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).

Roof Licking

It’s Saturday, so we must be in Weihai, a city I have hoped to visit for 20 years. It was formerly Weihaiwei – The Guard Against the Majestic Sea, site of an ancient fort that warned against Japanese pirates, and a redoubt for the Qing dynasty navy. It was where Admiral Ding Ruchang stood up to the Japanese invaders even though he knew he stood no chance, and went to his death by imperial command, proclaiming to his sailors: “Fight on, though your swords be broken.” Later on, it became a forgotten backwater of the British Navy, the summer anchorage for their Asian fleet, mourned by its magistrate, Reginald Johnston, former tutor of the Last Emperor, as the “Cinderella of the Empire.”

But I’m not seeing any of that, because we are out on a spit of land dotted with wind turbines, looking at seaweed. The village here is full of little thatched cottages, their roofs made of dried sea grass. Mr Wang the brown-skinned village elder hugs me like an old friend, and shows me the piles that look suspiciously like hay, but actually comprise marine produce.

“We used to just grab it from the beach,” he says, “but there isn’t any left anymore, so we have to buy it from people who demolish old cottages. I honestly don’t know how we are going to repair our roofs when we run out of recycled stuff.”

He is desperately proud of his thatching, proclaiming that it is warm in winter and cool in summer, wonderfully waterproof and even fireproof. When I tell him that can’t possibly be true, he pulls out his lighter and sets fire to a few strands, which resolutely refuse to burn.

Frances is supposed to be interpreting for the other Jonathan (the director), but has trouble following Mr Wang’s Rongcheng accent, a form of Chinese with harder tones and simplified vowels, suitable for shouting from ship to ship. Oddly, it doesn’t trouble me at all, and makes no more or less sense than any other Chinese, and it has echoes of the classical forms and southern dialects. He doesn’t say jia for house, he says gya. He says gyu instead of jiu for old. Instead of Nihao for hello, he says Niho. I don’t regard any of these shifts as particularly earth-shattering, but for Frances, who is from Taiwan, he might as well be speaking Martian.

I explain that I often can only pick out a couple of words from a fast Chinese sentence and have to fill in the blanks on the fly, so it really makes little difference to me what someone’s accent is.

“That’s kind of how I listen to you and Jonathan talk.” she admits. “All these British terms are very hard. I keep having to wonder, what is a bollocks? What makes someone a muppet? And is it good if they are having a larf?”

I am going to have to climb a rickety ladder onto a rooftop in order to do something practical. Wang, who is in his seventies, refuses to come up, but is filmed standing at ground level snickering at my incompetence. Jonathan’s colleague, Yu the Chinese director is deeply fretful that making me climb onto the roof of a cottage is beyond the call of duty, but I explain that it is precisely the duty that I have, and eagerly climb up the roof to perch on the apex with a deeply sun-tanned old man in a baseball cap with a super-extended brim to hold off the hot sun.

“Who the hell are you?” he asks, and Frances shouts up that I am a foreigner come to learn about his culture. Thatching a Chinese roof with seaweed turns out to be rather easy, as you simply stretch it out into parallel lines and then jam it into the roof with your body weight – a resource I have in abundance. We laugh on the roof together as the drone circles us, and I ask him if he even stops to admire the view – the long lines of wind turbines, and the sea that reaches all the way to Korea. Oh yes, he says, although I can’t stop for a fag up here. Don’t listen to Wang. This stuff isn’t as fireproof as he thinks.

The Chinese director acts like I have been juggling chainsaws for the good of the production, but in truth I have been in far less danger on the rooftop than the crew, who are hanging by their fingertips – the A and B cameramen are only prevented from tumbling off by their assistants holding their belts, and Boomer the Boom Mike is perched on a ledge like a monkey.

“Here, try some of this,” says the unnamed roofer, passing around some strands of the sea grass. “Seriously, just lick it.”

Me and the B Cameraman gingerly tongue the hundred-year-old seaweed, requisitioned from a demolished cottage somewhere else in the bay.

“See. It’s still salty. After a century!” he proclaims.

Lunch is an open-air seafood banquet with Mr Shouty, a man whose entire life has been spent yelling up at the topmast on fishing boats, and who seems to have no volume control. But he is beaming when his wife and daughter put the food on the table and I proclaim it in all truth to be the best sea food I have had in my life. There are whole crabs, clams and oysters, freshly gathered that morning, and fish caught with a line. Speaking as someone who often cannot tackle seafood without retching, it is a revelation, even better than the food I had in Hainan. The crew have helped me by loading me up with baijiu beforehand, on the assumption that if there is anything dodgy about the seafood, the alcohol will kill it. We sneak some more firewater into our glasses whenever the crew change their batteries, and Ruby the Interpreter looks on longingly – she is obsessed with clams and mussels, and if left unsupervised, can often found behind an entire midden of empty shells.

We end the day on a nearby beach, where I deliver a speech about what Shandong must have meant to the people of Confucius’s day. Chinese civilisation was centred on the Yellow River valley, which must have made the coastline seem like a magical place, the end of the world, where there was nothing to see towards the east but ocean. It was on a beach like this, I suggest, that the First Emperor met the Daoist priest who suggested to him that if he had conquered the world of the living, the new frontier was surely to conquer death itself, an experiment that he could invest in by sending a fleet of ships into the rising sun, in search of the isles of the immortals.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events appeared in Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018).

It is known…

Where the mountains meet the sea, there is a valley that leads down to the rocky beach. A giant bronze statue of Laozi, author of the Dao De Jing, stands overlooking the coast, his left hand pointed up to heaven, his right hand towards the earth.

“What’s that about?” I ask the Abbot, who looks a bit like David Duchovny with a wispy beard.

“The left hand is upwards, because it is yang. The right hand is downwards because it is yin. Yang Heaven and Yin Earth, and what is between them? You are,” he says.

He is clad in sky-blue robes that have not changed a whole lot in the last two thousand years, when the first Daoists reached this high point on the coast and decided to site their temple here. His hair is tied in a topknot that pokes through the top of his hat. And we are sitting cross-legged on a rock that juts out above the forest and the crashing sea, where he is supposed to be showing me how to meditate.

“Empty your mind,” he says, “and concentrate on the sounds of the natural world around you.”

The sounds of the natural world currently include a crew of two dozen people: the clapper loader, the director, the assistant director, the A cameraman, the B cameraman, their various grips, the battery guy, the sound guy with his little hostess trolley full of gubbins and wires, with two giant aerials like shark’s fins, Mitch the producer, who is trying to describe the plot of a film called G.I. Executioner, in which a topless girl falls into a fishnet in the middle of a gunfight, Frances the fixer showing pictures of her cat to some random passer-by, and several runners telling everyone to keep quiet. Meanwhile, there is the chainsaw buzz of the drone as it hovers around us like an angry dragonfly.

“Hurry up!” shouts one of the tour guides. “The tourists will turn up soon, and then it will get noisy.”

With a messy clatter, the drone crashes into a tree and stays there. With weary sighs, two members of the Drone Team begin the long walk down to the car park to get their ropes and ladders.

I am getting a sixth sense about interviewees. These days, I can tell usually at first glance whether someone is going to be like getting blood out of a stone, or a fun and easy conversationalist. Abbot Huo is mercifully one of the latter, ready to answer any question with a well-argued speech. He tells me about the origins of Daoism, the practices of their rituals, and his own version of the famous meeting between Confucius and Laozi. Or as it turns out, not so famous.

“Confucius was a pupil of Laozi. It is known,” says one assistant like some ill-informed Dothraki.

“They met once, apocryphally,” I say, and she sulks for the rest of the day. There are some mumblings that she has “read some books”, but they plainly aren’t the actual books that I am passing around in the bus on my Kindle – The Book of History and the Zhuangzi, which are the places where the story of Confucius’s meeting with Laozi is actually told. That’s because this is my job. That’s why I have marked those passages, because National Geographic require two printed sources, not something someone overheard at a party once.

In the grounds of the temple, there is a statue of Confucius meeting Laozi, with an inscription next to it telling the story.

“This is from the Analects,” says a camera assistant, trying to help.

“It’s from The Book of History,” I tell her, pointing at the words Book of History on the inscription. I do this for a living and have no time for the Twitter version. It is my job to show up at dawn for the reconnaissance mission, see what there is to talk about, and then to wait, sometimes for hours with nothing to do, until the moment when I am obliged to leap into action and deliver a 20-second speech with no mistakes, about an obscure matter of classical Chinese philosophy. Everybody has a difficult job to do, but this is mine.

The Abbot walks with me through a grove of camellia trees, discussing his childhood love of the Chinese opera The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, and the opposition of his parents towards his chosen, celibate profession. All of a sudden, I realise that this origin-story could have been told at any point in the last three hundred years.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“A Daoist never tells,” he replies.

How I wish all interviewees were like him, ready with a quotable, editable answer, keen to explain things, experienced enough to know that having to repeat an action thirty times is not unknown in the television world. Although I am resisting orders as much as possible, and conducting interviews in Chinese, the director is demanding that I ask the main questions in English, which the Abbot does not speak. The Abbot suggests that we prime him with a list of subjects, and that I ask the next one along in English after he unobtrusively flips his right sleeve during an answer. It means we get through the whole interview in a single long take, and I can ask him anything I want with the audio recording as we walk through on second and third pick-ups for different lenses.

He shows me how to hold my hands in the Daoist symbol of respect – an immortal gang sign I find myself flashing at nuns and monks for the rest of the day. He explains that the chanting from the earlier ceremony was the three names of the Daoist Emperor-Officials: The One Who Confers Blessings, The One who Absolves Sins, and The One Who Eliminates Misfortunes. He shows me the acupressure points on my legs to relieve the pain of sitting cross-legged on a rock for half an hour, and he gives his own version of the story of Confucius’s fabled meeting with Laozi.

I do my version at the statue, leaping between the two philosophers’ statues like a sarcastic umpire, relating the story as it is set down in the Zhuangzi – the longest variant, while a series of gawping Chinese tourists shuffle pass and pretend to know what the inscription says.

“It’s from the Analects,” says one, wrongly.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events appeared in Shandong: Land of Confucius (2018).

Married by Mistake

Congjiang was our former base when we were filming with the Kam at the beginning of this season, but as I have noted before, the Kam pushed another tribe, the Miao even further into the hills. Sure enough, in the highlands outside the Kam centre of Congjiang, there is a cluster of Miao villages.

These particular Miao pride themselves on their unique garb. They wear black clothes that are treated with egg-white to make them shiny, and everybody else in the world has been too polite to point out that this makes them all look like they are walking around wearing suits made out of bin bags. The men have ribbons hanging from the back of their belts that are called heartsick tokens. They look like brightly-coloured friendship bracelets, and each represents the possibly-unrequited attention of a lady. They are also the only ethnic minority whose national dress includes a flintlock musket, which all the men sport and let off at inopportune moments.

A Miao man, at least among these Biasha Miao, can be identified by his topknot, which represents the trees of his ancestor, and the fact that the rest of his head is entirely shaved. The Biasha Miao pride themselves on having nothing to do with the Chinese. They rarely venture out of their village, make their own clothes and their own entertainment, and are entirely self-sufficient in the food they grow on their mountain slopes.

Well, that’s the story. I spy legions of Biasha Miao girls sneaking away from their corn-shucking and pig-feeding to buy iced tea at the local café; everybody is tooling around on motorcycles, and the main activity of much of the village appears to be turning up thrice-daily to the village square to perform a bunch of dances for tourists. Visitors have to pay at the gate to get into the village, so one presumes that the entire town has made a tourist selling point of its claim not to have any tourist selling points.

Our press liaison is a perky girl who tries to feed me grasshoppers at lunchtime, and introduces me to the breezily minty local laowa tea, which in the assistant producer’s assessment tastes like Deep Heat, and in the director’s, like Listerine. I love it, but there is none for sale in the shops. They make it themselves from leaves they find on the mountainside.

Having recently been among Miao who take things a lot more seriously, the crew are entirely unmoved by a marching column of Biasha Miao girls pretending to blow into mantong bass instruments. We can see from the front seats that the mantongs don’t even have holes to blow in. Regardless, we dutifully film a hoppy-steppy dance with a bit of whirling, and witness the shaving of one of the men’s heads – from the looks of them, they take turns with each performance, which means that everybody gets a haircut about once every four or five days.

The MC then announces that they will demonstrate the marriage customs of the Miao by picking a member of the audience to marry a local girl, a tiny little thing with big silver earrings, wearing what appears to be a tablecloth.

The Miao bride inevitably scurries straight over to me, and I am dragged out amid the cat-calls of the crowd. I am then made to participate in a Miao wedding ceremony, which involves putting on a silly hat, holding a flintlock rifle, and then holding hands with my nameless new bride while we exchange three ceremonial cups of booze. We then each eat a handful of glutinous rice, and apparently we are married. We then wander around the crowd selling glutinous rice from a basket.

I try to keep a straight face on camera, which is difficult because the director is wetting herself laughing in the shadows, particularly when the announcer reveals that any new Miao groom is obliged to spend three years in the village before he is truly accepted. I’m already booked to spend three years with a Mongol witch. This is supposedly some sort of great cultural decision by the Miao, but it sounds like a good excuse for doing a runner, as indeed I plan to do. The new Mrs Clements doesn’t seem too bothered by it, as she will be marrying somebody else at the 3pm show. She didn’t even say goodbye.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E06 (2018).

The Wastes of Yin

Out today to the Wastes of Yin, where can be found the ruins of the Shang dynasty, now contained within the Yinxu Museum Complex that includes a replica of the two-storey Shang palace, the grave of Lady Fuhao, and red gates painted with the ancient hieroglyphs that can be found on the oracle bones.

I am climbing down a stepladder into a pit containing six chariots, each accompanied by the bones of the horses and a human sacrificial victim. The chariots themselves are mere ghosts, the wood long since having rotted away, carved out of the mud by archaeologists shaving away the light-coloured mud from the darker mud that once was wood, in order to create the shapes of where they once were. The chariots were buried three thousand years ago, so there is not a whole lot left of them.

Wu Hsiaoyun wrote her D.Phil at Oxford about the history of chariots, and it’s fair to say that she is the leading world authority on the subject, and I am only in the room to make this a conversation rather than a lecture.

It is a long and tiring day, repeatedly walking around the chariot enclosure, discussing the wheels, the spokes, the cockpits, the horses (which are really Mongolian ponies), the disposition of the sacrificial victims, and the likely changes in chariot appearances between the late Shang and the Eastern Zhou, a period spanning five hundred years. We have to do it in a wide shot, in a close-up, in a two-shot, in a medium shot, from above, and then with the jib – a long counter-weighted crane that can sweep in above the exhibits. Then we have to do it all again with the Osmo, a little camera on the end of a prehensile, bouncy arm to create a sort of mini-Steadicam. Then the director has to do pick-ups of us pointing at the chariot, the horses… etc. By the end, we are talking about anything except chariots, and I am pretending to be buying a sporty model to impress girls, while Hsiaoyun is pretending to be a car dealer flogging me the latest BMW with human sacrifice. At this point, the audio doesn’t matter as we are only acting with our fingers.

We finish up by walking past the ceremonial gate, which is decorated with a snake-like image that is the jade dragon ring of Lady Fuhao, the leader of king Wuding’s armies.

Late in the day, I hear squeals of delight from over by the calligraphy kiosk, and see Hsiaoyun talking to a little old lady with a horsey accent. She is Dame Jessica Rawson, professor at Oxford and Hsiaoyun’s former doctoral supervisor, in town entirely coincidentally to talk about bronzeware.

“She was very tough,” says Hsiaoyun. “Sometimes she would draw a line through an entire page and write RUBBISH in big capital letters.” But as a result, Hsiaoyun’s PhD thesis (which I had devoured the night before in preparation) is beautifully readable and cogent.

“She was my favourite pupil,” says Jessica. “Because she did bronzes, like me. Well, good luck with your… television programme.” She says it like she has just discovered we are anime fans or something.

Maybe the concept of “impact” hasn’t yet filtered up to Oxford, an institution which doesn’t seem to see the value of its staff getting their faces and the university’s name on television in front of the general public. It’s not like Oxford ever has trouble getting people to apply for it, whereas hungrier, more media-minded universities are ready to endow Chairs of Public Engagement. Some organisations recognise that even though there is no academic value in press stories and talking-head appearances, they do still function as part of a university’s marketing. Chinese scholars, on the other hand, usually seem more worried about the opposite effect, and that one misstep or fudge on camera will be preserved for all time and lead to public ridicule by one’s peers. Repeatedly in my Chinese travels, one of the fundamental parts of my job has been to put a jumpy academic at ease by making it clear that I am not some blank-eyed sock-puppet, but a colleague who understands what they are saying.

The director wants pre-credit soundbites from us – a single sentence that can be used to rev up the audience’s excitement at the top of the programme. Hsiaoyun’s version takes multiple attempts, and comes barnacled with qualifications, inferences, and caveats, because as someone who is in academia for a living, rather than a tourist like me, she cannot allow herself to be misquoted or misunderstood, because it will return to bite her. Some of these chariots might be quite old and quite early and they had some possibly interesting uses in a five-hundred period, between the late Shang and the eastern Zhou, and… she sounds like a reluctant salesgirl trying to interest me in a cellphone package that I don’t need.

My turn: “The arrival of the chariot in China is a revolutionary technology. Like the invention of the aeroplane in the twentieth century, it opened up an entire new arena in combat.”

You are quite good at this, says Hsiaoyun. Well, I point out, I am more aware that what television people are looking for is often not information, but permission, to tell the story that they are going to tell anyway.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Chinese Chariot Revealed (2017).

Never Mind the Boloks

Back out to the park in ten degrees below, to film the shamanic procession and dancing from yesterday. Yes, we already filmed it, but today we have to do it again for the benefit of the drone to get some picturesque aerial photography. That isn’t as easy as it sounds, because the drone batteries go flat within ten minutes of hitting the cold air, and it often takes ten minutes to calibrate them, because his phone is the interface with the controller for the flying camera, and it refuses to operate unless it is cuddled and cosseted within a pile of camping heater-packs.

Our drone pilot must also operate the phone using its touch-screen, which means he can’t wear gloves in the freezing temperature, and can’t actually feel where his finger ends and where the screen begins. The shamans are also complaining, because they never realised that they would be standing around in the snow.

“We don’t do this in winter,” says one tubby lady, whose name is Yufang. “And some of us are in our sixties. And what’s with all this ‘OKAY’ business? That director woman is always shouting ‘OKAY’ all the time. She says it when it’s time to start, she says it when it’s time to finish.” Her fellow shamans all titter and giggle, and start chanting “OKAY” while banging their drums and shaking their hips to ring the bells on the end of the long ribbons.

A man walking his dog stares at me like I am somehow responsible for the dancing wizards in gold crowns and rainbow ribbons, banging drums on a Tuesday morning in the park.

I explain what okay means, and ask Yufang what it is in Mongol.

“Bolok,” she replies, which is too good to be true.

The drone barely manages two ten-minute runs in the cold air, while the shamans shiver and wait for their cue. The locals don’t help by insisting on treating a public park like a public park, so that at least a couple of shamanic rituals are interrupted by a hatchet-faced woman in a purple tracksuit, power-walking along the path. The usual crop of men with giant telephoto lenses are in evidence, but we don’t think they are spies. Everybody and his dog seems to own a massive telephoto lens in Songyuan – maybe this is where they make them.

The afternoon is spent in an embroidery workshop run by the twins, Black Silver and Coral Red. Their grandfather was the scriptwriter on a Genghis Khan movie and they are plainly posh literati, whose workshop specialises in the Planet Mongo fashions of the Mongols, all Vulcan shoulders, and hats that seemingly have dildos sticking out of the top. Black Silver and Coral Red fuss around their guests with a pot of tea, and I interview two of the shamans, including Furong, the witch-woman from last night.

Furong isn’t drooling bogies and ash any more, nor is she spitting firewater at the camera. Instead she has transformed back into a well-turned-out forty-something in a fluffy fur coat, with the occasional habit of rolling her eyes to commune with unseen spirits. She is only 42, but I can see from the light behind her hair that she dyes it, and wonder if she is hiding bolts of grey witchy hair. But if she had it, why would a shaman hide it?

Her hands are amazingly warm and soft. Furong starts stroking my hands, peering underneath my eyelids, examining my stuck-out tongue, and pulling out one of my hairs.

“You must be careful with your heart,” she says, after conducting this odd examination. “You have an odd heartbeat, and stomach problems, too. Maybe your kidneys. But these are all signs of a haunting.” Sickness of some sort, particularly in the heart or stomach, is one of the signs of a shamanic disciple in waiting. “Your fingers are cold, but your hands are warm,” she continues. “This is because of the bad circulation from your heart.”

“There are spirits watching over you,” she says. “And you have great power within you, to be a black shaman, the most powerful kind of all. Your dreams already see the future. You cried when I danced. You must be exorcised to banish the sickness, and then you can begin your training, assuming you find a suitable mistress.” Her eyes flash.

In the mirror behind her, I see the crew exchanging quizzical glances. Nobody was expecting this, least of all the other Mongols in the room, who are wide-eyed with excitement. The sound man doesn’t help by humming the theme from Bewitched while he fiddles with the sound dials.

“Been a while since we found a black shaman!” beams Mrs Bao.

“Bit of a turn-up,” agrees Mr Bao. “Bolok!”

A black shaman apparently something of an untouchable in East Asia, who mediates with the lower and more terrifying spirits, as opposed to the white shaman who consorts with the nobility and the nicey-nicey spirits. It doesn’t sound like a particularly appealing career to me, particularly if I have to eat ashes and spin in circles while talking to the evil dead. But, you know, if writing doesn’t work out, it’s nice to have exorcism to fall back on.

Furong already has a disciple (some shamans have dozens), a soft-spoken man called Ping who was the subject of last night’s exorcism. While Furong sips daintily at some red tea with her long-suffering husband, Ping tells me about his damascene moment.

“I was in an accident,” he says, “and I couldn’t do sports any more. For three years my limbs were stiff like there was something squeezing my bones. But then I saw Her, and I realised I had seen Her before. I felt like I already knew Her, and we talked as if we were long acquaintances. And then I remembered, I had seen her in my dreams. You see your teacher in your dreams, and your dreams lead you to Her. She agreed to teach me. They chased out the ghosts and welcomed in the good spirits, and I felt such happiness. I was so happy… I, I…. can’t say in Mandarin.” He switches into Mongol, and we have to wait until we get home to get it subtitled.

Michelle the assistant producer is getting on with her usual tasks, scribbling the next shot title onto the clapperboard.

Furong suddenly seizes Michelle’s hands.

“You are a shaman,” she tells her. “You are from a family of shamans. I see your ancestors in you.” Michelle recoils in horror and scurries out to the toilets.

Furong doesn’t seem to be bothered by this.

“She knows,” she shrugs. She looks at me again, her eyes hypnotic. “Your dreams come true, don’t they? You have seen the future in dreams, but you only know it when it occurs. That is the first sign.”

The director is getting increasingly annoyed by all this hocus-pocus, and starts shooing people out of the room to the next location. The cameraman is similarly unmoved, claiming that Ping the Possessed only shook and wobbled at the exorcism last night when he saw that the camera was on him.

“It’s all bollocks,” he mutters.

“OKAY!” chorus the grinning shamans.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events appeared in Route Awakening S03E03 (2017).

The Exorcists

Buick want us to showcase their latest model on this trip. I should be able to tell you all about it, but all I can say for sure is that it will be released in America in 2017, and that it is a red one. And the one we have been supplied by the Songyuan Buick dealership unhelpfully has National Geographic decals plastered all down the sides, having previously been part of this year’s journalist junket convoy. So the director orders a trio of idiots (me, the fixer and the D.O.P.) to take it out and get it cleaned, preferably in such a manner as to generate some interesting footage that will also fill up this episode’s quote of product-placement car shots.

She is hoping for an automated car wash, so she can get a sequence of me glumly sitting behind the wheel while big spongey rollers splash on the windscreen. My colleagues and I unanimously decide that what we really need is a Bikini Car Wash, where they can photograph me trying to look glum while perky Chinese girls rub their soapy boobs on the windscreen. This turns out to be a non-existent service in arctic Songyuan (or indeed, anywhere in China, indeed possibly in the world… I might have dreamt it). The best we can hope for is two men with low-hanging trousers and a high-pressure hose, blowing hot water on it in a garage. This, however, fogs up the lens every time he gets close, so we are getting very little footage.

The fixer’s phone rings. Even I can hear the irate voice yelling at him from the speaker. It is the manager of our hotel.

“What the fuck are you doing? Your wizards are out of control!”

We are, indeed, currently in charge of an octet of shamans, who are supposed to be setting up in one of the hotel’s dining rooms. It is an opulent, pointlessly baroque Chinese suite, decorated with pictures from the life of Khubilai Khan, overstuffed sofas, and for reasons that only a Mongol can explain, an astroturf pasture scattered with one-quarter-scale models of goats. And apparently, the shamans are “smoking and spitting on the floor.”

I find this hard to believe, not the least because there are eleven ashtrays in the suite, which seems to imply that smoking isn’t that big a deal. Indeed, even though smoking indoors is now at least officially illegal in Beijing and Shanghai, up here in the frozen north the people of Manchuria can regularly be seen chuffing indoors, in the warm. In fact, back at the room, a forensic investigation confirms that only one person, our liaison Mr Bao, has lit up at all, on the basis of his girly Huang Shan fag-ends in the ashtray. Even the director has not smoked anything while we were away. But the hotel’s complaint isn’t really about alleged smoking and notional spitting. It is about the presence of eight shamans on the premises, plainly up to no good.

Tonight they are performing an exorcism ritual, or chu gui, which requires them to dance in circles with drums and tambourines, chanting spells in Mongol, while the central shaman, a lady called Furong, whirls and hyper-ventilates while setting fire to a small doll that looks like My Little Ku Klux Klansman.

In order to hang onto the suite, we have had to order dinner, which sits untouched on the Lazy Susan in the dining area while the ritual continues. The waitresses stare in stony disapproval, and tut as the sofas get moved. “We don’t care for their sort,” mutters one.

“‘Their sort?’” snarls Coral Red, a poet who happens to be sitting in. “THIS IS YOUR CULTURE, YOU STUPID HUSSY.” After that, the waitresses leave us alone, and when we need water, I have to go outside to the shops.

Meanwhile, the chanting and drumming reaches a crescendo. Furong’s long black hair now surrounds her face, completely obscuring it, and she is panting and muttering, her eyes rolling. She eats the embers from the fire she lit around the Ku Klux Klan doll, and is drooling black gunge from her mouth. She collapses onto the sofa and is fed 60% proof Mongol booze, which she spits across the room, muttering to herself in Old Mongol, a language that she has never learned.

“WESH!” she shouts hoarsely, “WESH!” She is drooling more black slime, and spitting out more firewater, her eyes wide, and staring at me across the room. “WESH!” she shouts. “WESH!”

Suddenly Furong’s henchman shouts at our assistant producer, who is standing by the exit, clutching at her head.


She opens the door, and suddenly there is silence.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E03 (2017).

The Cold Light of Day

I am awake for dawn in Songyuan…. It is a city spattered with ice and snow and wreathed in poisonous mist. Identical breeze-block, seven-storey buildings stretch away into infinity, as if the entire city has been dropped out of the sky by God’s cloning tool. As a river confluence and the crossing point for five railways, Songyuan has been a hub of sorts for the last century, but it still seems odd to imagine that anyone would want to live somewhere so crushingly dull, where the boulevards are glum corporate landscapings, and the houses seem designed for people who never look up from their phones. This is a city of 2.8 million people, half the size of Finland.

I keep telling people I am in Inner Mongolia, but that is not true. I am actually in the Front Gorlos Mongol Autonomous County, which is in Jilin, just over the border from Inner Mongolia.

“Our ancestors had to move,” says Mr Bao, the cultural attaché, a chubby, avuncular man, who is very excited to have a film crew in town. “They picked a fight with Genghis Khan when he was a youngster, and their shamans told them: ‘this guy is going to be the king of the world; you’d better run. So we left Mongolia and took ten towns from the Manchus here. Then the Mongols took over the whole of Asia, and we were absorbed into one of the banners of the army. We are the Front Gorlos, who fight in the vanguard. There are Rearguard Gorlos as well, somewhere.”

My first meeting with Mr Bao is in our residence, The Gorlos Hotel, which is riddled with Mongol motifs, curlicues crawling up the pillars and thunderbolts in the walls. The gift shop sells horse-headed erhus and little Mongol dolls, and the convenience store has lots of yoghurt.

Today, we are filming a welcoming ceremony in the local park, next to the windswept waters of the icy Songhua river, dominated by eleven massive Mongol stupas. Each has a base of a circular stone cairn, topped by a flower bed planted with fir trees, superseded by a pole that holds aloft a sort of sacred umbrella, itself surmounted by a shamanic trident. Each takes on a writhing cone-shape, caused by all the flapping prayer flags that stream from the top like a multi-coloured rainbow.

It is cold. Our oh-so-high-tech thermometer broke after counting down to minus five degrees, and I suspect we are looking closer to minus ten.

“Stop complaining,” scoffs the cameraman. “You live in Finland.”

“Yes,” I point out, “but we don’t stand around in the fecking cold all morning.”

Mr Bao has gone full-on Mongol gangster. He turns up in an ankle-length dun-coloured robe with Vulcan shoulder pads and a Russian style furry hat. But he is veritably under-dressed when compared to the eight shamans he has brought along. Each has a skirt of rainbow ribbons, from which dangle jingly bells. Each has an embroidered tunic with twisting dragons on it, with shoulder pads that reach out for half a foot on each side, and a golden crown topped with metal butterflies, from which rainbow streamers depend down their backs like kabuki battle-flags. And to complete the ensemble, each wears a fringe of black beads that hangs down to their nose, completely obscuring everything above their upper lips.

For some reason, people stare. We are trying to film the shamans banging their tambourines and shouting at the gods, but the producer has to keep dragging gawpers away by the scruff of their necks. One particularly irritating passer-by has a camera that goes BING-BONG every time he tries to sneak a photograph, and lacks a telephoto lens, which means he keeps wandering into shot.

A far more sinister rubber-necker is a woman in a white snood who is nonchalantly toting a Canon 5D with massive grey telephoto lens, which the director identifies from 100 paces as a ten-grand EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x. Snood Lady then proceeds to spend the next two hours pointing it at us from the shrubbery, making her the most obvious tail we have ever had. Even Mr Bao eventually tires of all the attention, and gently admonishes her that she is wasting her time, as we have all the correct papers. She pretends to be photographing a bench for a few minutes, and then returns to her old ways.

Mr Bao and his eight wizards, men and women, dance around the stone cairns and burn incense, chanting in Mongol while the icy wind flaps at their prayer flags. The director hopes to get some aerial footage of them twisting and jiving on the brown grass in front of the stupas, but we discover after thirty minutes of false starts that the cold has done for the drone batteries. It takes a long while for the drone pilot to even get his phone to turn on, but by the time he has calibrated the drone software and launched it into the air, the drone’s own batteries are already flashing alerts, and it has to come down before it can shoot a scrap of footage.

The cinematographer reveals that his camera is similarly hobbled, and that he has somehow got through two batteries this morning. But at least we have the Welcoming Ritual in the can from the ground. What’s next?

“Next,” beams Mr Bao, “we need to find somewhere indoors to shoot the exorcism ritual. People get possessed, you know, and their bones ache, and they come to a shaman looking for help. And it’s from the ranks of the possessed that the shaman will select his future pupils. You don’t choose to be a shaman, shamanism chooses you, and you will dream of your master and seek him out. If he won’t teach you, then you will bleed to death from all seven of your holes.”

Nervously, the director asks him if he has a candidate for exorcism handy.

“Oh yes,” says Mr Bao. “His name is Ping. Can I bring him to your hotel this afternoon? We’ll need a room big enough to light a fire in, preferably with washable carpets.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E03 (2017).