Stuck in the Millet with You

There is some discussion in the car as to what the name Zhangye actually means. In a regrettable error of interpretation, our fixer suggests that it means “armpit.” This turns out not to be true, but we are referring to the city as Armpit hereafter. It is the site of the largest reclining Buddha in Asia, the birthplace of Khubilai Khan, and the Xixia National Temple. The crew are baffled as to what the Xixia are, and I explain that they are the Tanguts – a society that once ruled this part of Asia as their own little mini-empire. They flourished in the late Middle Ages, and then were massacred in a genocidal assault by a Uyghur army. The Uyghurs having joined the Mongol hordes, they attacked the Tangut realm and killed most of them on the Mongols’ behalf – not a subject that the Uyghurs like to bring up. The province next door is still known simply as Ningxia, “the Tanguts quelled.”

Mr Ma is a 23rd generation descendant of Genghis Khan (like 16 million other men across Asia, according to the American Journal of Genetics). His name means “Horse”, although his family drifted into farming a few generations ago, and thence into traditional medicine. His big thing is black millet, which is supposedly good for the kidneys, and which he grows on his farms and witters about incessantly, like a religious zealot. Unlike most Chinese medicine, which might as well be eye of newt and toe of bat, his black millet comes with a chemical breakdown, which allows me to report that its primary ingredient is that a single dose delivers 652% of the body’s daily requirement of selenium. So if selenium is what you need, then it’s black millet porridge for breakfast for you.

He is animated and talkative, which is a blessing after some recent interviewees, and drags me around the millet fields to talk about his experiments in propagation. He’s trying to get his millet to two metres tall, because the stalks and leaves also function as animal feed, and that gives him more. He is also aiming at increasing the yield in the grains by 25%, which would be enough selenium to kill a horse.

It is a frustrating day because Mr Ma lives only four kilometres from the airport, and the local air force squadron are flying their Hawk trainers relentlessly in circles. Four planes roar past, each augmenting the other’s noise, leaving barely 20 seconds out of each two minutes in which to record sound. This places immense pressure on everybody, most of all me, to gabble my pieces to camera into incredibly limited slots. One fluff, and we are all standing around for another two minutes, waiting for the planes to pass, and hoping that the sun doesn’t come out from behind a cloud, or go back behind a cloud, or whatever it was the sun was doing last.

We finish at six-ish, but it is 90 minutes back to the hotel, and our liaison has determined that we will not be eating right away. Utterly convinced he is doing us a favour, he claims he knows a “good place” and leads us through the streets for another 20 minutes, when all we wanted was noodles outside our hotel. When we eventually find the restaurant he wants, they turn out only to serve warm, watery Xuehua beer, which none of us can stand.

The usual Chinese entertainment ensues, in which I manage to steer the menu through some edible choices, only for our nameless host to “help” by ordering a bunch of other things that we don’t want. I haven’t eaten for seven hours, I am tired after a long day, and all I want is some food that will not make me retch.

“Try the pig’s ears!” he says, in a reasonable imitation of my ex-mother-in-law, who is always confident that I will wake up one day and suddenly like rubbery rye bread. “Just try them.”

“If I wanted them,” I say, “I would have ordered them.” Today, I feel a certain degree of sympathy for Jeremy Clarkson, who punched a producer over the non-availability of hot food after a long day. Not that I condone the punching of producers, but there comes a point when shooting chips away at the most basic elements of one’s hierarchy of needs.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of Chinese Food in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E03 (2016).

Gone to Pot

I haven’t seen a map for a week. I am not entirely sure where I am, but it is Jianchuan, another picturesque village in another mountain valley, green hills topped by wind turbines in the distance. This is another Bai area (they are the dominant minority in this region), where the Dong family make old-style black pottery. They dig clay from the mountainside and leave it to bake in their courtyard for a year, before breaking it up with a hammer, sieving it and wetting it, to make their sludge. Then they fashion it into pots, and throw in charcoal that bakes in a black or silvery-grey finish. Their specialities include wamao – a fearsome tribal totem cat with an open-mouthed roar that makes it look like a triffid, used as a roof guardian. And pots and cups and the usual ceramics.

The potter is in his fifties and only speaks halting Mandarin. His son trained as a woodcutter, but then went back into the family business because he feared his Dad was lonely. Since it is too familiar to address them by their given names, and “Master Dong” doesn’t make it clear which one I am talking to, I resort to addressing them as Big Dong and Little Dong.

Big Dong has been chatty and affable all the way through the morning. He has been trying to push pungent Yunnan cigarettes on the crew, and boiled tea in the Yunnan manner, heating the pot rather than the water, until the water fizzes on contact with the ceramics. But the moment the camera is on him, and the light is on his face, and he is being urged to look at me and not the director, and the sound guy is rolling and the clapper loader is snapping a board, he clams up in stage fright. He swallows, he stammers, he offers one-word answers and looks nervously around him. It’s almost impossible to get a clean sentence out of him, and he knows this isn’t how it is supposed to be, so he starts to sweat. This means more dabbing, more light changes, and more faffery, and it just becomes a vicious circle of bad takes.

People feel the camera lens staring at them; they feel the weight of the attention of the crew suddenly focussed on them; they feel the importance of this moment, above all the other moments they have lived that day, and a relay blows somewhere in their brain. Some interviewees turn into emotionless robots, declaiming facts at the camera, purged of all personality and humour. Others become hyper-conscious of every word they utter, double- and triple-thinking every sentence until they clam up. Some, like Big Dong, suffer from a different kind of panic – the sudden realisation that they are talking not to my smiling, nodding, solicitous face, but to millions of people in thirty different countries. At times like this, we have to cheat their brains back into forgetting that fact.

The director puts Little Dong on camera instead, with Big Dong nodding assent at his side. Little Dong is at ease and chatty, knowledgeable about his people’s heritage and the history of pottery. He laughs and jokes, and delivers a far better set of responses, sufficient for Big Dong to come back on camera and ape some of his son’s answers.

We sit and drink bitter Yunnan tea from little thimble-cups as the crew faff around. The director of photography sneaks some shots of Big Dong laughing and joking in an attempt to find footage to cut in that doesn’t look like he is being interrogated by the Gestapo. Little Dong reveals that he is a graduate of a Xi’an polytechnic – where he learned wood-carving – and I start to suspect that the fluency of his answers reflect academic study rather than traditional artisanal knowledge. Whatever, the director just wants to get something in the can.

The trick has worked. Both Dongs are now happily chatting away to me. I sneak a sideways glance at the camera, and see the Record light is back on, but Big Dong has been ushered back to normal by the simple expedient of not being reminded that this is his big moment.

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

Iron Goddess of Mercy

Anxi is a mountain village, sitting on top of hills that have been entirely carved with tea terraces. There’s not a lot else you can do with the mountains in Fujian, as they are too steep for any other kind of cultivation. So it’s lucky they can grow tea.

The director has spent the last two days hectoring me about the difference between the languages of south Fujian (Hokkien) and north Fujian, around Fuzhou (Hokchew). It often sounds like a real-ale drinker buttonholing one in the pub about the differences between the dialects of Norfolk and Suffolk, but it’s a big deal for her, and supposedly for the locals, too. She is particularly pleased because her own native dialect, Teochew, is cognate with Hokkien, and so she can rocket off in conversation with the locals.

Hokkien is a big deal because in the local language the word for tea is not the Chinese chá, but . Or in Hokchew, t­ē. I think you can see where this is going; when the drink was first exported, it was shipped by Hokkienese, who told the English and the French how to pronounce it.

Being in a warm place with pointy roofs, while a bunch of people yell at each other in Hokkien all around me feels oddly like being back in Taiwan. We are in what was once a plush 19th century farmhouse with upswept Min eaves, now converted into a centre for tea excitement. You may wonder what is exciting about tea, and I am still wondering myself, but the manager, Jasen Lim, is an affable former designer who has made tea his new tourist mantra. Visitors can come and sample the varieties of Iron Guanyin, which happens to be my favourite Chinese tea.

He sets out three bowls in front of me. One is Iron Guanyin made from one-year-old leaves, and tastes faintly of orchids. At least that is what he tells me – never having tasted an orchid, I can neither confirm nor deny. The second is from three-year-old leaves, and has a smokier aftertaste. The third is from five-year-old leaves, and has a darker, brownish colour, looking more like oolong. I obligingly sip and comment, and only choke a couple of times when I am exhorted to suck and gargle with it like a wine connoisseur.

“You are the first English person I have met,” Jasen says. “Although not the first English person to try this tea. That was Queen Victoria, back in the days when the English drank real tea.”

Half an hour’s drive further up the mountain, we come to Wei Yuede’s compound. Master Wei is such a tea celebrity that he only has two hours to shoot with us before he rushes off to a tea conference in Beijing. One wonders what they serve in the breaks. He is clad in Qing-style silk and is an ideal interviewee. I have a set of questions to ask him, but when I ask him the first, he launches into a ten-minute soliloquy about the meaning of tea, answering with a series of four-character phrases, each one of which is unpicked into a series of poems about the wondrous properties of tea, particularly Iron Guanyin. I ask him how it differs from Pu’er, and he goes into one.

“Pu’er is rubbish! They don’t know what they’re doing. They roast it too much. They use the wrong trees. They’re all idiots. There’s a poem that says…” And off he goes for another ten minutes, until I ask him what he thinks of English tea.

“English tea!? Ha! That Indian crap! They steal our tea and plant it somewhere foreign, and then they leave it in the hands of lackwits who don’t know how to bruise it, don’t know how to roast it, don’t know how to store it and don’t know how to ship it. They cart it ten thousand miles on ships damp with saltwater, and they hand it over to a bunch of foreigners who don’t know how to make it. It turns out brown! We have a poetic saying that goes…” And he’s off again.

Usually, our problem with Chinese interviewees is that they don’t know anything. Master Wei knows everything, and is determined to preface any statement with a nine-point rebuttal, in blank verse, of any likely dissent. I just wind him up and watch him go. When he finishes, with an appeal to the peanut gallery about the future of tea, there is applause from the assembled visitors.

“My ancestor,” he says, “discovered Iron Guanyin tea. He was visited in a dream by Guanyin herself, the Goddess of Mercy, who told him how to make it.”

Master Wei has half a dozen children. This is somewhat in contravention of the one-child policy, but he makes so much money from selling tea that he just pays the fine and keeps on trucking.

“My most expensive tea,” he says, “is £36,000 a kilogram. It is so pure that it actually GETS YOU HIGH. And hard. All night.” There is a long pause, which segues into a Pinteresque silence. “Do you want some?”

I confess that I have little need for any of these benefits right now, particularly since the director and our fixer have each taken the bedrooms on either side of mine, in order to protect me from what they believe to be an army of prostitutes converging on the hotel. I have seen no evidence of this, but I appreciate their concern. As for Master Wei, he is living proof of his beverage of choice’s medicinal benefits.

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

Master of Puppets

At the plush new Quanzhou Marionette Theatre, buttressed with hefty government subsidies, and built on a main road, with ample parking and amenities, we look in upstairs at the wardrobe department, two girls hunched over sewing machines making miniature Song-era courtiers’ robes. In the next room, two wood-carvers are cranking out heads for characters in the next big play, which is scheduled to be The Water Margin.

Do not despise the snake for having no horns,” I immediately begin. “For who is to say it will not become a dragon?

“Someone shut him up,” sighs the director.

So may one just man become an army!” I insist. “Is that Hu San-niang?” I ask one of the puppeteers, pointing at the camphorwood head he is carving. Yes, he says, a little bit surprised that I would know who Hu San-niang was.

“I always fancied her when I was a kid,” I explain. And it’s not like she is that difficult to spot. There’s only really one girl who does any fighting in The Water Margin. Another product of my misspent youth spent watching Japanese dramas based on Chinese legends on BBC2, with what would now be considered scandalously racist dubbing directed by Michael Bakewell. But I digress. Most of the puppets have fixed expressions, which requires the creation of multiple heads displaying multiple emotions.

Master Xia Rongfeng tells me that there are 700 scripts in the tixian mu’ao (hand-string-wood-puppet) theatrical tradition, mainly dating from before the Ming dynasty. Puppet theatre migrated to the south-east in three waves, all connected to unrest elsewhere in China, and from Quanzhou, once China’s largest port, out to the overseas Chinese communities in south-east Asia. The Qing dynasty, which is to say, the Manchus who ruled China from 1644 until the fall of the Last Emperor, provided very little material for new plays and looked sternly upon adaptations of current affairs, forcing the repertoire to fold back on itself, clinging to tales and legends of increasingly bygone eras. Today, the performances on offer are largely set in a dreamtime from the late Middle Ages. When they are performed properly, they are performed in a “pure” form of Chinese that is no longer spoken by modern people.

When Lei Haiqing was born, he was black all over. His parents abandoned him in a field, where they child was kept alive by a friendly posse of crabs and ducks. He was adopted by the elderly couple who found him, and was soon revealed as a musical prodigy. At the age of 18, he went to the capital, where his skills caught the eye of the Xuanzong Emperor, grandson of Empress Wu. Despite his lowly origins, he was appointed as the Number One Scholar, and the master of palace music. When Xuanzong’s bright, august, golden age collapsed into the rebellion of his portly Central Asian general Rokshan (a.k.a. An Lushan), Lei Haiqing was murdered by Rokshan’s supporters after he refused to play his pipa for the usurper’s jury-rigged court. Subsequently, his ghost somehow saved the life of Xuanzong (I have yet to find any source that explains why), and the grateful emperor, his power and realm greatly diminished, conferred upon him an honorary name. But in a typical Xuanzong-era cock-up, he got his name wrong. That was 1200 years ago.

Regardless, Lei Haiqing is now known as Tian Duyuan, and he is China’s guardian god of performers. His effigy, a red-faced (not black, don’t ask me why) and fearsome puppet, sits on the stage-altar in the old headquarters of the Quanzhou Marionette Theatre, which is now largely used merely for rehearsals. The theatre-temple which dates from the 1950s but is built in a classical Minnan style with pointy eaves and courtyards, would begin each performance with prayers to this God of Performers, who is said to watch only over performers – anyone else who prays to him is liable to get short shrift unless they are a relative.

Master Xia has brought me here to show me how to operate a marionette. He unhooks a scholar character from the rack behind the stage, and talks me through the operation of the gou-pai (hook-board), a spade-shaped wooden control from which all the strings hang. The foremost and rearmost points each hold a string tied to the front and rear torso, which is wound on a dowel to keep both taut before the puppet walks onstage. When both strings are taut and the gao-pai is at a 45-degree angle, the body is held upright and the ear-strings, which hang from the haft are also taut, allowing the puppet’s head to be moved right, left and up and down simply by twitching the dowel.

The two next strings back from the top of the spade move the legs. The next four move the hands and arms. Master Xia holds the strings in an elaborate cat’s cradle, allowing him to make gestures. With seemingly effortless flicks of his wrist and fingers, he can make his scholar walk like a man, mince like a girl, stagger like a granny, or skip like a child. He can even make it do cartwheels, which is some feat with a cat’s-cradle of string attached to it.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E05 (2016).

Walk Like a Man

Suzhou is lovely. It’s so clean and calm. Chai Shaohua, principal at the drama school, tells me that Suzhou is a city of 10.4 million people, sprawled out over 800 square miles. There is only a tiny handful of skyscrapers. The rest of the city barely climbs above four stories, nestled in among wide avenues and picturesque canals, with steps leading up to the banksides as if they are still used for transporting goods and people. The Grand Canal itself, or at least a trunk channel that feeds into it, still slices through the middle of the old town as wide as the Thames at Westminster, with a chunk of the old city wall still flanking it, the waters as calm as a lake, unless the wind whips them up into little ripples.

Today we are in the Kunqu living museum, a 19th century town-house built around several courtyards, which was converted into a theatre and drama school in 1927. Kunqu, the local opera tradition, has recently been decreed to be an Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO, and the place seems suitably posh. It is across the road from a shiny new Chinese opera theatre, but the museum itself has at its heart a proper open-air theatre. Or rather, a courtyard around a central pond, where one side the stage, another is the seats, with little pathways through the bamboo in between, a pavilion to one side for the orchestra, and another on the other side for those all-important balcony scenes and lovers’ trysts.

A trio of mynah birds sitting in courtyard cages have been suitably trained by the occupants.

“Hello,” says one of them as I walk in.

“Hello,” says another. “We welcome your august approach.”

Our director loves interviewing actors. They understand the nature of rehearsals and faffery with the lights and sound. They can stop mid-sentence, hold a thought for two minutes, and then continue as if nothing has happened. They can rewind and fast-forward their speeches and blocking. And they understand that even if I have got something right, the crew needs to show me getting it wrong again in close-up. The theatre is also an understandably soundproof location, so we can rattle through our set-ups without having to wait for passing moped, fireworks or troupes of schoolchildren.

Fang Jianguo is waiting for me in one of the ante-chambers, a room which used to be a scholar’s study. He is clad all in black, in expensive leather shoes and a fitted shirt. He looks like a proper thesp, because he is one.

“I’m going to teach you how to walk like a man,” he tells me. “You’ve been getting it wrong all your life. Your head needs to be up, UP like this. Your eyes must remain level at all times. Lead your head with your eyes, never move your head before focussing. And when you walk, you must walk like this, raising your left foot first, up to a forty-five degree angle, your foot turned to the left. Hold it, then place it firmly down, like this. Then switch your arms, bring your right foot to rest at right angles to it. Then raise your right leg to a forty-five degree angle, turning the foot outwards once more, hold it… then…”

This slow-motion goose-stepping is impossible to do with normal human posture, but becomes remarkably easy when I maintain the ramrod-straight bearing that he has been perfecting his whole life. Behind the camera, the crew are all giggling like schoolgirls as I fall over, forget which arm moves in tandem with which leg, and generally act like an idiot.

After half an hour of this, we move on to running like a man, which involves a kind of scurrying in a circle, the arms held upwards and outwards towards the audience, the body straight, and the face fixed, staring on a central point.

“Light up your eyes!” he tells me. “Make them shine, like this!” and he stares at me with a sudden electric glare.

He was supposed to also teach me how to move like a thief, another stock character from Kunqu opera, but time is already running short.

We move on to a speech, something relatively simple from a Chinese opera whose name I didn’t catch, which looks on the page something like: “Oh young lady, what a beautiful view, made all the more glorious by your presence.” Well, that’s what the Chinese says. But a Chinese opera script looks more like a Shakespearean soliloquoy embedded in a sheet of quadratic equations. The page is festooned with numbers and punctuation 28..6376.#~41~1~15276438, all denoting tones and lengths of notes. Even the simple phrase “your presence”, which in simple Mandarin is ni li, takes almost fifteen seconds to say: a high-pitched and sustained first syllable, followed by a second syllable that starts high, goes even higher, wanders up into a place where only dogs can hear it, and then bumps down a series of low hills before a little flourish at the end. Meanwhile, although the characters on the page are recognisable, their pronunciation is in the archaic Suzhou dialect, so “young lady”, or literally “big sister” (jiejie) transforms into zeze, the second syllable rocketing off somewhere into what Mandarin speakers of this parish would call second tone, before dropping off a precipice into what Cantonese speakers would call the sixth.

“Not bad,” he lies. “I think with ten years’ training, you might get pretty good.”

“How long does it normally take to train someone?” I ask.

“Ten years,” he says.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E05 (2016).

Everything Stops for Tea

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.

“OH MY GOD, THAT’S AWFUL!” she says.

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

Killing the Green

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.

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).

There Will Be Blood

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.

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).

Gold Remi

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.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China.

The Straw Hat Crew

Liu Tianjie at the Gulong Sauce Factory. Photo by Clarissa Zhang for Route Awakening (Nat Geo).

The Gulong Soy Sauce Factory in Xiamen uses methods that would not have been all that out of place two thousand years ago. The only difference is the scale. Soybeans are steamed and mixed in with wheat flour, and the all-purpose qu fermentation starter, then wheeled in to the drying rooms on trolleys the size of hospital gurneys.

Clad in his uniform grey boiler suit, fetching white wellies and a wide-brimmed straw hat, manager Liu Tuanjie walks me through the process, as his gloved assistants hand-mix piles upon piles of still-warm beans on gurney trays.

“This used to be a family thing,” he says. “Every household would have their own particular recipe, and their own home-grown qu. It was only over time that the process grew larger and larger in scale, until it was industrialised like this.”

The warm beans are left to dry-ferment in a hot room for three days, until they start to go a dodgy-looking yellow, at which point they are whisked away and tipped into child-sized jars of salt water out in the baking sun.

This, I realise, is why Mr Liu is wearing his straw hat, as we march along row after row of the large jars, each topped by an oversize straw hat of its own. They are sitting on open ground, stretching far into the distance – there are 60,000 of them, in an area the size of several football pitches. Each day, as the cool night air recedes, Liu and his assistants dart down the rows, lifting off the straw covers in sets of four, so the brine solution and its bean-mix contents get the maximum amount of sunshine.

I struggle to keep up with him on the next row over. My own hastily issued straw hat, which comes complete with a flowery brim to put me in my place, fails to keep the bright sun from my eyes, and my fingers have trouble gripping the rasping fibres of the heavy straw covers. He is already several jars ahead of me, flipping the covers off like they are bottle caps.

“We take the beans, we cook them and roll them in flour and yeast, we let them dry-ferment for a bit, and then we put them out here for a year. The sun rarely changes. It’s always hot, and that slowly bakes them down into soy sauce.”

“It takes a year,” he continues. “In each season, spring, summer, autumn, winter, we adjust the conditions.” So – covers off for longer in the slightly colder months, on for longer when it’s warmer. But with Xiamen being warm all year around conditions for brewing the soy sauce are not as fiddly as they might be elsewhere. “Each day, we have to optimise the daylight – lift the lids, let the light in… see how the fermentation’s coming along.”

“You couldn’t do this in Beijing,” he scoffs, whipping away another cover with practised ease. “The weather changes too much.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E03 (2016).