Zhou Yuchen was born in Sichuan in 2002, an accident at the age of 5 leaving her blind in the right eye and reducing the already-poor vision in her other eye to somewhere between 20/200 and 20/100. She has been playing piano since early childhood and is skilled with traditional Chinese musical instruments, such as pipa, zhongruan, liuqin, and guzheng. She has won more than 50 music awards, including the “gold prize in the China Finals of the 3rd International Mozart Piano Competition”. She was also selected for a warm-up show as a reserve instrumentalist at the Beijing Winter Paralympics Yanqing Awarding Ceremony in March 2022. Currently she is studying the International Preparatory Course at the School of Music and Recording Arts, at the Communication University of China.
One day in August 2003, as the sun poured in through the window, a little girl who had just turned one was playing with an electronic piano, her chubby little hands flying over the keyboard to produce a flow of sounds, her young face full of surprise and curiosity.
This moment, which was captured in a photograph, is often revisited 19 years later by the girl’s mother, Zeng Zhaoyong, and the subject is Zhou Yuchen. Time has passed, and the babbling toddler has now grown into an adult who is profoundly connected to the world of music, as she was always destined to be.
“A trophy child of Mr. and Mrs. Jones”
A member of what is known as the “post-00” cohort in China, namely children born in the 2000s, Zhou Yuchen has much in common with other people her age. She sometimes flips through Tik Tok and Bilibili, and at other times falls for pretty earrings and dolls. Unlike many people, however, she lives with grade-I visual impairments in China’s classification of disabilities. In her world, sound is more reliable than color.
Showing an interest in music from a young age, Yuchen began to learn piano when she was three and a half years old. In addition to the piano, she was also good with traditional Chinese stringed instruments like the pipa and zhongruan. In late January 2022, the Disabled Persons’ Federation in Chongqing phoned her and invited her to attend the rehearsal of a traditional Chinese instrumental music performance at the Yanqing Awarding Ceremony for the Beijing Winter Paralympics. Zeng Zhaoyong was very proud that her daughter had an opportunity to showcase traditional Chinese music as well as herself on the world stage.
All these musical achievements didn’t happen overnight. For more than ten years, Zhou Yuchen has been shuttling between competitions in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia – to name just a few – and has won more than 50 music awards in China and abroad, including such noteworthy trophies as the “Gold Prize in the China Finals of the 3rd International Mozart Piano Competition”.
“My friends often say that they want to swap kids with me,” Zeng Zhaoyong said with a smile. Yuchen is apparently a “trophy child of Mr. and Mrs. Jones”, as the Chinese catchphrase goes. She is sensible, diligent, and outstanding in school. But behind all these achievements, the mother and daughter mostly keep their struggles over the years to themselves.
One morning in 2007, when Yuchen was 5, a child next to her accidently whipped her in the right eye with a skipping rope in the kindergarten. She was too young to realize what had happened and the teacher did not pay attention. When she collected her daughter that day, Zeng Zhaoyong saw that one of her eyes was red and swollen, but it was already too late. The cornea of the girl’s right eye had become detached. After examining the child, the doctor accused the mother of being negligent, but it didn’t help: Yucheng had lost her right eye. After that, the vision in her left eye declined sharply, due to childhood glaucoma. From elementary school onwards, she started trying to adapt to the life of “someone who can’t see.”
Yuchen could read books only with the help of magnifiers and electronic visual aids; otherwise everything was a blur. “I can only see that it is probably not white,” Yuchen said. In class, she tried to learn by listening to and memorizing all that the teacher was saying since she was unable to see the blackboard. If she wanted to “see” some leaves and flowers, she had to feel their shapes and textures with her hands.
It took Yuchen more time to learn things, be it music scores or schoolwork, but her intelligence, good memory, and outstanding grades secured her a place in a well-known key local middle school in Chongqing before she graduated from elementary school – with a waiver of the tuition fee.
In the school’s traditional Chinese music group, Yuchen got her hands on a greater variety of traditional musical instruments. Thanks to her piano background, in which she had developed a good sense of tuning, she was often asked to help the other members, who would line up in front of her waiting for their instruments to be tuned before the practice started. Over time her sense of music became better and better, and such interactions with her teammates led to her learning more instruments. Pipa, zhongruan, liuqin, guzheng, guqin – Yuchen picked them all up very easily. “Musical instruments are interlinked.” Familiar with one, she could learn another fast, being highly perceptive as she is.
Her academic workload increased as Yuchen moved on to junior high school, and she began to feel some difficulty in keeping pace. However, she and her family didn’t opt for a special education school. Yuchen hoped that she could study and take the college entrance examination like everybody else. “She wanted to make it work through her own efforts,” her mother said. “And she feels that she can do what others can.” The daughter was mentally strong, and the mother envisaged a future where Yuchen learned to be independent and blend in. Zeng Zhaoyong hopes that her daughter can always learn and grow within the able-bodied community.
One of Yuchen’s deep disappointments is that she had to forego college entrance examinations as no use of electronics, including electronic visual aids, was allowed on-site, but this did not prevent her from continuing her studies. In 2019, while studying at Chongqing Culture and Art Vocational College, Yuchen was offered a place in the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. One of the four leading music schools in London, TLCMD is known globally for its creativity and forward thinking. Several times they expressed the earnest hope of having Yuchen bring Chinese musical tradition to the UK, but the high tuition and living costs seemed daunting to her and her mother.
In 2020, when the first wave of Covid-19 swept the world, Yuchen opted to defer her offer. Just then, she was selected for a co-education program of the School of Music and Recording Arts, at the Communication University of China, to which she was later admitted.
Friends for life and study buddies
Freedom is in the air on campus, and youngsters in their late teens can’t wait to cut the apron strings and live independently of their parents. Zeng Zhaoyong was also mentally prepared at this point. “I should have let her go long ago, and she should have her own life”. But Yuchen is not that anxious to “run away” from her mother. She doesn’t see her mother’s love as restricting and confining, and she understands how much her mother has done and what she expects. She has even come to terms with her parents’ divorce. This has a lot to do with the mutual dependence and trust between mother and daughter. Their relationship remains close and strong, like friends for life.
Zhaoyong is very keen on appearance. Like all young mothers, she loves dressing up her daughter and helping her to use eyebrow pencils and lipsticks. Yuchen in turn calls her mother by the nickname, “sister”, with a grin.
During her college years, Yuchen often shuttled between Beijing and Chongqing on her own. Her mother often joked that she was being “shipped” like goods, referring to the special services airlines or railway departments provide for people with disabilities to travel alone safely. This is how she communicates with her daughter – open and direct, without circumlocution.
When it comes to academic pursuits, the women are more like study buddies. “We make plans every semester according to the school timetable and the learning schedules for various musical instruments, and our to-do-lists are broken down into minutes.” Zhaoyong, a marathon runner, is optimistic and energetic, and she makes a rather strict and meticulous study plan for her daughter. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are scheduled for Yuchen to practise two of the musical instruments; Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, the other three. Nothing can override these one-hour sessions. Yuchen is very self-disciplined and, therefore, able to work well with her mother, whether it’s academic or musical study. In study hours, she stays focused and efficient; at other times she enjoys playtime to her heart’s content.
Zhaoyong often says that she has experienced a “second growth” by working as her daughter’s study buddy. Seeing her daughter’s continued growth, she feels that all she has gone through is rewarding in itself. Her tasks include transcribing musical scores, both numbered or stave, in extra-large fonts – an accumulation of several sacks of them. To address the high cost of her daughter’s music studies, she once juggled three jobs and still managed to pick Yuchen up from school on time. During this interview, a package was delivered to her door containing a copy of “Family Education Instructor Qualifications Certificate”. With this Zhaoyong would like to move to a flexible work schedule so that she can take care of her daughter’s needs more easily.
There are occasions when Zhaoyong finds herself down in the dumps, and Yuchen can feel it. “But she doesn’t want me to know. That’s why I pretend not to.” Yuchen is very sure of her mother’s crucial role in her growth, but Zhaoyong seems inclined to give her daughter the credit. “She is very self-disciplined, and seeing her work so hard every day, I have nothing else to ask for as a mother.”
Exploring the world through music
When asked if she has a gift for music, Yuchen always modestly answers that she simply spends more time practising it. Doing drills day after day have turned on a magical side of music, releasing Yuchen’s brilliance and empowering her inner transformation as a person.
“In the last two years, I am happy to see that she has fully accepted her disability,” said Yuchen’s mother, with love written all over her face. Coming out of the shadows is by no means an easy thing. Compared to other people her age, Yuchen seems much more mature. “Now the importance of maintaining one’s first family is being highlighted, but I think that’s just one side of the story. How one sees oneself as a person is also important. What is done cannot be undone, but people can change themselves and foster growth for themselves.” Blindness is an issue far more difficult to deal with than a broken family. For Yuchen, accepting herself and pursuing positive change is the only way to overcome the difficulties in her life since it is impossible for her to change what Fate has brought her. Fortunately, she has found solace in music and stepped into a wider world with notes flowing from her fingertips.
In his novella “The Musician”, the writer Chen Chuncheng created a wonderful scene of synesthesia, in which a panel of examiners evaluates unidentified musical scores by playing each piece with their eyes closed and noting what their other senses tell them, including imagination, smell, taste and even touch. Each piece of work brings different imageries and emotions, like “wreaths turning around in the sun” and “waves of the Volga River”, sometimes pleasant and at other times passionate. Music connects the senses and creates a richer experience.
Yuchen finds this description to her liking. “Everyone has a different imagination, visions, and feelings while listening to music. It is very complicated and inclusive, and you can see and feel more through continuous study and experience. Music has kept me good company on my path to growth. It brings me a lot of happiness and strength. By communicating with it, I know myself better, and I can see a more colorful world through its language. “ For Yuchen, music is her window to the world as well as her companion.
In order to keep in practice while studying the university’s preparatory course, Yuchen continued to learn piano with several faculty members working in the Central Conservatory of Music. One of them said about her: “Her inner world is pure and pristine, crystal clear like a pool of water, encompassing many things from outside, but not disturbed by the secularities that arise from such intrusion.”
Sitting on stage, fingers on the keys, Yuchen instantly immerses herself in the music as the notes float in the air. The world of music is pure and boundless, and she is free of any physical defects, unleashing more from within herself and stretching the tentacles of her life to where she wants to go, unrestricted and unstoppable.
Now Yuchen, like everyone else, expects the COVID-19 pandemic to end soon. She aspires to be a music teacher or performer. “My thoughts about the future have been involving since childhood,” Yuchen said with a smile. She still has a long way to go. Maybe she will just discover more possibilities to expand her life once she gets to experience a wider world.
by Wu Lijun
Pictures: courtesy of the interviewee
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.