“I am talking to a peasant about the problem of being on camera”

The work of celebrated Chinese writer Ye Guangqin will be published in English this year, by the UK’s Valley Press. In her homeland, the author’s acclaim led to her work being adapted into a TV serial, an experience which inspired the tale below; taken from her first English-language collection Mountain Stories.

Ye Guangqin in the mountains (Image © Taibai Publishing House)

“On camera” is a piece of jargon used in the media circle. It actually means to make an appearance on the film screen. If you mention this word to ordinary people most of them will not understand it. If you mention it to a peasant he will be more perplexed still.

At the moment I am talking to a peasant about the problem of being on camera.

The peasant I am speaking to is the Village Head, Old Man Defu. He is sixty-three this year. As per the cadre system he should have retired long ago. Defu still remains in post, mainly because they cannot find a suitable successor. This village is too poor and lacks rain and running water, so nobody is willing to take on the role. Upper Mirth Village used to be the encampment of Li Zicheng (1606–45), the peasant rebel who became emperor. It was from here that Li Zicheng quit the mountains and rode directly to the imperial palace. Ninety per cent of the villagers have inherited the spirit of Li Zicheng. To quote the words of the Curator of the County Cultural Centre, they have “a strong rebellious streak” and “a vigorous battling spirit.”

Those who have had contact with people of Upper Mirth Village know that the villagers are easily incited to take up anything that can serve as a weapon. When some matter crops up, they will come to bloody blows first and then discuss it later. What is more, their tussles follow a unique patter, which includes scratching, biting, jabbing, grabbing, kicking, shaking, beating, and wrestling. They employ all these skills very adeptly and to perfection. If one were to deploy a national-level martial arts squad to fight with them not even they would be able to win. No matter how capable you are, should one of the locals refuse to fight with you there is no alternative way of dealing with him. On this point, they have inherited the spirit of Li the Insurgent King. Maybe Li Zicheng fought with the Ming Imperial Court in this way and thereby proved victorious.

In Upper Mirth Village whoever wishes to be the Village Head must be fully-prepared to be beaten by other people. It is said that since Defu became the Village Head his scalp has been sliced open four times. There are forty or fifty stitches from the top to the bottom where it has been sewn back together. Someone claimed, “If the Village Head shaved off his hair, his head would look like a basketball. It has segments clearly picked out on the surface.”

Our camera team came here from Beijing. We have been shooting footage for several days. We chose this place as our location simply because our Director Upright Li was rusticated here for three months during the Cultural Revolution. By the fourth month, he was violently driven away. According to my estimation, Upright Li was himself a troublemaker. When he was young, activities like stealing chickens and dogs and plucking off the shoots from the farmers’ garlic proved too tempting for him to avoid. His forcible ejection from Upper Mirth Village must have been a case of “it takes more than one palm to make a clap.” Li Zicheng was not entirely to blame. When Upright Li recalls what happened at that time his heart still flutters with fear. He says, “Barren mountains and untamed rivers produce wild people. The villagers there are really wild.” “Wild and unruly folks are surely no match for you, Upright Li,” I remark. “In recent years, you’ve been running rings around everyone in the media circle, and to great success! You’ve given us full proof that you did in fact stay in this village for a while. You are a trickster too.”

We selected this spot as the location for the TV serial The Sun is Still Red because we were satisfied with the scenery here. The more barren and unruly the mountains and rivers are, the more splendid the scenery will be. The more inaccessible and un-trodden by traffic the less interference from modern civilization there will be. Today, such locations are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

Upright Li must coordinate the crowd scenes in Upper Mirth Village.

The hitch is that Upright Li dare not meet the Village Head Defu face-to-face. Perhaps the old man has some hold over him. He has asked me, the scriptwriter, to go and negotiate these matters. He said that the peasants have an instinctive closeness and trust where women are concerned, while his reputation in the village is the pits. Were he to approach Defu maybe there would be no way of pulling things off.

I said, “As far as shooting a TV series goes, if something is a goer it’s a goer, if it’s not it’s not. The two parties should engage in discussion. Neither the village nor the team should make the situation hard for one another.”

Upright Li replied, “If it goes like that it will be great.”

When Defu hears that I want to invite the peasants of Upper Mirth Village to appear on camera he blinks for a while and says nothing. I am afraid that he may not catch my meaning, so explain it once again with gesticulations, “It is just a crowd scene. No acting skills needed. Anybody can do it. As far as pay is concerned, the team will not treat the folk unfairly.”

After having thought about it for some time Defu seems to finally cotton on. He hacks repeatedly and then says slowly, “Let everybody appear … on … on what?”

I say, “On camera.”

“Ah, yes, on camera. It’s a good thing,” Defu comments. “For the villagers this is their only chance in maybe a hundred or a thousand years. Print their activities on camera and let all of the folks in China see them. Such a fortune usually only drops down on those big stars in the city, so how can we not let it fall on our heads? Upright Li, that little weasel, might have gotten to be a great … great … great what?”

I say, “A great director.”

Defu adds, “Ah, right, a great director. This means that he still remembers us.”

“This is a big scene,” I say. “Extra people are needed. It’s a crucial part of the drama.”

Defu replies, “I see, I know this. I’ve watched the TV. Now there are more than fifty TV sets in our village. Everybody knows what it’s like to shoot a TV drama. This can help the spread of cultural civilization. It echoes the calls of the folks higher up. The villagers should wholeheartedly support it.”

“This is for the best. You can enlist all the people. We will pay five yuan per head per day.”

“How can you act like such a good comrade? You are the one taking pictures of us. How can we ask money from you? Last year a photographer came to our village. He charged twenty yuan for taking photos — still shots — but this time you are making moving pictures. Don’t mention money, it will drive a wedge between us.”

I say that this may be improper.

“It’s nothing serious,” Defu insists. “This is Upright Li’s thing. We should help him. Let’s do it like this. Play it as if it were a village festival. If you only lay on a meal for the villagers that will be fine.”

“That’s normal,” I explain. “When shooting a TV drama the team will also provide a meal for the extras in the crowd, as is customary. This is included in the budget.”

“But you intend to load cold meals into plastic boxes and fetch them over from the county town,” Defu hazards. “If you make us eat that it’s playing us for fools. It’s better for us to do all the cooking together. You can have a few steamers full of buns and cook a big pot of cabbage with tofu. Farmers’ meals cannot be compared with what is eaten by those stars. There’s no need to make loads of dishes and soups as long as we can fill our boots.”

“Then let’s do as you say. You can let the accountant submit your expenses slip to the team.”

All of the matters are easily arranged and stand in good order. Defu sends me out to the village committee and, standing on the step, he shouts, “You tell that little weasel Upright Li that he should come for a stroll around the village when he’s free. Nowadays nobody has the will to settle their dog shit scores with him.”

I ask him what dog shit scores Upright Li has left unsettled in the village.

“As far as the hens in the village are concerned, he stole away seventy or eighty of them in one month. Then none of the families in the village could have eggs and all the village roosters were made into bachelors.”

I say there is no wonder that he was branded a “weasel.”

The shoot is fixed for Monday. On Sunday I receive the word. It is said that Upper Mirth Village has slaughtered a pig and a sheep; several strong men went to the county town and brought back 200 pounds of tofu together with a cart laden with fresh produce. A number of women ground wheat the whole day long and have spent two days steaming buns. The buns are massive, being almost half-pounders. The pork and mutton are stewed separately. A huge pair of pots for meat steam with fragrant aroma. The 200 villagers busy themselves preparing for a big feed, with the real prospect of appearing on camera tomorrow. Added to that, every family has relatives from other villages lodging in their houses. These people will not only take part in the shooting, but also try to claim their share of Monday’s feast.

The situation is pressing.

The film producer tracks me down and says, “You’ve promised that Upper Mirth Village will be paid its expenses according to what they have consumed. Now they are fully-prepared for their big eat. What should we do about the per capita fees and the cost of the pig and sheep they bought?”

“What can I do?” I ask. “They insist that they are not used to the boxed meals eaten by our crew. I thought that they genuinely might not be used to them. I didn’t expect that they would play tricks on me. I’ve already reduced the payment from ten yuan to five for each person. I think we’ve gotten off lightly there. Defu has not asked about labour costs, only about the cost of the meal. He really is very cunning …”

The producer says, “Peasants have their own kind of small-mindedness. We can never beat them where playing tricks is concerned. Why didn’t Upright Li come to Upper Mirth Village on his own? Simply because he has seen through all of this.”

“So that’s how it is? If this is the case, we will deal with it tomorrow — play it by ear. Just as long as we don’t get into a fight.”

“Fight?” the producer exclaims. “Even ten teams our size are no match for those offspring of Li Zicheng!”

The next day after breakfast, the crew goes to Upper Mirth Village in two baker’s delivery-style vans.

The vast and empty riverbank is the chosen location. When we arrive there the place is already darkly jammed with people. A guy named Lock tells us that he has been waiting here since before daybreak. All of his family have come along and hope that they can appear on camera.

Fog hangs above the land. People cannot see around clearly. In the midst of the fog Defu walks towards the van. Upright Li jumps out in a hurry to greet him. The two first shake hands and then pat one another on the shoulder, pummelling each other like they are cut from the same cloth. Upright Li asks Defu whether he has used the same mobilizing tactic that worked when recruiting hands to excavate the local reservoir. “Do people really need mobilizing?” Defu wonders. “No need to call out loud. Every last one of them is trying to elbow their way to the front. The village sees this as a chance to stick their fingers in some cultural civilization. The village committee has been discussing it over a couple of nights.” I notice that Defu’s attire is unusual today. Where his beard had formerly been is shaved and he is wearing a new felt hat and leather shoes. The small white collar of his shirt pokes strategically out from beneath his Mao suit. This deliberate touch of refinement is the handiwork of a woman. The producer has perhaps already sensed something from the manner in which Defu is dressed. He stands silently alongside him patting his chin with his hand.

The fog gradually disperses. Everything all around becomes clear. The people on the riverbank are exposed beneath the sunlight. We are greatly shocked when we catch sight of the group of extras Defu has recruited.

The peasants have come to appear on camera.

The most eye-catching of the lot is Defu’s mother. She is perhaps ninety years old. Flanked by her grandson and his wife she stands unsteadily at the forefront of the crowd. Her satin coat hangs over her shoulders, the arms not being threaded through the sleeves. This has been done so that nobody can fail to notice its plush sheepskin lining.

All of the men are wearing brand new clothes. They dare not move their hands and feet since they are conscious of their delicateness. Every last one of them is as reticent as newly-unearthed terracotta warriors. The props manager distributes some specially-made pitchforks and sticks among them. Holding these props in their hands, while wearing brand new clothes the people are overcome with a comical feeling, a sensation of being neither fish nor flesh. An air of insincerity is all-pervasive.

The several guys who wear suits are perhaps the village fashionistas. Naturally, they are unwilling to rip the brand labels off from their sleeves. They refuse to handle any of the props in order that they might retain their grace. As soon as the film camera focuses in their direction they channel the image of the modern dandy.

The women are all in floral dresses. The younger ones have without exception powdered their faces. The aged ones have combed their hair brightly smooth. The bolder specimens sport hairpins. Most striking of all are the kids who are being carried around in people’s arms. They dot the crowd with their light purple and yellow colours.

Upright Li says to me, “You can take charge of arranging everything for the shoot. Call me when you’ve finished.” After those words, he disappears.

I pull Defu to one side and query, “What are you doing? All of you look slick and shiny. We cut a deal that we would recreate the conditions of the 1960s. It’s the 1960s, you know? We are staging a fight with hand-tools between rival villages. We are not putting on a nineties fashion fair for the countryside.”

Bearing the whites of his eyes, Defu maintains, “I didn’t ask them to dress like this. They did it by themselves.”

“Why did you let this happen?”

“I am the Village Head. Wherever I go I am the representative of Upper Mirth Village. I should not appear too humble on camera or else I will lose face in front of others. What is more, you didn’t tell me beforehand that you were putting on a fight scene.”

“All of you are scared of losing face, so you’ve concocted this riot of colour. Just think of it. In the 1960s you were too hungry to even raise your heads. How could you afford these leather shoes, suits and fur overcoats? Listen, get rid of these new clothes. Put on what you would have been wearing in the 1960s. This is no joke!”

“I’m afraid that stuff is hard to lay our hands on.”

“If it is hard to find just put on what you wear at ordinary times. Don’t dress like you are attending traditional festivals.”

Defu passes on the word to others, but nobody is willing to relinquish their personal glamour.

“Doolally!” Defu’s mother blurts out. “Who doesn’t wear new clothes when they are having their picture taken? If we wear old clothes it sends out an unlucky impression of us.”

“This isn’t taking a picture,” I point out. “This is making a TV drama. Honourable Grandmother, please sit up there on the slope and watch this boisterous scene. Don’t add to our troubles down here.”

Defu’s mother starts, “If I cannot leave a moving image of myself now, I will never have a chance in the future. How can I just sit by and watch that boisterous scene?”

The producer loses his temper. He raises a loud speaker and shouts into the crowd, “Women and kids, all of you leave!”

The women start to dive into the crowd and secrete themselves behind the men. Nobody departs.

The producer shouts a number of times but still nobody will leave.

It is windy and cold along the riverbank. Some kids start to cry. The two parties are engaged in a tug-of-war, with neither prepared to yield. I am suddenly put in mind of the situation in a movie when the Japanese soldiers enter a village and threaten the residents. This is somewhat like singing a different tune but with the same skill.

I find Upright Li in the van. He is sleeping with his head covered. I relate to him the situation. Upright Li says, “You see, you’ve really botched things up. A few strapping chaps alone won’t be enough to put matters in good order. Wait and see.” With those words he jumps from the van and comes to the scene.

Now blue-faced, Upright Li says, “Women come out. This is men’s business. Why should women come over to interfere? Third Auntie, Ershun’s mother, Sixth Sister-in-law, you all come out and stand on the slope. You few guys in suits come out. You and you and you …”

A smattering of people does break from the crowd.

Upright Li grasps a few handfuls of earth and flings them at the crowd. The people try to dodge them. Those in bright clothes flee, protecting their kids. The children run up to the slope. Curses fly all over the riverbank. Most of them make reference to Upright Li’s past misdeeds.

Patting the earth from his body, Defu walks over and asks, “Upright Li, how can you be such a barbarian? All of these years have passed and you’ve just stayed the same. You’ve not made a jot of progress.”

Upright Li smiles and shouts at the onlookers, “Is there anybody here from Lower Mirth Village?”

Several strong young guys bound out from the crowd of onlookers.

Upper Li instructs, “Go down. Beat them up!”

“You’ll give us money?” one guy asks.

Upper Li shoots a glance at Defu who is alongside him and says, “Defu will shout you a meal.”

Those guys have all been finding things tedious and are looking for the opportunity to kick off. They rush to the riverbank and discover a few tough rivals who they are prepared to take on.

Here, Upright Li tells the cameraman to zoom in on the heroes and just use the rest as the background. The cameraman nods and says yes.

“Ready … and action!”

With that order both parties begin to fight. Within seconds Upright Li shouts that they should cut. The reason is that they are not taking it seriously. The key problem is that the people from Upper Mirth Village begrudge getting their new clothes dirty. They run with their eyes staring into the lens of the camera. Once the lens is focused on them, they immediately put on airs and pose with smiles upon their faces.

Upright Li asks, “Are there any more guys from Lower Mirth Village?”

Several more fellows bound out from the crowd.

Upright Li says, “In the early 1960s Upper Mirth Village and Lower Mirth Village fought over water on the riverbank and somebody was killed. At that time, people battled desperately. People from Lower Mirth Village beat Water-carrier Chang from Upper Mirth Village to death, so Upper Mirth Village sabotaged the water supply to Lower Mirth Village. This feud goes back a few generations. Now, we just want to reenact the situation at that time. So, we must take on the spirit of those years past and the lust for revenge. You should display this to the full right here. Ok. Ready. Action!”

Defu who is standing behind me shouts loudly, “You bastard, you are inciting the masses to fight!”

Upright Li says, “I’m just stirring up their emotions so that they can get into role quickly.”

Defu protests, “How can you stir things up like this? Relations between Upper Mirth Village and Lower Mirth Village have gotten much better in recent years. It took long negotiations involving the county government. This can’t be all ruined for the sake of appearing on your camera.”

“Don’t you interrupt my shoot. If we miss the chance, do you know how much money we’ll lose for this one day? 24,000 RMB! If you were to sell off all of your belongings would they fetch 24,000?”

“I don’t care whether it comes to 24,000 or not. You can’t drag that skeleton out of the closet and expose Upper Mirth Village to the whole nation like that. We did have fights in the past, yes, but you can’t make fun of us like this. Dirty linen shouldn’t be hung out. You bastard. You once stayed in Upper Mirth Village, so how can you not understand this?”

“I want to tell everybody about the past experiences that the farmers have had. Tell them to the future generations, so that the peasants will be able to overcome their limitations and rebuild a brand new national mindset.”

“Whether the national mindset is brand new or not, there is no need for you men of letters to talk about this. We can remember our own lessons in our hearts. Naturally, we’ll pass them onto the future generations as well. But we won’t have this laid bare on the TV. If your old man was thief would you bang the gong and put up posters to tell everybody about it?”

“People can only make progress when they are prepared to face up to their mistakes. My TV series won’t specifically point out that the village is Lower Mirth.”

“We don’t want to pull off our trousers and let others look at our piles.”

Upright Li doesn’t take any notice of him and continues to direct the shoot.

The people in the produce and props department act as the cheering squad. They wave their arms and shout loudly, “Come on! Come on! Upper Mirth Village, come on!”

But all the folk on the riverbank act like a football team that cannot be rallied. They fight for the sake of fighting. Some of them even pause to watch the quarrel between Defu and Upright Li.

The film camera automatically shuts down. It is obvious that the shoot cannot continue.

Suddenly, Defu grabs the loudspeaker from Upright Li’s hands and shouts to the crowd, “All you folks from Upper Mirth Village come out! If there’s anybody who won’t come out, I’ll fuck your ancestors! Men have faces; trees have bark. We cannot bring disgrace on ourselves!”

The people rush up. Some of them run towards the film camera with bricks in their hands. When Upright Li sees what is going on, he shouts loudly to his crew, “Run for it!” Realizing the danger in that situation, we rush towards the van as if competing in the 100 metre dash.

The people behind us are in hot pursuit.

Some handfuls of flung earth find their way down the back of my neck.

The cameraman, who is running comparatively slowly, is struck by a brick leaving his ankle black and blue.

Our van makes a frenzied escape like a hare being coursed.

Behind the van somebody whistles by way of seeing us off.

The whole group, myself especially, are consumed by a panic that has gone on for several days. Whenever I hear the sound of the local dialect, I get the jitters in case it is the people from Upper Mirth Village coming over to ask for their food and labour expenses. If there were not 1,000 extras present on that day, there must have been at least 800. That’s a big sum of money. Upright Li complains about me not having told the villagers what exactly we were trying to do. My response is, “Big scenes are normally just shot there and then with no need to tell all those extras about the particulars.”

Upright Li says, “All the people in Upper Mirth Village have become dull under Defu’s leadership. They can’t even understand the meaning of ‘Come on!’ None of the men in the village — damn them — know how to fight …”

The cameraman pulls up his trouser leg and comments, “So their combat skills are not good enough!”

I say, “They proclaim that they are Li Zicheng…”

“That’s the Emperor Li Zicheng,” the producer emphasizes.

Three days later, the accountant from Upper Mirth Village comes over. I make excuses to avoid him. I hide in the barn behind the hostel, where there is no heating. I shake because of the cold, managing to tolerate this for two hours. When I get back to the room I see that Upright Li and others are chewing on chicken. I ask, “Why didn’t you call me over when you knew there was chicken to be had?”

The cameraman says to me, “The chicken was sent over by the Upper Mirth villagers to their former neighbour Upright Li. They still remember how much Upright Li loves chicken.”

I ask the producer how much money have they paid to Upper Mirth Village.

The producer explains, “The villagers declined to accept any fee because they didn’t get to appear on camera after all.”

Looking at Upright Li’s greasy mouth, I exclaim, “You are now in their debt again?”

“I’m always in debt to them.”

“Dare you go back to Upper Mirth Village again?”

“Absolutely not.”

‘On Camera’ was taken from Mountain Stories by Ye Guangqin, published by Valley Press. The story was translated into English by Professor Hu Zongfeng.

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