By James Palmer
In our apartment in central Beijing, we fight a daily rearguard action against entropy. The mirror on my wardrobe came off its hinges six months ago and is now propped up against the wall, one of many furnishing casualties. Each of our light fittings takes a different bulb, and a quarter of them are permanently broken. In the bedroom, the ceiling-high air-conditioning unit runs its moisture through a hole knocked in the wall, stuffed with an old cloth to avoid leakage, while the balcony door, its sealant rotted, has a towel handy to block the rain when it pours through. On the steps outside our door, I duck my head every day to avoid the thick tangle of hanging wires that brings power and the internet; when the wind is up, connections slow as cables swing.
The apartment is five years old. By Chinese standards, it’s far better than the average. Our toilet works, while in many of my friends’ houses, flushing the loo is a hydraulic operation akin to controlling the Nile floods. The sockets do not flash blue sparks when plugged in, and all but two work. None of the lightbulbs have ever exploded; and the mirror merely broke away, rather than falling spontaneously from the frame. The shower is not placed next to the apartment’s central wiring and protected by nothing more than rotting drywall.
I am a believer in Hilaire Belloc’s 1911 epigram:
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan.
I barely qualify as wealthy, even in China, and artisans are few and preciously guarded. Most of the time, when I’ve called in help, I’ve been left standing in a flooded bathroom with a panicked 20-year-old assuring me that he thinks he can get the pipe back on.
My time in China has taught me the pleasure and value of craftsmanship, simply because it’s so rare. To see somebody doing a job well, not just for its own reward, but for the satisfaction of good work, thrills my heart; it doesn’t matter whether it’s cooking or candle-making or fixing a bike. When I moved house some years ago, I watched with genuine delight as three wiry men stripped my old apartment to the bone in 10 minutes, casually balancing sofas and desks on their backs and packing the van as tightly as a master Tetris player.
But such scenes are an unusual treat. (And, after losing the card for my master movers, the next time I shifted house, the moving team did a fine imitation of the Three Stooges.) Instead, the prevailing attitude is chabuduo, or ‘close enough’. It’s a phrase you’ll hear with grating regularity, one that speaks to a job 70 per cent done, a plan sketched out but never completed, a gauge unchecked or a socket put in the wrong size. Chabuduo is the corrosive opposite of the impulse towards craftmanship, the desire, as the sociologist Richard Sennett writes in The Craftsman (2008), ‘to reject muddling through, to reject the job just good enough’. Chabuduo implies that to put any more time or effort into a piece of work would be the act of a fool. China is the land of the cut corner, of ‘good enough for government work’.
Picture: RudolfSimon (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons