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Opium, marble & clay, a love story

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Old Photo of Hankow Customs Building

Around 170 years ago the British imposed opium upon the Chinese by force. The Chinese textbooks will tell you this is a total disaster for the people. I will tell you a different story.

The British navy opened all kinds of ports of trade on Chinese soil and declared the Yangtze, an interior river, international waters. My hometown was one of those trading ports. When the Brits came they had a big problem: No one locally can build their marble and stone building. As it turned out, my great grandfather who lived in the neighbouring province of Hunan was the only man for the job. So he uprooted his family and travels on river barges to the new city to work with a strange people. They spoke incomprehensible languages and had foreign customs. They wore weird hats and ate non-foods. This is how the Wang’s of Hunan migrated to Hubei.

On my mother side of the family the story is quite different. They were wealthy silk merchants in Chengdu. When Opium flooded China my maternal great grandfather got addicted and got his daughter addicted. Family wealth drained away by opium den debts and they were forced out of their ancestral home. At their lowest point, three generations were living under one thatched hut and slept on hay and mud bricks. They didn’t have money for matches so they made fire by stone. When the elder son, my maternal grandfather died due to injuries from a house fire, they finally decided to send their daughters away to a neighbouring province. This is how the Liu’s came to Hubei. Two bloodlines are to meet there many years later.

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Hankow Customs Building during construction

The Wang’s fortune didn’t last. My great grandfather underbid everyone else and went bankrupt half way through the project. He worked on smaller projects and became a Freemason Hall Master. His son, my grandfather hung around marble and tools every day so he was naturally taken to sculpting. Grandfather became an accomplished sculptor in the city. He worked on statues of Jesus for western cemeteries and churches as well as goddesses for Chinese gardens and temples. Grandpa spoke fluent English even though he has never left China. He taught art in provincial academy and invented his own sculpture tools. This is how the Wang’s became artists.

The Liu’s bad luck couldn’t persist neither. My maternal uncle enlisted in the army and became a communist party member. The family scraped by with state support. My mother and aunt lived away in boarding schools. Even though the Lius were spread all over southwestern China, they stayed a tight knit group. Because they were all told of a legend. The Liu’s of Chengdu are of Royal lineage tracing back to the period of the Three Kingdoms. Liu Bei the king of the Shu is said to be our ancestor. Remnants of his palace and tomb is still in Chengdu today. This is how the Liu’s stayed together and came to respect history.

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Tomb of Liu Bei in Chengdu

Now comes my story. I was born at the junction of two great rivers. The Wang’s and the Liu’s converged in me. Art and history intertwined. I was only a baby when my grandfather passed away. But Mother told me a touching story.¬† She would pass me to grandpa after work. He held me lovingly on his lap while mother changed out of her work cloth. When it was time to change my diaper grandpa was always reluctant to let go and pleaded for more time: “Really? Is it time already?” I was loved like a pearl upon his palm.

My grandpa was a famous sculptor during the Cultural Revolution. He was forced to make many sculptures of people’s new god: Mao. In his eighties grandpa made a small white marble urn for his own ashes. When the red guards raided our home they claim to have found Mao’s face and the urn stored in the same cupboard. Grandpa was labelled a capitalistic anti-revolutionary. His old dealings with the foreigners and his fluent English were supporting evidences. It was hell for the next few years. My grandma’s head was shaved and then paraded through the streets with pointy paper hat and a sign around her neck confessing her “crimes”. My father was exiled to the countryside where he ate pickled watermelon peels to stay alive. This is how I came to distrust authorities and to hate extreme political ideologies. This is why the Wang’s eventually left China to seek friendlier skies overseas.

My grandpa left me before I can say his name. But he did leave me something of value: his artbooks and his sculpture tools. Before I learned to read I was reading his art books. All of them in english and was illustrated beautifully. Before I can play with blocks I played with his tools and wondered what they do. Gradually, grandpa’s artistic spirit found a new home in me.

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Zen’s great grandfather’s seal, the one on the left is a mysterious Masonic seal.

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Zen’s Sculpture tools, the wooden ones in the centre are from his grandfather.

Fast-forward to present day. I was art directing a TV show and we needed a statue of a Chinese god called Guanyu. He is based on a real life general from the Three Kingdom’s period. He is also called Second Brother. And who is the First Brother is? None other than Liu Bei, my maternal ancestor. We couldn’t find an existing statue to our specifications so I jokingly said I could make it, if I had the time. As fate would have it, COVID-19 hits Canada, now I had the time and no more excuses.

So the clay statue of Guanyu was created by Zen, a descendant of Liu Bei (Guanyu’s sworn brother from 1800 years ago). Zen used his grandpa’s tools which was an indirect result of the Wang’s marble and masonry business. The Wang’s came to this business because of the results of the Opium Wars 170 years ago. Opium, Marble and Clay came together in a symphony of fate. The Liu’s of Chengdu and the Wang’s of Hunan converged through a river of events. East and west mingled with ghostly spirits.

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Finishing the Statue

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Details of Guanyu Statue

This is a story of suffering, of defeat, of humiliation, but it is also a story of rewards, of triumphs and of pride. The Journey took a long time and wandered through dark, cold and windy depressing valleys, underneath leaky roofs without matches for a fire; but it also came over sunny ridges full of giggling grandchildren on the lap, rice wine and fried peanuts on the table. The story of the statue of Guanyu is the story of China, the story of mankind. I am honoured to be part of it. I am proud of my talents, my skills, my lineage, my calling and my spirit within. I am Zen, son of Zhiwei Wang and Xiaozhu Liu, descendants of two great clans, I am a storyteller and this one is mine.

I hope you enjoyed my story. I believe we all have amazing stories. If we are willing to listen, to dig, to share. What is your family story? Leave a comment below.

If you enjoyed this story please follow my blog by clicking the Follow button to the top right. Share the blog by clicking the buttons below. Thank you for letting me tell you a story.

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