It was a long walk toward the center of the stage, and the 63-year-old Zhu Lihua sauntered along, led by volunteers. Then she gave a deep bow and waved her hand. She could not see, but every inch of her movement was graceful and confident.
In May 17, 2019, Touching China, an annual event designed to award people who are most highly regarded for their moral impacts, was aired more than three months later than originally scheduled. Zhu Lihua, in a red woolen coat, was the fourth candidate to come on stage and receive the award, following Fan Jinshi, the honorary president of the Dunhuang Academy, the firefighting heroes of Muli, Sichuan, and Gu Fangzhou, who is endearingly known as the “Grandpa of the Oral Polio Vaccine (OPV) “.
Touching China is a TV program that zooms in on greater love, and every appearance in it offers a beacon of inspiration for all. There is every reason for Zhu Lihua, a native of Jiaxing City, Zhejiang, to take a place on that stage: For the past three decades, since she lost her sight at the age of 18, she has brought more than 100 disabled people into the workforce, financially supported 480 students from poverty-stricken families, and has donated 3.89 million yuan (roughly 555,714 USD) in her traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practice as a certified massage therapist.
Stepping into the spotlight
The award ceremony was filmed at the Starpark in the South Ring 5 area of Beijing, on January 11, a cold and dry day. Before the filming started at 2 p.m.. Lihua met with her copywriter, who was impressed when she said: “In 1998, I was the first blind person to receive a TCM certificate in all of Jiaxing. “
This also appeared to be of great interest to the host when the filming started. She asked: “The TCM certification means so much to you. Did you cry or smile when you received it? “
Lihua did not give an immediate answer, but she said one word loud and clear: “Excited. “
In her excitement lies a tedious yet worthy struggle.
Lihua lost her left eye at the age of 13 when she injured herself in a sports event. Once again at 18 she hurt her right eye by accident and had an unsuccessful surgery thereafter. With both eyes damaged, Lihua sunk into depression for the following 7 years. Her state of mind at the time, as she described, was like “thinking more about how to die than how to live. “
Her dispirited days continued until Zhang Haidi, the current chairperson of China Disabled Persons’ Federation, became a super role model in China following the publication of her essay “Cast Light in the World Even if You’re a Comet “ on China Youth Daily in 1983. When broadcasted on radio, Ms. Zhang’s story inspired Lihua so much that she began to learn Braille and a new skill at the same time. In 1985, she attended the first TCM massaging class for blind people in Zhejiang. “At first, I often sprained my wrist when I applied force improperly, “ Lihua recalled. One wrist hurt and banded up in gypsum, she kept practicing with the other. Her legs also suffered from standing too long at a stretch. But hard work paid off. Thanks to her excellent techniques, Lihua soon seized the downtown market of Jiaxing.
Lihua continued to improve her skills by taking a correspondence course and seeking advice from experts. When she completed her distant studies in TCM, she went on to author three professional papers and have them published, including one on treating cerebral palsy with massage techniques. Finally, in 1998, she passed the TCM certification – the first blind practitioner ever awarded such in Zhejiang.
Lihua started her business in 1986 with only one bed in an 11 square meter room at the Social Welfare Home of Jiaxing. Through her hard work, she expanded her career to a 467m2 clinic with 20 beds. Back in those difficult years, work was so intense that sometimes she would not have the time for a sip of water or a spoon of food all day long. Now her name has become a household brand in the blind massaging community of Jiaxing. Her dedicated practice has also led to the development of a massaging theory used to guide more practitioners.
In 1991, Lihua began to coach massaging, and “blindness “ was the only prerequisite for enrollment. In addition to food and accommodations for her apprentices; she coached for free. Today, her clinic has 13 disabled employees, some of whom earn an annual income of nearly 100,000 yuan (roughly 14,000 USD). They used to be the “burdens “ of their families, but now they have become “backbones “. By coaching massage techniques, Lihua has sent more than 100 people on their way to employment or entrepreneurship.
“You have helped so many people; I wonder what it feels like to be needed by others? “ The show host Jing Yidan then asked.
“I would not have been the same today without compassionate support from our government and all walks of life. It is an honor for me to be able to help those in trouble. “ Lihua replied.
That afternoon, the studio hall was repeatedly arrested by applause. In less than 10 minutes of Lihua’s appearance, the proudest and most excited member of the audience might have been the off-stage photographer Zhu Jun.
This “post-90s “ young man, who cut a fine figure in photography when he won the China News Award at age 23, met his interviewee Lihua at the local CPPCC meeting in their hometown in 2016. As a city-level CPPCC member, Lihua was quite successful in pushing through several proposals, including motions for special education pension subsidies and accessibilities for the blind in the botanical garden. She has also served as the Vice President of the Disabled Persons’ Federation in Jiaxing, presided over the city’s association of the blind, and has headed her massage institute.
Since then, Lihua has become Zhu Jun’s long-standing target. In the next four years, he frequented the Lihua Massage Clinic on Hexing North Road in Nanhu District, Jiaxing. “Ms. Zhu has so many stories and she has helped so many people. “ Zhu Jun exclaimed.
Stepping down into an ordinary life
The award script to Zhu Lihua in Touching China read: “Your door had been closed, but you have opened up windows for other people. “ That includes 480 students from poverty-stricken families and more than 100 disabled people.
In the profile video played on the stage of Touching China, a scene showed Lihua going to the bank and wiring a donation of 400,000 yuan to Jiaxing Charity Federation. This was not her first time. In the spring of 1991, the “Hope Project: A Million Yuan Action “ was rolled out nationwide to support children who were out of school due to poverty. Upon learning this on the radio, Lihua donated 140 yuan to support two students in Yunnan.
From there Lihua set out to help more students through various charity organizations. Fierce business competition in recent years has compromised her income, but her donations kept steadily rising. In 2019 alone, Lihua supported 46 college students and paid a 368,000 yuan lump-sum for tuition.
Among those Lihua supported was one named Zhu Lixia, a rural young woman whose parents – an ailing mother and a low-income earning father – could not afford her higher education. Lihua heard her name from the list of needy students in 2013 and found it only one syllable different from the name of her own. Immediately she decided to support her for her full four-year university tuition and make her what she is today – a Zhejiang University postgraduate majoring in agricultural insect and pest control. Her story has received a lot of media coverage.
“When you help them, they may come out on a different path. “ Under Lihua’s support and influence, some of the students chose to take volunteer responsibilities on their holidays; some found good jobs after graduation; and still others donated their first-month salary to the Red Cross.
Donating money is not enough for Lihua. She has also signed the papers to give herself away. “I have always had a wish, and that is to donate my organs after death and to scatter my ashes into the sea, so that I won’t occupy any inch of the land on earth. But when my mother was alive, I couldn’t bring it up without hurting her feelings. Now I have no concerns. “ On April 27, 2018, 25 days after her mother died, Lihua signed a legal document for organ donation.
One day after filming Touching China, Lihua visited Tiananmen Square early in the morning. She’s among the older generation who grew up with an intuitive awe for this cultural site, and it is not so easy for her to take long trips like this. She would not miss the opportunity. Today was her third time to take a walk around there and feel the surroundings (The first time was when she came to the capital to receive the National Role Model with Disability Award, and the second, an award for newsworthy contributors to the disabled community).
Lihua loves the color red. Every time she attends an event or receives an award, she must wear red clothes, “which give me an energetic look “. Long before the Touching China Award she had already been quite a celebrity in Jiaxing. Now she is even more widely known on the Internet. Many netizens named her “a brightly red star from a brightly red place. “
This refers to her hometown: Nanhu Lake District of Jiaxing. There, on a wooden boat, was held the first National Congress of the China Communist Party in 1921. The boat, thereafter called Nanhu Red Boat, still docks at the central islet of the lake.
“The spirit of the Red Boat inspired me and I’ve had so many compassionate souls to help me through difficult times. This is why I feel comfortable with red clothes. But I’m no red star. I still think I work and live in an ordinary way. “ Lihua said, smiling.
All those award ceremonies Lihua has experienced are feverishly exciting moments for her, but she thinks that they are nothing more. Back home she has a big closet, and in it are not racks of clothes but, rather, heaps of awards and trophies she has received over the past 30 years. She feels more comfortable to have these stacked away.
When Lihua returned from Beijing, it was ten days away from the Spring Festival. On the 20th day of the twelfth lunar month, she was invited to a show dubbed “Our Village Gala “ in Nanhu Lake District. The centerpiece of the gala was a musical sketch, “Spring Blossoms “, based on her story. Screenwriter Ni Lingfang had started the creation a few months earlier. “Everyone will suffer hardships at some points in their lives. Zhu Lihua was inspired by Zhang Haidi’s story, and now she is our inspiration. “
This spring, her business at the clinic was affected by the pandemic. Nevertheless, she still donated 30,000 yuan to Wuhan and, through the local Disabled Persons’ Federation, doled out 110,000 masks to 11,000 disabled people in the city. As the President of the Jiaxing Association of the Blind, she communicated with fellow blind massage therapists on her cell phone and reminded them to wait until it was okay to reopen.
What made her feel most blessed in this period of time were the perpetual “blings “ of her WeChat. “They are from my dear apprentices and the children I’ve supported these years, wishing me good health during the
A native of Jiaxing, Zhejiang, she was born in October 1957 and later became grade-1 visually disabled. Currently she is the Vice President of the Zhejiang Association of the Blind and of the Presidium of the Jiaxing Disabled Persons’ Federation, the President of the Jiaxing Association of the Blind, a member of the municipal Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) Standing Committee, and the director of Lihua Massage Institute. Over the years she has been awarded multiple honorary titles, including the National Role Model with Disability, Top Ten Pioneers of Zhejiang, Provincial Outstanding CCP Member, Zhejiang’s Most Beautiful Soul, Provincial Model of Virtue 2019, and Top Ten Red Boat Pioneers of Jiaxing.
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