Inside a cavernous studio in this steamy inland city, Lei Yixin is molding clay into the shape of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lei scrutinizes every inch...

Share story

CHANGSHA, China — Inside a cavernous studio in this steamy inland city, Lei Yixin is molding clay into the shape of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lei scrutinizes every inch of the models — the direction of King’s gaze, the crinkle of his clothes, the way his arms are folded — knowing that the final product will make its home among the other great American monuments in Washington.

For China’s artists, the selection of Lei as the lead sculptor for the project, to be unveiled in 2009 on the national Mall in Washington, D.C., is a triumphant moment. It is a recognition of how rapidly their status has progressed in the generation that has grown up since the repressive years of the Cultural Revolution.

Not everyone feels this way.

Atlanta resident Lea Winfrey Young says the “outsourcing” by U.S. companies and organizations to China has gone too far. She and her husband, painter Gilbert Young, are leading critics who argue that an African American — or any American — should head such an important project.

“Dr. King’s statue is to be shipped here in a crate that supposedly says ‘Made in China.’ That’s just obscene,” Winfrey Young said.

By awarding the contract to a Chinese artist, the foundation financing the project has touched on sensitivities at the core of U.S.-Sino relations: nationalism, racism and worries about what China’s emergence as an economic and cultural world power means for America.

A former adviser for the memorial has accused the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation of promoting Lei to head artist in hopes of getting a $25 million donation from the Chinese government to compensate for a funding shortfall. In a 13-page critique, Ed Dwight, a sculptor who has created seven King memorials, called Lei’s proposed statue a “shrinking, shriveled inadequate personage.”

Dwight, 73, said in an interview that the model Lei submitted to the foundation “didn’t look like Martin Luther King. He had a whole bunch of wrinkles and great big bulky clothes. It wasn’t right.”

Harry E. Johnson Sr., president of the foundation, denies ever asking Chinese officials or companies for money. Scouts for the foundation spotted Lei’s work at a sculpting workshop in St. Paul, Minn., and approached him, Johnson said. The sole criterion was artistic ability: Lei’s skill at capturing personalities in sculptures, expertise in hewing granite, and extensive experience with large public monuments.

“This is no different from the Houston Rockets working with Yao Ming, or Jackie Chan in Hollywood movies,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to take the stand to say African Americans can only work on this project. We appreciate the diversity we have.”

Johnson emphasized that Lei was selected by a design team of mostly African Americans and is collaborating with Jon Onye Lockard, a painter and a University of Michigan lecturer, and Louisville-based sculptor Ed Hamilton, both African American.

Lockard said that Dwight had been vying for the position of head sculptor and is simply “a sore loser.”

In Lei’s hometown of Changsha, capital of Hunan province, talk of the controversy in the United States draws not anger but bewilderment.

Wasn’t it King’s dream to end all racism? Lei asked. “He has always dreamed that people from all over the world will not be judged by the color of their skin — that we would all be brothers and sisters and enjoy equal opportunity. Now I have the luck to get this opportunity.”

The art world in China is booming. Galleries from Shanghai to London and New York sell the work of contemporary Chinese artists for thousands of dollars. Opportunities for sculptors are especially numerous, thanks to an unprecedented construction boom: Even small towns are clamoring for monuments honoring local heroes. More than 150 public monuments bear Lei’s name.

Lei usually spends just a few months on one project but will take 18 for the King memorial, which he describes as “the most important work of my life.”

Lei, 53, has buried himself in King’s readings and speeches. Ultimately, Lei’s interpretation was this: Martin Luther King was a great man but also an ordinary man. “He is short and doesn’t stand out in a crowd,” he said. “But when his voice comes out, he’s a leader. His charisma has attracted millions of Americans to follow his cause.”

So in his first clay model, Lei showed King standing, arms folded across his chest, his left hand grasping a pen. The goal, Lei said, is “when you see the statue of Martin Luther King, you might think of the injustices around the world, which call for our collaborative efforts … to bring to justice the things that King himself was unable to finish.”

The Washington Post researcher Wu Meng contributed to this report.