Stuck in the Millet with You

There is some discussion in the car as to what the name Zhangye actually means. In a regrettable error of interpretation, our fixer suggests that it means “armpit.” This turns out not to be true, but we are referring to the city as Armpit hereafter. It is the site of the largest reclining Buddha in Asia, the birthplace of Khubilai Khan, and the Xixia National Temple. The crew are baffled as to what the Xixia are, and I explain that they are the Tanguts – a society that once ruled this part of Asia as their own little mini-empire. They flourished in the late Middle Ages, and then were massacred in a genocidal assault by a Uyghur army. The Uyghurs having joined the Mongol hordes, they attacked the Tangut realm and killed most of them on the Mongols’ behalf – not a subject that the Uyghurs like to bring up. The province next door is still known simply as Ningxia, “the Tanguts quelled.”

Mr Ma is a 23rd generation descendant of Genghis Khan (like 16 million other men across Asia, according to the American Journal of Genetics). His name means “Horse”, although his family drifted into farming a few generations ago, and thence into traditional medicine. His big thing is black millet, which is supposedly good for the kidneys, and which he grows on his farms and witters about incessantly, like a religious zealot. Unlike most Chinese medicine, which might as well be eye of newt and toe of bat, his black millet comes with a chemical breakdown, which allows me to report that its primary ingredient is that a single dose delivers 652% of the body’s daily requirement of selenium. So if selenium is what you need, then it’s black millet porridge for breakfast for you.

He is animated and talkative, which is a blessing after some recent interviewees, and drags me around the millet fields to talk about his experiments in propagation. He’s trying to get his millet to two metres tall, because the stalks and leaves also function as animal feed, and that gives him more. He is also aiming at increasing the yield in the grains by 25%, which would be enough selenium to kill a horse.

It is a frustrating day because Mr Ma lives only four kilometres from the airport, and the local air force squadron are flying their Hawk trainers relentlessly in circles. Four planes roar past, each augmenting the other’s noise, leaving barely 20 seconds out of each two minutes in which to record sound. This places immense pressure on everybody, most of all me, to gabble my pieces to camera into incredibly limited slots. One fluff, and we are all standing around for another two minutes, waiting for the planes to pass, and hoping that the sun doesn’t come out from behind a cloud, or go back behind a cloud, or whatever it was the sun was doing last.

We finish at six-ish, but it is 90 minutes back to the hotel, and our liaison has determined that we will not be eating right away. Utterly convinced he is doing us a favour, he claims he knows a “good place” and leads us through the streets for another 20 minutes, when all we wanted was noodles outside our hotel. When we eventually find the restaurant he wants, they turn out only to serve warm, watery Xuehua beer, which none of us can stand.

The usual Chinese entertainment ensues, in which I manage to steer the menu through some edible choices, only for our nameless host to “help” by ordering a bunch of other things that we don’t want. I haven’t eaten for seven hours, I am tired after a long day, and all I want is some food that will not make me retch.

“Try the pig’s ears!” he says, in a reasonable imitation of my ex-mother-in-law, who is always confident that I will wake up one day and suddenly like rubbery rye bread. “Just try them.”

“If I wanted them,” I say, “I would have ordered them.” Today, I feel a certain degree of sympathy for Jeremy Clarkson, who punched a producer over the non-availability of hot food after a long day. Not that I condone the punching of producers, but there comes a point when shooting chips away at the most basic elements of one’s hierarchy of needs.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E03 (2016).

Gone to Pot

I haven’t seen a map for a week. I am not entirely sure where I am, but it is Jianchuan, another picturesque village in another mountain valley, green hills topped by wind turbines in the distance. This is another Bai area (they are the dominant minority in this region), where the Dong family make old-style black pottery. They dig clay from the mountainside and leave it to bake in their courtyard for a year, before breaking it up with a hammer, sieving it and wetting it, to make their sludge. Then they fashion it into pots, and throw in charcoal that bakes in a black or silvery-grey finish. Their specialities include wamao – a fearsome tribal totem cat with an open-mouthed roar that makes it look like a triffid, used as a roof guardian. And pots and cups and the usual ceramics.

The potter is in his fifties and only speaks halting Mandarin. His son trained as a woodcutter, but then went back into the family business because he feared his Dad was lonely. Since it is too familiar to address them by their given names, and “Master Dong” doesn’t make it clear which one I am talking to, I resort to addressing them as Big Dong and Little Dong.

Big Dong has been chatty and affable all the way through the morning. He has been trying to push pungent Yunnan cigarettes on the crew, and boiled tea in the Yunnan manner, heating the pot rather than the water, until the water fizzes on contact with the ceramics. But the moment the camera is on him, and the light is on his face, and he is being urged to look at me and not the director, and the sound guy is rolling and the clapper loader is snapping a board, he clams up in stage fright. He swallows, he stammers, he offers one-word answers and looks nervously around him. It’s almost impossible to get a clean sentence out of him, and he knows this isn’t how it is supposed to be, so he starts to sweat. This means more dabbing, more light changes, and more faffery, and it just becomes a vicious circle of bad takes.

People feel the camera lens staring at them; they feel the weight of the attention of the crew suddenly focussed on them; they feel the importance of this moment, above all the other moments they have lived that day, and a relay blows somewhere in their brain. Some interviewees turn into emotionless robots, declaiming facts at the camera, purged of all personality and humour. Others become hyper-conscious of every word they utter, double- and triple-thinking every sentence until they clam up. Some, like Big Dong, suffer from a different kind of panic – the sudden realisation that they are talking not to my smiling, nodding, solicitous face, but to millions of people in thirty different countries. At times like this, we have to cheat their brains back into forgetting that fact.

The director puts Little Dong on camera instead, with Big Dong nodding assent at his side. Little Dong is at ease and chatty, knowledgeable about his people’s heritage and the history of pottery. He laughs and jokes, and delivers a far better set of responses, sufficient for Big Dong to come back on camera and ape some of his son’s answers.

We sit and drink bitter Yunnan tea from little thimble-cups as the crew faff around. The director of photography sneaks some shots of Big Dong laughing and joking in an attempt to find footage to cut in that doesn’t look like he is being interrogated by the Gestapo. Little Dong reveals that he is a graduate of a Xi’an polytechnic – where he learned wood-carving – and I start to suspect that the fluency of his answers reflect academic study rather than traditional artisanal knowledge. Whatever, the director just wants to get something in the can.

The trick has worked. Both Dongs are now happily chatting away to me. I sneak a sideways glance at the camera, and see the Record light is back on, but Big Dong has been ushered back to normal by the simple expedient of not being reminded that this is his big moment.

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).

A History of Shaolin

“Lu makes fluent and enlightening use of Chinese resources to show just what a mess kung fu legend really is. In particular, he patiently outlines the massive shift in allegiances that accompanied the regime-change from Qing to Republic, with novelists of the 1930s suddenly declaring that the many Shaolin Temple bad-guys of 19th century fiction were in fact heroes whose true nature had been reversed to elude the censor, as if Star Wars were remade with Darth Vader as the hero.”

Over at the Martial History Team blog, I review Lu Zhouxiang’s history of the Shaolin Temple.

Iron Goddess of Mercy

Anxi is a mountain village, sitting on top of hills that have been entirely carved with tea terraces. There’s not a lot else you can do with the mountains in Fujian, as they are too steep for any other kind of cultivation. So it’s lucky they can grow tea.

The director has spent the last two days hectoring me about the difference between the languages of south Fujian (Hokkien) and north Fujian, around Fuzhou (Hokchew). It often sounds like a real-ale drinker buttonholing one in the pub about the differences between the dialects of Norfolk and Suffolk, but it’s a big deal for her, and supposedly for the locals, too. She is particularly pleased because her own native dialect, Teochew, is cognate with Hokkien, and so she can rocket off in conversation with the locals.

Hokkien is a big deal because in the local language the word for tea is not the Chinese chá, but . Or in Hokchew, t­ē. I think you can see where this is going; when the drink was first exported, it was shipped by Hokkienese, who told the English and the French how to pronounce it.

Being in a warm place with pointy roofs, while a bunch of people yell at each other in Hokkien all around me feels oddly like being back in Taiwan. We are in what was once a plush 19th century farmhouse with upswept Min eaves, now converted into a centre for tea excitement. You may wonder what is exciting about tea, and I am still wondering myself, but the manager, Jasen Lim, is an affable former designer who has made tea his new tourist mantra. Visitors can come and sample the varieties of Iron Guanyin, which happens to be my favourite Chinese tea.

He sets out three bowls in front of me. One is Iron Guanyin made from one-year-old leaves, and tastes faintly of orchids. At least that is what he tells me – never having tasted an orchid, I can neither confirm nor deny. The second is from three-year-old leaves, and has a smokier aftertaste. The third is from five-year-old leaves, and has a darker, brownish colour, looking more like oolong. I obligingly sip and comment, and only choke a couple of times when I am exhorted to suck and gargle with it like a wine connoisseur.

“You are the first English person I have met,” Jasen says. “Although not the first English person to try this tea. That was Queen Victoria, back in the days when the English drank real tea.”

Half an hour’s drive further up the mountain, we come to Wei Yuede’s compound. Master Wei is such a tea celebrity that he only has two hours to shoot with us before he rushes off to a tea conference in Beijing. One wonders what they serve in the breaks. He is clad in Qing-style silk and is an ideal interviewee. I have a set of questions to ask him, but when I ask him the first, he launches into a ten-minute soliloquy about the meaning of tea, answering with a series of four-character phrases, each one of which is unpicked into a series of poems about the wondrous properties of tea, particularly Iron Guanyin. I ask him how it differs from Pu’er, and he goes into one.

“Pu’er is rubbish! They don’t know what they’re doing. They roast it too much. They use the wrong trees. They’re all idiots. There’s a poem that says…” And off he goes for another ten minutes, until I ask him what he thinks of English tea.

“English tea!? Ha! That Indian crap! They steal our tea and plant it somewhere foreign, and then they leave it in the hands of lackwits who don’t know how to bruise it, don’t know how to roast it, don’t know how to store it and don’t know how to ship it. They cart it ten thousand miles on ships damp with saltwater, and they hand it over to a bunch of foreigners who don’t know how to make it. It turns out brown! We have a poetic saying that goes…” And he’s off again.

Usually, our problem with Chinese interviewees is that they don’t know anything. Master Wei knows everything, and is determined to preface any statement with a nine-point rebuttal, in blank verse, of any likely dissent. I just wind him up and watch him go. When he finishes, with an appeal to the peanut gallery about the future of tea, there is applause from the assembled visitors.

“My ancestor,” he says, “discovered Iron Guanyin tea. He was visited in a dream by Guanyin herself, the Goddess of Mercy, who told him how to make it.”

Master Wei has half a dozen children. This is somewhat in contravention of the one-child policy, but he makes so much money from selling tea that he just pays the fine and keeps on trucking.

“My most expensive tea,” he says, “is £36,000 a kilogram. It is so pure that it actually GETS YOU HIGH. And hard. All night.” There is a long pause, which segues into a Pinteresque silence. “Do you want some?”

I confess that I have little need for any of these benefits right now, particularly since the director and our fixer have each taken the bedrooms on either side of mine, in order to protect me from what they believe to be an army of prostitutes converging on the hotel. I have seen no evidence of this, but I appreciate their concern. As for Master Wei, he is living proof of his beverage of choice’s medicinal benefits.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).

Think Ming

Checking some of the subtitles for Arrow’s forthcoming Shaw Brothers box set, pausing to admire this lovely moment from Five Shaolin Masters, where a former rebel, chastised for becoming little more than a mountain bandit leader, sits in shame beneath a grand banner that calls for the downfall of the Manchus and the restoration of the Ming dynasty. The shot comes and goes in just two seconds.

As all you Chinese linguists will have surely noticed, the second character from the right is a deliberate mis-spelling of 清 Qing, leaving off the “master” radical from the name of the Manchus’ dynasty in a pointed political comment.

The film is packed with subtle call-backs to the Manchu invasion, and occasional references to Zheng Chenggong (Coxinga), the unseen resistance leader whose son continues to oppose the Manchus from off the coast of Fujian. The rebels in the film use the secret code 319 to signal their allegiances, a reference to the 19th day of the third lunar month in 1644, when the last Ming emperor took his own life.

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).

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).

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).