All Eyes and Ears

Evan Osnos Article on Chen Guangcheng

A great review of Chen Guangcheng’s Barefoot Lawyer in the New York Review of Books that considers how Chen’s story relates to that of China as a whole—which is exactly how Chen fits into our film too.

"A Blind Lawyer vs. Blind Chinese Power"

Evan Osnos JULY 9, 2015 ISSUE

In early 2012, Chen Guangcheng, a self-taught lawyer who had been blind since infancy, lived with his wife and two children in the village of Dongshigu, where he’d been raised, on the eastern edge of the North China plain. They were not there by choice. For a little over a decade, Chen had waged a public campaign against corruption, pollution, forced abortion, and other abuses of power. Officials had responded with escalating punishments. After he completed a four-year jail sentence on a charge of “obstructing traffic,” Chen and his family were confined to his ancestral home in a form of undeclared and indefinite house arrest. The local government covered the windows with metal sheeting and stationed guards around the building. Phones, computers, and televisions were forbidden. When one of Chen’s brothers died, Chen was permitted to send only his seven-year-old daughter to mourn him. To send back a message, another brother resorted to whispering to the daughter while they knelt beside the grave.

In early 2011 Chen and his wife, Yuan Weijing, made a video pleading for help that was smuggled out of China; afterward, guards beat Yuan, breaking her ribs. A year later, when guards roughed up his mother, who was seventy-seven, Chen reached a decision—“my anger congealed into a kind of desperate resolve,” he writes in The Barefoot Lawyer, a fierce memoir of rural life and dissent. “I would escape, or try to escape, and I would do it soon.” The architect of his jailbreak would be his wife. For weeks, she visited their roof, pretending to be drying corn or hanging laundry; she was mapping out each footstep that he would take to climb into an adjoining yard. She cleared the leaves that would crackle underfoot, she counted the walls that he would scale, and she monitored the habits of the guards. Finally, she studied the lunar calendar for a chengri—an auspicious day: April 20.

At night the village was too quiet for an escape; Chen could hear the beeping of the guards’ cell phones as they played games. So he departed in daylight: over the roof, creeping from backyard to backyard, hiding for hours in a goat pen while his wife and daughter carried on a charade of normalcy. For nearly four decades, Chen had navigated his way in the village without sight, using, as he puts it, “the patterns of sounds, the mix of smells, the organization of space.” He could estimate the time by noting which village roosters cried at which hour of the day. He had a system for avoiding obstacles without use of a cane:

By making just the slightest shhhh sound, no louder than a light wind in a pine tree, I could determine from the returning sound waves what was in front of me, whether large object or wall, forest or field.

Chen’s book includes occasional italicized passages written from his wife’s perspective, and the portrait emerges of a full and formidable partner in Chen’s life. Of her husband’s escape, she writes:

I usually don’t believe in luck or God or any higher power, but on that day I believed in anything that might help us. As the afternoon went on, I returned to the kitchen several times to pray to the image of the Kitchen God on the wall. By the following evening, Chen was out of his village and en route to Beijing, where he sought refuge in the US embassy, setting off one of the most unusual crises in diplomatic history. He and his family later settled in America.

I lived in China from 2005 to 2013 and watched Chen emerge as an activist. We spoke occasionally by phone and I wrote about his activities. For all of his audacity, and the sheer physical improbability of his story, I always regarded his experience as that of an outlier, with limited lessons for understanding China’s future. But The Barefoot Lawyercompels us to consider an alternative reading. The details of how, exactly, a man who might never have left the village of his birth came to see the need to confront the Chinese state says much about him but no less about his country. Chen may turn out to be less of an aberration in the political forces shaping modern China than an embodiment of them.

When Chen was born in November 1971, his family was very poor, which is to say, no more or less poor than their neighbors in rural Shandong province. His father’s family had survived the famine following the Great Leap Forward, partly by eating bark and grass. Chen, the youngest of five sons, was known as Little Five. (As a teenager, he chose the given name Cheng, meaning “sincere.”) When he was five months old he developed a fever but the family lacked the two yuan needed to visit a hospital. The Cultural Revolution was raging and China’s economy was a wreck. After the infant cried non-stop for two days, his mother found blue masses on his 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,” Chen writes. For years, the family searched for a diagnosis or a treatment—one doctor said it was keratitis, another said glaucoma—but they never found an answer.

The Barefoot Lawyer opens with a brisk account of Chen’s escape and then goes back in time to describe his path to activism. For many reasons, it was not an easy book to produce. In conversation, Chen, who speaks little English, makes esoteric references to Chinese literature and philosophy. For this project he had the help of collaborators, including his wife, their translator, their editor, and two unnamed writers, and the result is a highly readable and disciplined narrative of a life unto itself. He goes a long way toward answering the questions that have puzzled many who have followed the story of Chen’s life: Why did he take the risk? How did he come to believe that he should, and could, be a legal activist? What, in the end, was he seeking?

In Chen’s telling, his politics emerged from a combustible mix of deprivation and opportunity. Chen’s parents, like many in their generation in China, wanted nothing to do with questioning the policies of the Communist Party. They had barely survived Mao’s campaigns, and they were desperate to live quietly, with as much prosperity as fate would allow. Chen grew up under different circumstances. In the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution, China turned its focus to economic development, and Chen’s generation grew up largely spared the cycles of mass mania that had traumatized his parents. His brothers didn’t seem to mind that he couldn’t see, and they enlisted him in village mischief: trapping animals, climbing trees, building dangerous toys and tools. When he was fourteen, he made a pistol out of bicycle parts and gunpowder, and accidentally shot himself in the leg.

If adventure gave Chen confidence that his body was not destiny, another theme—cruelty—stirred in him a sense of righteous anger. When other children entertained themselves by hitting him and running away, he writes about one of them, “I waited for the kid to strike again; when I heard him coming, I would grab him and throttle him back.” He did not blame the children; he blamed the adults who did not intervene. As he puts it, “these people seemed unconcerned with how I might feel and saw no problem with the way I was treated.” When the village acquired its first television, he squeezed into the crowd to experience it, and others said that his seat should go to a person who could see. “But this was blatant prejudice,” he writes, “and at the time I had no way of entering into a dialogue with people about it. The only thing I knew to do was to remain silent.”

Several of the most revealing sections of The Barefoot Lawyer are offhand observations about life with a disability in a rural village. At one point during his escape, Chen made sure to avoid being spotted by a neighbor’s mentally ill son who lived behind bars in a nearby yard. “He had been locked up that way for as long as I could remember, and he bayed from morning until night for his mother,” Chen writes, with a bluntness that suggests not a lack of sympathy, but a sense that life is cruel.

As he became older, his blindness not only limited his prospects but also became the source of an alternative understanding of the world. He was not allowed to attend the local school, so his father read to him from China’s classics—full of heroic bandits, noble sages, and unjust rulers. “Though I lacked the conventional education of my peers, I also avoided the propaganda,” Chen writes. For centuries, China had relied on rituals, models, and institutions to control wayward ideas, a process that the philosopher Xunzi, in the third century BC, compared to steam and pressure straightening a warped slab of wood. But Chen was excluded from many activities, so instead of the Party-approved curriculum, “my father’s tales became my foundational texts in everything from morality to history and literature.” Later, he received a radio, which exposed him to a vast range of programming—including uncensored reports from Hong Kong and Taiwan—that his peers rarely encountered.

When he was eighteen, Chen was finally allowed to go to school; he learned braille and emerged as an inveterate reformer. In his first year, he became a student representative and pushed administrators to provide more water to the dormitories for showers; he went on to demand the right to leave campus independently, and more funding for the music program. Outside of school, he developed an interest in the law and forced bus companies to observe rules allowing the disabled to ride for free. His activism sprang not from an abstract political agenda but from his certainty that life should be better. When a factory polluted the river near his village, Chen organized the installation of a safe water supply. The mayor urged Chen to speak, and he offered a single sentence: “I hope we can all achieve a better standard of living!”

In the next decade, however, Chen’s activism carried him beyond an amicable relationship with his government. He launched a much-publicized campaign to stop local officials from conducting forced abortions and sterilizations under the one-child policy. His motivation was partly personal: “Both my brother and his wife were forcibly sterilized,” he writes, and Chen and his wife were expecting a second child. The fear that they, too, might be assaulted radicalized him. Chinese law allowed self-taught “barefoot lawyers” to bring cases before the courts, and Chen filed class-action lawsuits that attracted growing concern from the Communist Party, which is acutely wary of organized political action. He writes, “I had no degree or law license to take away and, thus, had less to fear—or so I thought.”

Back to Listing

Leave a comment