No one is saying that there aren’t problems being a blind person in the western world; from high unemployment rates to ignorance of our skills to access refusals with our guide dogs, no one can say that being blind is easy. But what if you lived in a country with a government whose interest truly is themselves and you can be thrown in jail for speaking out?
The barefoot Lawyer
By Chen Gwangcheng
For years I’ve wondered what it’s like to be blind in another country, particularly one with different access challenges than those faced in the western world. Sure, there’s this book that details a sighted person’s perspective teaching at blind schools in Tibet and India, but very few first-hand experiences translated into English. So I bought this book and read it on a recent trip. As soon as I plugged in my headphones, I was taken away to rural China and the life of Chen Gwangcheng.
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, this passionate book 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.
A Brief note on Audio
I almost threw in the towel after the prologue. The narrator, David Shih, is a competent narrator for this book, but there are portions of the book that are written from the point of view of Chen Gwangcheng’s wife. The producers of this audiobook chose not to have a woman narrate those small portions of the book, but with no verbal indicator that the point-of-view change was occurring, it was very disorienting to have an instant scene switch. This only happened in a couple of spots throughout the book (particularly those describing the escape), but it is worth considering if you choose to listen to the audio.
Early Life and Education
The author details his life in straightforward prose. His family had him do farm chores; his brother taught him to identify trees by feel, and with the exception of education he was treated like every other member of the family. Even when he went to school and received training to read, write, use a computer and travel independently, his family was as supportive as they could be at a distance; they saw what happened to many blind people in the countryside making a living as storytellers and relying on the kindness of townspeople for food and lodging. He is neither self-pitying nor self-congratulatory, simply describing the way things were. This lends the book a sense of honesty and yet emotional distance that in my opinion is a great strength and yet its biggest downfall.
After graduating from college, Chen Gwangcheng became what he calls a “barefoot lawyer”,similar to what we in the west would call an advocate – he would go to court to demand rights for people whose rights had been violated, but he didn’t have formal legal education. In China, Chen Gwangcheng says, it’s not uncommon for the government to break its own laws, particularly as it comes to blind people, because they believe blind people wouldn’t be able to fight back. At one point in his advocacy work, he was thrown into jail for years and then held under house arrest, during which time he was unable to openly communicate with the outside world, his wife was beaten in front of their daughter, and his son lived with his grandparents far away.
Family Life and the Support of Others
The author does an admirable job of explaining his family dynamics, from his earliest memories of his family and their sacrifice so he could attend school, to his wife’s family’s opposition to their marriage. His family may not have done all the “right” things according to all the information we have, but they did better than most with the knowledge they had about blind people. His wife ultimately laid down the law with her family that this was the man she would marry, something unheard of in rural China
Chen Gwangcheng also chose to learn as much as he could from others, relying on their assistance as needed only until the point that he could do things for himself. During his escape, he relied on his own knowledge of his neighborhood – primarily provided from his wife – and the assistance of others. It was partly his own tenacity, patience and willingness to take chances and partly the kindness of others that ultimately got him out of China. He has no difficulty describing what he did himself and what he hoped others could do for him, simply because that’s the way it is and his life depended on it.
Emotional Distance And Unresolved Conclusion
I stated this earlier in this blog post. There is something emotionally distant about this autobiography. Whether this is because it’s how the author himself details things or whether it’s cultural, I couldn’t say. But it makes this book shine the brighter, even as it lacks emotional language. It’s not that it’s flat, it’s just that things are told matter-of-factly about feeling frustration or despair without the emotional component of so much western writing.
The book also ends once the author arrives in the USA, leaving it somewhat unfinished, as he arrived in 2012 (three years before the book was published). This reader would love to know what he’s doing now, how his family is, and what his future looks like to him.
A well-written, generallly well-read book about being a blind man – a barefoot lawyer – in contemporary China. 4/5 stars.