After the final shaving curled against the blade of my hand plane and dropped to the workshop floor, I lifted the wood up and caressed its surface. It was lustrous and smooth to the touch; the pattern of the grain was delicate yet clear, and it looked to be exactly the right thickness.
While I was basking in the satisfaction of what I thought to be a job well done, my mentor, standing on the other side of the room, glanced up and said leisurely, almost carelessly, “From the sound alone, I know you didn’t get it right. Does that surface look even to you?” Stung, I took out a ruler and measured. Sure enough, one side was 2 millimeters lower than the other.
I’m supposed to be building a bench. Only three days prior, the wood in my hands was lying in the corner of a warehouse; before that, it was a Chinese parasol tree, perhaps one of the thousands lining the streets of Shanghai, the city I used to call home.
In Shanghai, parasol trees are everywhere. Over the course of the seven years I spent in that city, they were a constant companion to my white-collar “laborer” existence. The crowded subway would spit me out under their branches after another day of interminable overtime, and in my rare moments of peace I might meet in their shade for some coffee with my friends. Back then, it never occurred to me to wonder what these trees were called; I certainly would never have suspected I would one day be fashioning one into a (slightly off-kilter) bench.
I moved to Shanghai after graduating from university in 2013. As one of the city’s countless corporate wage-slaves, I led a stressful, hectic life. In the mornings, I’d squeeze my way onto the subway; in the evenings, I’d work overtime. After three years of this, I decided to go back for a master’s degree at Fudan University, one of China’s best schools. In seven years, I’d moved apartments six times and worked five jobs without ever stopping to catch my breath. Although I was gradually starting to establish myself, I still felt that something wasn’t right, that the direction I was constantly running toward wouldn’t lead me where I truly desired to be. Then again, I couldn’t say for sure where that even was.
Like so many others in my generation, I wondered if studying abroad might provide a solution. But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, my TOEFL test kept being cancelled, and the study plan I had spent almost half a year preparing came to nothing. I lost all hope. My friends introduced me to all kinds of jobs, but, for whatever reason, I never landed any of them. When Shanghai’s rainy season rolled around last July, I laid in bed for two weeks straight. Movies and video games had lost all their appeal, and the meals delivered to my door seemed to grow more and more unpalatable. For the first time, I felt as though my life had reached a dead end.
A work-in-progress (left) and the finished product in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, 2020. Courtesy of Zhang Mo
That’s when I decided to study woodworking. I can’t tell you why that’s what I landed on. No one in my family is a carpenter, though I have been interested in learning how to craft furniture ever since my first year of high school. Of course, I had no sooner shared the idea with my mother when she smacked it right out of me. Still, after I pulled a “naked resignation” five years ago and quit my job with no backup plan, I found carving wooden spoons with a beginners kit helped me calm down after another long day of interviews. I can’t explain it, but something about working with wood made me calm and focused.
So it was that, last September, I decided to leave Shanghai and join a carpentry workshop in Dongyang, in the neighboring Zhejiang province. Actually, I could have studied the craft in Shanghai too, but its programs are shorter and costlier. Besides, I was desperate for a change of scenery.
Dongyang is famous in China for its woodworking industry, and it’s fair to say that my mentor, Wang Haiwu, is an extraordinary man. Now in his 50s, he worked as a farmer, a builder, a soldier, an armed policeman, and a retailer before finding his calling as a teacher. He taught himself the ins and outs of carpentry back when he was a technician working in an oil field, and it’s just one of the many skills he picked up over the course of his itinerant life. He is also proficient in machinery, making leather goods, seal-carvings, and other handicrafts. At some point he even found time to become an expert at making Tianjin-style savory pancakes.
His workshop is located on a slope in an open and densely vegetated field on the outskirts of Dongyang proper. From the windows of the dormitory, students have a panoramic view of Zhejiang’s rolling mountain ranges. That’s fitting, as the workshop operates a bit like a Buddhist monastery. The program has no fixed duration, so you can learn from your mentor when you feel like it, rest whenever you’re tired, and leave altogether once you feel like your training is complete. The tuition fee is a one-time payment of 9,800 yuan ($1,500). That may seem expensive on the surface, but it grants students lifelong membership, and accommodation and materials are free. Even the food isn’t bad.
In the nearly six months I’ve been in Dongyang, I’ve worked my way up from the very basics, gradually mastering tools such as the saw, chisel, and hand plane; as well as techniques such as butt joints, dovetail joints, and scarf joints. The objects I can make are getting more and more complex.
Left: Zhang Mo at work; Right: A desk under construction in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, 2020. Courtesy of Zhang Mo
The creation I’m most satisfied with thus far is a desk I designed myself. It took me all of three weeks, from initially designing it to applying the finishing touches. In my past work as an architect, I was able to complete conceptual plans for sites spanning up to thousands of acres in the same time. When I was an event planner, I could put together an event for thousands of people in a similar time frame. Later on, when I was working in the tech industry, three weeks would have been long enough to complete the development cycle for an entire new app.
Yet, for whatever reason, none of those accomplishments ever felt as gratifying as this desk. For once, the fruits of my labor had a real, physical presence.
In retrospect, I think it’s this physicality in woodworking that appeals to me. In past moments of frustration and depression, when I would suddenly be overcome with the urge to pick up some wood and start whittling, it was because my body was calling out to me. By allowing me to focus on one thing, it calms my mind; by forcing me to use my hands, it reconnects me with my body.
On the weekends, when the school cafeteria is closed, I’ll go into Dongyang proper or the nearby cities of Hengdian or Yiwu to eat, wander the streets, and hang out in cafés. Sometimes, my friends from Shanghai come to visit me. They’re always happy when they see how much my mental well-being has improved, and they say excessively kind things about the stuff I’m making.
But each time, they always ask: “What do you plan to do after this?” I know they still see my time spent out here as a temporary retreat and woodworking as just a form of “therapy.”
I’m starting to see the benefits of slowing down, however. China’s big cities can seem exciting, but the truth is, life moves too fast there to actually enjoy it. As in English, the Chinese word for “wood,” mu, can be used to describe someone whose reactions or responses are slow, stiff, lifeless. My existence in Dongyang likely feels boring to some, but six months of standing still has taken me closer toward finding meaning in my life than all my running around Shanghai ever did.
One night, I dreamed I was just passing through the workshop. As soon as my time here was up, I would be whisked back to the never-ending hustle of city life. A feeling of intense dread jolted me awake.
The next day, my mentor and I were working on our own projects in the workshop when he suddenly broke the silence. “Carpentry is addictive,” he said.
I let out a sigh. “Then what should I do?”
Chuckling, he responded: “All there is to do: Keep at it.”
We shared a laugh, and then turned back to the tasks at hand.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: A view of a carpentry workshop in Dongyang, Zhejiang province, 2020. Courtesy of Zhang Mo)