Zhou Yunpeng is a poet and folk singer. He was born in 1970 in the city of Shenyang, in China’s Liaoning Province. He lost the ability to see at the age of nine, learned to play the guitar at 15, went to college at 19, started writing poems at 21 and started leading a nomad’s lifestyle at 24. Temporarily residing in the city of Shaoxing, Zhejiang, he made his living by singing and playing the guitar.
Through his involvement with a charity event called “Red Bulldozer” for children who are blind, he was nominated as one of the candidates for “2010 Mr. Fashion”. In 2011, his ballad, “A love that can’t talk,” won the People’s Literature Award in the category of best ballads. Yunpeng reminisces about growing up blind, how blindness is often perceived and what it’s like to be celebrated artist.
I remember being in a small cottage off an alleyway in the Tiexi District. My father is lying down on the warm side of a heated brick bed crying, while my mother is on the less heated part of the bed doing the same. When I crawl to my dad’s side of the bed, he says to go to mom. When I crawl to my mom’s side of the bed, she says to go to dad. Since the beginning of my life, this scene has remained frozen in my memory bank. It was on this day the doctor diagnosed me with glaucoma.
Later, after traveling thousands of miles to find a cure and trying numerous kinds of medicine, I still lost my ability to see. I lost my vision in Shanghai. I am fortunate to have seen such a brilliant city before losing my vision. My last two visual memories are: watching elephants play the harmonica at the Shanghai Zoo and seeing Shanghai’s flashy skyline at night while riding on a big ship.
Accept that it exists; accept that you won’t be able to surpass it.
Reporters care so much about how I “can’t see” that they often ask me, “This topic must be difficult for you. Please describe to me what you were thinking when you first lost your vision at the age of nine.” If you word it this way, I will start to think of it as difficult. They are asking this question with the premise that people who are blind have a lower status, even though these are people who are just as merciful and just as filled with curiosity.
People who are blind are also concerned with how much they “can’t see,” which is why they often put on a brave front and say that they’ve “never felt any different from anybody else.” Even now, I still feel very different from other people. When I stumble on a rock while walking in the street, I am reminded of what I lack. That feeling permeates through me, making me feel that I am unable to go beyond my disability. The biggest anxiety is how one will hobble through the crowd with a blind cane. In the meantime, one also has to keep in mind not to run into the table or step on a little girl’s toe.
We try very hard to be just like everyone else. For example, we write like famous authors such as Mo Yan and Zhang Ailing. These famous authors write in a world that does not have any feeling for what a person who is blind goes through. If that’s not you, then you cannot reach that height. If you want to be an ordinary person, then start living life from the angle of your own unique perspective.
When you start writing from the angle of a person who is blind, then that’s when you truly become like an ordinary person. If you can’t see, then you can’t see. This is your obstacle and also your direction; don’t try so hard to erase this fact. For instance, in my music, my disability is my unique perspective. Also, look at Shi Tiesheng. Nobody sees him as a disabled writer. People remember him as a writer, even a great writer; everything else is secondary information.
In literary works, people who are blind are often portrayed as prophets or psychics. It is as if the fact that we can’t see makes our hearts more connected or in tune with the spiritual world. But most of the time the opposite is true. When we can’t see, we feel more chaotic inside. If outside perceptions of us were true, then wouldn’t we be more at peace if we could not see or hear? Tranquility and peace come from a variety of sensory perceptions. This function is no different from what an ordinary person experiences. These portrayals are just a way to comfort others. There is no true understanding of what a blind person actually experiences. It’s like saying “it’s poor here, but the air is nice”. Other people can say this, but you don’t have the luxury to be that carefree. You can’t act like money lost is a blessing.
I don’t want to be a role model, but I do listen to a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (The Destiny Symphony) every day.
Before high school, I studied at Shenyang’s school for the blind. I learned how to give massages, but there was no beauty in that kind of work. The image of a person lying there is like kneading dough; you rub and rub and rub. If a 250-pound person came in, my hands would get so sore from massaging, and I would get a back pain from it, too.
When I was in college, I studied as if my life depended on it. There were braille books in the library, but they were all old. For example, some of the works included Chinese classics such as the Selected Works of Mao Zedong, massage books, and some older literature, like a revised version of Dreams of the Red Chamber by Yugin Cao, but with all the love scenes deleted. I despised the people who revised these books. For example, they cut out the part where Jia Baoyu experiences his first sexual encounter. Even the subtitle was changed to “Cunning Attacker, the death of Lin Daiyu.” A lot of braille books are like this. But my desire for reading remained strong. I wanted to read more books. For example, I read the Strayed Bird anthology (Rabindranath Tagore) so many times that if you were to read one sentence, I could recite the next sentence back to you. Later on, I had people read to me in exchange for giving them free guitar lessons. When they were reading, I would frequently say, “Stop, let me copy this part down,” and I would use braille to record what was read to me.
To a person who is blind, reading is very helpful. When in a dark tunnel, only reading can light the path. Imagination can come from reading, regardless of whether you can see or not. Even if you don’t have any specific skills, you can strengthen your language skills through reading, learn to communicate with others and create friendships. This is why I later participated in the “Red Bulldozer” project. I wanted to help children who are blind to learn how to read and encourage them to read more books.
Society always loves to showcase more vulnerable groups such as individuals with disabilities, women, and children, and then demand that we have a greater sense of responsibility and morality towards them. Before, I was so oppressed by my “blindness” that I only had one motivation: to be strong in spirit, since I had a broken body. It is good to be admired, but why do I have to be perfect all the time? I don’t want to be a role model and listen to the “The Destiny Symphony.” I want to leave this world and its so-called values. Later, I started reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger and felt that I really connected with his liberal minded thinking. After graduating from college, I couldn’t bear the humiliation of doing factory work and making only 150 RMB (Renminbi) per month, but I also couldn’t bear the humiliation of staying home and having my father try to find me a wife. Hence, I fled from home.
I don’t really like the strength conveyed in my name by the “Peng” bird wings (which is the meaning of the character “Peng”). Therefore, I changed the “Peng” character of my name to the “ancient grass” definition of “Peng” (these two “Pengs” sound the same when said out loud in English, but they have totally different meanings). The “ancient grass” Peng is often read about in traditional Chinese poems. I like the accidental and arbitrary meaning this cloud-like grass exudes. It conveys skepticism towards fate, which I like.
Today’s technology has become increasingly advanced, so people who are blind now have more options. Why should they be limited to just giving massages? Follow your interests! This is the best way to live. I have impacted others by pursuing my poetry and my music. They are like my hands and legs. In fact, they are more solid and practical than my body and house. They lift me through the crowd of people and provide me with bread, milk, love, and alcohol. When I ran away from home all those years ago, my parents didn’t understand me. I bought my mom a house in Shenyang last year. She was very happy. Just like what I wrote about in my lyrics: She gave birth to a son of darkness, and raised him to become a bright source of hope.
What you see is beautiful, what you hear can also be beautiful.
It seems that of all our senses, our sense of smell is the most sensitive. To a person who is blind, the world is a bunch of smells flowing back and forth. Even though in my lyrics I write about how blue the sky is and how green the leaves are, the colors in my dreams are all black, gray or brown. But I still love the color green, particularly a type of light and dark green, like the front cover of the book Green Cover Train. This is the vibrant green that fills one with anticipation.
Many people say that my music has become more gentle. Actually, the way I sing has become more gentle. One cannot always continue to be angry. It is not in my nature to be hot tempered. When I was writing “China Child,” a song dedicated to disadvantaged children, the contents were real and raw. I feel that by being a person who is blind, even the littlest things I do can inspire a whole group of people. As I get to the point where I can enjoy some special privileges with my success, my ability to move a large group of people has increased even more. But that kind of success will not exactly help me pay the bills. People put all kinds of hats on me. For example, the “most humanistic, ideal folk singer” or “the citizen’s singer,” etc… These hats are way too big for me. I realize that all the labels are for the public’s benefit. Therefore, I must try harder to maintain a private life that is truly mine. For example, romantic relationships are between two people, so there is no need to put on a show for everyone else to see. Since our lives as artists are broadcast on television, we have to keep trying to make ourselves interesting, which ironically has the effect of making us pretty boring.
When people who are blind search for partners, they want to find someone who is sighted. I don’t feel this way, because you can’t determine whom you will or will not love. When we fall in love, we don’t have many requirements as far as appearance goes. However, the sound of one’s voice is very important. If one looks beautiful, then they are beautiful, so why can’t a person who sounds beautiful be beautiful, too? If they have a beautiful voice, aren’t they beautiful? If what you see is beautiful, why can’t what you hear be beautiful as well? This is a visual age, so the beauty of one’s voice has been weakened and overlooked. Cosmetics can improve a girl’s beauty, and listening to a beautiful girl speak is also like looking at a beautiful girl with makeup. A good voice is not determined by the sweetness and beauty of its tone, but also by how it makes you feel. There is character in a beautiful voice.
If I were given three days of sight, I would go to the streets of Chengdu or Chongqing to see the beautiful ladies. However, the beauties of the natural world are not nearly the same as the beauty of a person. The beauty of a person is one of the most impressive kinds of beauty.
This story is part of a series of articles that will be published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities /Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.