Paid in Full

(Author’s note: This piece is based on an article by Jeffrey E. Singer and Kirk Semple published in the January 3, 2015 edition of The New York Times. All interpretations and opinions are my own.)


Such is freedom’s siren song that it empowered a forty-nine year old teacher and well-respected calligrapher to leave the life he knew in Toishan, China and take passage half-way around the globe to Brooklyn. Twenty-four years passed as Zhao Ru toiled in a life of relative obscurity working in local garment factories and Chinese restaurants.


Last month, another Chinese immigrant, police officer Wenjian Liu and his partner, Rafael Ramos were struck down by an assassin as they sat parked in their patrol car on a Bedford-Stuyvesant street. Mr. Zhao instinctively knew what his mission was to be, “I could use my calligraphy to memorialize the officer. What a pity it is. He was such a good police officer. He was an only son.”


Acting on his own, Mr. Zhao began contemplating his task to create the funeral scroll that would be a vital piece of the fallen officer’s wake and service. He had done this before and he was used to being hired by friends and family of deceased individuals to create works that would ease their burden and provide inspiration. But this was different, Mr. Zhao knew he had to reach deeply within himself to create the symbols that said what must be said.


And so on Friday, January 2, 2015, he left his Bay Ridge home and set out on the streets of Brooklyn carrying his bamboo brushes and rough drafts in a canvas bag. His first stopped at the Xinhua Bookshop and Stationery Supply in Sunset Park where Jerry Lin helped him select the ink and paper. After some confusion, Mr. Zhao explained, “This is for Wenjian Liu.”


Mr. Lin, who like many others who mourned Officer Liu in this tightly-linked Brooklyn Chinese community, was staggered by this revelation and insisted all material…”is on the house.”


Mr. Zhao also spent time with Dick Chen Lee, a feng shui master from his home town in Toishan. He sort out Mr. Lee’s guidance to help him find the inspiration to write the scrolls before going to the Aievoli Funeral Home in Bensonhurst. For three hours Mr. Zhao crafted three scrolls that he would hang across a significant threshold in the home.


On the two scrolls that would form the vertical columns on either side of the threshold, Mr. Zhao drew seven Chinese characters. One set of characters proclaimed, “In the sphere of law enforcement his vision is left unrealized.” The other read, “For his service to the people, his name will forever be cherished in our hearts.” Mr. Zhao drew four characters on the third scroll that he placed across the top of the threshold: “A model for all police.”


Stepping back from his work, Mr. Zhao explained that “(Officer Liu’s) spirit had moved me to conjure this work.” The dead officer’s spirit had such a powerful affect that gave Mr. Zhao the inspiration he needed. “I rarely see a calligrapher who makes characters of this quality. Without this, the room would lack the high quality of the life he led.”

Officer Liu had given his life to protect the freedom Mr. Zhao had sought 24 years ago and Mr. Zhao had selflessly used his talent to repay that debt.