way that trade deals get done and treaties get signed.

In the case of the Qianlong Emperor, his Manchu regime needed conspicuous displays of foreign fawning in order to impress upon his Chinese subjects that he deserved to stay in power. He had no interest in acknowledging George III as his equal, or in agreeing that China needed absolutely anything at all from a distant country that was so unsure of itself that its King even bigged himself up in the communiqué by also pretending to be the ruler of France. Qianlong, in fact, was fighting two wars in his own hinterland – the very tariff restrictions that Macartney was complaining about had themselves been partly levied in order to help bolster Qianlong’s borders against British machinations in Tibet.

The Macartney mission failed spectacularly in securing its aims with the Emperor, but managed to fail up on the way home. Having literally missed the boat home, Macartney was obliged to traverse China on its Grand Canal, and was permitted a front-seat view of Qing-dynasty China in all its glory. Qianlong helped a bit by ordering a series of fearsome military displays along the route, just in case the British wanted to try anything on. But Macartney’s diary of his China visit is most valuable today for the view it presents of an empire rotting from within, compared by Macartney himself to a man-o-war that has somehow stayed afloat through sheer luck, sure to sink in good time as soon as it gains a sub-standard captain.

Macartney saw his mission as Qing-era China’s last, best hope to avoid being carved up by foreign predators, a chance to ally itself with the biggest predator of all to hold the others at bay. He did not live to see his predictions play out in the Opium Wars, as the Qing state was ram-raided by a dozen European armies demanding that the Chinese play a political game of their own invention. McDonnell chooses to end on a moving, telling moment as British and French troops ransack the Emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860. Looters stumble into one of its many halls, to find it stacked like that warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark, rammed to the rafters with crates. The hall contained the supposedly world-beating gifts of the Macartney Embassy, boxed up and forgotten by a regime that saw such wonders on a daily basis, and had been singularly unimpressed.

Kowtow: Georgian Britain, Imperial China and the Irishman who Introduced Them by Eoin McDonnell is published by Fonthill Media. Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

Seven Brothers (1939)

In what has to be the worst Finnish film so far on this watchathon, seven idiots in the Häme hinterland are chastised for keeping a bad house. They struggle to learn to read, and bellow at each other about how hard life is. They get into a bunch of fights, and build a house, and they kill some cows.

The film begins with a pious shot of the statue in central Helsinki of Aleksis Kivi, concentrating on his face, and not on the whole image, which genuinely looks as if he is shifting uncomfortably in his seat as if he has just sat in a wet patch. And it’s the fact that this was Kivi’s first and only novel, an early work of Finnish literature, which supposedly saves this shouty nonsense in the eyes of Finnish critics. A big deal for being based on the first Finnish novel, but really, it’s so boring that you’re left surprised that anyone ever wrote another one.

Credited to the usually reliable Mika Waltari, but actually a work that Waltari had doctored from a set of other drafts by other writers, the story is defeated by the impossibly over-large cast, with seven leads, all of whom have to take turns speaking like they are some kind of boy-band.

Musicians play a merry jig, while a woman at the edge of shot stares at them angrily as if they have just stamped on her cat. The brothers dance with the local girls, and apparently they are accepted into the local community. Whatever, it’s awful, rivalled only by The Heath Cobblers (1938), another Aleksis Kivi adaptation, in its crushing dullness.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland