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His heart plunges and rises as he writes letters to heaven

TOMBSTONE engraver Wu Wenchang survived the lethal earthquake but lost his shop and many friends. Now he ekes out a living in a job that has become more demanding over the past year. Yi Ling looks at his plight.

Wu Wenchang calls himself "a letter writer," but all his letters are addressed to heaven. After 20 years, though, the tombstone engraver finds his work "very hard and painful" these days.

Normally, his hand-crafted tombstones are the last tribute to lives well-lived. "But nowadays, almost all are for the people who lost their lives in the calamity - the May 12 earthquake last year," Wu said, sitting in his shop in Xuankou, a town in the quake epicenter in Wenchuan County.

The craftsman, 46, can hardly remember how many "stone letters" he has chiseled in his life. Over time, he has learned that "death is no different from breath. Therefore, it's better to accept it than to suffer from it."

Yet, he asked: "How could I feel the same as before? So many people died in a minute."

The 8.0-magnitude quake that hit southwestern China's Sichuan Province claimed nearly 70,000 lives. More than 12,000 were from Yingxiu, a town that was home to 18,000.

Wu's home in Xuankou is less than 20 kilometers from Yingxiu. The quake took almost everything from him, including his tombstone shop, but luckily not his family of three.

With 16,000 yuan (US$2,345) in aid from the local government, and 20,000 yuan in bank loans, Wu rebuilt his shop last January, some 20 kilometers from its original location.

The new shop, a 40-square-meter bungalow, perches on a slope by the road linking the provincial capital Chengdu and Wenchuan. A black signboard with white characters reading "Wu's Tombstone Carving Shop" stands on a pile of stones outside.

Inside the shop, half-finished black tombstones lean against the wall, with golden images of dragons carved for males and phoenixes for females.

Over the past year, he said, almost all the tombstones were ordered for the quake victims of Yingxiu. "The youngest victim was a little girl of three, and the eldest was a woman over 90."

For Wu, making those tombstones was not so emotionally difficult. The hardest task was to carve one for his close friend Li Quansheng, a local pharmacy worker aged 40.

"Every time I held the chisel, his face appeared in my mind, laughing and joking on the way back home from a fishing trip," Wu recalled.

Last March, Li's family came to Wu for a tombstone. They asked Wu to finish it before the Tomb Sweeping Festival on April 4. That's the day people worship their ancestors and departed loved ones.

But Wu couldn't finish the piece on time, as he promised. It took him two weeks to finish a job that usually requires only two or three days.

'Life is tough'

"The chisel left a stroke on the stone, but also a scar in my heart. Even now, I can't believe such a nice person has gone forever," he said, burying his face in his hands. Wu once had a competitor in Yingxiu, who died in the quake. Now, Wu is the only tombstone maker for both Yingxiu and Xuankou. Even so, since the quake, Wu has received barely 20 tombstone orders, just half the number of pre-quake years.

He said he was not surprised. "Life is tough. Even the survivors have difficulty making a living. Besides, the custom here is to make gravestones three years after a person is buried."

Most tombstones in Wu's shop are made of local marlstone and a finished piece sells for 300 yuan to 400 yuan, while those made of marble or granite cost twice as much.

"Only the rich can afford the marble ones. You should not expect people in rags to be dressed in suits," said Wu.

Wu doesn't mind the slack business. His shop sells funeral articles like wreaths, incense and paper money that help him make ends meet.

In a way, he's somewhat relieved that the shop is often quiet. "With customers come painful memories of the quake."

When he gets a client, the business is done with as few words as possible. No bargaining, no chatting. The families don't want to talk about the departed, and Wu doesn't pry.

"Sometimes you may not see the pain in their faces, but you can still feel the sorrow for the permanent loss of a loved one," said Wu. The survivors usually tell Wu what they wish they could say to the dead. Wu carves that onto the tombstone.

He said his hope was to "frame customers' grief into a fitting remembrance and help the deceased rest in peace."

But it's not that easy, because no tombstone is complete without its epitaph. A traditional Chinese epitaph includes the name of the deceased, the birth and death dates, the cause of death, the names of family members and the date when the headstone was erected.

The most important thing is the "elegiac couplet," where the living express their feelings for the dead. For the quake victims, that couplet has become one of the major challenges for Wu, who now blames himself for quitting school when he was 16.

Reference book

"I don't know how to compose proper elegiac couplets for the quake victims, because I had never come across such a devastating disaster," he said.

Even the old reference book on couplets, a gift Wu's master gave to him when he finished his apprenticeship in 1987, doesn't help much.

"It does list examples for different relationships between the dead and the living, such as for parents, for friends and for children, but none of them talk about earthquakes," Wu said.

"Many local people are farmers with poor education. They prefer simple and solemn couplets," he explained.

Wu now has a brown notebook that contains 24 couplets he created especially for the quake victims. Words like "ruthless quake takes mother away, endless love lets her soul stay" have won the hearts of customers.

Of all the tombstones he has prepared, the one for a nine-year-old schoolboy with the given name Xiang ("flying") left the deepest impression on him.

At the parents' request, Wu composed a couplet that reads: "Permanent loss leaves endless pain, only tears could be a big enough sacrifice for my son."

Wu remembers Xiang's tearful mother insisting on using a full-length picture of Xiang on the headstone, although the common practice is to have just a headshot.

In the picture, Wu said, "Xiang appeared in a park, jumping high, wearing a big smile, and with arms wide open, as though he were really flying in the sky.

"I can tell the picture symbolizes Xiang well, while it says so much of his parents' love for him. I wish the tombstone will be a lasting reminder of the happy moments the family had together."


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