Maid in China


This offering was born from research I had performed to better understand global munitions marketing for a project funded by the U.S. army. As The People’s Republic of China was a major player in this fascinating enterprise, I invested considerable hours trying to understand the varied and often unconventional production techniques employed by this most energetic of peoples. As I learned that many of the "factories" producing consumer goods were located in low tech village shops using raw manual labor, I wondered what thoughts might go through the mind of an artisan routinely grinding out religious artifacts for foreign buyers. The Catholic Church has a long tradition relating how Mary, the honored Mother of Jesus, appeared to simple people to bring messages of peace and hope. I believe that Mary, the spiritual Mother of us all, takes special delight in introducing unchurched people of good faith to the kingdom of her Son.


“Does it hurt, Yiu Lin?”
Yiu Lin glanced at the stub that used to be her left hand, which she had artfully bandaged with sky blue fabric from her favorite satin scarf.
“No, Pao, it doesn’t hurt at all. I can feel my fingers move, only when I look, they are no longer there. I am very fortunate that it was not my writing hand.”
“Ah, Yiu Lin! Always looking for the pearl in the pig slop! This factory chews off your hand and you are grateful?” Pao shook his head in disgust.
“Not the factory, Pao, the cutting machine. It was my clumsiness. After all, the factory provided me another job. For that I am also grateful.”
Pao’s cynicism was the Ying of Liu’s naive Yang. “And your new job pays half the rate. And did the factory pay you during the convalescence, Miss Sun Behind the Clouds?”
Her timid smile softened a face etched with an ageless sorrow.
“But they did pay for my surgery. And now I work at a slower pace. No longer laboring with cold steel in the noise and dirty heat, but making beauty out of clay.” The terra cotta figurines magically came alive under the practiced hand of Liu’s delicate brush strokes.
“Perhaps my misfortune is truly fortune. Do not the gods smile on me?”
“But no, Yiu Lin! Before you were making useful implements for industry and you could save money to afford a son. Surely this must anger your husband? Now you paint trinkets for fat, rich Americans. If there are gods, may they be damned to the Christian’s hell! They do not smile, they laugh at you!”
Yiu Lin suppressed a tear behind her expressionless fa├žade. It was true; she and Liang could not afford a child for many more months now. She lost herself in the figure before her. It depicted a kneeling mother, cradling a squirming, naked baby boy in her right arm, her left hand extended in supplication. The bearded father leaned on a staff, looking lovingly down on the child. A cow and a donkey peered over their shoulders. It was a dreamy, peaceful scene. And the lady’s garment was to be painted sky blue, the color of her satin bandage.
“Why do the Americans require so many of these items? Who is this family we paint?”
For a quota of 100 completed figurines, the hand painters received the equivalent of one dollar and seventy five cents, less than half of the four dollar daily wage made on the assembly line.
“It is their Christian god. This depicts his birth. Some god! Look, he is born in a barn!”
Yiu Lin contemplated this information, and with new care and reverence, she applied great detail to fleshing the baby. She had met two Americans once. They were Christians, so was this their god? Such a strange story. She did not meet her quota that day.
As the week progressed, Yiu Lin pondered further on the little families molded from the terra cotta. The face of the lady became hers in miniature, as she considered the emotions that surely flooded the lady’s being. What does the mother of a god think, as she considers the future of a divine son? Surely it is sad to have such a son born in a barn. Yiu Lin knew sorrow, and poverty was her constant companion. She yearned for the serenity she painted into the figure’s features.
“Pao, how do you come to know of the Christian god and his family?”
Pao drew out a crooked, gap toothed grin. “My grandfather went to missionary school before the Revolution. The Christian priests and nuns taught all of their mythology. Grandfather would delight us with these stories.”
“When was this Christian god born? And where did this birth occur?”
Pao paused, to search his memory. “I think it was in the Xin dynasty. In a place called Bethlehem.”
Yiu Lin arched an eyebrow. She knew of Bethlehem, having heard the name mentioned often in association with her manufacturing job which purchased scrap from there.
“You mean the city in Pennsylvania in America? It didn’t exist in the Xin dynasty.”
“No, silly girl, in Israel – the land of the Jews. The Christian god is a Jew.”
Yiu Lin knew of the Jews. They paid high prices for Chinese weapons in their fight against the Arabs. A brave, sad, and desperate people.
“So is this baby also a Jewish god?”
“Hah! The Jews rejected him. The authorities nailed him to a wooden cross. Naked, writhing before his tormentors. A public spectacle. Some god, heh?”
But Yiu Lin could only think of the mother witnessing the spectacle, bearing the disgrace, sharing the pain. She devoted more detail to the lady’s features, trying to bring out new dimensions of feeling.
As she left the factory at the last bell, Yiu Lin noticed a damaged, unfinished figurine lying in the scrap bin. She picked it up to examine. Except for the extended left hand, which had broken off, it was identical to the hundreds she had painted in the past week.

     “Yiu Lin”, her husband queried, “what so absorbs you. You hardly spoke as we ate our meal.”
Yiu Lin was in her corner, at a small desk, working with her brushes on the damaged figurine.
“Do you take work home with you? Do you get extra pay for this?”
As he peered over her shoulder, she explained as much of the myth as she had gleaned from Pao.
“Perhaps next time, we too will have a son, Yiu Lin. Do you ever think of our little one?”
‘Little One’ was the closest term he could muster to reference their first born, Xiao Hong. A plump baby girl. That was four years ago.
“I think of her every day. I see her face as it grows and changes. I wonder if she is happy.” And, as a tender afterthought she added, “And I honor you, my dear Liang, for letting her live, for giving her a new life in another land. Perhaps she will yet bring honor to your name.”
       “No, Yiu Lin.  She can only bring honor to the name of her new father in America.”  He reflected bitterly on their shared grief, so seldom spoken.  “It is wrong what we are forced to do.  It is unnatural.  It is evil.”
As did most couples, when Yiu Lin’s first pregnancy became evident, they paid handsomely for the illegal test to determine the gender of their child.  Non-agrarian couples were only allowed one child, so ninety-five percent of detected female pregnancies were aborted.  Although frowned upon by government and the local community, for it shed light on China’s shameful population control policies, they quietly brokered an adoption to a childless American couple. 
So unlike any people she had ever seen before!  Light hair and skin, round blue eyes.  When she handed over her precious Xiao Hong to the smiling Americans, a part of her heart was handed over as well.  Like her missing hand whose fingers still moved, there was still a stirring in her empty heart.  The only thing she remembered from the translator was ‘Living Hope’, the name of the agency that brokered the adoption.  Yiu Lin planted that tiny seed in her wounded spirit, for Xiao Hong was her ‘Morning Rainbow’, her hope for the future.
“You see, my husband, the Blue Lady understands our pain, for Pao told me many authorities sought her child’s life.  And now, she is my Blue Lady With One Hand, my sister and patroness.  I will build a little shrine in my corner.  Perhaps, if her son truly is a god, he will look after our Xiao Hong.”
But Liang only shook his head sadly.  He was not a religious man, and like Pao, believed that if there were gods, they were capricious and to be despised.  But he would not prevent Yiu Lin any comfort she could derive from her clay figure.
After three weeks the painting of Nativity figurines ended, to be replaced by a new stream of crouching Spidermen.  Because of the simplicity of form and color, the daily quota for the new objects increased to 200.
“Pao, why do we no longer paint the Lady with her god-son?”  Yiu Lin had painted over two thousand figures, each one representing a deeper bond with the mysterious mother.
“Silly girl.  Those were for the American Christmas feast in December.  Products need to be packaged and distributed to stores so the fat Americans can buy their Christmas trinkets.”
“Christmas?” asked Yiu Lin out loud, “Is that the feast with the lighted evergreen tree?  It honors the birth of the Jewish god son?”
“Yes, of course.  But the Americans tell their children that another god comes at night and puts gifts under the tree.  Silly lies, but good for us.  We make many gifts out of worthless scrap and clay.  For that, perhaps the Americans think we are gods, eh!  Hah, hah!”
Christmas.  Yiu Lin’s only link to Xiao Hong was the annual picture, sent by her American parents.  The child stood smiling in her western clothing in front of her western parents.  And behind them all, the large lighted evergreen tree.  The pictures took on new meaning in light of the event they celebrated. 
Her three precious photos were wrapped in soft paper, in the back of a small drawer at her work desk at home.  She took care to shield them from Liang, for the memory of his lost daughter brought him a pain that Yiu Lin could not ease.  It would be several months before the next one arrived, with the many stamps and strange characters covering the stiff envelope that contained yet another glimpse of her Morning Rainbow.
Sometime in mid-January, the annual Christmas card arrived.  Yiu Lin cautiously retreated to her corner, before her little shrine to the Blue Lady Who Understood Her Pain.  Deftly, she opened the envelope with her single hand.  And there was Xiao Hong’s beautiful face.  A bit older, wiser, radiating the excitement and joy of the Christian holiday.  The smiling Americans were unchanged from previous photos.  The ubiquitous tree was still evergreen and gaily lit. 
Yiu Lin’s missing fingers suddenly tingled as she felt the warmth of another hand taking hers.  There, off to the side, on top of a table fringed with cards was a hand-painted Nativity figurine, the familiar Madonna draped in sky blue, her tiny hand extended in invitation.