The torments of a Chinese breakfast – a big band version of Hark the Herald Angels sing, and the constant hilarity that Chinese newsreaders derive from Brexit. Today, Theresa May (Teleisha Mei – Special Thunder Insect Plum) witters away, and Jeremy Corbyn (Jielimi Ke’erbin – Outstanding League Rice Branch Seoul Guest) plainly and clearly calls her a “stupid woman.” The first true words spoken in parliament in months.
We are in Jingzhou, where once was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Chu. Conquered by the First Emperor, its soldiers and surviving nobles came within a hair’s breadth of inheriting the ruins of his short-lived dynasty in the turmoil that followed his death. They lost, of course, to the people of Han, but it was such a close call that the conflict is replayed in every Chinese chess game, in which the sides are named Han and Chu. Nobody knows which one is which until the end.
Jingzhou was also a major player in the Three Kingdoms era, and power base of Guang Yu, the red-faced warrior whose life has attracted so many tall tales that he was deified in the middle ages, and is now the Chinese god of war. A massive statue of him, and I mean massive, at 190 feet, looms over the town, wielding his famous Green Dragon Crescent Blade.
I would like to see a bit more of Jingzhou, but we have only stopped here on towards the end of our thousand-mile drive across China. Our fourth episode takes place in Nanchang, six hours to the east, but part of it will involve discussion of antique restoration, here at the national centre for lacquer repair.
They don’t just do lacquer. They also do silk, bamboo and wood, but we’re here to talk about lacquer because that will somehow be the capstone to a storyline that I have yet to film. The institute’s director, chemistry graduate Mr Feng, is oddly cagey about being interviewed, but after lunch suddenly announces that he is ready. He chats to me about Vindolandia, the place on Hadrian’s Wall where archaeologists unearthed letters from Roman soldiers, thanking their mums for sending them warm socks, and talks me through the process of preserving ancient artefacts. The basement of the institute is a shallow swimming pool, used to keep precious items away from oxygen until they are ready to be fixed and dried.
The lacquer restoration is in the hands of the two Du’s, a father and son team of artists, who wasted their lives getting fine art degrees, and then discovered a rich, salaried gravy train repairing and restoring two-thousand-year-old lacquer ware. Their black and red Han dynasty cups, tables and bowls are truly beautiful, and their studio is scattered with replicas that they have knocked up experimentally, to work out precise paint compositions and the number of likely lacquer coats required. One rather nice box turns out to be made from a base of hemp cloth, shaped and then coated with ten layers of lacquer.
Outside, there is a lake like glass, which makes the Buick look good driving along beside it. We film me in the car, talking about how I have come to Jingzhou looking for answers, although since I have come from Nanchang, where we don’t actually go until tomorrow, I am yet to work out what the questions are.