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Mulberry Leaves into Silk Gowns MAG
Both of his legs were gone, torn away by some misfortune of birth or circumstance, ending in stumps just above where his knees would have been. One shoulder was sunken, rolled into his chest, rendering his arm the victim of awkward angles and distorted movements. Clad in rags and a patched-together blanket, he moved with the lurching grace of a wounded gazelle, situated on a makeshift skateboard, propelling himself forward with pushes from his remaining limbs.
He was selling books on the street in Harbin, China, when I first saw him: a frightening figure with matted hair like a black swallow’s nest, hunched over an expanse of books with faded covers and torn pages, faint reminders of stories that once held audiences spellbound.
“The palest ink is better than the best memory.” Clinging unabashedly to my mother’s arm while traversing the chaotic streets of urban China, these were the first words I heard the man speak, four melodic syllables which characterize Chinese proverbs: beauty in succinctness, infinite meanings in the briefest of moments. With only a cursory understanding of such nuances and nervous jitters of an unknown environment, I all but scuttled away.
“One cannot refuse to eat just because there is a chance of being choked.”
“Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”
“We are not so much concerned if you are slow as when you come to a halt.”
Each time I passed that street corner with the broken bookseller (“Proverb Man,” my grandpa called him, adding, “He is as permanent a fixture to our province as the walls are to my home”), the more details I gleaned, the less aversion I felt for his twisted body, and the greater my curiosity grew. The next time I saw him, his proverb being something about a hare and tree, I asked in fumbling Mandarin the titles of books he carried. He answered with some unfamiliar names, and suddenly words were tumbling out of me: “Why are you here? Why do you sell books? Why do you recite proverbs?”
He looked at me, beady eyes peering out through dust and dirt, really looked, then answered, “With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.” And it was then that I began to see, peeking through cracks between his crude dialect, his rags, the dirt, and his glaring absence of limbs. Here was a man who was strong and good and kind, whose attributes could only be described with the most fundamental of adjectives in the English language.
He went on to explain, with an enviable succinctness, that he was born poor, lost limbs to infection and disease, barely survived the Communist Revolution, and salvaged what remained of his family’s books to create some sort of living. Physically torn by misfortune from an early age, distraught in mind from political discord, and economically doomed from the start, it was a miracle that such experiences had not shred his humanity to ribbons. Instead he possessed an offbeat brand of wisdom, a sense of what was right, and an innate grace that outshone his environment.
The strength of his perseverance and dedication to earn a living has stayed with me since that summer. The ability to move forward despite tremendous setbacks, to stay human and kind, to retain the ability to smile and laugh - this is a monumental achievement in an age so prone to desolation and self-pity.
If a man in rags, uneducated and crippled, can find it in himself to persevere, what excuse does that leave the rest of us? Drugs, alcohol, and giving up on one’s life seem inane choices in comparison. What is a bad test grade in the face of a missing leg, a botched relationship compared to no home?
I bought a book from this man before I returned home; its corners are rounded and its spine creased from overuse. It is a book of proverbs, and one quote is purposefully marked: “The longer the night lasts, the more our dreams will be.”