7/50 – The Chicken Claw Tree (and his army of stick beasts)

I remember the day quite vividly. It was the week after Christmas and we had been invited by our office to a lunch at an individual hotpot restaurant. I was quite ill at the time and the lunch experience was miserable, but through strong concentration I managed to make it through the meal. When we returned to the university we were greeted by a fallen comrade—the Chicken Claw Tree.

Strong gusts of wind had knocked down our once glorious friend, and now dozens of comrades dressed in camo fatigues were descending upon him with chainsaws in order to, we expected, turn him into firewood. We shed a mournful tear, but quickly went back to our daily duties as teachers (i.e. playing table tennis and drinking beer).

Later that night as we were walking to dinner it became clear that the Chicken Claw Tree had not been destroyed as we’d imagined. No, it had instead been resurrected. They had cut his limbs from his body and painted the wounds green. Using several rope tethers, they placed the tree back into the ground. For the next few days we joked about the futile attempt—its root system had been severely damaged and it seemed to have no way to gain new nutrients. Moreover, it hadn’t rained in Kaifeng since September…How could they expect this method of madness to produce results?

We were further astounded when we noticed that all around the university they were planting sticks in the ground. Trees just over 6 feet tall with all their branches removed and their roots neatly trimmed were being placed into holes several feet deep. Hundreds of them. We foreigners grew puzzled: ‘this is not how one should grow trees…’ we thought to ourselves.

Well… the top of the Chicken Claw Tree is sprouting now. We believe it’s an act of desperation, but who can be sure? Many of the smaller trees on campus are leaning and falling into buildings. It’s not hard to believe that this will be the eventual fate of the stick-trees which have been planted this season. Tree-magic or tree-madness? You be the judge.

To me, these trees will always stand as a reminder of my own frustration with the Chinese system. The Chicken Claw Tree became a symbol of the inability of the Chinese system to knock down old and inefficient methods and replace them with spry newer modes of thought. Rather than planting a fresh new tree in the location, they opted instead to resurrect a tree with a severely damaged root system and with no branches. A truly hideous looking beast in one of the most looked upon locations on campus.

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