The Luoyang Museum, an inverted ziggurat at the edge of town, deliberately designed to evoke the shape of a ding – the ancient sacred tripods that once marked the capital of the ancient kings. It’s packed with relics, but also with surprisingly cool oil paintings of key moments from ancient Chinese history, painted by a local artist with a real eye for both historical accuracy and alluring, pulp-fiction moments of iconic action. Others might scoff, but I found them to be very helpful in illustrating interesting moments like the coming of the Xiongnu nomads to Luoyang, or the fall of the Shang dynasty, or Empress Wu on tour, which are otherwise conveyed through wandering long halls of pots in cabinets.
Luoyang tourist literature makes a big deal about how it was the capital of “thirteen dynasties”, but that is rather economical with the truth. A lot of the time it was merely one of the capitals of those dynasties, like the Tang, that were obliged to shuttle up and down the Yellow River in order to allow the trees to grow back elsewhere – Xi’an had to be periodically evacuated when it became too difficult to get lumber nearby for building and fuel. Some of the other dynasties for which Luoyang was a capital were relatively minor ones that only laid claim to parts of China during periods of unrest. Still others were historical dead-ends, like the ten years that Wu ruled from Luoyang in her self-proclaimed “Zhou” dynasty. That’s not to say that those dynasties weren’t fascinating in their own right – most of you know all about Wu, but the Northern Wei, whose scandals make Game of Thrones look like the Tellytubbies, were also based here.
But they aren’t the big-picture dynasties like the Song or the Ming or the Qing. Empress Wu’s Luoyang wasn’t actually finished in the Tang dynasty. The Western part of the planned city was never built, the encircling wall never completed, as everything went into decline before they could get there. Regardless, you can’t dig a hole in Luoyang without finding some ancient junk. Two miles from our hotel, workmen digging the foundations for a new shopping mall have just hit into a tomb from the Eastern Han dynasty, and the 24-hour metro construction keeps running into temples and palaces from times gone by.
Today I am interviewing Gao Xisheng, the curator, about the arrival of the Sogdians (the Greek-influenced Persians on the very western edge of China), who were the middle men of the Silk Road, and responsible for a lot of the cultural and culinary imports of the cosmopolitan Tang era. My job here is to keep him talking, and to keep his eyes on me, not on the camera; to interject at regular intervals with signals that I understand, which usually take the form of extra questions about fire-worshipping customs.
Mr Gao is very keen on metadata, pointing out that the Sogdian tombs in Xi’an and Luoyang suddenly arrive around the 7th century, as if out of nowhere, thereby demonstrating that as one might expect, Tang China suddenly became the sort of place that could end up with a community of immigrants that stayed around long enough to start dying there. He has similar things to say about the sancai pottery, noting that it was a tiny flash in the historical pan, and is only really found in the Xi’an-Luoyang area, and only in the Tang dynasty. New commodities from along the Silk Road, particularly cobalt from Afghanistan, transformed Chinese pottery with far more interesting blues in the late Middle Ages, causing everybody to give up on crappy brown-spinach-cream combinations.
He also points out to me a pattern of turquoise pebbles, once inlaid into a staff or similar symbol of power, now with the wood rotted away, delineating a sinuous pattern in the ground like an elephant’s trunk, topped by an abstract square head. “I mean,” he says, “it might be an elephant’s trunk, but we think it’s probably something much cooler – China’s first dragon.” It’s 3,000 years old, so those are probably fighting words in Anyang, where we are going next week.
I have developed a sixth sense with interviewees. I can tell the moment I look at them if they are going to be a garbage fire or a fun time, and it’s never about what they know. It’s more about the degree to which they are prepared to say what they don’t know, and thereby allow us to discard pointless questions and spare them the nerves generated by lying and bullshitting on camera. Mr Gao was chatty charm on a stick with me, to the extent that when he showed me an entirely mundane-looking, modern looking mug and told me it was 3,000 years old, I was able to tell him he was trying to fool me, and get a laugh instead of a slap.
“I know,” he says. “It looks like something you might find in Starbucks. But people get fixated on all the weird-shaped ceremonial vessels used by the ancient aristocracy. The common people drank out of mugs. Just like us.”
It’s more of the same after lunch with Li Ying, who proves to be a coquettish and chatty historian when engaged about her subject. I get her to talk me through beauty tips for Tang women (always paint red stripes on your face… try to be as fat as possible) as well as elaborate Tang hairstyles like the Parrot, the Cocoon (a swept-up bun modelled on a silk-worm’s) and the Knife. There’s only one that she can’t give me the etymology for, which is the Treasures – a sort of forward-drooping rolled top knot, flanked by two lateral buns.
“The thing is,” I whisper to the director afterwards, “I think it’s a reference to the Three Treasures, pickled and retained by eunuchs to keep themselves whole in the afterlife. In other words, the Treasures hairstyle is a giant stylised cock and balls, resting on a lady’s head.
But it’s all fascinating stuff, not the least because the Luoyang Museum has dated the development of hairstyles, which means to a certain extent, they can roughly gauge the era of tomb decorations simply by the hairstyles on display. There’s even some fun to be had about the Hufu (literally Barbarian Garb) tomboys of Wu’s era, who would exude cool by wearing narrow-sleeved jackets with lapels and trousers.
I won’t lie, it was a gruelling day. It’s taken a while for my Chinese to grind back into action, and I made the rookie error of not sitting down whenever the opportunity arose, thereby ending up on my feet practically all day. The museum was a riot of phones going off, and shouty visitors, nosey passers-by and cacophonous audio-visual displays. A new Chinese habit, of loudly playing phone games or faffing with the internet while having a dump, has turned any nearby toilet into an echo chamber of shitty pop music and beepy bang-bang noises, accompanied by the occasional cough and plopping sound. But I have been earning my money today in subtle ways, such as the moment when the director made me stand beside a statue of a man with a beard, and told me to come up with a 30-second piece to camera about the historical relevance of the Sogdians. I can do that. It’s what I do.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events formed part of Route Awakening S05E01 (2019).