Season three of National Geographic’s Route Awakening, in which I wander some of the ethnic minority communities of modern China, has just snagged the Gold Remi award at the Houston International Film Festival for “TV: Information, Cultural or Historical.” You can see the trailer here. Seasons one and two won the same award in 2016 and 2017.
When I met Yang Zhifa in 2013, he was living well off the proceeds of being ‘the man who found the Terracotta Army.’ Tall for a Chinese, he was sprightly for a grandfather nearing 80. What was left of his white hair was shorn off in a neat burr, he affected a blue Mao suit and an ostentatiously long cheroot holder. A week did not go by without a journalist or film crew wanting to talk to him about his place in history, and Yang was ever ready to oblige for a fee – my time with him cost about £100.
There was very little clue from Yang’s demeanour that he could pull down a week’s wages just by getting out of bed in the morning, at least, not until one was close enough to look in his eyes. The dark irises were limned with the faintest edge of blue, a telltale sign that the old farmer sported contact lenses.
With up to two film crews a day hanging on his every word, and tourists eager to get his signature or calligraphy, Yang was a jealous guardian of his status. He had been in something of a feud with several other Yangs, who wanted to claim equivalent status as co-discoverers – I still suspect that he and his cousins once took turns to sit in the museum shop and sign autographs as ‘Mr Yang, who found the Terracotta Army.’ He cherished a photograph of himself with a grinning Bill Clinton, and still scowled at the memory of articles that had claimed the American President had met with an ‘illiterate peasant’. He clutched his adze proudly, showing me the seal of government authenticity that pronounced it to be the very tool that had struck at that fateful terracotta fragment in 1974.
Yang’s version of events featured a degree of self-figuration – first-person I’s and me’s about what the record usually describes as a group effort, but nonetheless came from the horse’s mouth, in a Shaanxi dialect so thick that I often had to ask him to repeat himself.
‘It was hot and it was dry. It was March and there had been no rain all winter, and we needed to sink a new well. There was some low-lying ground with persimmon trees on the plain, and I figured that the water there would be sweeter, so we started digging. When we got down a couple of metres, we hit something. It looked like the top of a pot, the lip around the edge, so we stopped digging.
‘I said: “Look, if this is a pot, we might have found an old kiln from the Han dynasty or something. Those pots are still good to use. Let’s keep digging.” So, we edged around it and saw that it wasn’t a pot. It wasn’t a pot because it was decorated really weird, like a suit of armour, and then we found an arm.
‘So this is a problem, because the elders hated it when we uncovered old temples or graves. That’s really bad for the feng shui. They made us go back that evening with joss-sticks. We lit incense and chanted prayers in case we had disturbed earth gods or something. But I said to the elders: “You shouldn’t worry that this is something to do with the First Emperor. I mean, it’s two kilometres away from his grave, this can’t possibly be anything to do with that. There’s no way it could be that big.”
‘So we went to the cultural office at the museum, and they said oh yes, that looks very Qin dynasty. Bring us the terracotta bits and we’ll give you some cash. They offered me 10 kuai [£1] for every wheelbarrow-load of pottery I could bring them. So we edged around the well and hauled up three cart-loads of the stuff. I took it to the museum and got 30 kuai, but then I had to share it with the other members of the crew and the village. At the end of it all, I got 1.3 mao (13p).’
The Yangs’ well-sinking exercise had transformed into an archaeological dig and gained him another rival. At another museum on the edge of town, the local Party official also happily signs himself as the ‘man who discovered the Terracotta Army’, on the understanding that Yang didn’t know what he was looking at, and that in an intricate semantic sense, the Terracotta Army was only ‘discovered’ by the person who identified the pottery as a Qin artefact. At the time, however, nobody seriously considered that the pottery uncovered by the Yangs was directly related to the First Emperor’s distant mausoleum. For centuries it had been assumed that the First Emperor’s mausoleum centred on Mount Li itself, and yet the finds of the well diggers were far from it. The well now forgotten, the soil from the initial dig was sifted, unearthing more terracotta pieces, and the fragments of what might once have been crossbow trigger mechanisms.
By that June, the news was out. Something had been found near the site of the First Emperor’s mausoleum, and if a find of the magnitude of the Yangs’ was present so far from it, the size of the necropolis itself may have been grossly underestimated.
‘Then they said we’d found something significant, something of national importance, so it all kind of got taken away from us,’ Yang tells me. His role in the site was forgotten for twenty years, while archaeologists sifted the earth. He confessed that he had done nothing but swing a pickaxe for his life up to that point, and his ability to monetise being the ‘discoverer’ of the Terracotta Army turned problematic. He was once flown to Japan for an academic conference, but was able to little more than trot out his well-rehearsed account of that fateful day. Since then, he has observed the slow growth of the museum as a tourist site, and done his best to capitalise on the influx of visitors.
‘It’s brought a lot of wealth to all of us in the village,’ he says carefully, ‘and that cheers me up. Yes, I like being famous. It’s better than not being famous. People come from all over and they want to shake my hand and buy my photograph. It’s better than holding a pickaxe.’
Up on the All the Anime blog I chronicle the weird background of Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt, which briefly became the biggest-ever film at the Chinese box office. “Critics are at a loss to explain why this particular film should have been the one to recapture the flag of Chinese distribution. A cynic might point out that by the time it was released, it was literally too big to fail, having notched up an additional US$70 million in extra costs after its original leading man, Kai Ko, was arrested in Beijing for smoking marijuana. Determined not to risk a China-wide release with a court case hanging over their hero, producers authorised the parachuting of Jing Boran into the lead role, requiring all his scenes to be reshot, along with a quarter of all the effects sequences. Effectively, the film went to market having cost double its original budget – you bet the owners were keen to keep it running longer than its rivals.”
Over at the All the Anime blog, I review Wu Weihua’s new book on Chinese animation.
“Wu dedicates an entire chapter to the cultural impact of imported animation, beginning with the relatively obscure anime feature Taro the Dragon Boy in 1979, and followed swiftly by Astro Boy on television in 1982 (I presume that this was the 1980 colour remake, not Tezuka’s 1963 original), and a flood of both Japanese and American cartoons. Astro Boy, in particular, rode the spirit of the times, encapsulating the pro-science message of the Deng Xiaoping era, when Chinese science fiction experienced a brief boom in futurist speculation. Again, to split hairs from an industrial perspective, I would point out that from 1979 onwards, many of the “foreign” cartoons coming into China were also partly made there, although as before, this does not necessarily detract from the critical arguments that Wu is repeating.
“Foreign rivals were in it to win it. Wu recounts the arrival of Hasbro in the early 1980s, which baffled the Chinese by handing the complete run of its Transformers cartoon series to broadcasters in Beijing and Shanghai. At first, it seemed insane, simply dumping a cartoon for free… until the toy stores started to fill up with robots. The pay-off from that era is highly visible today, not only in the blockbuster Chinese success of the Transformers movie franchise, but in Decepticon decals on half the boy-racer cars I see in Chinese cities.”
Over at the All the Anime blog, I write up the Chinese animated film Big Fish and Begonia.
“There are a lot of fishy comments in Zhuangzi – water and the creatures that live in it serve multiple purposes, as allegories for the workings of government, and for the place of living creatures in a grander universe. Some quotes are purported to be the work of Confucius, including the one that might serve as a nihilistic tagline for the film: ‘Fish live in water, but men die in it.'”
The 1919 Paris Peace Conference legendarily redrew the map of Europe, but had implications all over the world, as one might expect for the negotiations that closed a “World” War. Urs Matthias Zachmann adds to the growing literature on its impact in the East by editing the nine-chapter collection Asia After Versailles: Asian Perspectives on the Paris Peace Conference and the Interwar Order, 1919-33, out now from Edinburgh University Press.
Ably setting the scene, Mark Metzler’s “Correlation of Crises” examines the Great War as an economic explosion – a massive boom and sudden bust that saw crop substitutions, mass labour hirings and firings, and disruptions both good and bad. To cite one example, from Carol Benedict’s Golden Silk Smoke, the sudden squeeze on the growing and transportation of tobacco opened a sudden new market in southwest China, growing the drug for export to Europe. Tommy’s fags on the frontline created a sudden swell in wealth among Fujian farmers, and a similarly precipitous drop in their good fortune when the demand fell in 1918. Such big data, Metzler decrees, amounts to an early exercise in globalisation, with worldwide spin-offs in ideologies, revolutions and diseases. India, he observes, lost the most lives to the Great War, not merely on the battlefield, but to influenza and famine.
Naoko Shimazu regards the Japanese delegation’s primary mistake to be one of “performance” – not realising that the media, and hence prevailing opinion, were best managed through public showmanship. The US President Woodrow Wilson was feted in Paris like a visiting Tsar, while the leading Japanese diplomat, Saionji Kinmochi, stayed out of the limelight. Although warned by their advance scouts in several panicky telegrams, the Japanese had failed to grasp that every other major power had sent a head of state, which was used as an excuse to keep Saionji’s team from joining the Big Four nations. As noted by Kevin M. Doak in his own chapter, Japan was also a proud but rather skittish monarchy, facing delegations from several newly minted republics. An anonymous critic in the Japanese press bemoaned the shame of Baron Makino having to tussle with a “comeuppance” like Wellington Koo – China’s first foreign PhD, a future prime minister and ambassador, snootily discounted as an arrogant bounder.
But Koo was a compelling, eloquent public speaker, able to run rings around the Japanese delegation, whereas the Japanese attendees were all too often ridiculed over mispronunciations and misunderstandings. Shimazu herself does not mention, at least not here, the public spat between Saionji and his junior Konoe Fumimaro, which forced Saionji into damage control before the delegation had even reached France. Curiously for Saionji, a regular fixture among the brothels and bars of Tokyo and no stranger to backroom deals, he seems to have failed to appreciate the need for what Shimazu calls “shared sociality” – the need to have dined, drunk and debated with one’s peers outside the conference chambers. Saionji fatally avoided being seen at the right parties, although his young mistress was briefly a much-storied hit in her kimono.
A century on, Gotelind Müller observes that the Paris Peace Conference is substantially better-known among Chinese teenagers than among their European counterparts. This, at least in part, is due to Wellington Koo’s infamous refusal to sign the Treaty of Versailles, marking an important moment of punctuation in the ongoing tale of China’s Century of Humiliation. It’s thus particularly ironic that the Chinese delegation should be so lionised and worshipped when they were far more at odds with one another than their Japanese colleagues. The Chinese at Paris were effectively representing two rival governments and acting to mollify the threat of angry mobs back home but somehow managed to present a united front. Ever the diplomat, Koo even played down the internal arguments in his own memoirs, not published until 1983. Hiroko Sakamoto closes the collection with a surprisingly light-hearted coda on what the Chinese and Japanese inadvertently shared: a love of cartoons, with Okamoto Ippei’s comics culture transplanted to Shanghai in the 1920s, just in time to fuel a strong movement of graphic protest and nationalism.