“I don’t think I want you to go in the mud fight,” says the director. “Or rather, I think contractually I can’t make you do it. The pond looks disgusting. I wouldn’t get in there. And production-wise, if you get tetanus or ringworm or something, or a rash, it will compromise the rest of the shoot.”
Yes, I say, but if National Geographic send me to the Kam mud fight and I stand at the back reading a newspaper, you might as well not have sent me at all. Isn’t this what a presenter is for? Looking like an idiot?
“We’ll talk about this later,” she says. “In the meantime, I’ve found you this nice apron with puppies on it.”
Mr Wu has fired up the stove, and thrown extra wood into the oven. The oil is crackling in the wok, and I am wearing a fetching gingham apron that has the words MY PLAYMATES written on it in large, friendly letters, above a picture of three puppies whose names are apparently Bobby, Oscar and Keith. I’m just saying: somebody had a meeting about that.
Today we shall require some roughly chopped red and green chilies, some ginger, some leek leaves, and some cubes of beef, as well as our magic ingredient: the intestinal juices of a recently slaughtered cow, wrung out from the grass of its last meal, itself ripped from the intestines in the middle of a tribal free-for-all. If you can’t find a recently slaughtered cow, feel free to use the intestinal juices of any creature in your vicinity, particularly one that eats grass, as it’s a good way to get that lovely green colouring. And I thought they only smelt bad on the outside.
Mr Wu boils up the niubie in his wok, then sets it to one side while he fries up the beef in the chilis. Then he pours the niubie over the top and dumps it all in a bowl. He offers me a spoon and I gingerly take a sip… It tastes like a soup made with chili and pepper and… oh, wait, there’s that burning aftertaste at the back of your throat like you just threw up a little bit in your mouth.
The director glares at me and I think of something else to say, vaguely suggesting that there is a Joycean uric tang.
It is only then that Mr Wu realises that he can’t find his blood.
“Where’s my blood?” he bellows?
“What blood?” squeaks Mrs Wu, who is trying to wok up a lunch for a group of eight tourists in the restaurant.
“The big bowl of blood with all the spices in it. We only scooped it out of the cow yesterday. I was going to cook xiehong for the foreigners.”
“Oh that,” says Mrs Wu, the dim dawn of realisation starting to glimmer on her face. “I thought that was waste, so I threw it out.” Mr Wu goes ballistic, since now he has to go and find some blood from somewhere else, like a five-foot vampire on a charity mission.
Finland’s first Chinese restaurant opened inside the spy-infested Hotel Torni in Helsinki in 1953. With characteristic Nordic bluntness, the restaurant was called simply “China.” There, claims food historian Ritva Kylli, visitors “eagerly tasted Chinese flavours and practised how to use chopsticks.” By the end of the 1950s, some Chinese influences had crept into Finnish cooking, including restaurants with wax tablecloths, and the usual utensils of Finnish eating – plates and forks and what-have-you, haunted by the presence of a bottle of soy sauce and a jar of chili oil.
“Dishes from the Torni,” she writes, “became familiar in the Finnish home kitchen, most often chop suey, which was known to have been developed in San Francisco, and become known all around the world as a classic dish of Chinese cuisine – everywhere except China.”
Chinese food is but a sidebar in Kylli’s exhaustive Food History of Finland: From Salted Meat to Sushi [Suomen Ruokahistoria: Suolalihasta sushiin], recently published in Finnish. In it, she charts the development of a national cuisine that has been famously pilloried by other nations – most famously, according to one well-known French politician, the second-worst in the world, after British food. She takes the Finnish palate from its early, bland fumblings with rye bread and dairy products (“Our Finnish cheeses are much praised,” claimed Daniel Juslenius in the 1700s, without a shred of proof), through the introduction of Russian foodways and French bistros, the impact of Prohibition in the 1920s, wartime austerity and the turnabouts of the modern world.
As her title implies, she finishes with another oriental foodstuff, at least nominally. Finns were certainly aware of Japanese food early on – she includes a letter from a baffled diner in Hakodate in north Japan, trying to come to terms with chopsticks and drinking soup from the bowl in the 1920s. But it’s not until 1978 that Kylli uncovers an advert in a Helsinki newspaper for a place calling itself the Yokohama restaurant. Although Tylli tracks a strong upward curve in Japanese food in Finland over the next few decades, it is not really until the 2010s that sushi has become a nationwide phenomenon outside Helsinki, and not because of the Japanese, but the Chinese and the Thais.
Most of the “Japanese” restaurants in Finland are run by Chinese and Thais, ever-ready to exploit the likelihood that Finnish men are sure to stock up on rice and stodge, but Finnish women will jump at the opportunity for a sort of salad that’s also a sort of lunch. For some reason, accountants and the Finnish tax office seem to smile upon “cold” lunches as a tax-deductible expense, further incentivising a bit of fish that hasn’t actually been cooked.
Kylli’s 500-page epic history of food is meticulously referenced and wonderfully detailed, and understandably shies away from the prospect that some Finns might be their own worst enemies when it comes to gastronomy. Once in a Helsinki restaurant that would probably prefer to be unidentified, my recurring inability to remember the word in Finnish for “bowl” led me to switch into Mandarin, and for the manager to suddenly snatch away my plate.
“Oh no!” he said, “Let me make you the good stuff. The buffet’s just the crap we serve the Finns!”
Out now on Audible, unabridged editions of my Brief History of Khubilai Khan and Brief History of the Martial Arts. As with the earlier audiobook of my Emperor’s Feast, I insisted on doing the recording myself, because I was getting tired of narrators who couldn’t pronounce any of the words in Chinese or Japanese… or as it turns out in these two, Tibetan, Mongol and Vietnamese as well. Some proper tongue-twisters in these two, as well as my impersonation of a London taxi driver describing the exploits of the Danish karate team.
Jingdezhen was, for many centuries, the world capital of porcelain. The local clay and glaze were what’s known as “cousin materials”, with an affinity that would fuse them at an atomic level. Jingdezhen porcelain didn’t just comprise baked clay with a shiny glaze. The two would vitrify under extreme heat, creating translucent, beautiful colours and clear, ringing tones. Europeans would spend decades trying to work out the secret of porcelain, unaware that at least part of the secret was Jingdezhen itself. It was the source of much of the imperial tableware for several dynasties.
Jingdezhen also suffered from immense fluctuations in fortune. The Mongol conquests gave it access to both Middle Eastern markets and Afghan cobalt, creating a new industry in blue and white tableware – the Chinese of the 14th century thought it was vulgar, but it found a ready export market. There were riots among the labourers in the early 1600s over poor conditions and pay. In 1675, a generation after the Manchu conquest, the town fell to Wu Sangui’s forces during the Revolt of the Three Feudatories. Jingdezhen was almost totally destroyed, and for many years afterwards, canny managers at the kilns fired pots and plates without a Manchu emperor’s reign date on them, in order to avoid any more iconoclasm in the event of another revolt. It suffered again with the influx of foreign competition, forced to modernise and downgrade its principles when facing an influx of imports from Industrial-Revolution Europe.
In 1911, the final entry in the porcelain ledger of the Forbidden City details a command by the Last Emperor to send a certain kind of tableware to Beijing. The potters’ reply is a blank refusal, confessing that they have forgotten the skills required. They could knock him up some plates with dragons on them, if he liked, but the glory days were gone.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, Jingdezhen’s fortunes revived after the Revolution. Somebody had to make tea sets for the Communist Party grandees, and Jingdezhen seemed like the perfect place for workers’ crockery and porcelain statues of Chairman Mao.
“They were lucky during the Cultural Revolution,” says Eric Kao, the American who has been the director here for six years. “Not because it didn’t do terrible damage to their livelihood, but because it only lasted ten years. When it was all over, some of the artisans were still alive. They could come back. They could teach a new generation.”
Eric surprises me by revealing the thing that almost killed Jingdezhen for good – capitalism.
“When Deng Xiaoping’s reforms came in in the late 1970s, there was a real boom. They weren’t making ceramics for the Emperors any more, or for the Party. They were making it for private clients, for commissions, for hotels and restaurants. There was a huge surge in interest and business, but then the potters started competing. I’ll charge a hundred, so you charge 90. So I charge 80, so you charge 70. By the time we’re down to 50, I can’t actually afford to live off the proceeds unless I downgrade the quality of my work. The output turned sloppy. It turned unreliable. The Chinese want a bargain, and if they get a bargain, they’ll put up with the fall in quality. By the 1990s, Jingdezhen was a wasteland. We couldn’t give the pots away. The rent here was minimal because nobody wanted to be here. That’s where The Workshop came in.”
Eric was hired because he had two degrees in ceramics, and spoke both Chinese and English. His work is on display in the showroom, but he’s really here about the message – and the message has been written by Caroline Cheng, another overseas Chinese who first started the cooperative in Shanghai in 1985. The Pottery Workshop has only been in Jingdezhen for the last ten years. The more Eric tells me, the crazier he sounds, but in a good way. We walk through a market of little stalls selling bespoke pottery products. There are sublime, teardrop-shaped tea-pots; little bowls decorated with cute animals; vases with real leaves under their glazing.
“We hold this market every Saturday, from nine till twelve. That’s it. We won’t run it for longer or for more often, because we want to maintain the quality of the goods on sale. This is a juried marketplace. There is a waiting line to get in to one of the 80 stalls, and Caroline checks their material every month. If they don’t meet the right standard, or the quality of innovation slips, they’re out.”
The market shoppers are obvious potters from abroad – women in Doc Martens with flashes of garish hair; intense, smouldering boys with ponytails and smocks; wiry, white-haired old ladies in sensible sweaters. There are a bunch of loud students from West Virginia, and nervy-looking girls who seem to have have found a sensual fulfilment in kneading mud. Meanwhile, the Chinese are a breed apart – girls in trilbies and thigh-boots; boys in waistcoats, conspicuous yuppies and hipsters. They move among the Chinese-owned stalls that sell not only ceramics, but also handbags and bracelets, trays and purses, cutlery and coats.
“Oh, you mean the other media,” laughs Eric, using media in an entirely proper but rather unexpected way. “We introduced that strand last year. Ceramic is just a material. It’s just a way of making an object and fulfilling a purpose. But part of what we do here is exposing students to each other’s work, and the work of local craftsmen. Our Residency programme doesn’t just put foreigners here to use our facilities, it gives them an interpreter and lets them wander the city. We want everything to cross-pollinate. So we thought: let’s bring in the guys who sell copper spoons; let’s bring in the wood-carvers. Let’s see if they don’t spark some sort of new solution to a problem for the potters. Mixing the media.”
I ask the price of a bowl on one of the stands. The answer is so mind-blowingly low that there is the sound of a palpable scramble as the rest of the crew run to get their wallets. The students are practically giving these pieces away.
“We encourage them to get their work out there,” says Eric. “They spend the week making these items, and make a subsistence income, but those items are then spread as far as possible.”
I note that all the students have QR-codes on their stalls, allowing passing trade to instantly get their online contact details.
“We’re very big on social media, too,” says Eric. “We make them have properly up-to-date resumés, proper online contacts. These are apprentice pieces that get them recognised, and we make sure that they have portfolios to hand for commissions and repeat business.”
“We’re under pressure to expand, but we want to maintain the quality of the goods. There have been weeks where Caroline doesn’t let the market to happen at all if the students’ work isn’t up to scratch. But we’re asked if we can make it all-day Saturday, all weekend, all week. We won’t do it. The quality of the work won’t take the strain.”
I try to get as much of his business model on tape because it is so madly and beautifully counter-intuitive. It’s like he is actively trying to lose money, but also to create an entire generation of master potters.
Eric shows me the public kilns, communally-owned ovens where the locals have always been over to rent space for their own firing, even back in the imperial days.
“You don’t need your own kiln,” he explains. “You don’t need to wait until you have 200 bowls to fire. You can just buy a square foot on one of our firings, and we’ll cook them out every day.”
I touch the side of the kiln, which looks almost exactly like half a transport container with metal tubes leading into it. It is not hot at all, even though inside the temperature is 600C and climbing to the required 1300C.
“Oh, we’ve lined the inside with ceramic fibre,” Eric says. “It’s the same stuff they use on the space shuttle. We crash-cool this kiln: we fire it until it’s done, and then we just turn off the gas and open the doors. That would crack the glaze on a lot of ceramics, but not Jingdezhen. It’s different in the big industrial factories. There, they have tunnel kilns that are 70 metres long. The pots go through on a conveyor belt, and the centre is firing 24 hours a day. They heat up gradually, get to the hottest point, and then cool down by the time they get out the other end. That’s where they make all the Starbucks mugs.”
As we leave the compound, I see another kiln, made of simple brick, set on a patch of grass near the exit. I wonder if it’s some sort of traditional construction from previous dynasty.
“Death Fugue allegorizes the ongoing Memory Edit regarding events in Tiananmen Square as a literal stain at the heart of China, or rather, in her invented state of ‘Dayang’, where a soaring tower of excrement suddenly and inexplicably appears in the central square of the capital, ‘Beiping’.”
Out to the countryside, amid the rice paddies in the foothills, to visit Master Jin, another potter, who apparently makes “big pots.” The implications of this aren’t immediately clear until we pull into his compound, and I see what first appears to be a roofed funicular railway running up the side of the hill. But it is not a funicular railway. It is a long shed, the length of a football field, which shields the kiln below from the elements. Big pots and other large objects need to be fired in a dragon kiln, which is a long tube, as large as a metro tunnel, running the length of the hillside, pocked at regular intervals by chutes in which to drop more fuel. It must take an incredible amount of wood (or coal), but it makes it possible to fire the kind of vases that you can hide inside.
“This dragon kiln is quite new,” says Master Jin, an affable, mumbly old man whose face seems permanently creased in a rictus of laughter. “We built it in the 1970s. There was a Qing-era one over there beforehand, but someone built a house on the site. The dragon kilns were built here because of the logistics. We can get the clay right out of the fields in front. There’s a road right past the house, and there’s a jetty into the river just over there. You can load the pots up here and get them all the way to Jingdezhen, and from there to the rest of China, and the world.”
Jiangxi people seem somewhat slow of speech. It takes a couple of takes before I realise that Master Jin specialises in Pinteresque silences between sentences, and that if I just wait, he will keep going.
“I mean, we used to. There used to be a bunch of dragon kilns here, but you can do it all industrially now. This one is more used for education than anything else, when the pottery students come up to see how things were done. People keep coming here and buying the land for building houses. I mean, this is good clay. But they are building houses on it.”
In the afternoon, Master Jin takes a wheelbarrow, hands me two shovels, and leads me out into the rice fields. We wind along a track that has been paved with broken slabs of pottery, until we come to the centre
“There’s the clay,” he says.
“But that’s just a field.”
“That’s where the clay is.”
“We just dig it up out of the field?”
“Where you grew your lunch?”
“Yes,” he says, and he starts to dig. There is a thin surface layer of gravel and other detritus, but right below the surface is a beautiful, pliable, shiny layer of cool grey mud, which briefly holds its shape after I shovel it onto the pile, and then slowly, gracefully collapses. Even I can see that it is perfect for pottery. There are a few flecks of red in it, which Master Jin says is naturally-occurring iron.
“That’s not the good stuff, though,” he mumbles. “There. That’s the good stuff.” A few inches below the surface there are patches and seams of an altogether different mud, strikingly blue-green in colour, like jade. It only comprises maybe 5% of the spadefuls I bring up, but that’s still quite a surprising amount to find in someone’s back garden. No wonder they built the kilns here.
He takes me to a shed where he shows me a pot he is just finishing. The vessels he makes are too big to turn on a wheel. Instead, he turns around them himself, kneading in coil after coil of clay like a human 3D printer, carefully building it up one inch at a time. He shuffles around the lip of the ever-growing pot, pinching and kneading. I shuffle across from him, observing at all times. Alvin the cameraman is obliged to shuffle around between us, in a ludicrous circular waltz.
Master Jin finishes off the top with a wet cloth, once again in a comical, rotational shuffle. It is still glistening in the sunset as I turn to the camera and say: “It might not look like much: some guy in his garage, making a pot with some mud that he found in his backyard, but this item opens a whole new range of possibilities. This can carry other commodities, across China and out to the rest of the world. In some ways, this transformed lump of clay is the origin of the maritime trade routes.” I manage this despite the council of cockwhisks who have assembled in the doorway, determined to see what is going on, and to talk about what might be going on, and to giggle at the possibility that a foreigner who might conceiveably be able to use chopsticks is standing in front of a camera with lights in his face, trying not to say anything that is factually inaccurate or legally actionable.
We are a week away from finishing now, and no single episode is yet fully in the bank. There are pick-ups and location shoots we still need to do. Very soon, we should be able to start ticking off footage as having been completed for each of the six. Already, we are only one scene away from signing off on the Theatre episode, Rice, and Tea… quite possibly also from Ceramics. There’s still a fair way to go on Grains, though, and we’ve barely begun on Booze. I am not sure that putting all the Booze shooting into the last three days is going to work out for us, but it is sure to be a happy shoot.
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.
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.
“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.”