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Acting and Chinese History

Chinese History in Chinese TV

This blog covers some the things I learned about Chinese history through filming in China, and particularly about some of the foreigners who helped shape history there.

Zheng He

History Posted on Sat, April 13, 2013 10:24:18

Zheng He (郑和) was a Ming Dynasty mariner who led trading missions all over Asia, some people think he even made it as far as America. His fleet was very advanced and had features like watertight compartments to make the ships unsinkable, and magnetic compasses.

In this drama I played a Persian government official who has dealings with Zheng He’s fleet when they come looking for trade. A lot of this play was filmed in Hengdian but the bits using the boat were filmed on the semi-tropical island of Hainan.

The scene with the four Arab looking gentlemen was filmed in Hengdian. I learned my lines in Chinese and was determined to give them in Chinese, but as the whole play was being recorded without sound and dubbed in post-production the assistant director was very relaxed about it and told the Arab looking gentlemen they could speak their own language. The first guy had to say something like “I will give you four cows”. So the camera rolled and he said “Ho hum ho hum something like that diddley pop ho hum rhubarb bread and butter …” or some very similar stuff that was pure nonsense. I said to the assistant director, “Look, isn’t that going to be a bit too long? He’s only supposed to say I will give you four cows.” The assistant director looked at me as though I was a complete and utter idiot. “He is speaking his mother tongue!” he patiently explained.

Matteo Ricci

History Posted on Sat, April 13, 2013 10:11:58

Matteo Ricci was an Italian missionary, very important in Chinese history, all my Chinese friends had heard of him. He brought important discoveries in maths and cartography to China.

I played Ricci in a documentary about the history of Beijing. The director had seen “Yuanmingyuan” and called me up out of the blue. It was a very enjoyable project, most of my footage was shot in the huge film city in Hengdian where they have (amongst a lot of other things) a water village and an almost full sized replica of the Forbidden City.

When he first arrived in China, Ricci masqueraded as a Buddhist monk for a time, which required me to have a shaved head. The film company were a bit worried and thought they would make me some kind of artificial bald pate. I told them just to shave my head, it wasn’t the first time. A lot of Chinese actors (the male ones!) regularly shave their heads because the period dramas require them to wear false queues. Shaving my head also made it a lot easier to wear the complicated wigs that were needed for Ricci in his later years.

I had two sets of wigs and whiskers. A black set for when he was younger, and a white set for when he was very old. If he was younger but not too young they glued on the black set and touched them up with a silver pen, if he was older but not too old they glued on the white set and touched them up with a black pen. Then they had to be cleaned with alcohol, so it was a bit fussy. They would glue on the black whiskers and wig and then suddenly discover that it wasn’t the scene they though it was and the whole lot had to come off and be switched. That happened a few times.

I never managed to get my hands on the boxed set of this documentary, a long 12 episode version was shown on Hong Kong TV and I believe a shorter version was shown in Poland. This clip is from a rough cut that the director gave me.

John Leighton Stuart

History Posted on Sat, April 13, 2013 09:47:49

I got to play John Leighton Stuart in 2008 in a play called “Beijing in Flames”. Later I watched the whole thing, it was one of the best TV plays I have ever seen, with some wonderful actors and some moments of unforgettable intensity. The leading man is Liu Peiqi – one of the best of the Chinese actors. He plays a rickshaw puller and the whole plot of the drama revolves around a group of rickshaw pullers in Beiping during the civil war period who are pig in the middle beween the KMT, Communists and Japanese, and who are just trying to keep their heads down and have a quiet life. Centering the drama around a bunch of fools like this feels very Shakespearian to me.

Although I didn’t have many scenes, the lines were very hard to learn. I had a long soliloquy in Chinese, but also there was quite a lengthy speech that was marked to be delivered in Japanese. I don’t speak a word of Japanese, so I found a Japanese girl who wanted to practice her English and we met for coffee and translated this speech into Japanese and she recorded it on my cellphone. I worked and worked at memorising it, every day I would do at least an hour on it, until I had it down pat and could reel it off with confidence.

The day came when I got the notice to go and film the scene. I decided to meet the Japanese girl again and polish up my lines. We met in the same coffee bar. The moment we sat down I blithely reeled off the speech which, as I thought, I had learned from the recording. She looked blank. “What language are you speaking?”. “Japanese”, I said. “That’s not Japanese”, she said.

This was a problem, what could I do? I had only two days to get the speech right and this girl obviously didn’t want to help me. Then inspiration struck. True, I didn’t know Japanese, but the director probably didn’t know Japanese either.

So I stuck to my guns and delivered the speech. It was far too long and my delivery was far too wooden. But the director seemed happy.

This is the Chinese soliloquy, which went a little better I think.

Shaolin Temple

History Posted on Sat, April 13, 2013 09:13:36

The Shaolin Temple (少林寺) is famous throughout the world as the origin of Chinese Kung Fu. It was also the first temple in Asia where the style of Buddhism now known as “Zen Buddhism” was practiced.

Representations of the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin Monks run through Chinese culture like Blackpool runs through Blackpool rock. The first TV play I ever watched when I arrived in China was a play about a renegade Shaolin monk called Fang Shi Yu (方世玉).

This picture is from the TV series. These are not real Shaolin monks!

In the winter of 2001 – 2002 I visited the Shaolin Temple and stayed for two months. I have never been so cold in my life, but it was a great experience nevertheless.

An account of my experience in the Shaolin Temple can be found here (warning: rather long)