A little over
900 miles southwest of Beijing, China, in the shadow of the Taihang
Mountain range, you will find a small open-air courtyard. Inside its
walls, a musical instrument, tea and tobacco lie on an old table,
surrounded by eight blind artists. They are members of the Shanxi
Zuoquan Blind Publicity Team, and just beyond them are a group of
excited village folks who anticipate the troupes performance.
The old men light cigarettes, sucking on their addiction as tobacco
smoke swirls over their heads. Some squat next to the courtyard wall
to enjoy a lunch of noodles, talking with their mouths full, as the
singers warm up. The latter are accompanied by musicians who play
bright notes that drift off into the distant mountains. Liu Hongquan,
the captain of the group bangs his drum, and the other instruments
obediently follow suit, joyously playing to the beat. They sing familiar
Pass a county and theres another village
Start playing the huqin (oh God)
And go west all day long
Use the clouds as blankets and mountains as beds
With warmth leaving comes the cold (oh God)
I travel the Taihang
The Blind Publicity Team was established in 1938 to protest the Japanese
during a military conflict between China and Japan. It was Chinas
Anti-Japanese Democratic Government that allowed the singers to have
their very own organization, but back then the troupe also had to
fish for information to help out. Today, 75 years later, there are
six generations of the Blind Propaganda Team.
Over the course of a year, they walk through 360 villages in Zuoquan
County, and wherever they walk, they sing beautiful songs in exchange
for a bowl of warm food and shelter from the rain. Zuoquan County
has high mountains, deep valleys and mostly rocky roads. Few people
with disabilities walk its paths. A single stick leads two people:
One holds it, the other other puts a hand on his shoulder and thats
how they are strung together like pearls, carefully moving along.
After encountering snow or rain, one slip and they could easily fall
into a heap.
They walk for two weeks at a time, trekking through mountain village
after village, day after day, year after year. In addition to giving
them 200-Yuan ($32) to 300-Yuan ($48) per performance, the villagers
also arrange room and board for the performers. At every home they
enter, they are offered food, which they gratefully accept. After
eating a home-cooked meal, the artists radiate happiness and stand
The first 10 years of the troupes existence, however, the performers
had to beg to survive. When they walked up to a village, they ran
the risk of vicious dogs pouncing on them. If the villagers were warm
and wanted them to stay, then they would stay and perform. If they
said they were busy, then the group would go on to the next village.
THE SINGERS STORIES
Who says that red are the peach blossoms, white are the apricot
blossoms? Living a whole life blindly, I have never seen this.
The lyrics red are the peach blossoms/white are the apricot
blossoms is from a Chinese folk song. In the artists group,
there is wistfulness when they sing the words.
In a lonely and remote village, a flawed body is considered to be
as unimportant as a fallen leaf. Nobody will remember their real names
and will just call them old blind. But these old
blinds are all survivors. Captain Wang Zhongyuan, 61, had been
a carpenter. While he was digging up a tree root, a detonator went
off and he lost his hands and sight.
At 60 years old, Zhang Linqing was originally a very well-known Little
Revolution Path Breaker. When he was 21 he was taking part in
an agricultural studies competition, when a ditch rock blast injured
his hands and eyes.
Liu Shuangming, 44, lost his sight because of optic atrophy. His wife
quickly divorced him and took their daughter with her. In the group
of 11, nine are alone and do not have a family; some dont have
any relatives at all.
Liu Hongquans mother is deaf. In the 1970s, when the Blind Publicity
Team came to his community, Liu pulled her by the arm to go listen
to the troupe perform; for him this is an important childhood memory.
It also planted a dream within him to travel with the team. But his
father was adamantly against the idea. His father thought nothing
good would come of it.
Liu studied at a Braille school for 10 years. After graduation, he
did massage at the provincial capital. The income was decent. A few
times he took out his huqin and accompanied himself as he sang, which
his boss strongly criticized. The artist wanted so much to go back
to the mountains and sing and then, in 1995, not even a month after
his fathers death, he joined the Blind Publicity Team and became
its lead singer. To fulfill this dream, he even broke off his relationship
with his girlfriend.
A love of music joins the singers in this nomadic lifestyle. Everyone
is an autodidact, but the music they create is very pleasant to the
Authentic Shanxi legend flowering tunes, sung by generations of blind
artists, coupled with meaningful lyrics provide the perfect medium
for the human voice. The mountain people love listening to The
Bitter Bachelor, whose lyrics go like this:
Plum blossom flowers on the first month
everyone loves the opening of the flower.
The bachelor has the heart to pick one.
Though he takes the bloom home
there is no one to give it to.
The lyrics are colorful, but the pain is piercing.
Having each other makes everything easier. Currently, the 11-person
team is divided into two groups that chain walk the rural villages.
Every member earns around 1000-Yuan ($160) per month. No matter what
Li Yongbing is singing, he always has a sweet face. Wang Yuzhong not
only has enough cigarette money, but can also send some funds home
to his children. Liu Shuangming is the last one to join the team and
is committed to staying on.
You can read
the complete article and the full magazine, including all of the photos
in our Digi issue, by clicking "Like"
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