Innocents Abroad

You can forget Sun-Moon Lake. It’s so last season, darling. “It’s pretty but I don’t go there anymore,” says one of Ian Rowen’s interviewees. “If I wanted to feel like I am in China, I’d just go to China,” she adds.

Rowen’s new book, One China, Many Taiwans, delves into what it actually means when Taiwanese tourist officers and mainland Chinese entrepreneurs tried to rustle up tour groups to come to that famous island across the Taiwan Strait – an island with tourist attractions that can actually be seen among the watermarks of a People’s Republic passport. What would they see? What would they not see? He ends up lifting an idea from the science fiction of China Miéville, particularly The City and the City – that the Taiwan where people actually live is a reality that phases in and out of existence in tandem with the Taiwan experienced by mainland visitors.

Rowen’s account of the geopolitics of cross-Strait tourism starts with the long decades of no contact at all, and the slow thaw that saw a few veterans and exiles granted compassionate leave to visit long-lost family members or attend funerals. But he swiftly dives feet-first into the sudden boom in actual tourism that saw thousands of mainlanders boarding planes to see the island that still claimed to be the Republic of China.

The centrepiece and tour-de-force of Rowen’s book is his fourth chapter – a diary of his adventures on a ghastly package tour for Chinese visitors around Taiwan’s major tourist sites in August 2014. Along with his fellow inmates, he schleps dutifully around the edges of Sun-Moon Lake, sees Alishan, and almost gets into Taroko Gorge (closed due to landslides), mopes joylessly around the shopping centre at the base of Taiwan 101 (because a trip to the observation gallery costs extra), soaks up some culture at the National Palace Museum, and refuses to buy over-priced tea shilled at him by pushy girls in aboriginal costumes.

Recalling the arch commentary of Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad, Rowen chronicles the miseries of his fellow passengers, the local factionalism among two very different tour groups lumped in together, and the careful language of their put-upon guide. He also interviews hotel managers and tea-sellers, restaurateurs and bus drivers, in order to get a sense of what high-falutin’ scholars might call the political economy of Taiwanese tourism.

Rowen is fascinated by the degree to which attempts to depict Taiwan as just another Chinese province repeatedly backfire, everywhere from the booking office where secretaries tut at his very inclusion, to passport control, where a small boy doesn’t understand why the visa form has a different flag on top of it, and indeed why his mainland family needs a visa at all.

He is particularly good on nuances within nuances – the market traders who have learned, without official directives, to rephrase their language in order to avoid ruffling the feathers of sensitive mainland visitors. Sometimes this can result in intriguingly counter-intuitive approaches, as in the case of a tour guide who studiously avoids mentioning the 228 Incident and the ensuing “White Terror”. You would think something like that would be catnip to visitors from the People’s Republic, but the tour guide regards Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalists as “people from the mainland” too, and hence doesn’t want to insult customers that he regards as their cousins.

Rowen also notes a recurring complaint among his fellow tourists that the Taiwan tour experience is too xiaoqingxin – a difficult term to translate, but immediately evocative for me of the last twenty years of Japanese tourism aimed at office ladies and empty-nest housewives – I say twenty years, but Japanese media theory has related it to the last fifty, ever since women with disposable incomes were identified as an exploitable travel niche. I suspect that a lot of the experiences that the Chinese chafe at were first concocted to impress Japanese ladies who lunch, with history thrown out of the window in favour of gourmet experiences, photo-ops and kawaii.  

For years, I have cherished the idea of booking myself into one of the coach tours advertised in London’s Chinatown, taking in Bath and Stonehenge, Harry Potter’s supposed childhood home and the Bicester freeport. They are not officially Chinese-only, but you need to read Chinese to know they are even there. And I have been fascinated by the implications, and curious about the information imparted. Are they, to steal the lyrics of a satirical Chinese song, a case of: “Get on the coach and sleep / get off the coach and pee / go home knowing nothing”?

Rowen unpacks his own experience within a far broader context – that of the immense bargaining power wielded by Chinese tourists since the opening up of their country and the enrichment of its middle class. This is a concept that has exercised me on many occasions, not the least in my travels with National Geographic, where my attempts to chronicle the dying customs of a remote hill-tribe were once compromised by the invasion of an entire coach party of amateur photographers from Guangzhou, come to do the same. In the case of Taiwan, he points to what he unflinchingly calls weaponised tourism, which is to say a massive ding-dong between Beijing and Taipei, particularly after the landslide win of the Democratic Progressive Party in 2016 called into question the status quo that had existed across the Taiwan Strait for the previous two decades. Rowen argues that this political event jeopardised many years of lucrative cross-straits tourism, particularly after the torrent of PRC tourists in Taiwan slowed to a trickle, putting thousands of people’s livelihoods and businesses at risk.

Such big-picture politics helps put things like China’s own interest in internal tourism – e.g. the cynical creation of a new holy mountain – in perspective. Rowen also relates it to local political infighting in Taiwan, especially the Sunflower movement of 2014, ably demonstrating how supposedly parochial issues over language and policy can escalate into empty Arrivals halls and deserted hotels… themselves the cause of a massive protest march by Taiwan’s hospitality sector in 2016, which Rowen gleefully joins.

He also takes the time to ask, very pertinently, if amidst all this cross-Straits hoo-ha, the Chinese tourists are actually getting value for money, or are they being ground up in a relentless money-making scheme that shunts them around a bunch of non-descript hotels and maroons them for hours on end in shops trying to sell them tat? “Chinese tourists are getting up earlier than roosters,” comments one tourism official, “eating worse than pigs, and are totally exhausted from spending most of their days on intercity buses.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Ian Rowen’s One China, Many Taiwans: The Geopolitics of Cross-Strait Tourism is published by Cornell University Press.

Absolutely Fabless

Chris Miller’s Chip War begins with a stirring account of US Navy operations in the Taiwan Strait in 2020. With China lobbing missiles into the sea, the USS Mustin toughs it out by flying the Stars and Stripes. The US government had recently revised its Entity List – previously a set of limits on exporting materials or technology with military applications, so, you know, please don’t send uranium to Iran or missiles to North Korea. But now the Entity List had been significantly tightened, and included a ban on shipping computer chips to China, itself a warning shot fired at Huawei, the Chinese manufacturer that was drastically under-cutting the international competition.

Miller links all this bluster to the “must-have” commodity of 2020, the Apple iPhone 12, an item crucial to the profits of its manufacturers in China and its distributors in the United States and all around the world. The iPhone 12, it turns out, is unable to function without something called the A14 chip, which at the time was exclusively made by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), a company that is responsible for 37% of the planet’s annual computing power. The Taiwanese chip fabrication market has a stranglehold on global commerce, and the power to shut down most modern production lines. It comes as no coincidence that the sabre-rattling in evidence began in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the fragility of the global supply chain had been amply demonstrated.

TSMC was founded in 1987 by Morris Chang, a man of Chinese extraction who had served for 25 years as a prominent figure in Texas Instruments. It had been Chang, in fact, who accompanied Texas Instruments’ Mark Shepherd to Taiwan in an almost-disastrous business trip in 1968, where the chippy Texan bristled at the serving of his steak with soy sauce, and almost lumped the economics minister for saying that intellectual property was a colonialist bullying tool. Despite such potential wrenches in the works, Texas Instruments had a Taiwanese chip factory by 1969. Passed over at TI for the job of CEO, Chang was eventually lured back to Taiwan to establish TSMC, for which a bunch of Taiwanese businessmen ponied up much of the funding, after some sinister arm-twisting from the Taiwanese authorities.

Miller suggests that the People’s Republic of China was aware of the implications and importance of semiconductors as early as the 1960s, but had already shot itself in the foot by sending all its best scientists into the countryside for “re-education”. It was only with the grand reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, particularly the massive investment in high-tech industries around the soon-to-be-handed-over Hong Kong, that China really got going in high technology at all. But even then, its integrated circuits turned out to be sub-par, sometimes with only one in a thousand functioning as planned. Instead, China’s high-tech industries started to fudge the science part.

This, as Miller chronicles, turned many of them into “fabless” manufacturers – companies that lacked fabrication facilities to buy their own chips, but instead bought them in from somewhere else. As computer chips became crucial components in everything – not just computers, but also cars, fridges, and children’s toys (not to mention missiles), the PRC even leaned on its ideological enemies, bending over backwards to let Chang establish a Shanghai division of TSMC in 2000, even to the extent of allowing special permission for an on-site Christian church. But that was then; this is now, and the 2020s see a number of enclosures sweeping the world – of borders, of supply chains, and even of data. Xi Jinping is now scrambling to bring China’s chip manufacture up to a global standard.

“World War II was decided by steel and aluminium,” writes Miller, “and followed shortly thereafter by the Cold War, which was defined by atomic weapons. The rivalry between the United States and China may well be determined by computing power.” With Taiwan stuck in the middle.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology is published by Simon & Schuster.

My Son the Consul-General (1940)

Hard-up student Inkeri (Helena Kara) wins a trip to That Fancy Stockholm, and in order not to stick out on the ship, borrows some clothes and accessories from her rich friend Kaisu (Lea Joutsena). She does everything she can to attract the attentions of the handsome Taavi Takkulainen (Tauno Majuri) but he is immune to her charms, largely because he recognises her borrowed cigarette case as a Korri family item, and assumes she is an irritating rich girl, as opposed to what she actually is, which is an irritating poor one. After this rather pointless case of mistaken identity, the young couple hit it off, and agree to meet the next day at the Grand Hotel, where Taavi’s brother Albert (Uuno Laakso), the Consul General, also happens to be staying.

In a series of farcical set-ups, betraying the origins of this film in a 1934 theatrical piece by The King of Poetry and the Migratory Bird’s Elsa Soini, everybody manages to miss each other, and someone ends up holding a fur coat like the Prince in Cinderella. Inkeri takes a job at the Takkulainen household, tutoring the family’s youngest son Erkki (Hannes Häyrinen). Confusions continue as the pushy mother of the Takkulainens tries to manoeuvre Inkeri into marrying Albert in order to increase his prospects as an international diplomat. Inkeri is batted between the brothers like a giggly tennis ball, before eventually Taavi wins through, dashing to her hospital room in the belief that she is dead, only to discover that she is perfectly fine and ready to hear his confession of undying love.

All this might sound rather humdrum, and indeed, on its later TV broadcast, the critic Ilkka Juonala rightly dismissed it as “a rather routine Finnish comedy that drives along the same old safe and familiar roads.” But over the Christmas season of 1940, this mediocre farce garnered oodles of praise in the nation’s newspapers. Kauppalehti singled out its “relentless pace”, Uusi Suomi called it “a triumph of cultural comedy” and Aamulehti called it a “fast-paced and funny film.”

As suggested by the fact that the titular consul doesn’t get the girl in the film, the movie version differed substantially from the original play, to the extent of marrying Inkeri off to a different brother. It also adds an entirely new first act – the play took place solely in the Takkulainen office and library, whereas for the film version, writer-director Ilmari Unho throws in that whole Swedish sequence at the beginning, presumably as a means of getting everybody away on a tax-deductible, fur-coat-wearing jolly to Stockholm amid wartime austerity measures. The opening half-hour, in fact, extends the running time to 109 minutes, which made it something of a whopper among many “features” of the era that struggled to make it past the 60-minute mark. Unsurprisingly, it’s the cast’s sly Swedish trip that is the most interesting part of this film, with glimpses of shipboard life before the Stockholm ferry became little more than a karaoke booze-cruise. The bulk of the film, however, was conspicuously shot in Helsinki, with only a few scattered Stockholm exteriors to suggest that the crew even got off the boat.

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

Sisu (2022)

In 1944, a company of Nazis flee across northern Finland towards the Norwegian border, burning anything they encounter. On the way, they relieve a passing prospector of his saddle bags of newly excavated gold nuggets, unaware that he is Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) a veteran of the Winter War and a fearsome commando. Armed with little more than a pickaxe and legendary Finnish sisu (which is supposedly untranslatable), Korpi hounds the Nazis across the unforgiving terrain.

Director Jalmari Helander’s previous Big Game was an outrageous action movie featuring Samuel L. Jackson as the US president, on the run in Lapland after terrorists bring down Air Force One, and forced to rely on the ingenuity of a teenage Finnish woodsman. But as I said at the time, it was a film about a “Finland of the mind”, shot overseas amid distinctly un-Finnish mountains as if he had no faith in the cinematic appeal of his homeland.

In Sisu, which seems liable to be released in many territories under the title Immortal, Helander returns to gory Hollywood-influenced action. One suspects there is an image board somewhere in his office, crowded with several iconic set pieces from the Indiana Jones films, a few stills from Mad Max: Fury Road and First Blood, and a bunch of old-school war movies and quite possibly the Norwegian Ofelas (a.k.a. Pathfinder). But he also clings to the real Lapland as his location, with Kjell Lagerroos’ cinematography pausing for long, loving vistas of the fells around Utsjoki and Inari, awash with gorgeous autumn colours, in what must have been a punishing shoot to seize each day’s limited light.

As Korpi, leading man Jorma Tommila barely has two lines in the whole film, instead carrying the whole thing through sheer force of grit and will. He is aided by a supporting cast of sufficiently dastardly Nazis (largely played by Finnish actors, but speaking English to help all those foreign cinema-goers, and dying in a number of increasingly visceral and gory ways), some plucky Finnish women, the obligatory dog in danger, and a score by Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä that steals the high-noon knells of many a Western, and ominous droning that recalls Mongolian throat-singing.

There are some corner-cutting VFX to add widescreen whistles and bells, including shots of Ivalo in flames and a war-torn Helsinki, but aside from Tommila himself and his increasingly ludicrous refusal to give up, the real star is Lapland, which Helander has chronicled before in his breakout Rare Exports, but never with quite so much loving attention.

As for “sisu” itself, the opening credits have a go at defining it: ““SISU on hampaat irvessä pystyyn nostettu nyrkki. Se on sitkeää uhmakkuutta kohtalon edessä. SISU syttyy, kun viimeinenkin toivonkipinä on hiipunut.” Sisu is when you raise your fist with your teeth clenched. It is stubborn defiance in the face of fate. Sisu lights up when the last spark of hope has faded.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. Sisu is what keeps him going back to try terrible Finnish Asian-fusion buffets.

Bayonetted

As if the acting world needed any more drama, Hellena Taylor, the voice of Bayonetta in the games and anime spin-off, was made to re-audition for her own part in Bayonetta 3, and then given such a low-ball offer that she walked.

Taylor is by no means the first actor to find out she is replaceable. When he was shunted aside for Kiefer Sutherland in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, David Hayter was similarly annoyed. He, too, was asked to read for the part that had previously thought of as his, on the grounds that maybe he had “aged out” of the role. Such a concept would be particularly insulting to Taylor, since, without getting into specifics about a lady’s age, she is still seven years younger than Atsuko Tanaka, the Japanese voice of Bayonetta (and Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi), who is still in the role.

In an online video post, Taylor noted that the Bayonetta franchise had made $450 million, “not including merchandise.” She enumerated her various places of training and education, a total of seven and a half years at drama schools, and observed that the final offer for her to provide all the lines, shouts, and barks for the next game in the series, was a buy-out of $4,000 – no royalties, just guild minimum for a single eight-hour day.

What’s in play here is the timeless argument over whether voice actors are above- or below-the-line talent. Some of you, and some producers, might be thinking that all you’re buying is some guy to come in off the street and yell a bit. On my first dubbing job, after some idiot (me) sent home one of the actresses early, we had to rope in a runner, literally drag her away from making coffee, to shout “THE TOTEMS HAVE COMBINED!” It wasn’t Shakespeare.

But for the last generation, voice acting has become part of a media mix. Certainly in anime, and also in games, it provides a chunk of the content that magazines write about. It provides bodies to be onstage at conventions; human beings, as stand-ins for cartoon characters, who can sign your video boxes and hold forth with anecdotes. The industry has spent 20 years trilling about this actor or that actor bringing their talent to a role – their voice and wisdom and (sometimes) physicality in motion capture. And if $4,000 still sounds like a lot of money to you, remember that might be the only work someone sees in six months.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #225, 2022.

The Smoking Guitar

The valleys are so narrow that they are usually in shadow even when the sun is scorching on the red cliffs above. Then, the sun moves into the right position, and suddenly the moisture bakes off the wooden roof slats in clouds of steam, as if the building has caught fire.

The Lisu derive their surnames from their former tribal designations, which were moieties of Snakes, Lions and sundry other animals. Which is how I come to spend the morning with Mr Pheasant, who is here to teach me how to make a crossbow, and who arrives wearing a goatskin that makes him look like a troll doll. He starts with a log, and whittles it swiftly down into the shape of the body with an axe and a machete. Any wood will do for the body, but the bow has to be wild mulberry – domestic mulberry is never flexible enough. The string is made from hemp bark, and is sharp enough that I cut my fingers trying to draw it back. The quarrels, or darts really, are bamboo dowels the size and shape of a chopstick, fletched with a twist of bamboo leaf.

Mr Pheasant only speaks Lisu, so is not a whole lot of fun as an interviewee, but he has been well briefed by the Naxi town tourist adviser, arriving not only with all his raw materials, but with “one he prepared earlier”, so that we can leapfrog ahead in the tiresome sanding scene to get everything done before lunch.

There are so many comedy opportunities for the target. A Chairman Mao poster? A picture of Jason Statham (inexplicably found on the front of a giveaway sexual health magazine). The camera assistant suggests a plastic bottle of water, which might entertainingly spurt out its contents if shot. But in the end we plump for a boring mat with a target daubed on in charcoal. Both Mr Pheasant and I hit it with ease, while the director of photography cowers behind his camera, worried about the likelihood of me shooting him in the head.

At lunch, the tourist officer observes with astonishment that “the Foreigner” is able to use chopsticks, rather ignoring the fact that (a) everybody else around the table is also a foreigner, from Singapore, and (b) I have been eating Chinese food since before he was born. Nothing puts things in perspective after your third academic degree like some hayseed expressing surprise that you can use cutlery.

After lunch we are dragged back to the same courtyard in the hills. The tourist office has plainly decided it is convenient, as indeed it is, but it creates headaches for our director of photography as he tries to shoot it so that half the episode is not spent looking around the same shed. This also involves a log, from which the neck and body of the si xian qing are carved in a single piece. Mr Bee, however, is persuaded to hurry things along after a few axe blows, by lighting up his smoke-billowing chain saw, and making swift work of the difficult bits. He hollows out the base, and sands it down, before fixing the front to it using bamboo pins that turn out to be the remnants of the morning’s crossbow darts.

I don’t seem to be doing a lot today, but I don’t know if that’s because the director has lost the will to live, or if I am just getting better at this. Certainly, I haven’t had to take 20 takes to get something right this week. Instead, I pop up my head, do a piece to camera in one or two takes, and then go back to the sidelines for another twenty minutes until some other stage in the process is reached. It feels like I am not doing enough, but I counted back through my appearances on camera today, and I am still saying plenty of stuff.

Mr Bee ties guitar strings to the body by looping them through a bent piece of fence wire, and then makes a bridge out of a spare piece of wood. Then he heats a poker in a fire and starts burning through the balsa-like wood of the front, tuning and strumming, then poking another hole, and repeat. Moment by moment, the sound becomes fuller and the resonations stronger. Suddenly, he drops the poker and begins to play a tune, and the guitar is finished, smoke still curling up from the newly-bored holes.

Our sound man is ready with his boom mike to pick up clean audio of the new instrument’s first tune, as the alien Lisu melody fills the courtyard, wisps of smoke rising from the guitar along with the music. This gives us a segment from our Lisu episode complete, but hopefully something that will lead into the dance ceremony shooting tomorrow, and also a music track that we don’t have to pay for.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E04 (2017).

An Unhappy New Year

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On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.

The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping.

China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.

Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.

The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.

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Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.

On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.

With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.

Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.

Being Boiled

Today we are out in the countryside near Suzhou, amid lakes and rice fields, to talk to Mr Gu, one of the last people in the area who can be bothered to raise silkworms. There’s enough time in a year to raise five generations, but there simply isn’t enough demand for his silk anymore, so he’s dropped it to just one.

The farmhouse is grotty and ramshackle, all clucking chickens, yappy dogs and mangy cats, although when we send our drone over the top of the mulberry trees, there is a fantastic vista of fairytale Chinese Lakeland.

Indoors, Mr Gu takes a handful of silk cocoons and throws them into boiling water. Before long, they start to unravel, and he teases out a few strands and begins winding. Then he lets me take over: each cocoon is wound with 1.4 kilometres of thread, in a single strand. They look like spider silk, but easily take the punishment of being dragged out of boiling water and wound on a bobbin. Mr Gu says he boils 20,000 cocoons a year, which would make a strand of thread long enough to go around the world.

He has been a little spooked by the crew showing up “with a foreigner” – in fact, most of the crew are foreigners from Singapore, of course, but he means me. This has led him to call the local propaganda office, who have in turn sent a flunky to lurk around telling us that we should be filming the nice bridge in Nanxun. He’s getting on my nerves, not the least because he’s one of those Chinese who talk about me in the third person, as in “does he take sugar?” even though he has been told twice that I am a visiting professor in a Chinese university.

The director and I argue over another piece to camera – a one-minute monologue about changing conditions in the silk trade that I need to say eleven times, without putting a word wrong, while wandering through a grove of mulberry trees. Did Jili silk win a gold medal or a gold award at the Great Exhibition? What year was it in? Should we just say “19th century”, or will that only confuse people?

An interviewee can say anything they like on camera — in a phenomenological sense, we are interested in what they believe to be true. But a National Geographic presenter has to be academically robust, which means anything I say has to be backable by two printed sources — not something I read on the internet, something I can point to in a book if it is queried by Standards and Practises four months later. This isn’t really a problem if you’re in a library, but i’s a huge deal if you are standing in a field somewhere outside Shanghai, and asked to come up with a sixty-second speech out of thin air. My ability to say things like “I reckon we’ll find a paragraph on this in Hyde (1984)” is one of the things that got me this job.

We do get a moment with the nice bridge in Nanxun, an O-shaped arch over the canal, high enough to allow barges loaded with raw silk to pass through on their way to the south and the silk-weaving cities that would make it all into textiles. I must gabble a piece to camera against the failing light, while a dozen twats assemble nearby to peer through the viewfinder and/or talk loudly to their mates about what might be going on, when what is clearly going on is that I am trying to record a piece to camera. We get it on the fourth take, with the sun setting, and the director makes me run around the canal bank and up to the bridge so I can walk across it. To get there, I have to parkour across a building site and, at one point, grip the window ledge on a restaurant, pretending to be nonchalant as a bunch of surprised diners stare back at me.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E04 (2016).