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My father’s hands created beauty.
He was a bowyer, an artisan of a once respected trade. His preservation of the skill by which his ancestors had earned their livelihood flirted with treason, but was the only untarnished link that remained in the rusting chain that had once bound us so surely to our past; to a tradition that brought abandoned boys to the Forbidden City and trained them to guard the emperor, the Son of Heaven. But the past did not matter anymore—only the future; only the image of the great nation that China would once again become. This was what the Chairman said, and his opinion was law.
“We are the past, Lián Hua,” my father gently admonished whenever I railed at him for so humiliating our family with his archaic values. “We would be nothing—would become nothing—without what we already know.”
Then he would reach behind the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong that humbled us in its stern simplicity and produce what he considered his ultimate victory over the Revolution: a traitorous bow, a thing of imperial magnificence, as light as a pair of wings poised for flight after having finally thrown off its shackles.
“Come here, Lián Hua,” he said. Obediently, because I would never have thought to flout a direct order, I stepped closer, chafing the floorboards through the rough canvas of my shoe. My toes swept through the grooves that generations of other feet had carved smooth.
“Look at what may spring forth from a poor man’s hands.”
His knotted fingers knew the factory’s toil best, but they skimmed along the supple bamboo limb with the tenderness of two lovers’ first caress. Fú. Píng. Lè. Gold characters swished and shimmered on the bold red paint. Blessing. Peace. Happiness. Those foolish sentiments meant so little in our world, and yet under the quiet, callused skill of my father’s hands, they became the relics of a simpler time that had found beauty to be worth its price.
Later, as our family—Grandmama, my father, and I—knelt before the Chairman’s portrait and beseeched him to purge China of inequality, poverty, and ignorance, his eyes seemed to have lost their benevolent, paternal regard for us, as though he knew our treachery. How could I believe my father, but a single grain of rice in the paddy, over our savior, who had proven himself to be greater than men? The menial skill of a bowyer could never compare to his majesty.
For, whatever wisdom my father had, I knew the way of the world, and that was the greatest wisdom of all.
The June of my fourteenth birthday, I was walking home from a Red Guard assembly with my closest girlfriend, Wáng Dà Jie, unwinding my hair from its rope-thick braids to avoid getting them yanked by the older boys who loitered at the village entrance looking for trouble. On that day, the brash afternoon sun had loosened tongues and tempers, and the measured became the reckless. A round of shouts slapped us to attention and we stopped to see that a couple of the boys, the brawlers of the bunch, had imprisoned in their clutches Wèi Fàn, the blind village beggar who had often captivated us, against our will, with his stories of the time before the war.
They kicked his empty begging bowl into the road near our feet, but neither Wáng Dà Jie nor I bent to retrieve it. We watched numbly as Wèi Fàn, his eyes veiled in a milky blue, desperately tried to escape his attackers, only to scrabble a few feet into another crushing boot. They laughed at his weakening pleas for mercy and turned him prone in the mud, where he lay as broken and motionless as a bird fallen from flight.
“For Chairman Mao!” they screamed. Globs of spit fell from their lips onto Wèi Fàn as a heretical baptism. “For China!” It hurt my stomach to recall how often I had crowed the same words, with the same scorn for every reminder of the past.
Although my father asked, I didn’t confess that I’d witnessed the beating. Even a coward’s shame is sanctified; hallowed only in silence. And when I stood facing the Chairman that night, my usual praise crumbled into a brittle dust that scattered on the wind, rendering the surface of my tongue barren but for a sacrilegious demand: Why? His response was so quiet that I wondered if it had been uttered at all.
In the morning, Wèi Fàn was gone, and somehow, in the same way that I never spoke of my father’s rebellion, I knew better than to ask when he would be back.
I didn’t know if I could bear any more truth, but it came anyway, casting its harsh glitter everywhere like the sun on the pavement after a storm. First the eternal Chairman went; then Grandmama; then, in the end, even the village where my father had shown me beauty. Before long, the sleek headquarters of outsourcing American companies towered above the forgotten graves of our shacks, clamoring for attention with the ignorance of those who have obliterated a history in the name of the future.
My father died about a year ago, and I returned to the village for the first time since our departure to sink his ashes at the lotus pond, the only place we ever agreed was beautiful. The silver funeral urn I held was smooth but for three engraved symbols that puckered its surface: sentiments that had once defied the world in a free, swooping hand.
I sealed the lid and lowered his tomb into the murky water, prodding it with trembling fingers until it bobbed out of my reach and sailed forth to conquer the great sea. It nudged against the petals of a late-blooming blossom, seemed to acknowledge it as a kindred spirit, and continued on its unbroken passage. A cleaving of the morning mist permitted me a fleeting glimpse of the opposite bank. And for an instant, the advance of time was stayed and I thought that I saw the bowyer again, kneeling by the water with his hands outstretched, ready to take beauty home.