China’s Seven Armless Scholars

Seven Armless Scholars article

The “Seven Armless Scholars” is the nickname of a group of seven highly respected Chinese artists who live in different regions of China. Although each lost his arms to accidents early in life, each went on to study calligraphy and painting and is now a celebrated artist. In lieu of arms, they instead use their feet and mouths to paint and draw. Their nickname is no mere coincidence either. The moniker is derived from another culturally historical group called “The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” a famous group of Chinese scholars, artists and musicians who lived during the Wei Jin Dynasty in AD 280. In their essays, poems, and paintings, these unconventional scholars satirized the hypocritical court officers of Sima’s high court, thus leaving a powerful influence on future scholars. Just as the Seven Sages left a lasting footprint on future generations, so too are the seven extraordinary “Armless Scholars.”
Weiqiang Chen

At 48, Weiqiang Chen is the oldest of the group. I knew his name from news stories after he was invited to exhibit his paintings at the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008, and then later the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 and the Beijing Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference in 2014. But it wasn’t until May of 2015 that I met him for the first time in Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province about 800 miles east of Beijing. Wearing a shirt with sleeves, Weiqiang Chen was very handsome with thick eyebrows and slightly long curly hair. In a gentle voice, he told me about the “Seven Armless Scholars,” explaining that they had worked together for years and were now ready to establish their own museum.

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Five months later, on October 18, the Seven Armless Chinese Art Museum officially opened in Shangyu district, Shaoxing. In news reports, Weiqiang Chen and the six other artists attended the opening ceremony dressed in traditional long Chinese robes. Many people watched them paint using their mouths. Chen Weiqiang, who serves as the curator of the museum, is well loved for his warm and generous nature.

The museum’s location in Shaoxing, a city surrounded by beautiful rivers and mountains, was meaningful to the artists for its rich cultural history. It was once the home of two great artists: Xizhi Wang, who lived during the Jin Dynasty (265-420) and is known as the Sage of Calligraphy, and writer Xun Lu (1881-1936), a leading figure of modern Chinese literature.

Weiqiang Chen was born about twenty miles east of Shaoxing in 1967. At 5, he lost both of his arms in a high-voltage electrical accident. At first, his parents told him to eat more food, so he would grow new arms. But he later realized that his body would never grow new arms. So to cope, he used his mouth and feet to write, open books, make phone calls, and dress himself. Years later, he grew confident enough to study calligraphy and painting.

The beauty of his paintings, which evokes a strong foundation in the style of traditional Chinese landscape painting, amazes most people. Cool watercolors and rich oils depict mountains, rivers and sky. His calligraphy reflects the countryside as well with his use of thick brush strokes combined with an earthy, rustic style. His recognition as an artist reaches well beyond China’s borders to the US, Brazil, South Korea, Japan, and other countries where he’s exhibited his work.

China's Seven Armless Scholars

The Six Others

Zhigang hails from Lijiang in Yunnan Province. Although he and Weiqiang Chen are the same age, he is the most famous of the group. Growing up near snow-capped mountains, he excelled at sports and calligraphy. Zhigang eventually opened a bookstore in Lijiang where he displays his artwork. Because so many find his calligraphy inspiring, his bookstore has become a local attraction. His sports’ achievements are well known. In Yunnan Province, he won first place in track and field at the first, second, and third National Sports Event for the Disabled. He’s been awarded ten national awards: the “Top Ten Outstanding Youth,” the “National Self-improvement Model,” and the “May 1st Labor Medal.”

Guofou Huang
I met Guofu Huang at Zhigiang’s bookstore. Born and raised in Chongqing, Guofou Huang sold his paintings on street corners

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for many years in order to survive. Then he discovered his art sold well in Buddhist temples, so in 1997 he became a monk at the Huayan Temple where he continues to paint and meditate daily. His favorite subjects are drawn from childhood memories of the striking Chongqing’s mountains and quaint villages.

Jing Zhao
Jing Zhao grew up in Dingyuan in Anhui Province. He was the youngest to lose his arms and the vision in his right eye in a mining accident at 18. His left eye’s vision is also very poor. He told me that he uses his mouth to write because it’s the only way for him to see his own writing. After years of studying and practicing Chinese calligraphy, he is considered to be the most accomplished calligrapher in China.

Jinghua Ding
Jinghua Ding is the most active of the seven and a joker by nature. He has a studio in Xun Lu’s historic old home, a major tourist attraction in Shaoxing. He uses his mouth to hold a pen and writes beautifully on fans, which have become a favorite souvenir of tourists.

Xiaofeng Gui
Xiaofeng Gui is from Nanxun in Zhejiang Province. He uses his mouth and feet to draw and paint beautiful flowers and birds. His use of a small brush to write calligraphy attracts many admirers. He also creates customized carved seals—the equivalent of a signature in China.

Xiaohua Shi
Although Xiaohua Shi is the youngest, he is the most experienced. He has studied calligraphy, voice, and dance since he was a child. He became an actor in China’s Disabled Art Troupe when he was just a teenager. As the founder of the Starlight Disabled Troupe in his hometown of Rugao in Jiangsu Province, he organizes many performances throughout the year.

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Seven Armless Scholars

The seven happily married artists work hard to promote education and inspire people with disabilities. Zhejiang Huaxin Culture Co., donated 10 million yuan ($1.7 million) to build the Chinese Seven Armless Art Museum in Shaoxing. It not only houses the artists’ works, but serves as a platform to promote special art projects in calligraphy and paintings. Open art classes are offered to local teenagers to learn calligraphy & painting and participate in international cultural exchange activities. In 2015, the museum donated one million yuan ($167,000) to disadvantaged communities in mountain villages in Yulong County to establish the Seven Armless Artists Hope Elementary School. No doubt, the Seven Armless Scholars will continue to inspire throughout China and beyond.

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by Yong Zhang

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.

Read more articles from the Chris Wood Issue.

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