Someday, a great monument in Washington may bear the name of Lei Yixin. For now, you can find him down a pockmarked road in a grungy industrial suburb of this Chinese provincial capital.
The monument won't be built to honor Lei, who is scarcely famous in his own hometown, much less the United States. It is being built in memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and will rise along Washington's Tidal Basin, between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials.
Lei's role is to carve the statue of King that will be the centerpiece of the tribute. His selection as sculptor for the prominent memorial honoring the U.S. civil rights leader has outraged some who believe that an African-American, or at least an American, should have gotten the job.
"This is an AMERICAN monument - not a Communist Chinese one!!" declared one entry on a Web site, kingisours.com, that is devoted to the controversy. Said another, "Can I just say one word? 'Outsourcing.' "
Ed Dwight, a prominent African-American sculptor who says he was pushed aside in favor of Lei, said the backers of the King memorial told him they hoped the choice of a Chinese sculptor would persuade the Chinese government to give $25-million to the King memorial fund, which has a target of $100-million.
Rica Orszag, a spokeswoman for the King memorial foundation, said that was not true.
The decision to select Lei was based solely "on his artistic ability and experience carving large-scale granite projects,'' she said. "... We did not select a sculptor based on politics, country of origin or financial incentives."
The man at the center of this hullabaloo could hardly be less ruffled. Lei, 53, is one of a small number of sculptors recognized as "masters" by the Council of China, in effect making him a living national treasure.
Although sympathetic to his American detractors, Lei is serenely confident that he was the best choice for the job as King's sculptor.
"They love Martin Luther King - I understand," he said. "But ..."
He rose and led a visitor to a wall plastered with photographs of King.
"Okay, here," he said, pointing to pictures of two statues of the assassinated civil rights leader, one in Buffalo, N.Y., the other at Morehouse College in Atlanta, King's alma mater. With his glasses perched halfway down his nose, Lei's eyes registered something between distaste and disdain.
"These sculptures were done by Americans," he said. "It's not fair that I judge them, but you can tell for yourself. I've seen sculptures of Martin Luther King in America, and none of them was perfect. I think I can do better."
The King memorial, which is expected to be completed in 2008 or 2009, was authorized by legislation President Bill Clinton signed in 1996. Dwight, who has designed a number of memorials in honor of King, was hired to design the statuary. But Dwight says he acknowledged from the outset that he couldn't sculpt large pieces of granite, and suggested the design committee find someone to work under him who could.
The choice immediately rubbed some people wrong, partly because of who he was and partly because of who he wasn't: an African-American. Making things messier was the fact that Dwight was relieved of his duties after raising objections about an early tweak of his design by Lei.
Gilbert Young, an African-American artist who lives in King's hometown, Atlanta, said the news that a Chinese man had been picked for the job "was just a slap in the face." He started the "King Is Ours" Web site to bring attention to the issue.
"We've been sold out; our culture has been sold out," Young said in a telephone interview.
He said the King memorial ought to have a big sign stamped on it: "Made in China."
Harry E. Johnson, a Houston lawyer who is president of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, said none of that is the real point.
"Lei was chosen because he can carve stone that's 30 feet high," he said.