Zhang Chaofan was born in Changchun, Jilin Province, China in 1992, with her left forearm missing. Through years of hard work, she founded an art school and a charity foundation under her name. She’s also received numerous awards and honors, including the China Youth May Fourth Medal, and was named National Women Pacesetter and a UN Young Leader fighting against COVID-19.
Zhang Chaofan: A Life-Changer
Listening to Zhang Chaofan’s stories and thumbing through media reports on her, one might be tempted to reduce her and her journey to simple words like “touching,” “industrious,” and “inspiring.” A face-to-face talk with her swiftly revealed how much more there is to Chaofan than any string of adjectives can capture. A vigorous 29-year-old, Chaofan has pushed herself tirelessly for many years, maintaining busy work schedules, racking up awards and recognition, and pursuing her dreams while doing everything she can to stay healthy and pretty, including foot baths, facial masks, and a thermos always near at hand. Having survived 2020, she said, she knows she can make it through anything.
Growing up with Spirit
Chaofan was born in 1992 in Changchun, Jilin Province, China to a blue-collar family, with her left forearm missing. In the 1990s, the birth of a child with congenital problems was unbearable for any family. Some of her family’s relatives and friends pointedly suggested dumping her in the garbage, while others advised her parents to have another, healthier baby. Fortunately, it was Chaofan’s grandmother who had the final say. She decided not only to raise the baby, but also to raise her well. Her parents followed her lead and decided not to have a second child, fearing it might make their daughter feel less worthy.
Chaofan’s family raised her in the Green Park District west of Changchun, a neighborhood that, even today, isn’t a glamorous place to live. When Chaofan was a child, she and her parents crowded together in a tiny room of only eight square meters. The best furniture they ever owned was a set of glass-paneled cupboards, common in China at the time. Entering the room, one would immediately find oneself face-to-face with one’s own reflection in the glass. To protect the young girl’s sensitive heart, her mother covered the cupboards completely.
From an early age, Chaofan learned to tilt her body 45 degrees back and to the left when posing for photographs, “to hide her left arm from view.” Her empty sleeve always intrigued other children, and their attention soon became so oppressive that Chaofan refused to play with them at all. During the day, while her parents were at work, she would while away the hours indoors, alone. The room had a small wooden chair, and she would seat a doll there and roleplay, sometimes as a vendor hocking wares to the doll, sometimes as a doctor giving medications. Once she’d had enough of that, she would get out her crayons and draw on her makeshift canvas–again, the chair. The doll, the chair, her crayons, and a copy of 300 Tang poems became her most faithful companions during childhood.
“Quiet and reserved though I was,” Chaofan recalled, “I tended to have my own way. Dad was quick-tempered, so we were always at odds. The more he said, the less I would listen. The harder he tried to get me to go out and play, the less likely I was to do so.” The older she got, the more reluctant Chaofan was to so much as speak to her parents. Her grandmother, an assertive character, moved into the apartment and insister her parents move out and rent elsewhere. She also retired early from her job as a union director at a state-run organization. “I was raised by Grandma,” said Chaofan. “She spent all her salary on me until I was 14.”
Speed skating and a crew cut were also Grandma’s ideas to encourage the shy and frail Chaofan to explore the outside world. Six hours of highly intensive training every day, along with 5000-meter runs and 200 sit-ups, didn’t sit well with Chaofan right away, but before long, she began to enjoy them. Her teammates befriended her, celebrated her birthdays, even helped her tie her shoes. She no longer had to hide at home.
When she went to compete at the provincial level, Chaofan deliberately attached a cotton glove to the left cuff of her cotton-padded coat so she would be admitted as an able-bodied player. She ended up winning first place in the children’s group of the speed skating championship. Only when she stood on the podium for the crowning moment did people around her notice her left sleeve dangling empty. “You’re just like everybody else,” her mother used to tell her. “You just have one small part missing.” After that first win, Chaofan began to understand her mother’s words.
“If any person with a disability wants to excel,” Chaofan explained, “their family actually needs to put in more effort.” She is grateful for her family’s encouragement and companionship. “When I was a child, it was not so common for children my age to learn special skills,” she said. “But I learned speed skating, and later I learned Chinese painting under the influence of my father. These specialties helped me a lot.” Chaofan, with her sports and painting skills, began to stand out in junior high school. As the class communications commissioner, she set out to make her classroom the best-decorated room in the school. Her excellent essays were printed and distributed to every student in her grade as models of good writing. The school even set up a tenacity award especially for her. All this helped restore the confidence Chaofan had lost because of her missing arm.
Thriving in College
In 2011, Chaofan took the college entrance exam, specializing in art, and was admitted to Beijing Technology and Business University with the highest scores among all the art candidates. Over the next four years, she earned a reputation for acing her courses and was awarded a national scholarship, as well as several honorary titles including Beijing Merit Student and Beijing Outstanding Graduate. Despite her background in speed skating, Chaofan didn’t simply skate through college; instead, she threw herself into every endeavor, taking advantage of the prime of her life to learn, excel, and thrive.
“I acted as an audience leader for four years.” This is how she begins whenever she’s asked about her time in college. It all started when one of her classmates, an intern with a TV crew, sat her in the audience because of her good looks. Later, she found she loved this environment so much that she became an organizer of live audiences, cheerfully handing out bread and bottles of mineral water. A show usually lasted several hours, and Chaofan would sit with the audience, dazzled by the spotlights, wondering when she would become the one at centerstage.
Ding Xinzhou, a college friend, called Chaofan “a girl of elegance”: “Every other day, she would sort out her wardrobe and scent each level with aromatherapy bags. She would put up new posters every month, buy all kinds of pretty headbands and hairpins, and wear different hairstyles, even though it took her more effort to do these things.”
During her first year in college, a university-level public speaking contest was held in Beijing, and Chaofan decided to take on the challenge. Shy and taciturn all her life, she found herself stammering whenever she spoke before more than two people. She didn’t know. With only 20 days left before the shortlisting, Chaofan started practicing tongue twisters every day. “Once, a teacher walked into a classroom and turned on the lights, and I was the only one there, by myself in the dark,” she recalled. “She was startled! When she found out what I was doing, she asked me to practice in front of her students.” Chaofan thought she was well-prepared, but once on the podium, she lost her composure and started stuttering again. In the heat of the moment, she decided to improvise so as not to “embarrass herself too much.” Off-script, Chaofan started telling her stories of her own life. Her impromptu speech captivated the audience so completely that when she finished, she was asked for autographs.
The official public speaking contest was a two-parter, and Chaofan won the polls, as well as the first prize, by telling stories off-the-cuff. This marked the beginning of a string of public speaking contests and debates that she started attending whenever she could. Once, she brought home four awards in a single week. For her roommates, this was “Super cool!” but for her, “it was not a matter of glory. When I found something I might be good at,” she explained, “I wanted to show it off by competing because I could make more friends that way and stay motivated to learn. I couldn’t have made so much progress so quickly without venturing beyond my small circles.”
In 2015, Chaofan competed in a quiz show on Jiangsu TV and snatched the title of Grand Slam Champion by defeating all eight of her fellow contestants. After that, she began receiving even more attention and was invited onto several popular talent shows, where she accrued nicknames like “Asian Venus” and “One-armed Goddess.” The national audience, poised to view her with sympathy, soon realized she was already exhibiting more beauty and talent than many of them could imagine.
Pursuing “Extraordinary” Dreams
“Chaofan” means “extraordinary” in Chinese, and after graduating from college, Chaofan only continued living up to her name. She devoted herself to founding a Chinese painting and calligraphy institute while preparing for the postgraduate entrance examinations. In her view, taking the exams and starting a business were both boxes to be checked while she was young, and “it was okay to do them at the same time!” For four years running, she’d ranked first in her school in terms of academic performance. She could’ve moved on directly to the postgraduate level at the same university, but the idea of going home had been lingering in her mind. After careful consideration, she decided to return to Changchun. In 2015, she enrolled in the Chinese Ink Painting of Flowers ? Birds degree program at the Graduate School of Jilin University of Arts with top scores: 407 on the first test, 147 on the second. That same year, she founded her own art education and training school.
Soon after it opened, parents who’d heard about the school through word-of-mouth came to visit and found that they couldn’t afford the tuition. To address this issue, Chaofan started offering free and discounted lessons to talented students. She also initiated a scholarship with her winnings from the Grand Slam TV quiz show prize. Today, 300,000 yuan (roughly $47,000) is made available annually through the Chaofan Dream Scholarship to support talented students of limited means in their pursuits of art and education.
Now occupying 35,000 square meters, the art school has expanded into a public service project called Chaofan Dream Town, in collaboration with the CPC Committee and the government of Green Park District. As the hub of cultural production in Changchun, this establishment has already engaged 12,000 people in various volunteer roles to run art galleries, classrooms, and training programs for innovative and entrepreneurial young talent. Naturally, Chaofan has become the spokesperson of the Dream Town.
In 2019, she received a private Weibo message from a mother in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. As it turned out, the woman’s daughter had been born without a left forearm, too. Watching Chaofan on TV, she’d began to dream of her daughter meeting Chaofan in person. For Chaofan, “reading her words reminded me of my own mom and everything she’s done for me.” She decided to invite the mother and daughter to visit Chaofan Dream Town. This was the first time for the young girl, Xinxin, to travel away from home. Upon meeting Chaofan, a shy Xinxin gave her favorite sticker to her idol. Xinxin stayed for a full week, with Chaofan keeping her company while she learned to skate and draw. “After she returned home,” Chaofan said, “Xinxin kept in touch with me. Later, her mother told me she’d developed the best language skills in her class and had become a totally different person. Xinxin often sends me voice messages asking when we can film a show together and saying she wants to be with me onstage.”
On QQ, a popular messenger app, Chaofan has thousands of followers whose children have similar physical conditions. On first joining the group, Chaofan took photos of a two-and-a-half-page letter she’d written by hand and shared them. Many parents sent her replies like, “Each word I read from you is one more ray of hope for my child.” As a child and teenager, Chaofan had never imagined her story would influence others like this, even changing their lives.
In early 2020, COVID-19 forced the art school to shut down, and Chaofan’s grandmother died of cancer. At only 28 years old, Chaofan found these losses unbearable, but she didn’t let them stop her. By organizing a series of public service activities, she and her foundation united and mobilized caring people from all walks of life, raised goods and donations worth more than 8.9 million yuan (roughly $1,500,000), and delivered medical masks, protective clothing, medical alcohol, gloves, shoes and other living necessities to the front line of anti-epidemic forces. In September 2020, Chaofan showed the world the spirit of leadership she shares with so many young Chinese volunteers, being listed among UN Young Leaders fighting against the pandemic.
Upbeat, lively, and hard-working, Chaofan concluded her interview with this message: “Professional women in this new era must build self-worth bravely. Even more importantly, we must have a sense of social responsibility. Self-discipline, self-confidence, and self-love–I think these are essential qualities for any outstanding woman pursuing extraordinary dreams.”
by Wang Yumeng
Photos 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