A Living Craft



HE is a carpenter, a genius carpenter.


He became fascinated with woodwork at an early age, his first “product” a bowl chiseled out from a crude block of wood. He ate from it often. 


He would talk to trees, foretelling their destinies. Once he told a tree that it would be made into a cabinet and a table of a certain breadth and height. When the landowner really did decide to make the tree into a cabinet and a table one year later, he said: “That’s what I thought last year. Now, it’s big enough for an additional two chairs, too.” He was right. 


He had learned the art of carpentry, and soon outshone his master. His sharp eye meant he could saw and shape timber with a free hand, something his peers could only dream of doing. His joints were seamless. But his greatest talent was carving. Butterflies and carp in his carvings seemed to be in motion. He could artfully transform any flaw in the timber into a highlight: a crack in the wood would end up as a ripple around a fish or a butterfly’s antenna; a gnarl was disguised as a fleck in the butterfly’s wings or a fish’s eye. Timber is dead wood; a carpenter brings it back to life.


Local families deemed it an honor to have him make their furniture. When they saw him coming, they would say to the logs they had stocked, “Here he comes, here he comes!”


When I was in my hometown, for a while one of my favorite pastimes was watching him at work. He would deftly ax away the tangled branches and chapped bark, then run the saw into the log swiftly and decisively, before picking up the knife to deliver fine, elaborate cuts. Watching this process inspired my writing: My language should be like his ax, piercing through vanity and triviality to reach the best of the “wood,” on which I would build an imagined world in the finest, most immaculate detail. This is the goal I have been working towards ever since. 


However, this genius carpenter was not on good terms with his fellow villagers, who called him “the slacker,” and with good reason. He would take orders for furniture without hesitation, but he never had time for small jobs, like making a stool or a gate for a pigsty. 


Once on a stay at my home village I was about to carry the manure from the outhouse to the field after a downpour, when I noticed that the spade’s wooden handle was broken. He was walking by my home, so I stopped him, offered a cigarette and asked: “Are you busy?” He said no, so I asked whether he could do me a favor and make a new handle. “Um... you could do it yourself, I should think. I have something else to do.” He left before I could even light the cigarette! Naturally, I was somewhat peeved. Another carpenter in my village came up to me. “He won’t do it, he’s the slacker. Leave it to me.”


While fixing my spade, the other carpenter went on: “He only has himself to blame for his misery. He has made no decent money over the years, and do you know why? Nowadays, the carpentry work at construction sites primarily deals with alloy window frames and cast iron brackets, and seldom involves wood, saws, and chisels. He visited several construction sites, and told the employers he wasn’t the man for the job. He would hawk on the streets waiting for jobs to come his way. But he might not get an order for days.” “What a jerk,” I concluded.


I don’t visit to my hometown often. Last year, in Guangzhou, I thought of this grumpy carpenter again.


I was lying in bed, fretting over my faltering career. Several voices rang in my mind: “Come and write a report on us. Just scoop some news and make up a story, and you can get RMB 1,000 for as many words.” “We are a new magazine. Write a reader’s letter for us and say something flattering. It is all to entice real ones…”


I did neither. I knew I had annoyed some people and forfeitedsome easy money. At that moment I thought of the carpenter in my home village and understood him. How could a highly gifted craftsman condescend to put his skills into a pigsty gate or a spade handle? Every professional must defend the dignity of his vocation. The carpenter is not a slacker, he is a loner.   


During my visit to the village at last year’s Spring Festival, I was told he had made a fortune and built a big new home. I thought he might have taken up a new trade. So when I met him, staring at a big Chinese scholar tree, I presented a cigarette and asked: “Where are you working now?”


“Shanghai, an antique furniture factory. The boss is nice to me, and the pay is RMB 5,000 a month,” he replied. “Wow, that’s the job for you!” He smiled and said nothing.