The Perils of Interpreting

The Macartney Mission of 1793 sometimes seems to be one of the most studied diplomatic events in Sino-British history – a failed attempt to open commerce and diplomatic dialogue between George III, who was already mad, and the Qianlong Emperor, who soon would be when he had to deal with British faffing over protocols. Over the years, it has been written up by, among others, its deputy, by its sea captain, by Macartney’s own valet (a fascinating document, recently republished by Frances Wood, and which I hope to review here soon), and, tardily, by Macartney himself, whose own diary of events remained unpublished until 1958, over a century after his death. In recent years, it has also been the subject of a wonderfully detailed approach in diplomatic terms, Eoin McDonnell’s Kowtow, as well as James L. Hevia’s Cherishing Men From Afar, which approaches the whole thing from the point of view of the Chinese.

But all of these are valid and illuminating angles, as is Henrietta Harrison’s The Perils of Interpreting, which retells the story of the Macartney mission from the point of view of the poor men who had to interpret all the wrangles into and out of Chinese. Harrison focusses on Li Zibiao, the Italian-educated Chinese who interpreted for the mission, as well as the twelve-year-old George Thomas Staunton, who accompanied his father on the trip and was driven thereafter into a life of Chinese studies.

Harrison is particularly good at following the money, offering harsh financial explanations for historical phenomena. When it comes to the Macartney mission itself, she provocatively notes that of all the planetariums, muskets and clocks that Macartney tried to impress the Chinese with, he neglected to mention Britain’s most devastating and useful “new technology” – the national debt. It’s this, Harrison argues, that made it possible for the British to construct huge warships in the first place, while the Qing dynasty struggled to pay its bills.

She also places Macartney’s mission firmly in its historical context, noting only the massive amounts of money sloshing around the world in the ever-growing tea trade, but the degree to which Macartney’s own attitude was influenced by his personal experience in the Americas and India. Ousted from his former Caribbean post by the French, he was packed off to run Madras, where he was bogged down in a prolonged conflict with the neighbouring state of Mysore, and only permitted some breathing space when Britain’s acceptance of American independence brought an end to the war with France. India, Harrison writes, was supposed to be the new imperial possession to replace the lost Americas, and Macartney feared that Britain might lose India as it had lost the Thirteen Colonies. He was hence super-keen on establishing trade with China as a means of strengthening India as a British possession.

Occurring a number of times in Macartney’s diary of the mission, “Mr Plumb” the interpreter turns out to actually be Mr Plum (Chinese: Li), or Li Zibiao, a Chinese Christian who had studied at an Italian seminary, and was hence able to render Chinese into Italian or Latin. As the man literally at the ears of the Emperor and Macartney, Li was privy to all sorts of machinations and skulduggery, and indeed added some of his own by trying to work discussion of religious freedom for Chinese Catholics into some of the things he was translating. Harrison provides several chapters about the remarkable life that took Li from the edge of Tibet, to Italy and back to China, noting all the while that the Qing records of the Macartney Mission neglect to even mention that Macartney’s interpreter was Chinese.

Much discussion of the mission tends to revolve instead around the mission’s “other” interpreter, George Staunton, the son and namesake of Macartney’s deputy. The twelve-year-old Staunton picked up enough Chinese on the journey to be able to stutter a few words in response to the Emperor’s attention, and also, in one of the British Empire’s more staggering delegations of responsibility, also put his sophomoric grasp of Chinese writing to use copying out the official diplomatic response to the Emperor. Harrison observes that the bigging up of Staunton in the official record is, at least in part, because it’s his Dad who wrote it, choosing to place his son’s encounter with the Emperor at the centre of the mission report, as one of the few moments of human interest in an otherwise tense and frustrating diplomatic encounter.

But there’s more to it than mere fatherly bragging. Staunton Junior, accepting a gift from the Qianlong emperor, became the centrepiece of the mission’s visual imagery, too. Harrison uses William Alexander’s painting of the Staunton encounter on her cover, noting in passing that it also includes the sole artistic representation of Li Zibiao. However, Harrison also observes that William Alexander didn’t actually accompany the entourage on their trip to meet the Emperor at his summer retreat. Instead, he drew his famous picture based on the description he received from people who actually had been there, and went through several drafts that depicted it in various different ways. Moreover, it seems highly likely that the centring of Staunton, effectively pushing Macartney himself into the background of the sole official depiction of his meeting with the Emperor, cunningly pulls the focus away from Macartney’s own interaction, which had been, and continues to be a matter of diplomatic controversy.

Even before Macartney left for China, there had been speculation about whether he would prostrate himself before the Emperor in the kowtow, (even to the extent of a Gillray cartoon, above, lampooning the idea) and Harrison gets gleefully grubby in the archives pointing out how Chinese and British writings on the fateful meeting offer widely different accounts of it, and that the elder Staunton’s own hand-written journal contains frantic crossings-out as he tries to find the best wording to describe Macartney’s behaviour as diplomatically as possible, none of which survive to the account as printed and published.

That’s not how the Chinese remembered it, and Harrison uncovers a cutting passage of courtly verse that compares the British to “wild deer, untamed and stubborn against the court rituals” and which brags that when push came to shove in the imperial presence, Macartney fell to both his knees.

So not the one knee that Macartney claimed himself, and not the full head-to-the-floor kowtow that the Chinese demanded? Whatever happened, after Macartney’s audience, the relations between the entourages turned increasingly frosty, and the British were bundled out of north China, being told that their time was up, but actually because the patience of the Chinese had run out.

The Macartney Mission was officially a failure, and its leader returned to Britain muttering that China was a rotting hulk, a ship of state doomed to sink or succumb to mutiny. That’s another story, of course. But Harrison stays with the two interpreters, charting their very different fates, as Li ended up as an increasingly unwelcome missionary in Shaanxi, while the younger Staunton nurtured a passionate interest in the Chinese language, and would return to China in his late teens as an employee of the East India Company. There, his years of careful study of Mandarin were confronted by the two-fold menace of Cantonese, as different from Mandarin as English is from Dutch, and by the horrors of Chinese Coastal Pidgin, a trading patois that mangled both Chinese and English into a new creole of its own.

There is more material extant on Staunton than on Li, and Harrison makes the most of her metadata, even including a graph tabulating the increase in his wealth from his bank accounts. Staunton gets to lurk as an interpreter in the corners of several other minor moments in Sino-British history, but suddenly comes to life, quite jaw-droppingly, in an encounter in 1811. With tensions riding high in Canton, the Mongol official Songyun arrives as a trouble-shooter, and demands to know who has written the impeccable Chinese on a British document. It was, of course, Staunton, whom Songyun first encountered a decade earlier, and the two are reacquainted at a banquet that suddenly turns nasty when Songyun, seemingly out of the blue, demands that Staunton drop to his knees and perform the kowtow to him. Staunton refuses so vehemently that a modern reader might even say that he was “triggered”.

Staunton is also on the side-lines in 1811 at a moment that passes without much notice, but which amounts to the culmination of all Macartney’s fears and warnings. Low on silver, and unprepared to listen to Songyun’s pleas for the moral high-ground, the English merchants in Canton voted to accept opium as a security in credit notes. That was sure to help the economy back in British India, but also set the nations on a collision course for the Opium Wars.

Harrison takes her narrative right up to and past the first Opium War, with a melancholy account of the ridicule and indifference with which the British back home treated Staunton’s knowledge of China. She writes of Staunton’s ire at being asked to be a mere interpreter with the later Amherst Embassy, despite the expectations of the Chinese themselves that he would be a leading envoy. Instead, fuming, he is initially asked to be a mere flunky, working for the bastard son of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, appointed to the role because he’s been to India and therefore apparently “knows the East.”

She also quotes from his heartfelt attempts, later in life as a Member of Parliament, to teach braying fellow MPs about the finer nuances of Chinese culture – his futile speech correcting the weasly comments of one MP ring all too true today, in a world in which, in the words of Michael Gove, people had already “had enough of experts” and preferred instead the comforts of ignorance.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Henrietta Harrison’s The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators Between Qing China and the British Empire is published by Princeton University Press.

Sariras in the Mist

The mist has descended again, which means I can’t actually see Ox-Head Mountain, even as we’re driving up it. The pagoda swirls into existence out of the fog, next to a vast lotus-shaped dome that looks like a planetarium crossed with an airport. This is the resting place of a holy relic, a fragment of Buddha’s skull, embedded with gem-like sarira crystals. It was found inside the Porcelain Tower, but has been moved here, an hour outside Nanjing, for political reasons that nobody can really explain.

The Skull Relic Palace is not a temple. The guides keep telling us this, and the guy from Propaganda keeps telling us this, along with exhortations not to talk about Buddhism or film any Buddhists. Buddhists, however, are difficult to spot, because all the staff wear robes designed to evoke the Buddhist priesthood, many of them are glum tour guides who march sulkily with their hands clasped together, as if they would rather be doing jazz hands. Our liaison pouts all the way through lunch because we choose the Buddhist (vegetarian) canteen rather than the place where she can have nuggets. She gets me the Arhat noodles, having decided on very little evidence that I am a Buddhist who disapproves of eating in the meat-eaters’ canteen. I’m not, of course, it’s just that when visiting a Buddhist temple, I tend to go for the vegetarian option because I am curious what they do with tofu and mushrooms.

Ox-Head Mountain is a “Tourist Park” where people can experience Buddhist culture, architecture and iconography, although the visitors seem oddly divided between clueless, racist pig farmers in a coach party (“It’s Thursday so it must be Buddhist relics”) and super-devout, actual Buddhists. This, of course, is not my first Buddhist rodeo, so I know how to flash gang-signs to passing monks, and not to get in the way of pilgrim processions.

The inner sanctum is amazing, and the closest thing I have ever seen to a Buddhist cathedral, a “Thousand-Buddha Hall” chased in gold, with apsara nymphs curling through the heavens while various boddhisatvas sit on lotuses and do whatever it is that boddhisatvas do.

The director tells me to do a piece to camera, and I immediately observe that I find it ironic that, in Nanjing, the very city where Bodhidharma began to argue that material attachments were all bollocks, and that there were no scriptures, and no Buddhas, the very beginnings of what we now call Zen, that something so material, and so worldly should have been created.

This is not, she scolds, the place to start talking about Zen. I argue that it was literally the place to start talking about Zen, but some tourist board has snatched Buddha’s skull from the Porcelain Tower, driven it to a theme park in the middle of the mountains, and is now charging God knows how much to make visitors walk around it in circles before leaving through the gift shop. Where, incidentally, I found nothing worth buying, even though I am well aware of the ready market back home for scarves with swastikas on them, little Buddhist statues, big Buddhist statues, and other such paraphernalia.

Instead, I have to walk a delicate line between ridiculing the place for selling the chance to almost see a bit of bone, and ridiculing the builders for missing the point of Buddhism by a mile, but it was ever thus. Instead i focus on something that both Party and devout can agree on — the immense, game-changing influence that Buddhist culture has had on Chinese history for two thousand years. Denying it would be historical madness.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E06 (2019).

Everything Everywhere All At Once

“This is the story of a girl / Who cried a river and drowned the whole world.” Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up the delightfully absurdist Everything Everywhere All At Once, which repeatedly quotes the Nine Days song “Absolutely (About A Girl)”, but also comes loaded with references steeped in the Chinese language.


“The film subtly celebrates its liminal place between cultures, specifically those of Anglo movie-goers and bilingual Asian-Americans, each a wainscot society of the other. Its alternative title, displayed onscreen in untranslated Chinese, is Ma de duochong yuzhou, literally “The Multiverses of Mother”, but also a Mandarin pun meaning “F*cking Multiverses.”

Build Your Own Buddha

The East Wind said: “I have just come from China, where I danced round the porcelain tower till all the bells jingled again. In the streets an official flogging was taking place, and bamboo canes were being broken on the shoulders of men of every high position, from the first to the ninth grade. They cried, ‘Many thanks, my fatherly benefactor;’ but I am sure the words did not come from their hearts, so I rang the bells till they sounded, ‘ding, ding-dong.’” – Hans Christian Andersen, The Garden of Paradise (1838).

The Porcelain Tower is famous, you see. The Chinese keep on telling me how famous it is, although to be frank, I had never heard of it until I got to Nanjing. It was featured in a Dutch traveller’s account of China in the 17th century, and ended up becoming the centrepiece of many blue-and-white china plates, a cute little pagoda that itself was supposedly made of porcelain.

In fact, the Porcelain Tower was simply decorated with glazed bricks – sumptuous in golds and greens and yellow, lit at night with dozens of lanterns, and impressively tall. Its construction was begun in the era of the dastardly Ming emperor Yongle, and completed under the supervision of his long-time lieutenant, the faithful eunuch admiral Zheng He. It was vandalised by the Taiping rebels in the 19th century, who smashed up the Buddhist statuary and demolished the staircase to prevent their enemies using it as a reconnaissance platform, and was eventually completely destroyed. In 2010, the billionaire owner of the Wanda corporation paid to have it rebuilt, and a posher than posh museum stands on the site, including a statue of Hans Christian Andersen, tableaux from Buddhist history, and lavish exhibits of Buddhist largesse.

The restored tower itself is a glass affair of no real merit, but it sits above a vault that contains the Ashoka Reliquary, which was found in the foundations. Well, to be fair a stone vault was found in the ruins, containing an iron casket, which contained a gold reliquary, which contained a silver box, which contained an iron box, and so on, and so on, like a bunch of Buddhist matrushka dolls, until in the centre of it all was a piece of Buddha’s skull, donated by the Indian king Ashoka as one of hundreds of relics sent by him throughout the known world to prove how cool he was.

There are lots of things to shoot in the museum below, including other Ashoka Reliquaries from other parts of China, so many in fact that I declare it is a veritable Build Your Own Buddha game, and that a religiously minded app developer could turn every iPhone-using Buddhist in China into a Pokémon freak, racing around pilgrimage sites trying to reassemble Shakyamuni from all the bits of him that are apparently stashed away in temples all over the place.

Qi Haining is the man who found the piece of Buddha’s skull. He is cagey at first, having been burned before by Chinese television, who set him up as some sort of Indiana Jones figure.

“That was all nonsense,” he complains. “We always knew that there was a relic somewhere down there. We just didn’t bother to look until they told us they were going to put up a shopping centre. So that’s when we dug it up.”

But he is being economic with the truth. Nobody was really expecting to unearth something of quite the magnitude of Buddha’s skull fragment. The first time they knew what they had was when they read the provenance carved on the outer casket.

He likes the thought of us letting him tell the true story, and once again, is one of those interviewees who lights up when he realises I am not some nodding donkey. I can pinpoint the moment when he realises I’m not new to this.

“This is a find,” he says, “of a magnitude equivalent to the Famen Temple.”

“Well, the Famen Temple’s only got a finger bone!” I point out, and his eyes light up.

“YES! That’s right! You’ve seen it? In their underground palace? Just a little finger, right. And no magic crystals. We’ve got magic crystals, what about that, Famen Temple!”

Truth be told, the “magic” sarira crystals found in the remains of cremated Buddhist saints look awfully like gallstones, but far be I from one to interfere.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E06 (2019).

Tomb Raiders

In the Sui dynasty (581–618), the suburb of Huiluo was half a mile north of the Luoyang city walls, where the Sui’s founder ordered his subjects to sink a granary pit, nine metres deep, sufficient to hold half a tonne of grain. Over the next nine months, workers dug 300 of them across an area that today spans several city blocks, storing wheat, millet and beans for the people. It was an incredible achievement in engineering, a real example of the kind of long-term planning that should have allowed the Sui to endure for generations…. except, as you might have noticed, the granaries were outside the city walls, and reflected an unwarranted confidence that there would be no civil unrest.

In the civil war that toppled the Sui, a rebel general realised that he had no need to attack Luoyang. He could simply seize its massive food supply and wait for the starving city to surrender. As the Tang dynasty shifted back to a new capital in Xi’an, the strategically vulnerable Huiluo granary pits, each of them the size of a house, were abandoned.

Wang Ju, the affable chief archaeologist at Huiluo, shows me where silt and sediment washed in over the years that followed. The roofs collapsed, and at some point in the next few centuries people forgot they were there. He and his associates excavated five or six of the granary pits, and turned the area around several dozen others into parkland, with the location of each granary marked by a little round hedge. But a few years ago, work stopped, and the exhibition hall at the site remains closed to visitors. It is difficult, in an age of Terracotta Warriors and over-the-top reconstructions of ancient carnivals, to get tourists all that interested in a bunch of holes in the ground.

We climb down the crumbling earth steps into the bottom of one of the pits for him to show me layers of sediment and the traces of the old granary lining, which is where I noticed a manhole-sized circle of discoloured earth.

“Oh, that,” he laughs. “That’s where the tomb raiders tried to get in.”

They used a Luoyang shovel, a semi-circular trowel on the end of a long pole, pushed into the earth to take core samples. Push one into the ground anywhere around Luoyang, and you may luck into an old grave or buried temple. The poor chancers in Huiluo found what they thought was the side of a tomb, and wasted a night or two digging down to find nothing but an empty pit.

“And the thing is,” says Wang, “they didn’t do it that long ago. You can see where the earth is different in the tunnel. Rain washed sediment in, but it did it much more recently, maybe only thirty years ago. So they were probably digging their way in around 1970 or 1980. These tomb raiders, they’re kids. They’re always young and stupid, like 19 or 20, and think they are on to a good thing that’s going to make them rich. They can dig down nine metres in just three or four hours, working by hand, in shifts. And we’re archaeologists, we can get forensic on them very quickly – we can dig out the tunnel and work out who they are from what they leave behind – cigarette packets or particular beer cans.

“And they didn’t find anything because there’s nothing here, which is probably why we never got any funding to open the others, and why we still haven’t opened this museum, five years after it was built. Nobody wants to come and look at empty pits.

“It was worse in the old times. You wouldn’t believe the stuff we’ve dug up elsewhere. There was a tomb in Xi’an where they found a tomb robber crushed under a stone near the head of the tunnel. I reckon they brought in a new guy, found something really valuable, and killed him on the way out so there was more to go around. I mean, we’re talking about grave-robbers here. They’re hardly stand-up people.”

I find myself thinking that Wang might have more luck with his exhibit if he made more of the people who tried to rob it. There are a lot of tomb raider stories about, particularly in Xi’an and Luoyang, both of which functioned as capitals during the Tang dynasty (618–907), the pinnacle of China’s high middle ages, when, for a time at least, the nation was rich, the people were happy, and the culture was suffused with innovations and ideas from along the Silk Road.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E01 (2019).

Roof Licking

It’s Saturday, so we must be in Weihai, a city I have hoped to visit for 20 years. It was formerly Weihaiwei – The Guard Against the Majestic Sea, site of an ancient fort that warned against Japanese pirates, and a redoubt for the Qing dynasty navy. It was where Admiral Ding Ruchang stood up to the Japanese invaders even though he knew he stood no chance, and went to his death by imperial command, proclaiming to his sailors: “Fight on, though your swords be broken.” Later on, it became a forgotten backwater of the British Navy, the summer anchorage for their Asian fleet, mourned by its magistrate, Reginald Johnston, former tutor of the Last Emperor, as the “Cinderella of the Empire.”

But I’m not seeing any of that, because we are out on a spit of land dotted with wind turbines, looking at seaweed. The village here is full of little thatched cottages, their roofs made of dried sea grass. Mr Wang the brown-skinned village elder hugs me like an old friend, and shows me the piles that look suspiciously like hay, but actually comprise marine produce.

“We used to just grab it from the beach,” he says, “but there isn’t any left anymore, so we have to buy it from people who demolish old cottages. I honestly don’t know how we are going to repair our roofs when we run out of recycled stuff.”

He is desperately proud of his thatching, proclaiming that it is warm in winter and cool in summer, wonderfully waterproof and even fireproof. When I tell him that can’t possibly be true, he pulls out his lighter and sets fire to a few strands, which resolutely refuse to burn.

Frances is supposed to be interpreting for the other Jonathan (the director), but has trouble following Mr Wang’s Rongcheng accent, a form of Chinese with harder tones and simplified vowels, suitable for shouting from ship to ship. Oddly, it doesn’t trouble me at all, and makes no more or less sense than any other Chinese, and it has echoes of the classical forms and southern dialects. He doesn’t say jia for house, he says gya. He says gyu instead of jiu for old. Instead of Nihao for hello, he says Niho. I don’t regard any of these shifts as particularly earth-shattering, but for Frances, who is from Taiwan, he might as well be speaking Martian.

I explain that I often can only pick out a couple of words from a fast Chinese sentence and have to fill in the blanks on the fly, so it really makes little difference to me what someone’s accent is.

“That’s kind of how I listen to you and Jonathan talk.” she admits. “All these British terms are very hard. I keep having to wonder, what is a bollocks? What makes someone a muppet? And is it good if they are having a larf?”

I am going to have to climb a rickety ladder onto a rooftop in order to do something practical. Wang, who is in his seventies, refuses to come up, but is filmed standing at ground level snickering at my incompetence. Jonathan’s colleague, Yu the Chinese director is deeply fretful that making me climb onto the roof of a cottage is beyond the call of duty, but I explain that it is precisely the duty that I have, and eagerly climb up the roof to perch on the apex with a deeply sun-tanned old man in a baseball cap with a super-extended brim to hold off the hot sun.

“Who the hell are you?” he asks, and Frances shouts up that I am a foreigner come to learn about his culture. Thatching a Chinese roof with seaweed turns out to be rather easy, as you simply stretch it out into parallel lines and then jam it into the roof with your body weight – a resource I have in abundance. We laugh on the roof together as the drone circles us, and I ask him if he even stops to admire the view – the long lines of wind turbines, and the sea that reaches all the way to Korea. Oh yes, he says, although I can’t stop for a fag up here. Don’t listen to Wang. This stuff isn’t as fireproof as he thinks.

The Chinese director acts like I have been juggling chainsaws for the good of the production, but in truth I have been in far less danger on the rooftop than the crew, who are hanging by their fingertips – the A and B cameramen are only prevented from tumbling off by their assistants holding their belts, and Boomer the Boom Mike is perched on a ledge like a monkey.

“Here, try some of this,” says the unnamed roofer, passing around some strands of the sea grass. “Seriously, just lick it.”

Me and the B Cameraman gingerly tongue the hundred-year-old seaweed, requisitioned from a demolished cottage somewhere else in the bay.

“See. It’s still salty. After a century!” he proclaims.

Lunch is an open-air seafood banquet with Mr Shouty, a man whose entire life has been spent yelling up at the topmast on fishing boats, and who seems to have no volume control. But he is beaming when his wife and daughter put the food on the table and I proclaim it in all truth to be the best sea food I have had in my life. There are whole crabs, clams and oysters, freshly gathered that morning, and fish caught with a line. Speaking as someone who often cannot tackle seafood without retching, it is a revelation, even better than the food I had in Hainan. The crew have helped me by loading me up with baijiu beforehand, on the assumption that if there is anything dodgy about the seafood, the alcohol will kill it. We sneak some more firewater into our glasses whenever the crew change their batteries, and Ruby the Interpreter looks on longingly – she is obsessed with clams and mussels, and if left unsupervised, can often found behind an entire midden of empty shells.

We end the day on a nearby beach, where I deliver a speech about what Shandong must have meant to the people of Confucius’s day. Chinese civilisation was centred on the Yellow River valley, which must have made the coastline seem like a magical place, the end of the world, where there was nothing to see towards the east but ocean. It was on a beach like this, I suggest, that the First Emperor met the Daoist priest who suggested to him that if he had conquered the world of the living, the new frontier was surely to conquer death itself, an experiment that he could invest in by sending a fleet of ships into the rising sun, in search of the isles of the immortals.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events appeared in Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018).

It is known…

Where the mountains meet the sea, there is a valley that leads down to the rocky beach. A giant bronze statue of Laozi, author of the Dao De Jing, stands overlooking the coast, his left hand pointed up to heaven, his right hand towards the earth.

“What’s that about?” I ask the Abbot, who looks a bit like David Duchovny with a wispy beard.

“The left hand is upwards, because it is yang. The right hand is downwards because it is yin. Yang Heaven and Yin Earth, and what is between them? You are,” he says.

He is clad in sky-blue robes that have not changed a whole lot in the last two thousand years, when the first Daoists reached this high point on the coast and decided to site their temple here. His hair is tied in a topknot that pokes through the top of his hat. And we are sitting cross-legged on a rock that juts out above the forest and the crashing sea, where he is supposed to be showing me how to meditate.

“Empty your mind,” he says, “and concentrate on the sounds of the natural world around you.”

The sounds of the natural world currently include a crew of two dozen people: the clapper loader, the director, the assistant director, the A cameraman, the B cameraman, their various grips, the battery guy, the sound guy with his little hostess trolley full of gubbins and wires, with two giant aerials like shark’s fins, Mitch the producer, who is trying to describe the plot of a film called G.I. Executioner, in which a topless girl falls into a fishnet in the middle of a gunfight, Frances the fixer showing pictures of her cat to some random passer-by, and several runners telling everyone to keep quiet. Meanwhile, there is the chainsaw buzz of the drone as it hovers around us like an angry dragonfly.

“Hurry up!” shouts one of the tour guides. “The tourists will turn up soon, and then it will get noisy.”

With a messy clatter, the drone crashes into a tree and stays there. With weary sighs, two members of the Drone Team begin the long walk down to the car park to get their ropes and ladders.

I am getting a sixth sense about interviewees. These days, I can tell usually at first glance whether someone is going to be like getting blood out of a stone, or a fun and easy conversationalist. Abbot Huo is mercifully one of the latter, ready to answer any question with a well-argued speech. He tells me about the origins of Daoism, the practices of their rituals, and his own version of the famous meeting between Confucius and Laozi. Or as it turns out, not so famous.

“Confucius was a pupil of Laozi. It is known,” says one assistant like some ill-informed Dothraki.

“They met once, apocryphally,” I say, and she sulks for the rest of the day. There are some mumblings that she has “read some books”, but they plainly aren’t the actual books that I am passing around in the bus on my Kindle – The Book of History and the Zhuangzi, which are the places where the story of Confucius’s meeting with Laozi is actually told. That’s because this is my job. That’s why I have marked those passages, because National Geographic require two printed sources, not something someone overheard at a party once.

In the grounds of the temple, there is a statue of Confucius meeting Laozi, with an inscription next to it telling the story.

“This is from the Analects,” says a camera assistant, trying to help.

“It’s from The Book of History,” I tell her, pointing at the words Book of History on the inscription. I do this for a living and have no time for the Twitter version. It is my job to show up at dawn for the reconnaissance mission, see what there is to talk about, and then to wait, sometimes for hours with nothing to do, until the moment when I am obliged to leap into action and deliver a 20-second speech with no mistakes, about an obscure matter of classical Chinese philosophy. Everybody has a difficult job to do, but this is mine.

The Abbot walks with me through a grove of camellia trees, discussing his childhood love of the Chinese opera The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, and the opposition of his parents towards his chosen, celibate profession. All of a sudden, I realise that this origin-story could have been told at any point in the last three hundred years.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“A Daoist never tells,” he replies.

How I wish all interviewees were like him, ready with a quotable, editable answer, keen to explain things, experienced enough to know that having to repeat an action thirty times is not unknown in the television world. Although I am resisting orders as much as possible, and conducting interviews in Chinese, the director is demanding that I ask the main questions in English, which the Abbot does not speak. The Abbot suggests that we prime him with a list of subjects, and that I ask the next one along in English after he unobtrusively flips his right sleeve during an answer. It means we get through the whole interview in a single long take, and I can ask him anything I want with the audio recording as we walk through on second and third pick-ups for different lenses.

He shows me how to hold my hands in the Daoist symbol of respect – an immortal gang sign I find myself flashing at nuns and monks for the rest of the day. He explains that the chanting from the earlier ceremony was the three names of the Daoist Emperor-Officials: The One Who Confers Blessings, The One who Absolves Sins, and The One Who Eliminates Misfortunes. He shows me the acupressure points on my legs to relieve the pain of sitting cross-legged on a rock for half an hour, and he gives his own version of the story of Confucius’s fabled meeting with Laozi.

I do my version at the statue, leaping between the two philosophers’ statues like a sarcastic umpire, relating the story as it is set down in the Zhuangzi – the longest variant, while a series of gawping Chinese tourists shuffle pass and pretend to know what the inscription says.

“It’s from the Analects,” says one, wrongly.

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

A Short History of Beijing

Before China’s capital became a sprawling megacity and international centre of business and culture, its fortunes fluctuated under a dozen dynasties. It has been a capital for several states, including those headed by Mongolian chiefs and the glorious Ming emperors, whose tombs can still be found on its outskirts. And before all that, it was a campsite for primitive hominids, known as the Peking Man.

A Short History of Beijing tells the story of this remarkable city, from its more famous residents – Khubilai Khan, Mulan, and Marco Polo – right up to the twenty-first century, as modern construction wipes out so much of the old city to make way for its twenty-million-strong population. Through his timely and intimate portrait of the world’s most populous capital city, Jonathan Clements reveals the history of China itself.

This first paperback edition includes several new sections that take the history of Beijing up to the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Order direct from Haus before midnight on 8th March using the code MARCH20 and receive a 20% discount and free UK postage.

Praise for the earlier hardback edition:

“This book is like having a friendly, knowledgeable companion taking your arm as you wander through the back alleys and boulevards of one of the world’s great cities. Clements wears his learning lightly, and his informed but inclusive tone makes this the perfect book for the visitor to Beijing.” — Rana Mitter, author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction

“Beijingers, both Chinese and foreign, mourn the Chinese capital’s rapidly-disappearing traditional alleys but few of us appreciate Beijing as a city that has lasted through 2,500 years of building and destruction. Jonathan Clements’ tour of the city starts with Peking Man and a jovial candy seller, and moves on through the Chinese dynasties with a readable flair. He comes well-stocked with tales that will be new even to long-time residents. It’s a book for a warm teahouse on a cold winter afternoon.” — Lucy Hornby, China correspondent, Financial Times

“It’s hard to imagine anyone better equipped than Jonathan Clements to compile a readable account of Beijing. Authoritative yet deliciously irreverent, his history of the city is an essential companion for the visitor and a treasure trove of vicarious delights for the chair-bound.” — John Keay, author of China: A History

“If New York and London dominated the global imagination in the twentieth century, Beijing is already in the process of usurping them in the twenty first. An extraordinarily exciting city, possessed of enormous optimism and expectation, it has a long, fascinating and complex history. Jonathan Clements unpeels the onion that is Beijing and in a highly readable and informative book gives us a wonderful glimpse of the history of a compelling city.” — Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World

“…direct, well-written history, that travels at a steady pace from Peking Man to the ill-fated opening of a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City… if you’re after some interesting facts to impress friends and visitors with, this is the book for you.” — That’s Beijing

“Jonathan Clements evocatively captures the contradictions and complexities of contemporary Beijing while rooting the city in its broader historical context … Covering such a wide swathe of territory is no easy task, but Clements does so skilfully and often wittily, weaving together myth, factual data and vivid details …” — Times Literary Supplement

Married by Mistake

Congjiang was our former base when we were filming with the Kam at the beginning of this season, but as I have noted before, the Kam pushed another tribe, the Miao even further into the hills. Sure enough, in the highlands outside the Kam centre of Congjiang, there is a cluster of Miao villages.

These particular Miao pride themselves on their unique garb. They wear black clothes that are treated with egg-white to make them shiny, and everybody else in the world has been too polite to point out that this makes them all look like they are walking around wearing suits made out of bin bags. The men have ribbons hanging from the back of their belts that are called heartsick tokens. They look like brightly-coloured friendship bracelets, and each represents the possibly-unrequited attention of a lady. They are also the only ethnic minority whose national dress includes a flintlock musket, which all the men sport and let off at inopportune moments.

A Miao man, at least among these Biasha Miao, can be identified by his topknot, which represents the trees of his ancestor, and the fact that the rest of his head is entirely shaved. The Biasha Miao pride themselves on having nothing to do with the Chinese. They rarely venture out of their village, make their own clothes and their own entertainment, and are entirely self-sufficient in the food they grow on their mountain slopes.

Well, that’s the story. I spy legions of Biasha Miao girls sneaking away from their corn-shucking and pig-feeding to buy iced tea at the local café; everybody is tooling around on motorcycles, and the main activity of much of the village appears to be turning up thrice-daily to the village square to perform a bunch of dances for tourists. Visitors have to pay at the gate to get into the village, so one presumes that the entire town has made a tourist selling point of its claim not to have any tourist selling points.

Our press liaison is a perky girl who tries to feed me grasshoppers at lunchtime, and introduces me to the breezily minty local laowa tea, which in the assistant producer’s assessment tastes like Deep Heat, and in the director’s, like Listerine. I love it, but there is none for sale in the shops. They make it themselves from leaves they find on the mountainside.

Having recently been among Miao who take things a lot more seriously, the crew are entirely unmoved by a marching column of Biasha Miao girls pretending to blow into mantong bass instruments. We can see from the front seats that the mantongs don’t even have holes to blow in. Regardless, we dutifully film a hoppy-steppy dance with a bit of whirling, and witness the shaving of one of the men’s heads – from the looks of them, they take turns with each performance, which means that everybody gets a haircut about once every four or five days.

The MC then announces that they will demonstrate the marriage customs of the Miao by picking a member of the audience to marry a local girl, a tiny little thing with big silver earrings, wearing what appears to be a tablecloth.

The Miao bride inevitably scurries straight over to me, and I am dragged out amid the cat-calls of the crowd. I am then made to participate in a Miao wedding ceremony, which involves putting on a silly hat, holding a flintlock rifle, and then holding hands with my nameless new bride while we exchange three ceremonial cups of booze. We then each eat a handful of glutinous rice, and apparently we are married. We then wander around the crowd selling glutinous rice from a basket.

I try to keep a straight face on camera, which is difficult because the director is wetting herself laughing in the shadows, particularly when the announcer reveals that any new Miao groom is obliged to spend three years in the village before he is truly accepted. I’m already booked to spend three years with a Mongol witch. This is supposedly some sort of great cultural decision by the Miao, but it sounds like a good excuse for doing a runner, as indeed I plan to do. The new Mrs Clements doesn’t seem too bothered by it, as she will be marrying somebody else at the 3pm show. She didn’t even say goodbye.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E06 (2018).