In which our intrepid hero comes to appreciate his household kitsch.

I’m currently reading (amongst other things) The Chinese Have a Word for It, by Boyé Lafayette de Mente, a fascinating study of anthropology, history and linguistics focusing primarily on mainland China.

Under the entry for Da Yue Jin ("Great Leap Forward"), de Mente relates the following tale:

Mao ordered every village in the country to build a large furnace to smelt iron ore and iron implements, and make steel. […] The whole country was set to collecting every piece of metal that could be found, resulting in families turning in their metal kitchen utensils and even the knobs off their doors.

Millions of farmers left their fields and began constructing smelters out of mud, plaster and brick. Within a year, more than one million smelters had been built. But in the end the steel that was produced by the smelters was such low grade that none of it could be used.

Except, perhaps, in sword blades. I have a set of three swords that I bought a few years back that I keep on top of a display cabinet near the front door; most visitors mistake them for "samurai swords". A quick look at the shape of the blades (not to mention the workmanship) can tell an enthusiast that these blades are, in fact, of Chinese make.

The steel is impossible to keep clean and rusts at every available opportunity. They look okay, so long as they stay sheathed; the dull grey blades (occasionally with a red-brown patina of rust) aren’t exactly attractive. As I tell visitors, they’re made of crappy Chinese steel. I’ve always had a disregard for Chinese steel, but I never really knew why it had such a poor reputation. Until now.

Still, the thought that the blades atop my display cabinet may once have been part of a much-beloved, broken-down tractor, and/or someone’s grandma’s favourite wok, makes me feel that I should probably take better care of them than I do. They’re history, molten down into slag and extruded into a vaguely sword-like shape.

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