In 1976, a powerful earthquake struck Tangshan in northeastern China, nearly destroying the entire city and taking the lives of 240,000. At the time, international experts estimated those wounded who became paraplegics would not live beyond 15 years. However, 40 years later, 817 out of 960 are still alive. Though they escaped the hand of death in the Great Tangshan Earthquake, they were unable to avoid the fate of most people who are paraplegics in China. After the disaster, they received urgent medical care and were sent to various parts of the country for treatment. After a few years, each returned and found a sense of home at Tangshan’s Paraplegic Sanatorium, where they formed friendships and found love among those who had also suffered. Although they’d lost their homes in the rubble to establish new ones, these resilient citizens learned to survive and pursue happiness. They integrated into society through their rehabilitation villages and their newly established cities. Their fight against their destiny and their self-made Nirvana has served as inspirations and revelations to those around them. This article profiles a handful of the residents of Tangshan Rehabilitative Village and tells their remarkable stories of survival and triumph.
Restoring an Athlete’s Dream
Since the quake, Li Dongmei has once again picked up her dream of being an athlete. “I wanted to exercise immediately, listen to the doctors and do all the various rehabilitative trainings.” She adds, “I didn’t have a clear goal, but I couldn’t always be lying down or sitting in a wheelchair. I wanted to go out and look around outside.”
In 1985, she heard over the radio the news that the National Games for the Disabled would launch in Hefei, Anhui. She immediately felt optimistic. “It would be wonderful if I could participate,” she thought.
Surprisingly, the opportunity did come to her door. In early 1986, the recovery center received a notice that they could gather some athletes who were disabled to participate in the district preliminary competitions. Those who performed well could be selected for competitions at the municipal, provincial level, and perhaps even have the opportunity to participate in the 1987 Second National Games for the Disabled held in Tangshan.
“At that moment, I had a feeling my sports dreams would come true,” she said, “even though I cannot become a female sports soldier, but being an athlete is still good.” She signed up for four competitions: the 100- and 400-meter wheelchair races, the javelin and the shot put. But where could one find existing venues and equipment in the recovery center? There were no javelins, so she used a bamboo pole to practice. There were also no shot puts, so she entrusted others to gather some “big lumps of iron” from the steel plant.
She had no protective gear to practice wheelchair racing, so she increased the friction of the wheels by putting electrical tape on them. “The moment I started practicing, my palms became blistery. They hurt so much on the second day that they slowly morphed into calluses.”
After throwing out the shot put, passersby would help retrieve it. She thought it was not good to always trouble these people, so she knitted a few nets to carry the shot puts. “After throwing the shot puts out, I could drag them back myself. It was the same principle with the discus.”
While training during the dog days of summer, she remembers, “I thought no matter how hard it is, I am still happy. I want to become an athlete so bad. The foundation is good, the training is hard, and the dream is getting closer and closer.” Li Dongmei has since received three gold medals: one for wheelchair racing, one for javelin, and one for shot put in the 1986 Hebei Province Sports Games. Later, she received a gold and a bronze in Canada, where she represented her country in the track and field invitational meet.
In the two Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (FESPIC) in 1994 and 1999, she earned two gold medals and one bronze medal in the first game and three gold in the following game. She received a first place in the 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, but she regrettably missed the gold medal due to some complaints. Since the beginning of the new century, she began to practice wheelchair basketball and wheelchair badminton.
“Every time I participate in a competition, I would give my all,” she says. Before going abroad and heading to Japan for a group training, she wrote a phrase to herself: “Since the earth has recreated another me, I will use this new self to stand tall in this world.” As of today, she has won a total of 42 medals: 36 gold, 3 silver and 3 bronze. They are stuffed into her cabinets and barely fit properly.
Sometimes she would also train with a group of small, young athletes. “The coach says to run 50 laps, and my heart tells me I can do several more even when others had completed theirs. They would say to me, ‘Auntie, you are truly solid.’ I am 20 years older than the oldest athlete, would it be possible for me not to put in more effort?” she says, adding, “You cannot be lazy in athleticism. Whatever you have put into your training is yours. Although the quake has done irreparable harm to my body, I am still lucky. I am still alive, and I still have the opportunity to do the things I like.”
The Strength Supported By Music
Like Li Dongmei, after returning from Shijiazhuang, Fu Pingsheng also became an athlete. He participated on a wheelchair basketball team. Playing once every four years, he played in seven of the Paralympic Games.
After just a month on the team, he and his teammates were offered the chance to participate in the six-city wheelchair basketball invitational tournament launched in Hong Kong. They played fearlessly and quickly defeated their host. In the end, they came in third: “Today, the wheelchair basketball team of Hebei Province’s record is still third place,” added Li Dongmei.
But in his heart, he believes his fate is with music. He likes the feeling of being immersed in his musical notes. Sometimes when he was sick, he would sigh: “If it were not for the earthquake, Fu Pingsheng might have been able to enter the Central Philharmonic Society.”
Some musicians have seen him perform, and their comments are always similar: “Such a pity for little Fu, his sound is really very good; it is unfortunate he can’t move his body.”
He goes to the sunroom every day and plays for hours. Passersby would hear him play from a distance and walk over and wistfully stop for a moment. In no time at all, a group of music lovers from the recovery center would gather around him. “An idea suddenly sprouted in me to see if I can find a few people, talk about the basic theory of music and organize a small band?” The hospital administrators supported the idea, so they divided up the work to acquire the instruments for a dulcimer player, a flute player, and a roan player. When everyone practiced together, the interest quickly grew.
During that time, the recovery center would be receiving guests both domestically and from abroad. The little band shouldered the responsibility of putting on performances: “We could put on 25 performances each month,” he said.
In his spare time, Fu Pingsheng is an autodidact who taught himself how to compose music and write his own songs. All of his materials were from the Central Music Society. He now has over 100 pieces of original compositions. Many of them are based on the initial reactions toward the quake. His favorite piece is called “My Friend, Don’t Sigh.” It is a beautiful, lyrical song with piano accompaniment that he uses to encourage himself and other patients. “Oh the stars, hung above the sky, what a serene night. Who is singing a sad song, lost confidence in all of life’s beauty? Oh friend, pull yourself together; oh spring, bring your warmth; open up all the flowers on earth; oh friend, don’t sigh, the future of our motherland is oh so beautiful…”
“In the ‘80s, Deng Pufang, a disabilities activist, would often come to Tangshan,” explained Fu Pingsheng. “We performed two to three times for him. The first time was at a hotel in Tangshan. After the performance, he met with us. Everyone surrounded him, trying to chit-chat with him.” He spoke with us and was very easygoing.”
Deng Pufang gave them some suggestions: “After listening to your band, it is very good overall. But the band is a bit thin. More instruments need to be added.” Fu Pingsheng said, “He really did understand the industry. We do not have a bass, so the sound is not even. Hence, we added a bass player later.”
By the 1990s, Tangshan was in need of building a rehabilitation center. Pufang told the small band they could put on performances in the industrial enterprises to fundraise for the rehabilitation center. Fu Pingsheng took his small band and toured all the industrial enterprises and government departments for a year and raised nearly $30,000.
Every time they performed, the audience members’ faces were covered in tears. They were all Tangshan people, playing with the same painful memories. The music allowed them to reflect and feel comforted in their thoughts.
The band also performed in prisons and labor camps. During the performances, the prisoners cried uncontrollably. Afterward, the audience and the band members talked very candidly about life and regrets. The prisoners said, “You are all like this already, and you’re still trying to contribute to society. We need to learn from you and transform ourselves.”
The band became more and more formal, and ushered in a golden opportunity. In 1986, they were invited to perform at Zhongnanhai, an imperial garden in Beijing, for central government officials. During the performance, they presented two songs. Part of the repertoire included a duet by one male and one female called “Husband and Wife Together Around the Home,” and another repertoire was a song composed by Fu Pingsheng, “I am a Fortunate Disabled Girl.”
The performance won high praises back home and the band’s fame grew greatly. After merging with other Tangshan musicians who were blind, deaf and mute, the band evolved into Tangshan city’s Disabled Art Troupe, and the lineup for the band reached 20-30 people. Fu Pingsheng became the group’s manager. Every time they performed, he would personally tune the instruments. Fu Pingsheng proudly said, “This is what we single-handedly built-up; we have invested a lot of hard work into this group.”
Barrier Free Rehabilitation Village
During the period when Fu Pingsheng brought music back into his life, there is one person who gave him the most confidence and encouragement: his wife Liu Yuhua. Liu Yuhua was being treated in the paraplegic nursing home as well. Fu Pingsheng’s melodious Erhu tune attracted her. She was quite an introvert at that time, and Fu Pingsheng had no idea what was going on because he buried his head when playing. A student who often came to the recovery center to see Fu Pingsheng became the two individual’s communication ambassador and “helped me realize what was going on,” says Fu Pingsheng. What helped eliminate the obstacles in getting acquainted were their similarities in age and experience. They ate together, did laundry together, went to recovery trainings together and took walks where they had heart-to-heart talks. They mutually helped each other do whatever small things they could. The romance was interwoven into the little details of their daily lives.
It was not only these two who fell in love. The recovery center divided the women from men. Many couples met in the morning and then pushed themselves in their wheelchairs back to their various wards. Han Zhongquan summarized this stage in this way: “There was only dating, no marriage. They were like wild Mandarin ducks. They met up when the sun rose and parted when the sun set.”
When Wang Baozhan, one of the recovery center’s patients, was chosen as an athlete to go abroad to Japan to participate in a marathon competition, he was exposed to the concept of local, barrier-free neighborhoods. These neighborhoods had been uniformly designed and built to accommodate individuals with disabilities to help improve their mobility. The people who inhabited these neighborhoods in Japan were all families with disabilities.
After the patients heard Wang Baozhan’s accounts, they all expressed their desire to start a family. People like Wang Baozhan, Hang Zhongquan and others then took the lead in gathering suggestions and sent an application to the government to build a “rehabilitation village.”
This application was highly supported by the relevant governmental departments. What was also well known was the support received from the provincial daily newspaper and broadcast propaganda. Eventually, the total amount from the government’s funding and the other funds raised came to almost $180,000. In 1991, construction for the rehabilitation village officially began. The location was to be behind the People’s Hospital, and the housing designs were to come from the individuals with disabilities themselves.
There were no steps and no door bar. The front door read, “Tangshan Rehabilitation Village,” inscribed by Deng Pufang. There were eight rows with a total of 26 residences organized side by side. Grapes and persimmon trees were planted. Among other flowers, roses were also planted in various corners of the residence. ...
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by Qu Hui and Bai Fan
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.