Gao Guangli, a 29-year-old native born with cerebral palsy in Tushanqiao Village of Jiaxiang County, Jining City, Shandong Province, set a Guinness world record in 2017 when he folded a paper boat with his mouth in 3 minutes and 34 seconds. Again in 2019, he snatched a national championship on Beyond Show, a Chinese popular TV talent competition.
Never before had Gao Guangli left his home village so often traveling far and wide as he has in these three months of his sudden fame. From Jiaxiang County, to Jinan, to Nanjing, and then to Tianjin, he has wobbled his way onto all kinds of stages to face different cameras and people. Over and over he put his incredible skill on display.
The Beyond Show Championship Cup claimed a serious and splendid presence on a long narrow table in the Gaos’ living room, looking quite out of place against the backdrop of a typical Chinese rural farm house. In the past few months, Guangli has experienced many firsts in his life – First time to take a high-speed train ride, first time to wear a suit, first time to enter a TV studio, first time to check-in at a star hotel, and first time even to feel like a star himself.
“Sooner or later all this hot attention will come to an end.” He is very much aware of pretentiousness under the spotlight, but that is where he draws real strength from himself. “I am truly happy and my confidence has leveled up.” For a young man who has been home-bound for 29 years, he wishes to go out to see the world and passionately get involved in it.
“I can do it”
A talent with CP.
This is a new title Guangli has received after his appearance on Beyond Show on April 28.
“I’m very confident and I believe this is something you have never seen.” Guangli started with this strong, though brief, statement to the audience. Then, small candy wrappers were magically reconfigured into little models of airplanes and boats after turning and spinning at the tip of Guangli’s tongue. Such amazing talent stunned everyone and eventually led to the excited pushdown of passing lights that sent him to the next level.
It was not easy for him to perform on stage. Within minutes, from licking up a wrapper to folding it in the desired shapes, Guangli was covered in sweat, his temples bulging. But he turned down an offer to help him wipe off his sweat, saying, “It’s okay, I can do it.” He also refused a judge’s help when he was showing the folded paper pendants.
“I can do it” was most frequently said by Guangli while on stage, and now it has become a wide-spread adage.
In the July finals, Guangli captured the championship with his outstanding performance of making two paper cranes at once within 23 minutes, followed by needle threading with a knot at one end – all done with his tongue! This also best illustrated “the spirit of talent”: No one is too disabled to fulfil a dream.
He is delighted when people call him “Chinese Hawking.” “Hawking was one of a kind. So am I.” As to the other title, he does not mind them using “CP” with “talent.” “It’s okay, this is just a fact. I really hope that someone will break my record.”
CP has robbed him of all free mobility except in the mouth. Folding paper, controlling the wheelchair, live vlogging, and packaging are tasks to be done only with the mouth. Holding a chopstick in his mouth he can strike his computer keyboard ten thousand times and send four or five hundred messages in a single day, the amount of work that would look quite daunting to many normal people.
During my interview, a large country fair was running in his village. With great skill as usual, he maneuvered his home-made, mouth-controlled electric chair along a familiar trajectory through the crowds, snaking this way and that, going forward, turning, or skidding to a halt. When he had bought the fruit, the kind-hearted vendor took out a card with the payment QR code printed on it, drew closer, and offered to do it for him. With the chopstick held in between his teeth, Guangli shook his head vehemently, saying the expected: “Thank you, I can do it. I’ll do it myself.”
One can only begin to talk about being a master of one’s own destiny only when one has learned to be a master of one’s own body. Guangli firmly believes in this. “It’s okay to ask for help once in a while, but not always for the rest of my life. I’ll do whatever I can with my mouth.”
Taking on Guinness
Guangli is much more intelligent than generally perceived with the label of CP.
A look at how he interacts with the world around him would reveal a fine young man high on both IQ and EQ. He uses two mobile phones, one for making calls and the other for live video broadcasting – Quite a lot to handle, but it’s neatly arranged. Once he drove his “car” straight to the market and bought a kilo of peaches to address an awkward situation where he found nothing at home to treat county officials who had visited him and his family. Upon learning that I am from Hunan, he especially asked his mother to get some chili for the meal.
His mother, Wang Guizhen, always knew that her son was intelligent. As a school-aged boy, Guangli had to remain home-bound and intently watch his friends do their homework when they came from school. That’s how young Guangli learned Chinese phonetics. But the mother did not notice when her son acquired the “tongue paper-folding skill.”
In 2002, 12-year-old Guangli was envious of his friends folding paper planes and boats, but his shaking hands wouldn’t do his bidding. If things can’t work out with the hands, what about the tongue and teeth? After repeated and difficult attempts to coordinate his tongue and teeth, finally came one day when he produced his first paper plane in good shape.
He showed his success to Grandma right away. Pleasantly surprised, the old lady presented it to the neighbors in excitement. That day, Guangli suddenly felt hope for the future because he had “now become a worthy person.”
Folding paper with the tongue is almost too much of a stretch for human physical capability. Guangli had tried to use several kinds of material, including sausage and chewing gum wrappers. Gradually he found that candy wrappers were a workable choice. But it has several disadvantages. For one, candy wrappers lose the colors easily when wet. For another, they have sharp edges that badly hurt the tongue. Worse, direct contact with virus-contaminated wrappers can easily cause oral ulcers. On top of all these are countless accidental swallows that makes him feel “full” and even violent stomachaches. Once he came down with appendicitis when he was 16.
Finally, the tongue that had been scraped and scuffed over and over could cooperate with the teeth. “Mostly it’s about the sensation of the tongue and the pressure of the teeth. The tongue turns it over, and the teeth punch out a crease. The tongue feels it, tucks a corner, unfold like what they do with their hands, and there you have it.”
More amazingly still, Guangli can easily control the secretion of saliva so that his works, when finished, feel almost dry. In 2017, with the help of a friend, he made a video of the process and uploaded it to a US website to apply for a Guinness World Record. Then he set the record by successfully bringing a paper boat to shape with his mouth in 3 minutes and 34 seconds.
In addition to paper planes and boats, Guangli also taught himself how to make twelve other paper things, including frogs, cranes, ingots, and swallows. The most complicated is the paper crane because it requires many creases. One paper crane takes him 20 minutes to finish.
However, this is Guangli’s favorite. Last year, he met a kind-hearted girl from Lanzhou and fell for her as she showed her great care despite knowing his conditions. Her name has a word meaning “crane” in Chinese. To express his feelings, Guangli spent three months folding 99 paper cranes and then carefully assembled them in a glass casing in a way that resembled the Chinese character of “crane.”
Going out into the world for the first time
got cerebral palsy due to his premature birth in September 1990. But he says he’s lucky because his older twin brother did not make it.
Twitches and cramps left the infant awake crying day and night. His body gave violent spasms even when he was held in his mother’s arms. His mother was thrown into a quagmire raising this most difficult child. She got up at five each day to clothe the boy, feed and massage him, and take care of his waste. Moving him in and out of the room several times a day has caused arthritis in her arms.
The family spent all they could afford on hopeful medical treatment, and they still managed to persistently give the boy a Chinese drug that was supposed to strengthen his bones but never worked. The father’s desperate attempt to teach him to walk did not work, either. The boy constantly fell off a common bamboo chair; several chairs had broke as a result of uneven forces applied to them. No miracles had ever happened.
Guangli’s father made him a steel cart. His mother often put him in and pulled the cart to where he could watch TV or get in the sun. But most days were dull. With father working petty jobs outside of town, mother toiling away on their farm, and the younger brother gone off to school, Guangli crouched alone by a freezer at one corner of the room, selling ice cream from ten to fifty cents. Customers would need to help themselves. This is how he learned arithmetic.
Day after day, year after year, the fields in front of his house turned into a grassy mound and then a cement-paved road, but Guangli was still confined to his cart, unable to move half an inch away from his quarters. In his company was only a radio the size of a cigarette pack. Historical stories, kung fu novels, and science shows from it nourished him with food for thought. His favorite were geography shows. He was never going to learn enough about Earth.
How big is China? What does his county look like? What about the big village fair? The more physically restricted, the greater the desire to see the outside world.
Guangli also taught himself the basic workings of electric cars and spent ten months “conceiving” an electric wheelchair. At age 23, he bought online all the parts needed and asked his grandpa to weld them together according to the drawing he had sketched. This wheelchair was equipped with a mouth-controlled omnibearing rod and self-propelled rear wheels in addition to a horn, rear-view mirrors, LED lights, and straps. With pride he named it “Flying Car,” indicating that he can “fly freely.”
For someone who had never attended formal education, school was naturally the first place to visit. A few days later, in his cousin’s company he drove his Flying Car to the county. The first sight of tall buildings and malls scared him at first and then excited him so much that tears welled in his eyes.
It had taken him 23 years to leave home.
“Only when you get out there can you know that there’s cruelty as well as kindness in the world. There are a lot of people who need help more than I do.”
In January 2014, he traveled to Jinan with a disabled friend to perform on the streets. He showed his paper-folding skill while the friend sang. They rented a basement just big enough for two beds and a wheelchair. There was barely space left for anything else.
No steady financial inflow could be expected from performing on the streets. On good days he could earn as much as two hundred yuan and only a few dozen on bad days. This bitter-sweet experience led him to see the opposing sides of human nature. Once to get away from city inspectors he drove so fast that both him and his chair rolled sideway to the ground, and no one came to help him get up. Another time when he performed on the Quancheng Plaza, with great difficulty he gave a ten-yuan bill to a poor mother and her daughter, both trying to raise money and both with 80% of their skins burned in a gas explosion. When seeing this, people around started to close in and give him money. “I kept refusing, but it’s good to know that we have more good people out there.”
Better have dreams
This is not Guangli’s first time to compete in a talent show. In 2013, he attended the preliminaries of Star in Jinan. His performance did not make too much of a splash there, though amazing to the judges and the audience.
In a sense it’s the Internet that expanded his world.
In the same year the strong-willed Guang was handed down an old computer and learned to read with Baidu Pinyin, a program which would allow him to “spell out” Chinese characters based on a set of phonetic rules that he learned as a child. For the first time he learned what the characters of his Chinese name look like. Then he went on to try using the keyboard and mouse with his mouth. Later the owner of a labor service company found him during a recruitment campaign in the village. Guangli’s optimism and tenacity impressed the boss so much that he was hired on the spot and assigned to do online promotion, edit job ads, and publish the information in online groups.
Now “prowling” on the Internet, Guangli felt like a fish back in water again. He found ways to set up computers, download apps, and test networks with his mouth. Words about this techy wizard started to spread far and wide.
In 2017, using a smartphone from a younger cousin’s husband, Guangli registered with a popular Chinese vlogging app, Kuaishou, and started to broadcast his paper-folding skill when he had the time. Just a couple of years later, his fan club grew from a few dozen to more than 200,000 followers. It was from here that he became known to a Beyond Show director.
When Guangli tried to capitalize on his paper things by encasing them in an exquisitely artistic way, some people were generous while some others cursed, “Full of saliva, how gross!” He never argued back. “It’s impossible to be understood by all.”
Guangli has kept his wishes consistent through different media exposures. One wish is to earn money in order to repay his parents for everything they have done for him. All his life he has been manually moved about by his mother. It was beyond her wildest dream that her son would be able to buy her some clothes with his first pay. His mother is still recovering from a sugary that aimed to repair her rotate cuff which she sprained when she was lifting Guangli in April this year. Now a substitute pulley mounted on the ceiling must be used to hoist Guangli to and from bed.
Guangli’s paper-folding skill has changed his life. Now he has achieved a “touchdown” from the virtual world and is making a presence all over Chinese major megacities. But he wants to do more. One greater ambition is to establish a handicraft company and offer work opportunities to other people with disabilities. “I will continue down this path no matter how difficult it may be.”
Guangli lives within less than 2 kilometers from the Qufu Airport. He used to look up at the airplanes quite often, but he never thought that he would leave here, much less that he would fly one day. Now he is going to fly to Beijing for a national TV show. “You’d better have dreams. What if they come true?”
Indeed so, as his WeChat motto goes: Fight for dreams.
Article and photo by Feng Huan
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.