“This ‘China Pride’ move might also be a record bid in itself. Guinness World Records was once the bestselling regularly updated book in the world, but has since been overtaken by the Xinhua Chinese dictionary.” I don’t think Guinness have worked out that the potential loss of face in failing a bid, or losing a record once attained, is going to put off a lot of people who might otherwise scramble for the chance to be known for the Longest Noodle, or Loudest Cough, or Most Creative Tuktuk Route.
Over at the Times, I list some of China’s more recent additions to Guinness World Records.
The Blang harvest the tea; the Dai press it. As the suspicious linguists among you might have already guessed, the Dai are basically Thai – all fiddly-roofed pagodas and bows with hands clasped together. The Dai are another of China’s ethnic minorities, and 33% of them are huddled in this single prefecture.
In the factory, the tea is shoved into sieve-bottomed buckets, shrunk on a steamer, shoved into muslin patties and then crushed into plate-sized discs under stone weights. The pressure is applied by standing on the mill-stone sized weight and doing a little jig on top of it.
The afternoon shoot sounds like a cake-walk, because we are literally across the road from our hotel, filming a tea ceremony in a tea shop. But it is open to the street, and we are passed constantly by mopeds, speeding taxis, and water-cannon trucks playing an endless rondo of It’s a Small World After All. The owner, who has volunteered her tea shop because she thinks it will make our life easier, is instead left aghast at the trillion filming issues that she never had to consider before a film crew descended. The tea shop is too cramped for good angles, it’s noisy and open to the street and passers-by. Fortunately, our camera will have something to look at, in the form of the owner’s daughter Yangxi, a perky Dai girl in a two-tone mini-dress.
Yangxi is an adept at the Chinese tea ceremony, which is to say, the same ritual not all that different from the one specified in Lu Yu’s original Tang-dynasty Classic of Tea. It is a faffy affair in the tea is washed, the bowls are heated, and a series of medieval implements ill-fitted for their purpose have to be held just-so or you will insult your guest’s mother and/or scald your hands.
It takes Yangxi about half an hour to put two and two together, and to realise that she is going to be on TELEVISION, in a programme slated to be broadcast in over thirty countries. Some interviewees react to this realisation with paralysing stage-fright, but she dives right in. She becomes increasingly animated and performative, to the extent that by the time it is my turn to attempt the tea ceremony, she is ready with a series of sarcastic comments, grimaces and howls of dissent, as I hold the cup wrong, point the jug spout at her, mis-use the tongs, and otherwise cock it up.
“YOU’RE STICKING YOUR SPOUT OUT AT ME AGAIN!” she wails, after I have put the jug in the wrong place for the nth time.
Finally, I have successfully done all the necessary twists and turns, and deposit a single thimble-full of Pu’er tea in front of her.
“Remember,” she cautions. “You must smell the tea, appreciate its aroma, and then gently sip, before sitting back and assessing its flavours.” She sniffs the cup, and then knocks it back.
In 1784, the British Prime Minister William Pitt cunningly destroyed the tea-smuggling industry by slashing import duties from 119% to 12.5%. This sent the revenues from the legal, taxable tea trade soaring, making fortunes for the East India Company. Even as the British fought home-grown crime, they committed it overseas, funding their tea-buying operations in China by dumping literally tons of opium on the Chinese market, creating a narcotics crisis and an entire criminal underclass.
This is the background to George Macartney’s ill-fated embassy of 1793, an attempt to get the Qianlong Emperor to accept diplomatic agreements and trade deals with the evil empire that was turning his southern Chinese subjects into junkies.
Author Eoin McDonnell is a former diplomat, now a secretary in Ireland’s foreign ministry, with a deep and vested interest the way that diplomacy gets done, as revealed in his new book, Kowtow: Georgian Britain, Imperial China and the Irishman who Introduced Them. His uniquely Irish perspective on Macartney’s mission foregrounds the imperialist attitudes of its leader. Much like Qianlong himself, Macartney was a member of an occupying regime, undoubtedly competent, but propelled to high office by nepotism and cronyism, relentlessly sure of his right to his own privileges. He arrived in China, utterly sure that he was doing the Qianlong Emperor a favour by showing up at all, determined to drill into the ignorant Chinese the advantages that awaited them if they started buying British woollens and, I don’t know, clocks.
Determined to deal directly with the Emperor, Macartney claimed that the gifts he was bringing were so intricate and delicate, so jaw-droppingly awesome, that he could not risk dragging them all the way across China from Guangzhou, the usual point of contact for foreigners. Instead, he insisted on arriving at Tianjin, the sea-port close to Beijing, all the better to deal directly with the Emperor himself.
Except the Emperor wasn’t there. While his technicians toiled to assemble their posh machineries in the Summer Palace near Beijing, Macartney and a small entourage journeyed north to the Emperor’s retreat in Rehe (modern Chengde). There, he planned to hand the Emperor a letter from King George III, which lied that he was the King’s cousin. Instead, he found himself facing an audience in which the Emperor assumed he was a faraway lesson, bringing tribute to the glorious Qianlong.
This is the nub of McDonnell’s story – the elaborate bickering over whether or not Macartney, a British nobleman, should prostrate himself on the floor in the ritual kowtow demanded of the Emperor’s subjects, a humiliation that Macartney himself regarded as distastefully evocative of Catholic ceremonial, and of suggesting that Britain was subservient to China. McDonnell examines the diplomatic and political implications, in unsurprisingly modern terms, regarding the extent to which foreign powers need to “kowtow” to China even today. He draws modern parallels all the way up to 2014, and the behind-the-scenes shouting matches over whether the Chinese Prime Minister was worthy of meeting the Queen, a diplomatic catfight that even extended to questions about whether his red carpet at Heathrow Airport was “long enough.” But these things are important to diplomats – elaborate rituals of glad-handing and small-talk continue to affect the way that trade deals get done and treaties get signed.
In the case of the Qianlong Emperor, his Manchu regime needed conspicuous displays of foreign fawning in order to impress upon his Chinese subjects that he deserved to stay in power. He had no interest in acknowledging George III as his equal, or in agreeing that China needed absolutely anything at all from a distant country that was so unsure of itself that its King even bigged himself up in the communiqué by also pretending to be the ruler of France. Qianlong, in fact, was fighting two wars in his own hinterland – the very tariff restrictions that Macartney was complaining about had themselves been partly levied in order to help bolster Qianlong’s borders against British machinations in Tibet.
The Macartney mission failed spectacularly in securing its aims with the Emperor, but managed to fail up on the way home. Having literally missed the boat home, Macartney was obliged to traverse China on its Grand Canal, and was permitted a front-seat view of Qing-dynasty China in all its glory. Qianlong helped a bit by ordering a series of fearsome military displays along the route, just in case the British wanted to try anything on. But Macartney’s diary of his China visit is most valuable today for the view it presents of an empire rotting from within, compared by Macartney himself to a man-o-war that has somehow stayed afloat through sheer luck, sure to sink in good time as soon as it gains a sub-standard captain.
Macartney saw his mission as Qing-era China’s last, best hope to avoid being carved up by foreign predators, a chance to ally itself with the biggest predator of all to hold the others at bay. He did not live to see his predictions play out in the Opium Wars, as the Qing state was ram-raided by a dozen European armies demanding that the Chinese play a political game of their own invention. McDonnell chooses to end on a moving, telling moment as British and French troops ransack the Emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860. Looters stumble into one of its many halls, to find it stacked like that warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark, rammed to the rafters with crates. The hall contained the supposedly world-beating gifts of the Macartney Embassy, boxed up and forgotten by a regime that saw such wonders on a daily basis, and had been singularly unimpressed.
“In an impressive series of developmental leaps, it was a mere 17 years from the first Chinese animated short, an advert for a typewriter company in 1922, to the feature-length Princess Iron Fan in 1939. Or at least so the writers claim – in fact, Princess Iron Fan was not released until 1941, and in counting to the start of production rather than completion, the authors appear to be disingenuously announcing a spurious victory in some sort of race against foreign competition – a contest that only exists in their minds.”
Over at All the Anime, I pick away at the many pointless boasts and brags that undermine an otherwise valuable history of Chinese animation. Does a publisher have a duty of care to improve their authors’ failings? Or should they let them hang themselves by their own petard, as a fairer indicator of their beliefs and positions?
I climb the steps through the rainforest to the ramshackle stone temple gate, dwarfed by the nearby banyan trees. Beyond, there is a new Buddhist pagoda, its upturned eaves sheathed in gold spires, its flanks decorated with murals depicting the Buddhist saints. I sit in the shadow of the gate, a mangy kitten poking around in the dirt beneath me, and turn to the camera.
“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I begin, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern border. I’ve come here to visit the Blang tribe, who–”
I stop. The kitten has stuck its head up my shirt, and is licking the sweat off my back.
“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I repeat, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern–”
I stop again. The kitten has clambered up my shoulders and onto my head.
You are leaving the house, but today you are on camera. Are you wearing the same clothes as yesterday, or their exact duplicates? Are your shoes tied in the same way? Is your hair the same? Do you have your passport for military spot-checks? Were your sunglasses on your head or in your pocket? Are your feet presentable, because you might have to unexpectedly be barefoot on camera? Was the mosquito repellent sticker visible on your shirt? What hand did you hold that packet of tea in yesterday? Have you been burned by the sun? Is there a kitten on your head?
“It might look like I am in Thailand,” I venture, “but I am actually still in China, close to the southern border. I’ve come here to visit the Blang tribe, who some say were the first to cultivate tea.”
I have finished the line after only three takes. The kitten pads along my thigh and mews up at me approvingly.
People keep inviting themselves along, and a refusal often offends. They don’t understand that any extra body on the production is another person who can trip over a chair in the middle of a take, whose mobile phone will go off when I am speaking, who will be taking the single free chair for the few seconds we can sit down on before being dragged off for another piece to camera.
If we are invited out to dinner after a twelve-hour shoot, sometimes it doesn’t constitute “relaxing”. Sometimes it means we can’t choose our food. It means folding our aching muscles onto tiny stools in some Thai restaurant, and being forced to try unknown dishes that might give us the squirts all night. It means that everybody has to spend another two hours speaking Mandarin, which only two of the crew have as a native language. Our would-be host still refers to me in the third person, along the lines of: “Can he use chopsticks?” It means we are not in staggering distance of our hotel. It means we owe someone a favour, which in China just accretes tasklets and obligations like limescale. So: no.
We are very far away from the cities of China. I ask my driver the name of the mountain on the other side of the valley, and he replies: “Myanmar.” The Blang tribe live out on the flanks of the mountain Badashan, supposedly the home of tea.
Yuyang, a Blang lady, leads me up into the hills. But we are not going to the neat rows of terraces of the tea plantation. Instead, we are clambering up to a tall stand of trees, said to be over a thousand years old. Little tea trees look like shrubs, each attached to a yellow square of insect-encrusted flypaper. But even these little bushes are over eighty years old, kept low by the constant bonsai of stripping off their youngest leaves. The trees are really trees, growing wild in the forest. I’m not actually afraid of climbing the tree to get to the young leaves at its top, but I do fret that my weight will permanently ruin what might actually be the first ever tea tree to be cultivated. So, I leave it to Yuyang to clamber up like a monkey.
The tea leaves are laid out to dry overnight, and then roasted in a large bowl-shaped depression cemented into the side of the house like a giant’s wok. A fire crackles underneath, as Yuyang’s brother Aizhang lifts and flings the tea leaves against the wok, wearing little string gloves. It is hot work and he seems oddly unused to it. After a few minutes, I realise that there is a tumble-drier-like device next to us which probably does all the roasting automatically when there is not a film crew in town.
After forty minutes of Two Men One Wok, the tea has nicely browned. This is called “killing the green,” since the tea leaves now look like tea leaves, and can be dried further and pressed into cakes for transportation. But that’s another story.
The sun is bright white overhead, and in the distance there are the red striated rocks of the Flaming Mountains, where the Monkey King once fought Princess Iron Fan, or as the Uyghurs tell it, where a hero once felled a dragon, causing its still-simmering body to break up into seven pieces.
Our van stops at the side of the road to look down a ravine at ancient Buddhist grottoes, cut into the rock. They were once by the bank of a river in a green valley, but are now marooned a hundred feet up, above a wadi that only has water in it maybe once a year. This isn’t part of our scheduled filming, but I do a piece to camera about the retreat of the waters from Xinjiang, and we get to give the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon a quick run along the valley to shoot it from the air. We only attract eight passers-by, which is a miracle in China.
We have come to Tuyuk village, a Muslim community out among the vineyards, where the locals dry grapes in the sun until they become raisins. There are five thousand people living here, spread out in single-storey huts across a swathe of land in the shadow of the Flaming Mountains.
Ismayil is an old man who makes merceles, a fermented grape juice that uses the wine production methods of Ancient Greece, but with no alcohol content. The Quran only forbids “intoxicants”, you see, whereas merceles is officially medicine. We have to shoot all the stages of its manufacture, from the grape picking, to the crushing, to the sieving, to the boiling and the adding of kebabs.
No, wait, what? Kebabs. The grape juice is boiled with hunks of meat, and then left to set for 40 days until it is drinkable. Then it apparently puts hairs on your chest. While I am trying to interview Ismayil about his herbal ingredients, a butcher is dragging a sheep behind me and slitting its throat, letting its blood drain into a hole in the ground. And while I am talking with him about the history of grapes, the same butcher is shoving a hollow tube up the dead sheep’s leg, and then inflating it like a lilo to push the skin away from the flesh. In fact, the whole day is taken with the slow dismemberment and cooking of a sheep, with some bits going onto kebab skewers, and the rest of them being boiled in a pot to make our lunch.
We sit gingerly on the divan and poke at the big hunks of meat. A neighbour (all Ismayil’s neighbours have come to gawp) hands me a cut-throat razor to saw flesh off the shank. It tastes remarkable – mutton this fresh turns out to taste the way lamb tastes for everybody else. I realise that Ismayil has had his flies undone all day, but that if I point this out, it will ruin the continuity. His granddaughter smiles at me experimentally, and two grandsons ask me if I am an American.
None of the interlopers speak particularly good Mandarin, which means we are all mercilessly taking the piss out of each other in our own little linguistic alleys. Viewers of the finished product should look out for the moment when Ismayil and I first greet each other, shot, for reasons not worth going into, late the day after I have already knocked back several bowls of his supposedly alcohol-free medicine. I come in through the carved wooden door in his courtyard, and he runs laughing to shake my hand. I greet him with an enthusiastic: “Ismayil! Big up your bad self!”
He replies with something unintelligible in Uyghur, which probably means: “Why didn’t you tell me my flies were undone, you arsehole?”
There is a knock at the door, and a very short woman in a green headscarf comes in.
“My legs are giving me jip,” she says, “and I heard there was a slaughter today. Can you do me a couple of pigeons.”
Oh yes, says Ismayil, and gets her to sit down and lift her skirt. Then he slits the throat of a spare pigeon and spatters her legs with blood, while the film crew look at their watches.
Right, says the director, if we can now get to the bit where we sieve the grape juice…?
There is another knock at the door.
“Hello,” says a man in a knock-off Armani T-shirt. “I heard there was a slaughter today, and I’ve got these pains in my legs. Can you spare me a pigeon or two?”
But of course, says Ismayil decapitating two more pigeons and spraying him with blood, before ripping out feathers and dropping them onto the result. His patient starts to look like a zombie version of Foghorn Leghorn, and we get back to the business at hand.
By the time I get to taste some merceles, I am ready for the worst, but it tastes like Ricola, and I am quite happy to drink it all day. You would never know that there was half a sheep and four dead pigeons in it.
I am informed this morning that National Geographic’s Route Awakening season five has received a Gold Remi award for History and Archaeology at Worldfest Houston. A wonderful acknowledgement for the crew that schlepped across China in two long road trips, from Luoyang to Nanjing and from Kunming to Nanchang, to document some of the most amazing new museums in China, showcasing the histories of the Dian Kingdom of Yunnan, the Shang dynasty in Anyang, Luoyang’s history as a Chinese capital, the lost state of Yelang, and the golden treasures of the Marquis of Haihun.
Season five was my third with the series, and gave me a real chance to put my experience to proper use, quizzing archaeologists on their latest finds, some of which are still in the process of being restored, delving into evidence in the Grand Scribe’s Records, and in one moving episode, returning with a retired historian to the place where, in his younger days, he had uncovered game-changing ancient graves.
Professor Liang Taihe was the happiest interviewee I can remember having, a tall, grey pensioner with nothing to lose, who spent his whole career arguing with his peers that archaeology shouldn’t be impenetrable to outsiders. In modern, Western terms, he was all about impact and outreach, so we were ideally suited for each other. The picture below shows me at my lowest and him at his most playful — after a dawn start and a three-hour drive to a fantastic new museum in Guiyang, there was still a day’s filming to do. At one point, I nodded off in the Yelang gallery, a floor crammed with the materials that Professor Liang had painstakingly assembled during his career. Unable to resist, he snapped a picture of me so Chinese academia could have a good laugh.
“We are afraid of the media,” he confessed over a boozy dinner. “They try to turn everything into an adventure story. They want everything to be solved in 22 minutes. They make us out to be breathless idiots, and then our colleagues laugh at us because we fell for it. So it’s lovely to meet a bunch of people like you, who really care about what we do, and want to tell people.”
We drove through karst hills rippling with the signs of abandoned farm terraces, and huge caves torn out of the bare rock. The flat ground was reserved for market gardens, and the road too narrow for two cars to pass each other. At one point, when market day caused a jam at a junction, Professor Liang bounded out of the car and began directing traffic.
He hadn’t been back for 18 years, and was shocked at the sight of new buildings, including a temple-like structure intended as the entrance to the Yelang Capital Experience, a theme park under construction. While our cameraman filmed B-roll in the market, and our fixer argued with a woman whose food stall had been accidentally ram-raided by the crew’s van, Professor Liang stood with me on a windswept heath and swore at the picturesque scene down below.
“Where the hell did that lake come from? This used to be the Kele river. On that hill, over there, I found a really big roof tile, which makes me think it came from a really big roof. I think that was where the Han people built their offices.”
We edged through a trash-strewn pathway next to a car repair works, to stand in a field scattered with dead plants.
“This was where I found it. That copper pot-head burial that was the earliest in the record. Some king or warrior or great shaman from Yelang. In that hill over there, we found more than a hundred graves, ten percent of them with pots on their heads. Weapons, malachite and agate beads, and bells.”
An old lady comes out of the house nearby and stares at him while he stares back. They charged across the field to each other and embraced, switching into Guizhou dialect, reminiscing about their lives a generation earlier, and asking about each other’s families. He told her about his daughter, also a historian, who works in the Forbidden City in Beijing. They embraced again, and hold the pose a little longer than expected. She went back into her house. And then she came out again to wave him off watching us until we turned a corner and were out of sight.
“Nothing has really changed,” he said to me back in the car. “Not really.”
“Chi has argued that discrimination and stigma are forms of societal self-harm, a position that gained substantial weight after a Taiwanese scandal in which donor organs from a dead man were transplanted into five Taiwanese recipients, along with the AIDS virus, because the donor’s family had been unaware of his condition or its implications.”
The last thing I want to discuss at 9am is whether I want whipped cream on top of my coffee, particularly in Mandarin. Why can’t I ask for a coffee and get one, and not have to say grande instead of medium? The arseholes who invented the illusion of choice at coffee shops clearly never stopped to consider the miseries of ordering such minutiae in Chinese, where foreign concepts are assembled from a jumble of syllables that sound almost equivalent to Chinese ears, all of which have their own discrete meaning. Even asking for a Caramel Latte involves saying that you desire Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa. And a Mocha is a Magic Card. I feel like I am inside some Situationist art installation, asking a woman in an apron to bring me a Shining Fish Wiggle Rainbow, and doing so with a straight face.
“What size do you want?” asks Betty.
“I just told you,” I say, “dabei”. Which means Big Cup.
“Does that mean the biggest cup?” she asks, which is tebie dabei (or Special Big Cup) in Chinese, “Or does that mean the medium cup?” which is called ‘Big Cup’ in Chinese, as I just told you. And her.
“Grande,” I sigh. “You call it dabei. It says dabei here on the sign. I am reading out your own labels.”
“Ah,” she says. “Gu Lan De,” making up an entirely new concept in Chinese to describe the thing that is already described as Big Cup, but now is apparently also to be referred to as an Old Blue Independent.
“All right, then,” I say. “An Old Blue Independent Cooked Sugar Seize Iron Add Africa,” using the correct terminology, which is only correct at this moment, in this conversation, between me and Betty. If I use the same jumble of ideas with anyone else, they will blink at me blankly and wonder if I am mad.
“Would you like a muffin?” she adds, innocently. Which, if you ever need it in Mandarin, is Ma Fen, which means Carnelian Finn. But if you say it with the wrong tones, it means a Pointless Faff.
Over at the recommendations site Shepherd, I provide a list of my top-five books on Chinese food — or at least, my top five books today, including the peerless Fuchsia Dunlop, the educational Hsiang Ju Lin, and the America-focussed Liu Haiming. It was particularly hard picking just one book from the American ones, and just one novel, but I did my best to be objective.