An electrifying memoir by the blind Chinese activist who inspired millions with the story of his fight for justice and his belief in the cause of freedom
It was like a scene out of a thriller: one morning in April 2012, China's most famous political activist—a blind, self-taught lawyer—climbed over the wall of his heavily guarded home and escaped. Days later, he turned up at the American embassy in Beijing, and only a furious round of high-level negotiations made it possible for him to leave China and begin a new life in the United States.
Chen Guangcheng is a unique figure on the world stage, but his story is even more remarkable than anyone knew. The son of a poor farmer in rural China, blinded by illness when he was an infant, Chen was fortunate to survive a difficult childhood. But despite his disability, he was determined to educate himself and fight for the rights of his country's poor, especially a legion of women who had endured forced sterilizations and abortions under the hated "one child" policy. Repeatedly harassed, beaten, and imprisoned by Chinese authorities, Chen was ultimately placed under house arrest. After nearly two years of increasing danger, he evaded his captors and fled to freedom.
Both a riveting memoir and a revealing portrait of modern China, The Barefoot Lawyer tells the story of a man who has never accepted limits and always believed in the power of the human spirit to overcome any obstacle.
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The Barefoot Lawyer
A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in China
By Chen Guangcheng
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2015 Chen Guangcheng
All rights reserved.
A Child Apart
I cup my hands together, cradling a hard-boiled egg my mother has given me. It's still warm. I am three or four years old and rarely given my own egg, so I hold off as long as I can before eating it. Wandering outside, I find the millstones where we grind our food, feeling for the top stone, carefully placing shell and rock together. I listen to the sounds of the village children laughing and playing in the yard, relatives and neighbors coming and going. I head back inside, climb onto a stool, and gently set the egg on the table. It begins to roll, but I can't see it well enough to stop it. I hear the dull crack of shell against the dirt floor, then silence. If something bounces, rolls, makes a sound, I can use my ears to locate it, often with ease, but now I am at a loss. I strain my eyes, hoping to spot the egg, but all I can see are undifferentiated shapes. The neighbors and the children in the room don't come to help me; instead they gawk at my trouble. Only my mother hurries over. She peels the egg, then folds it inside a [jianbing] crepe with some salted pickles and places it in my outstretched hands.
* * *
I was born in a remote Chinese village called Dongshigu on November 12, 1971, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, a time of hardship and great bitterness. I was healthy at birth, but after five months a terrible fever set in, and we had no money for the hospital. Despite being acutely worried about my condition, my mother also had to feed and care for my four older brothers, aged five, eight, eleven, and fourteen. My father was working far away at the time, and we had no access to telephones; her in-laws, meanwhile, were consumed with their own affairs.
Making do on her own, my mother attended to every aspect of our lives. Each day she had to fetch water from a well near the Meng River, carrying buckets that swung on a pole over her shoulder. Before dawn she spent hours grinding food at our mill wheel to make the batter for the day's jianbing. During the day, when she was not out working in the fields, she gathered wood and kindling for the cooking fire up in the hills. And always, she adhered to the strict work orders from the commune that organized how we worked, lived, and ate.
Her heart torn by my wild crying after I came down with the fever, my mother wrapped me in some old cloths and nestled me in a basket in the yard near where she worked. She would need two yuan to take me to a doctor at the local hospital, the only place with real medical care. But that was a substantial sum, for we had almost no money — my father earned only eighteen yuan a month at his job. In desperation, my mother set out to borrow the money from the head of her production team, who sent her to the bookkeeper, who sent her to the man responsible for financial matters. "How can you borrow money from us?" the man asked her incredulously. "You owe us money, and you haven't earned enough grain points." The communes were divided up into production brigades and even smaller production teams, and within the production team you earned points based on how much work you got done. You had to contribute at least as much as you ate, but with my mother the only adult working full-time, our family often fell behind. No points, no money, no doctor. The man told my mother to get a letter from the head of the production team, but she knew he was just trying to get rid of her.
Discouraged and distraught, she went to friends and relatives and tried to borrow money, but there was none to be had. The village "barefoot doctor," a farmer who had received very basic medical training to provide care in remote rural areas, had no idea how to bring down my fever.
I cried for two whole days and two whole nights, my tiny body burning and squirming in my mother's arms. On the third day, my mother was up at her usual early hour, preparing food for the family, when she heard my terrible wailing begin again. She picked me up to breast-feed me but recoiled in terror when she saw the blue masses clouding my dark eyes. She rushed me to an old woman in a nearby village who had some experience with home remedies. Her cure, after examining me, was to blow on my eyes; of course, there was no change in my condition.
My parents never knew the nature of my illness or why my fever caused me to go blind. After returning home a month later and learning what had happened, my father arranged to take me to the local clinic. By then it was too late for my eyes, but my father was determined to find a cure, and over the next several years my parents took me to doctor after doctor, each time in vain. One said it was keratitis, another said glaucoma, but they all concluded that there was nothing they could do.
Whatever the cause of my fever, the results were unforgiving. In my earliest memories I see only splashes of color, and only if an object is right in front of my eyes. Sometimes I like to say that I was blinded by communism — or, more specifically, a wave of unrealistic, empty propaganda that swept the country continually for decades. The Communist Party, the bringer of "scientific development," liked to boast about its hospitals and its free health care, about how well people were treated and how much better things were now than in the past. But the truth is that we lacked the most basic medical care and were always at the mercy of illness. Death came for us often. Two years before I was born, in fact, my mother had given birth to a baby girl, the daughter she'd been longing for after bearing four sons. When the baby sickened, she had no money for the hospital, and finally there was little my mother could do but wait and hope. My sister had what the villagers called "the seven-day sickness," and, indeed, she was dead after eight or nine days. If the girl had survived, my mother later told me, I would probably never have been born.
Now four years old, I am hanging suspended between heaven and earth. As my brother pulls from above, I rise in the air. Three, five, ten feet up — no fear, only joy. Higher up in the persimmon tree, I can hear everything, every sound etched in the air. I hear the reverberating calls of birds, their overlapping, melodic lines spinning through the trees, and the sounds at a spring nearby, where the villagers are using ladles to scoop up water, the liquid splashing into the buckets and jugs; I can distinguish the minute changes in pitch, from the first plashing into an empty bucket to that quickening sound when it's almost full. All around I hear a chorus of life: songbirds trilling, animals lowing, bleating, barking, each one with its particular intensity, its own pattern of rising and falling, each moving in and out of rhythm with the others.
We have done this before, Third Brother and I. He loves to climb trees and catch birds, and this is how he takes me with him. He secures one end of a rope around my waist; holding the other end, he climbs up the tree and ties the rope tight at the fork of two sturdy branches. I stand beneath the tree, waiting. He strains to pull me up, little by little, until I reach that fork in the tree, where I can sit in perfect contentment. At first I simply hold the branch, but soon I grow bold, touching everything around me.
Above me are persimmons, branches lined with them. I ask my brother to pick one for me. "You know you can't eat them," he says. "They're not ripe yet, and you can die from eating an unripe persimmon." "I know," I reply. He climbs up to a higher branch to pick out the biggest and roundest one he can find. My hands are so small that I can barely hold the persimmon in one hand while still hugging the tree with the other. My enchantment is complete — I stare at the brightness of the fruit's reds and yellows, feeling in my palm its smooth and finely textured skin. I hold the persimmon close to my face, almost touching my lips. The feel and smell are so enticing that I can no longer help myself: I take a small, secret bite off the pointed tip. At first the taste is sweet, but when I take a second, larger bite, my lips pucker, and I remember my brother's warning. I spit out the second bite quickly.
Seeing that something is wrong, Third Brother climbs down to me and asks, "Did you eat it?" I am afraid he will be angry with me, so I hold the part I'd bitten inside my palm, out of sight. In a small voice I lie, saying I hadn't. "Let me see your persimmon," he says, prying open my hand and finding it. "Why did you eat it?" he asks. I had promised not to, so I don't know what to say.
"How do persimmons grow on branches?" I ask my brother a few minutes later, when he is once again scampering up above me. He bends a branch laden with fruit toward me, close enough to touch. With one hand I hold the fruit I've already bitten; with the other I feel my way across the slippery bark, finding two glossy persimmons that are growing together. I grab one of them and twist it, but my brother warns me not to pick it and tells me to let go. As soon as I do, the branch snaps back into place, the persimmons trembling.
Someone approaches from along the road, footsteps shuffling rhythmically on the packed dirt. "How on earth did that child get so high up in that tree?" a woman calls out. "Don't you know that's dangerous?" Third Brother replies, "It's okay. We've done this many times before at home."
When I've finally had enough, I shout, "Let's go down!" My brother slowly uncoils the rope, length by length. I reach out to touch the tree bark one more time. When I am close to the ground, I start swinging and spinning back and forth. I am not afraid — I am thrilled. I feel nothing but freedom, all the way down.
* * *
Dongshigu Village, Shuanghou Township, Linyi Prefecture, Shandong Province, China. A bow in the Meng River embraces the village along its east and north sides; to the south is a landscape of rolling hills, and to the west is a stream that winds down from the hills into the Meng. The Menglianggu Mountains rise in the distance to the north. We liked to say that water flowed on three sides of us, with hills on the fourth. A patchwork of walled yards enclose thatch-roofed or clay-shingle cottages and kitchen buildings, woodpiles, dogs, goats, chickens, mill wheels, and outhouses. A short walk through the crooked dirt lanes and footpaths between yards brings you quickly to the edge of the village; continue past the family garden plots and through a forest of young poplars and you will come to the quiet waters of the Meng, the gateway to our village. The river is our lifeblood, our source for everything from drinking and irrigating to laundry and bathing water, at least for part of the year. Flip off your shoes and roll up your pants to cross the river — which is what we all did until a bridge was finally built in 1996 — and you come to the road that connected us to the outside world. Walking north, south, or west from the village, you will come to our crop fields, which stretch out across the floodplain in a checkerboard of corn, sweet potatoes, tobacco, and sorghum.
Summer and fall were the preferred seasons for farmers, in part because after a long day in the fields we could take a trip down to the river to bathe. As the days shortened and the temperature began to drop, the river water turned icy, leaving people with no way to get clean. Until 1980, the only public bath available to villagers was in the county capital, thirty miles and a prohibitive bus fare away. Heating water in a pot for a bath wasn't a good alternative, either, as it was just as frigid inside as outside. As the cold weather descended, the dirt settled in bit by bit, layer by layer; given the time and the price, people simply stayed home, not taking a single shower or bath the entire winter, until well after the New Year — celebrated in January or February — or even past late April, when the trees began to bud and new grass first greened the hillsides. By late May, the river would still be chilly, but by then people were finally willing to brave the cold water to get clean.
I have exquisitely vivid memories of that first bath of the season. The feeling of lying on the riverbank with the spring sunshine warming my body is almost indescribable: tingling, relaxed, wonderfully alive.
* * *
I don't know when my ancestors first settled in Dongshigu, but I know that we've been there for generations. Around half the roughly five hundred villagers share the surname Chen. Besides our family name, my brothers and everyone else of our generation in the village share the "generation name" Guang, or "Light," chosen and recorded by our village ancestors centuries ago. My parents didn't bother to give me my own name at birth or as a child, so I chose one for myself when I was a teenager: Cheng, or "Sincere." Before that, I was simply Little Five, since I was my parents' fifth son.
From the time I was a boy, Dongshigu felt like an extended family, a village of people I would call "Uncle" and "Grandma" and "Cousin" whether they were actually kin or not. This was partly out of closeness and partly out of respect for elders and an understanding of where each stood in relation to others. When I was small, every home was open, and only two families had wooden gates to their yards. In greeting each other we most commonly said, "Did you eat yet?" reflecting years of hardship and common concern for our family, friends, and neighbors. Almost no one said "please" or "thank you"— it wasn't the custom — but we expressed gratitude and warmth in other ways, such as the simple exclamation "Oh, you're here!"
In spite of the close-knit relationships, the people in my village lived on a knife edge of survival until the last few decades. For generations, wars and social upheavals ignited famines, and famines led to power struggles and political battles, wrenching the common folk along a path of scorching instability. Dongshigu was no exception.
Like many rural Chinese, our family owned just a tiny sliver of land, not enough to let us scratch out even a basic living, and we endured the most desperate sort of poverty. When he was young, my father possessed a single pair of pants, and they were badly torn — until his teens, a neighbor once told me, he went around "with his ass hanging out." When my father heard this description, he laughed and said, "Where could you get clothes in those days?" In the cold winter months, my grandmother stuffed the legs of his pants with cotton wads to keep him warm, as many people still do in the Chinese countryside. The villagers made what they wore, and they wore what they'd made until their clothes were completely threadbare, often going without shoes even in the dead of winter.
When he was about ten, my father was considered old enough to help with the family mill wheel, getting up every morning as soon as the cocks started crowing, well before dawn. For two or three hours each morning he walked in a circle, straining to turn the family's millstones. Pouring water through a hole in the top stone, he ground sweet potato or a bit of corn — or, in lean times, grass or even tree bark — into batter for the day's jianbing. My grandmother would then spread the batter onto a convex ao griddle about three feet in diameter, frying up a huge, paper-thin crepe, our local comfort food. Her jianbing were often the family's one consistent meal, so they ate as much as they could at the start of the day.
When there was no food, my father and his siblings sometimes grew so weak that they couldn't get out of bed. Scouring the land for anything edible, the people in our village stripped the trees bare, devouring the leaves of elms and poplars and locusts, gnawing the bark to ease their raging bellies. This only made them sicker. When he was eighteen, my father nearly died of starvation, suffering gravely with edema; at one point, he became terribly ill after eating cotton seeds, a desperate measure. Nobody spoke of education or the opportunity for a better life; sheer survival was all anyone could hope for.
Occasionally, when her children were especially hungry, my grandmother would swallow her pride and beg a few jianbing from the neighbors, a somewhat better-off peasant family. It was a time of incredible bitterness. When my father told me stories from those days — tales of poverty, affliction, and upheaval in which any relief was short-lived — he always wept.
* * *
My mother grew up in Sangyuan, a village about five miles from Dongshigu, a significant distance at the time. She never learned to read or write. After losing her mother at age sixteen, she was raised by her father. In the late 1940s, when the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists reached Sangyuan, he took her and her surviving brothers up into the mountains. They hid under a rock cliff by day and returned to their village at night to get food. The sight of a soldier who'd been blasted by a missile, tumbling across the mouth of their cave, was seared in her memory forever.
Excerpted from The Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guangcheng. Copyright © 2015 Chen Guangcheng. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by the Dalai Lama,
ONE A Child Apart,
TWO By Nature's Hand,
THREE An Uncommon Education,
FOUR No Turning Back,
FIVE Defending Our Rights,
SIX New Roots,
SEVEN Evil Unmasked,
NINE Trial and Imprisonment,
TEN House Arrest,
ELEVEN Breaking Free,
TWELVE Eye of the Storm,
THIRTEEN To a Land of Promise,
EPILOGUE A New Life,
About the Author,