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).

Great Bu’s Up

Our hotel in Huaibei is a carnival of lies. The crew veritably fought each other to get into the elevator for breakfast, eagerly awaiting the bagels, coffee and toast promised in the lobby posters. They arrived to find nothing but the usual dumplings, stodgy bread sticks and warm orange juice.

Huaibei is famous for one thing, and that is Kouzijiu, a popular form of alcoholic spirit. The process for making it is not dissimilar to the process for making soy sauce. Men with shovels mix a mushroom yeast into piles of sorghum grains, before leaving them to set for two months. Then, they are steamed in a giant vat, and the water that condenses at the other end is not water at all, but 60% alcohol.

Usually, the grains and yeast are spread and mixed by a machine on rails, but the shovels are out because a widget has broken on it. The shovellers walk back and forth over the warm grains, treading them into the floor with impunity. The air is rich with an earthy tang, like a sugar-coated fart.

A man called Bu brings a tray of fresh baijiu straight from the condenser, but he is obliged to wait for a whole hour while we faff with our shots. There needs to be one of me walking in, me describing the fermentation process, and me explaining that although it is only drunk in China, baijiu is still the world’s biggest selling spirit category, with annual turnover in excess of $23 billion.

Eventually, after Bu has been lurking for an hour in the shadows, the director decrees that we are done with documenting the making, and now we must move on to the sampling.

“Great,” she says at last. “Bu’s up.”

Mr Bu is to proffer a tray of the little thimble-glasses of baijiu, and I am to take one, and explain to camera how the Chinese show sincerity by draining their glass. Then I am to drain another one to show I am really sincere… then another.

I am, consequently, somewhat the worse for wear when I the local propaganda office insists on taking us for dinner. Three of their minions have been kicking their heels for an hour in the lobby, while our fixer shows them everything she can think of on her laptop. I am getting flashbacks to Bossy Lady in Yunnan, who was simply incapable of understanding that the last thing anybody wants to do after a 12-hour working day is sit across from her all evening chewing inedible local delicacies. Mr Fan from the propaganda office, however, is very keen to display the charms of Anhui, and drags us to a restaurant VIP room big enough for all nine of the crew, him, and the usual Chinese bunch of interlopers – a handful of people who may or may not also be propaganda office employees, but who sit at the table staring at their phones all evening.

Mr Fan opens up the first of many bottles of Kouzijiu, each one in a green ceramic bottle shaped vaguely like a fish, and decorated with a pattern of millet seeds. Everybody has a little thimble-glass by their plate, along with a small glass jug for booze. The toasting starts.

I am used to all this, so I know what to do. I know that I must drain my glass to show sincerity. I know that I must hold my glass slightly below my toaster’s, in order to show humility. I am not aware, until tonight, that when the Chinese go for a full-on blowout, they stop bothering with the thimble-glasses and start draining the jugs. Before long, they are all red-faced and giggly, trilling the joys of booze, and debating which country drank the most.

“We had a bunch of people a few years ago from Finland,” says a lady who is wearing a red leather jacket like a refugee from a 1980s Michael Jackson video. “They drank an awful lot.” Her name, it turns out, is Xi Feng, literally Western Phoenix – what are the odds that a woman from Anhui’s primary distillery town would be named after the competition in Shaanxi? It’s like meeting a man whose name is Jack Daniels.

Finally we are permitted to go back to our hotel, where we must pack for tomorrow’s journey to Shanghai – another ten hours on the road.

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).

None Shall Sleep

One of Master Wei‘s children has gone into business with one of the nephews, thereby proving that although they look normal, they are just as much mentalists as Master Wei. They have set up a bespoke restaurant that only serves products that have been made with tea. The clientele is somewhat exclusive, restricted to coach parties of tea nutters doing the Tea Tour, as well as visiting Party bigwigs and foreign film crews.

Chef Chen, the cousin, has drawn elaborate displays on each plate, picking out the National Geographic logo in custard, and drawing a map of the Silk Road in chocolate sauce. He shows me around his brushed-steel kitchen, and fires up the volcano stove, so named because it whooshes into life like a lost jet engine, and heats up his wok in half a minute .

Chef Chen is decked out in all his funny-hat finery, and a chef’s hat is found for me as well so that I can look ridiculous next to him. He treats me to a selection of amuses-bouche, many of which have the slightly desperate taint of a man trying to find an excuse to put tea in things. There are deep-fried tea leaves in batter; goose feet braised in tea, lamb soup with a tincture of tea… you get the idea. I am forced to down far too many spoonfuls of his deep-fried bee larvae with crisped tea leaves for my liking, and there is no beer. Only… tea.

What first appears to be some sort of candy for dessert turns out to be balls of deep-fried salad cream, lightly dusted with… tea.

“You place them here on this map I have done in chocolate that shows the Silk Road,” he says. “There’s Quanzhou, where we are now, and Hong Kong, and Indonesia, Thailand… where are you from?”

“England,” I say. “So on this scale, that should be somewhere over there behind the fridge.”

For a lot of the time, I am mercifully excused from the kitchen while the crew film B-roll of Chef Chen at work concocting his masterpieces from ingredients that might as well have been randomly selected with a dartboard. This leaves me downstairs in the plush foyer, decorated with golden statues of elements of the tea-making process, and photographs of Master Wei shaking hands with a bunch of Chinese people I don’t recognise. There are also displays of the various Iron Guanyin teas that can be bought from the Wei family collective, including the infamous £36,000/kilo “Wei 18,” the most expensive tea in the world.

This leaves me for an hour in the company of the Wei son and his cronies, who while away the evening sipping little cups of… wait for it… tea, made by a prim young lady in business attire. My experiences in Yunnan have taught me the basics of the Chinese tea ceremony, and so I watch as she goes through the motions of cleaning, refreshing, boiling, washing… all seemingly quite common sense to me now, although they seemed impossibly intricate only a month ago. The men witter about nothing, while their serving girl remains impassive and silent. The time passes pleasantly enough, until midnight, when we are then informed that Chef Chen has now finished the food preparation for the documentary, but that now he expects us to eat it.

A tense and malevolently quiet banquet then ensues as we all try to force down as many bee larvae and deep-fried salad cream puffs as we can, before we are finally permitted to leave.

It is half past midnight, but that is of little help to us, since we have been consuming TEA all evening. I don’t get to sleep until 4am.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E01 (2016).

Location FAQs

Why are they all tired?

They woke up before dawn and drove for three hours to be here in time for the start of your business hours. Since then, they have been standing all day.

Why are they standing still?

Because footsteps or the rustling of clothes may interfere with the sound and ruin the take. Movement behind the camera may distract the talent and ruin the take. Moving shadows unrelated to onscreen action may interfere with the shot and ruin the take.

Why are they clearing away the gawpers?

Because every extra body near the shoot is an extra chance of a shuffle, or a belch, or a sneeze, or a cough, or a ringtone. See above.

Why won’t the grips let me help them?

They’ve got a job to do, and it’s a matter of pride. And if you drop a £3,000 lens, you’re paying for it.

What are they waiting for?

They are not waiting. The boom mike is recording ambient sound or “room tone” just in case they need to drop it in under a voice-over later.

Why is the clapperboard upside-down?

Right way up for the start of a shot; Upside-down for the end of a shot. All so that the editor can spool through on fast-forward looking for the next take.

Why won’t they try our exciting local delicacies?

Because if someone has the squirts tomorrow it will cost thousands in lost time.

Can he use chopsticks?

He has three degrees and published an acclaimed translation of The Art of War. He has been using chopsticks since before you were born.

Why is the talent nodding at nothing?

The A-camera was on the interviewee for the first take, while the B-camera was focussing on anything she pointed at. For cutaways of the interviewer listening, they need to go back and film a second time, of him doing “noddies.”

Is he wearing the same clothes every day?

He has five duplicate sets of clothes, so that the continuity matches from day to day.

Why is the director annoyed with me…?

Are you wearing jangly keys? Is your phone off? Did you just try to sneak a photo of the shot, and forget that your phone makes a clicking noise? Are you just… there?

The Not-So-Great Wall

The Gansu end of the Great Wall is nothing like the posh Ming-era wall near Beijing. This is the Han-era wall, made of rammed earth, two thousand years old, and barely three metres high. It takes us the rest of the day to get there, and we lose our minibus to a broken gear-box on the way, forcing us to cram into the loaner Buick and the chase car just to get there before sunset. This is, I think, the fourth or fifth time that I have been at the Great Wall, although this version might be easily mistaken for a pile of mud.

I have to deliver a complex piece to camera which may form the opening speech of the series, and will certainly have to do for the opening of the trailer to be shown at the publicity event in October. I have to walk between a road and a railway, revealing that the Great Wall sits between them, and explain that the Great Wall here is “on the other side of China”, a gritty and real place, a thousand miles away from the tourist brochures. And then, I have to explain that I am a historian whose experience of China is really only from books, and that I am being forced to get my hands dirty finding about all these Chinese icons, and their place in a global trade network, past, present and future.

I have to do this in a single take, keeping my face to camera while my body is walking away from it, while the light is changing, while trains are zooming past on one side, and while trucks are zooming past on the other, while families of yokels keep stopping at the roadside and wandering over to see what is happening, and while a swarm of sandflies attack the crew, forcing me to deliver my lines while trying not to be distracted by the sight of nine people gesticulating wildly as they fight off a bunch of insects.

The Buick drivers take pictures with their cellphones, and I see a look in their eyes which is becoming increasingly familiar. They have spent all day watching the gangly fat foreigner, and wondering what the hell it is that he gets paid for. And then they have seen me deliver six passes at a 45-second monologue, while walking backwards beside the Great Wall, through broken glass and sandflies and passing dickheads.

The sun sets, we lose the light, and we have to pack up. The director has maybe three clean takes to work with, as well as several broken ones that might be stitched together in post. Considering the pressure (train, train, truck, truck, yokel, flies, light change, train, truck, GO!), I am pleased that we managed anything at all.

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

The Linden Centre

Xizhou, where we have been living in splendour and opulence for the last three days, was once a trading town on the Tea Horse Route. In 1941, it was the site of a forward radio station for the Flying Tigers and the transport aircraft bringing supplies over The Hump from Burma. Which explains an awful lot about the attitude of the Bai people here. When they ask me if I am an American, it is not out of ignorance but out of admiration, even now, for the pilots and soldiers who were stationed here to fight the Japanese.

What shock and awe there must have been, when one of these little valleys, glowing quietly in the afternoon sun, a pagoda on the hills, farmers in the fields, the clanging of cowbells and the calls of the birds, suddenly had its tranquillity shattered by the roar of shark-toothed American planes, screaming out of the sky in pursuit of Japanese fighters.

The breakfast room at our hotel is festooned with Flying Tigers memorabilia, wartime maps of China, the sunburst symbol of the Republican Chinese, pictures of Clare Chennault and his flyers, adverts for the (terrible) John Wayne film, and wartime bonds posters, exhorting “CHINA, THE FIRST TO FIGHT!” and “HELP HIM SAVE CHINA.” I try to explain the story to the crew, but I get quite tearful whenever I have to talk about it.

Our hotel is owned by Brian Linden, an American of Swedish extraction, who came to Xizhou eight years ago and has been fighting to persuade the Chinese to value their heritage instead of bulldozing it. He’s responsible for several sites in Xizhou, and appears to have been quite influential in the preservation of the surrounding area, which is clean but quaint and authentic, riddled with little shops and tea houses. He is in the process of restoring the radio station, too, which he intends to turn into another Flying Tigers museum, complete with a Boeing flight simulator that will allow visitors to relive the terror of navigating across the Himalayas.

Brian first came to China on a scholarship to study Mandarin. He met his future wife at Nanjing University, and was soon talent-spotted to play the lead in the Chinese movie He Came From Across The Ocean (1984), a dismal weepie about an American student who comes to China to study, but contracts fatal Encephalitis B. He spends much of the latter part of the film moping about the fact that his looming demise does not permit him to help China more. Brian reveals that there was no actual script, and since he was going to be dubbed anyway, he was told to simply talk nonsense for minutes at a time, while the crew made sad faces or happy faces behind him as a rough guide to his motivation.

“At first,” he says, “I tried to say what was going on in the scene, but then my shots stretched to five minutes, to seven minutes, so I just started repeating song lyrics. In the movie, my character is saying: ‘I am here to help the Chinese’, but if you can lip-read, I’m actually saying: ‘On a dark desert highway / cool wind in my hair….”

Brian is my easiest interview yet, since it is the first I have been allowed to conduct in my native language. We have lots to talk about. We are both the sons of antique dealers (he still has a shop selling Chinese antiquities somewhere in the mid-West), and since he was also once a cameraman, he takes an enthusiastic interest in the equipment we are using. He has never seen LED lighting before, and is amazed by the power and adjustability.

He is also something of a hippy turned businessman, and I have to steer him away from pat responses about how nice the Chinese government is, and rehearsed speeches about passion and travel. But we are soon commiserating with each other about the frustrations of having to obey Chinese laws when the Chinese can’t be bothered themselves.

“My fire prevention codes in this building cost me $120,000 for all the gear and alarms,” he sighs. “The guy next door has an illegal hotel, and all he needs is a bucket of water.”

He is also determined to encourage among his visitors the concept of heritage (an historical appreciation) as opposed to their fractured sense of tradition (which should mean a sense of how things are done, but tends with the Chinese to mean a sense of how things are done last week).

He explains that he faces constant frustration with the “hotelisation” of Chinese tourism, which values nothing but selfie sticks and gimmickry. His hotel provides a traditional experience, but the Chinese guests complain that they don’t have TVs in their rooms.

“They build a hotel somewhere with a 60-inch TV in every room, and then some guy builds one next to you with 65-inch TVs, so the Chinese want to stay there because it is ‘better’. Why are you people watching TV, you’re in Yunnan!?” he wails. “They go on vacation and you ask them what they did, and all they tell you is how great it was that their bathroom had a television in it.”

I think the director is becoming slightly exasperated that I am just having a conversation with Brian rather than pursuing a particular National Geographic agenda. But I get him back on to track by asking him about the merchants who built the house we are staying in.

“They didn’t just build things for their families,” he says. “They contributed to the local community. They built libraries, they built schools. They had a sense of obligation to their neighbours, and you don’t see that any more. Now they just take their money and run away to America. I am trying to show them, they can spend it here. They can live here. They can love it, here. I don’t want to see Mediterranean houses and California-imitation houses by the side of the lake. I want to see houses like this.”

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

Sariras in the Mist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Build Your Own Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomb Raiders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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