The Mile-High Club

We are off to Lijiang, home of the Naxi people, regarded in China as the cherries on the cake of nutcases, a quasi-Tibetan tribe famous for believing that they are descended from the survivors of the war with the snake people from space. Their God of Pestilence is depicted holding a steaming, fresh turd in his hand, and their shamans like to dip their hands in oil and set light to them so they can run around indoors throwing fire at people. They have the world’s only living pictographic language that causes all their sacred texts (and they have 20,000 sacred texts) to read like comic books, and their panoply of ceremonial artefacts includes “sacrificial puppets”. Their God of Banging is called Dsu, and the Ho-bpo ceremony involves praise to the Lord of Spunk. 150 years ago, they were still cannibals, although supposedly they have stopped doing it now. I am not making this up.

I try to interest the crew in my study of Naxi pictograms, but they display little interest in the symbols for “wizard” and “vaginal discharge.”

I am having trouble catching my breath today. It is after lunchtime before the director reveals that we are more than a mile above sea level, in the foothills of the Himalayas. So it is not my imagination; the air is thinner. Lijiang is nestled inside a curve of the “Golden Sands” river – it is 25 miles to the east, and also 25 miles to the west, and eventually it changes its name to the Yangtze. But here we are high, high up. Shangri-la, or rather, the town that purports to be Shangri-la, is only a few miles north of here. Peter Goullart, who was the local consul here in the 1940s, wrote in his autobiographical Forgotten Kingdom that matters get worse another mile up, where the thinner air makes it difficult to get a good night’s sleep, leaving all the Tibetans and related tribespeople permanently irritable.

The history of Lijiang is difficult to reconstruct, but a few historians have read between the lines of the Dongba recitations and the chronicles of the locals, and come up with the following. The Naxi themselves were once nomads on the desolate northern plains – this we can deduce from references in their most ancient funeral rituals to yurts and herds. This area was not even considered part of China until the Mongols conquered it. When Khubilai Khan’s troops arrived, a family of Naxi chieftains in Lijiang swiftly saw which way the wind was blowing, and willingly collaborated. They were instrumental in the Mongol conquest of the area, and maintained a constant war footing thereafter. Long after the Mongols packed up and went home, the Mu clan were sending raiding parties into the mountains and valleys, demanding tribute from the locals and proclaiming themselves as the rulers of everywhere from here to Tibet.

The Chinese hated Yunnan. The air was too rarefied, and the locals too odd, and they very happily left the Mu clan to it. The Mu chieftains, soon rebranded as princes, were sure to send some appropriate gifts to the coronation of each new emperor, and were thanked in turn by the conferral of official titles. When the Mongols retreated before the resurgent Ming dynasty, the Mu chieftains clung onto their power, for the same reason, which was that the Chinese really couldn’t stand the idea of such a desolate place, and were happy to leave the locals to it.

The Mu did not die; they faded away. In the 18th century, the Chinese reverted the Mu’s status as hereditary leaders, and instead incorporated them into the magistrate system of appointed governors. A few generations later in 1729, when the time came to appoint the next representative, Beijing surprised everybody by not appointing a Mu man at all. The princes had been dethroned, although apparently overnight, their demise had been coming for decades. Early in the 20th century, the consul Peter Goullart reported a banquet in Lijiang where the head of the Mu family was not even afforded a place at the high table. Instead, this shrunken, opium-addled old man was left to eat with the B-list. Now there is little to remind us of the Mu, apart from the stone bridge in Lijiang old town that was supposedly built at their behest, and a couple of mansions and monasteries endowed with what had once been their wealth.

Every conquest of territory downhill pushes other people further into the heights. The Kam once lived in the lowlands, but were shunted into the hills by the Mu conquest – the word for Kam in Chinese is Dong, and originally meant Good for Nothing, or perhaps The Hidden – the former definition has been deviously removed from modern dictionaries. Their famous songs sidle shame-facedly around the fact that they cannot read – a fact which we regularly encountered when filming there, when some of our interviewees were unable to write their own names on their release forms.

But as the Naxi pushed the Kam, the Kam pushed the Miao, who were driven even further into the heights, often living without fire or fresh water. But if the Miao were shunted, they also displaced someone. At the scrag end of history are the Yi, a people who even today have a fearsome reputation.

And then there are the amazonian Hlihin, reported in the diaries of Peter Goullart from the 1940s, when their brash, tough womenfolk would swagger into town with a couple of their husbands meekly in tow, on the search for new bridegrooms. Goullart treated several of them in his clinic, and reported that they were invariably suffering from advanced syphilis. We’re not going to visit them, either – in fact, I have seen no mention of the Hlihin in modern accounts, and wonder if they even exist anymore.

When the Red Army came through Lijiang on the Long March, the locals asked them who the emperor was these days. They had literally had no news from the outside world for fifty years.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E05 (2017).

A Good Pounding

The Wu sisters are in their seventies, and have a relatively posh house near the centre of the village, alongside their ramshackle dyeing studio. There, behind a door so low I practically have to limbo underneath it, they make Kam clothes by dipping cotton cloth into a mixture made from indigo leaves, collected from the riverside and soaked for three days to create a bluish soup. The clothes come out yellow, but oxidise almost immediately on contact with the air, turning a pale blue. The Wu sisters will dip and wash and dry and dip and wash and dry over and over for the next twenty days to get the right level of dark blue.

Other ingredients include cow skin, with hair still attached, which is boiled for gelatin, pig’s blood which can be used to form the red dye that turns the dark blue into black, and rice wine.

“You can drink it!” enthuses Wu Big Sister. “Go on, have a go! We already have!”

She titters playfully, and I realise that the Wu sisters have been knocking back some of their ingredients all morning. I join in, and then they start singing a song of Kam welcome, which apparently has to end with me downing a grubby Hello Kitty mug full of rice wine. They then reveal that nobody can leave their house until they, too, have downed a mug of wine, leaving the cameraman and the driver red-faced and somewhat the worse for wear.

The Wu Sisters, however, are ready for anything.

“Come on inside!” says Wu Little Sister. “We’re going to whack the cloth with the hammer to make it soft and shiny!” She proceeds to smack her cloth around with a mallet dangerously close to her fingers.

I try to leaven the shoot with comedy business, including a Jacques Tati masterpiece of idiocy as I attempt to get across the village square when it is carpeted with drying rice. I negotiate a maze of rice mats, and end up dangling from the side of a building and braining myself on a jutting joist. I also get to turn to camera with a straight face and say: “There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good pounding.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).


Wu Meilun is an old lady in her seventies who has put on her posh Kam clothes to welcome us. Kam girls in the past would make their own costumes, and wear them on festival days to show off their skills to the mensfolk. Traditionally, Kam women would sit at their spinning wheels and spin into the night, with the old ladies retiring at around nine o’clock. The younger girls would then stick something called a “cat’s ear” onto their spinning wheel, so it suddenly started making a klickety-klack sound, advertising their presence to the local youths, who would pop over to chat them up, keep them company and “sing.” Spinning could then go on until the small hours, with occasional breaks for cups of tea, chat and “singing.”

“But that doesn’t go on any more,” sighs Meilun wistfully. Now everybody just vegs out in front of China’s Got Talent and looks at cat videos on their iPhones.

Meilun is here to show me how to make paper from citron bark, which she mashes up and mixes with natural gum, and spreads it out on frames to dry in the sun. I say citron bark, because that’s what the dictionary tells us it is, but the word in Chinese is goupi, which sadly also means dogfart. There is considerably merriment from the crew every time I get my tones wrong.

How long will it take to dry, I ask her.

Only two hours, she says.

We wait two hours. The paper is still wet. It turns out that the Kam of Dimen have as little appreciation of time as the Kam of Tang-an.

We can’t do any driving shots in the afternoon because Pan has taken the Buick into the hills to hunt wild boar. So instead we shoot a piece at the vending machines, in which I discuss the likelihood of me being suddenly overcome in the dead of night by the sudden desire for a toy sword, clockwork dinosaur or 50-pack of tampons, and rushing to the vending lobby to buy some.

“Let’s buy a plastic monkey!” I enthuse, feeding my five kuai into the machine to get myself a pointless monkey that lights up in the dark. Probably not a day we will win an award for.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).

Funeral Direction

I am down in the hostel hosing the mud off myself when the next event happens, so I am not there for the bullfighting. This apparently involves two drunken bulls (force-fed booze if necessary) incited to charge at each other by letting off firecrackers behind them. Frankly, I don’t know much more than that, so the first I find out about it will be at the same time as you, when I see the finished episode. By the time I am scrubbed clean and ready to stumble back up the hill, the event is over, substantially earlier than planned. It’s only later on that we realise this has caused all the other events to be moved half an hour earlier than scheduled. This, in turn, means that the singing contest starts early, and so my grannies from the other night with their song about subsidy incentives were the first on, before any of us knew the competition had started.

It is annoying. The whole evening comprises picturesque Kam tribeswomen, in their traditional black robes and silver head-dresses, singing about all sorts of polyphonic anthems. But my grannies have already been and gone. After such a great morning, with my catering show quips over a pit of boiling stomach juices, and my mud-fight star-turn being pig-piled in a pond by a bunch of idiots, we had managed to log maybe ten minutes of useable footage – half an episode. But the lack of a pay-off for my granny story means we can probably only talk about them for thirty seconds instead of three minutes. It’s not just today’s footage that we have lost, but any meaningful use for the night before’s.

Mr Wu is deep in his cups at the hostel by this point, having chuffed his way through an entire packet of the director’s fags, and what appears to be a litre of moonshine. The director is trying to entertain him by taking Instamatic photos, but his mates insist on getting me to down a beer in one every time she takes a picture. The evening continues with predictable results, which we will pick up again the day afterwards, after six hours standing around.

This is because Pan has located the Holy Grail for our shoot – an honest-to-god Kam funeral, happening at the next village. Someone whose name is also Pan, has died, and the ceremony is happening today, which will allow us to fulfil our Circle of Life brief this season. The Kam will be the Death episode, and the funeral will provide that difficult-to-find Death part. But this creates a whole new set of nightmares, because if you were burying a relative, the last thing you would want would be a film crew from National Geographic shoving a lens in your face and asking you about the origin of your local traditions. So I am obliged to spend much of the rest of the day sitting on a pile of logs being hassled by the village children, who regard the logs as their playground and food storage vault. The rest of the crew embed themselves deep in the crowd to get footage of the white turbaned mourners, the cortege preceded by sweet-throwing and firecrackers, the long march up through the rice paddies, and the various booze throwing and firecracker-slinging associated with a Kam funeral. All I can do is whisper a few pieces to camera about the dichotomy between documenting cultural traditions and taking a vacation in other people’s misery.

Funerals are a hot topic in China at the moment after a controversial government initiative that proscribed all burials. Henceforth, said the Party, what with all the land we need for crops and stuff, people can’t be buried any more – everybody has to be cremated. This directive is actually quite old, and Chairman Mao himself tried to initiate that for his own funeral, only to be overruled by his successors, who have kept him above ground in his mausoleum ever since. But it’s caused even more of a kerfuffle among the peasantry, since people like the Kam tend to commission coffins from their own carpenters years, even decades in advance, and live with them in their houses. When old people in the provinces refused to give up on the idea of coffin burials, some heavy-handed cadres sent around thugs with pickaxes to break the coffins up.

So, here’s the thing – among the Kam, and certain other tribes, cremation is reserved for people who die from unnatural causes. Taking away their right to burial is like condemning them to an afterlife separated from both their ancestors and descendants, leading a bunch of old people to hang themselves or drink pesticide in order to die ahead of the wrecking crews and the change in the law. This protest eventually swayed the Party, which countermanded its own order. Although I would like to point out that suicide counts as unnatural causes, so if anyone was a stickler for Kam lore, the old people in question wouldn’t have been buried anyway.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).

Gone Fishing

There are roosters crowing during the night. This is considered bad luck by the Kam, and the only remedy is to hack off the rooster’s head with a cleaver, so I guess it will be chicken tonight.

“I’m getting some ducks in,” says Mr Wu over our garlicky noodle breakfast. “You know, for the festival.” I don’t know, but I am sure I will find out. Daniel the cameraman returns from the drum tower in the morning light to say that the first ox of the mass slaughter has already been dispatched, and the place is awash with blood. Rather than film the aftermath, the director waits for them to clear it up, and decrees that this morning Pan will take me fishing, as practice for tomorrow’s fishing contest.

Never ones to do anything the sane way, the Kam prefer to catch their fish by hand, which is how I find myself knee deep in a rice paddy, sticking my arms into the muddy water in search of a helpful carp. Pan manages to snag one almost instantly and throws it over to me, so that I can do a good impersonation of a man trying to hang onto a wriggly fish.

He snatches one from the water, and observes that it is not wriggling enough. He shoves his little finger deep into its mouth, and its starts to thrash about, as you might well do if Pan shoved a digit in one of your orifices.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events features in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

The Flying Knives

If you need to avenge yourself against your enemies, you will need a basin filled with water and two knives used for killing pigs. Place the knives in the water and get your sorcerer to chant the correct incantation over the bowl. If he’s doing his job right, the knives will turn into fish and the water will turn into blood, and you will know that your enemy is not long for this world, because he will be killed by the “flying knives”.

Alternatively, stick pins in a doll and bury it on his birthday. Or kill a rooster, and stick pins in its head, on his birthday. Kam people don’t like to tell you when their birthday is.

Eric the camera assistant likes to say we are among the “Southern Barbarians”, an oddly medieval construction that recognises so much of this part of China is a very different culture. The Kam are just one of the peoples in this area, who plainly migrated from somewhere else, pushed south by the Han Chinese themselves, and who have only partly got used to the idea of huddling on remote hillsides. They are all incredibly short, quite dark and often quite impassive. Pan, our local fixer, has taken two days to come out of his shell, and only then revealed to the director that he was married with a kid, and that he would be taking us to meet his family.

Pan’s village is called Tang-an. To get there involves a 40-minute drive from Congjiang, the nearest big town, through Zhaoxing, the “capital” of the Kam, because it has five drum towers – any more than one in a Kam town is liable to be a family tower to mark the presence of several households with the same surname. And then out into the mountains beyond Zhaoxing, along a winding mountain road, up into the heights, when Tang-an is stretched out on the slopes above the rice paddies.

In the evening, we lurk around until half past nine, waiting for a practice session for the song contest that is coming up in the village. But none of the people who are supposed to be involved appear to be doing anything. Eventually an old lady called Lan Big Sister says she will take me to meet her friends, a bunch of cackling grannies who are singing a song in Kam in a dilapidated house near the fish pond. Matters are somewhat confused because Lan doesn’t really speak Mandarin.

“Here is some guy from Yinland,” she says, apparently not knowing where that is.

“Come in, come in!” shout the grannies. “We are singing a song in Kam about the benefits of government subsidies for pensioners.” So I try to sing along in a nine-tone language which sounds like the Bulgarian Shepherdesses falling down some stairs, while a heifer in the stalls next door keeps on letting out long farts that are picked up by my microphone.

Halfway through, a granny who has gone out for a dump comes back in to find the squalid room brightly lit with lamps, and a National Geographic film crew crouched in the corner while I perch on a little stool and try to sing a chorus that has two glottal stops.

“What the actual fuck is going on?” she gasps.

“Just pretend we are not here,” says the director.

It is past eleven at night before we struggle back through the streets, pausing only to help a villager carry a moped over a large pile of bricks that has been left in the middle of the narrow mountain road. My limbs are aching. I have a headache from our landlord Mr Wu’s moonshine, and we still don’t know what we are supposed to be filming tomorrow.

The director reveals that there is possible a mass slaughter of oxen at midday tomorrow. And before that, I shall apparently be jumping into the fish pond to hunt carp with my bare hands. What could possibly go wrong?

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E01 (2017).

Galway, JFK and Roger Moore

I’m in Galway, Republic of Ireland on a secret mission (Codename Blackbird) and today I stopped in at the cathedral to be confronted in the Chapel of the Resurrection with a mosaic depicting John F Kennedy, at prayer with the Irish martyr Pádraig Pearse, shot during the Easter Rising.

Lunch a block or so away at Re’Nao, a Chinese restaurant serving Xi’an food, which was authentic when I ordered it because I knew what was supposed to be in it. The restaurant offers so many customisation options on its food that it is possible for the overly picky client to turn everything into something completely different. I also had an authentic roujiamou meat bun (“rogermoores” as they are known in our house), although there were so many Have It Your Way options that I could have easily transformed it into a chicken bap with ketchup.

Re’Nao was one of three Xi’an establishments withing spitting distance of one another in Galway, all owned by the same Xi’an expat. For more about Chinese food in Ireland, particularly the never-ending quest for authenticity, you can click on my interview with Sean Moncrieff on Newstalk.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals.

Stir Crazy

Today we are in Shaoxing, home of rice wine, at the Pagoda Brand factory. Not the distilled stuff that gets turned into baijiu, but the 20% booze made by traditional methods for the last 3000 years, which served to get the Chinese munted before they discovered the grape or the distillation process. “Traditional” methods on this leg always seem to amount to the same thing, which is mixing in some rotting fungus and leaving everything in jars for a few months. This is how the soy sauce was made in Amoy; this is how they knocked up the Kouzi baijiu, and it turns out to be the way they make the rice wine, too. There are some more complex steps, I am sure, but we won’t be shooting them until tomorrow.

On paper, the idea of spending the last four days in a Shanghai hotel had seemed like a good one. We could get to know a neighbourhood. We could get our laundry done and be around to pick it up the next day. We could wind down and lose the repetitive grind of checking out and in and out and in. Except our last two days are to be spent filming in Shaoxing, which turns out to be a two-and-a-half-hour drive each way. Today we leave the hotel at 0700 and don’t reach the factory before 10, but then there’s the tour and the pleasantries, meeting the boss, and dickering over the right angles… and then it’s time for lunch in the company restaurant.

The whole facility has been designed for super-class A* visiting dignitaries – the Shaoxing company has got an entire wall of specially designed “celebrity” bottles with their own bespoke logos, and the images of sportsmen I have never heard of emblazoned upon them. Maybe the staff are designed to be part of the experience. The walls are spattered with photographs of portly Chinese men in suits, grimly concentrating as someone in a company anorak hectors them about wine-making, but the staff in the visitor centre are all noticeably attractive Chinese girls in what appear to be regulation-issue flared miniskirts. Come for the drinks, stay for the view?

We don’t get started filming until 1300, severely limiting our light and our day. The director is spitting feathers at the fact that another film crew turned up this morning and faffed around all the things we want to faff around, thereby indisposing the workers to slow down their afternoon to pander to us. We shall have to come back tomorrow, on my last day, before I run to the airport, and the crew themselves will be obliged to return a third day without me to shoot a festival about the god of wine. Belatedly, we all realise that we should have stayed in a Shaoxing hotel – travel time over the next three days is going to rack up nine hours back and forth. Either we take it out of our shooting time, or wake up insanely early so as not to miss the light.

The fermentation process involves great vats of fresh-boiled rice tipped into large jars of lakewater, mixed with wheat-based yeast. The porridge thus created veritably bubbles like a soup, the heat of its own fermentation causing it to chug away to itself, warming the entire jar. Mr Wang, the chief fermenter, wanders among the vats with a stick that terminates in an H-shaped bar – this is a pa, used to stir the rice mixture and cool it. It has to be kept constantly around 34-36 degrees Centigrade for the optimum conditions. The director wants to film the stirring process, but arranging this is like herding cats, since every time we set up a shot, Mr Wang is called in to stir, and then he immediately does so before we can start filming. Moreover, he refuses to stir any given a pot a second time, as that would cool it too far, which means we have to set up his camera for another shot somewhere else; stir and repeat. Meanwhile, Mr Wang’s colleagues are banging around in the background, shouting at each other, and a coach party of Chinese tourists keeps blundering into the shot.

There is scant time remaining before I will have to leave for the airport, and we still need to film the introductions for the Grains and Ceramics episodes and my wine-tasting experience. We rush a shot of me at lunch talking about the prevalence of rice in the Chinese diet, and then over to the museum for the final shots. But whereas the museum was a relatively peaceful venue yesterday, today it is rammed with tour groups, who keep poking their heads around the corner and trying to take selfies in front of the equipment.

Perhaps fittingly, my final piece to camera is another boozy taste test, before an array of dry, semi-dry, semi-sweet and sweet rice wines. The best of them taste like dessert wines, the worst like a sherry solution of sugar and plums.

“Okay,” says the director. “Go to the airport. Everybody say goodbye to Jonathan. You won’t be seeing him again.” That’ll be my performance review, then. They already have more B-roll to shoot; I have a plane to catch. There is no time for speeches or proclamations. Mr Mao is already gunning his engine outside, petrified that he will be held responsible if I don’t make it to the airport in time. Eight weeks in each other’s company ends with the briefest of hugs and a dash for the door.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E02 (2016).

The Forgotten Canal

The old Sui-Tang Canal stretched from a patch of river near Luoyang, the old Tang dynasty capital, all the way to the lakes that dot the hinterland north of Nanjing. Effectively, it linked the Yellow River with the Yangtze, consolidating that massive inland trade network that allowed for water transport.

I have heard of the Grand Canal, but the one I associate with China goes from north to south, linking Beijing to the Yangtze. But this one was just as huge an enterprise, heading from west to east in a south-easterly direction. It is also almost entirely forgotten. The Chinese can only guess at the route of the Sui-Tang canal. Occasionally, they luck into a section of it, and can extrapolate its rough bearings. But after being built in the 600s, and flourishing for several hundred years, it fell into disrepair after the Song dynasty, when the capital of China shifted north to Beijing.

One of its docksides has been uncoverd in the small village of Liuzi, host to archaeologists since 1999. A Dutch-barn roof sits over the pit, where two metres below centuries of accumulated grime and soil, they found the large flagstones of a canal docks. During the middle ages, this was a site of frenzied bargaining, busy unloading, possibly even a bridging point. There are forgotten longboats, scuttled in the mud, and an entire sedimentary layer of Tang-dynasty porcelain. The site leader shows me a ceramic Tang lion in sancai tricolour ware, and a Jin-period statuette of a child in the lesser known red-and-blue ware. It’s the first time I can remember even seeing something that could be described as properly “Jin” – the name is used for the nomads who conquered north China and pushed the Song to the south, but the piece points to an era where north China blundered on its own path, applying its skills to new markets and new customers.

It is a difficult take. We are losing the light and there are only mere minutes before the sun will go behind the nearby houses. The director wants me walking and talking, and we have to go to and fro about the usual points of data – how to describe the Sui-Tang era in two seconds for an audience that doesn’t know its dynasties? Repeatedly, I refer to “the sleepy town of Liuzi,” only to be interrupted by a blast of truck horns as big-rigs turn off the highway. I resort to referring to “the sleepy town of Liuzi, CLOSE TO THE HIGHWAY” just in case we lack any clean takes at all. It makes me angry, because this is a rare occasion where I get to stand in an actual archaeological site, talking about actual archaeology.

Back to the hotel to film me turning on a television set. It will be the opening shot of the Theatre episode, for which all the footage is now banked. We are only four days away from wrapping, but the other five episodes all have pick-ups that will need to be crammed in.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E06 (2016).