Mr. Xue Guoliang is one of the artists working for Gift of Hope; a social enterprise run by disabled people producing traditional Chinese artworks. We talked with Mr. Xue and Mrs. Li Meixin, the director of the company, about Mr. Xue’s life.
Mr. Xue is 55 years old and lived all his life in Beijing. He is disabled since he was 1 year old and makes a living as a chop (seal / printing stamp) carving artist. Mr. Xue used to be a player in the Chinese national team for wheelchair basketball.
You grew up Beijing. In this area or ..?
I’ve been around this area since I was born. Where I grew up is quite close to here. I have never left the Xicheng District ever since my birth. I used to live around Xidan and I moved to this place when the old houses in Xidan were demolished.
Did you grow up in a hutong area?
When you were one year old, what happened to you?
I was sick; I had a high fever. Since then my legs are not good anymore. It was because of the fever, I guess, but who knows. Until now I am not sure what the cause was. Anyway my legs have been treated all the time but were never cured. So there’s nothing to do about it. Let it be.
What school did you go to when you were young?
I attended a normal school just like the other, healthy, children; we studied together. There are special schools, but they are mainly focusing on mentally disabled children, the deaf-mute and the blind. There’s nothing wrong with my intelligence, so I went to normal schools.
How did you learn to move?
It was surely difficult to learn it, but I just had to learn. Actually I began to walk with crutches when I attended primary school. Before that I stayed at home and never went outside alone. I just sat on the bed. Back then my mom was still young. Sometimes she sat at the door holding me in her arms. Usually I went out with my mom holding me. Then I was about to go to school and I could not let her carry me anymore, so I began to learn walking with crutches.
What memories do you keep of that period?
I keep some memories. At that time there was a baby buggy, not as fancy as the baby buggies nowadays. Back then the baby buggy was made from bamboo and it could carry two kids.
It was made from rattan. It was quite fancy, at least for that time. Contrary to these days, back then rattan was not considered a good material. The baby buggy was used for many years. It had space for two kids and there were four kids in my family. I always sat in that baby buggy. Often someone would push me forward, either my elder brother or my younger sisters. When I was a little older, I could lean on the handrails and slide with my feet touching the ground.
Meixin (while drawing the baby buggy): There was a board in the middle. You could put it up and use it as a table. When the babies felt tired you could move the board down; creating a place to sleep for them.
(The buggy on this photo, taken in 2006, is not exactly the same as described, but gives an idea)
So the babies could sleep. And when the board was put up the babies could eat on it. I think that kind of baby buggy was pretty nice. Now you can’t find it anymore.
Meixin: If you go outside of the fourth or fifth ring road you can still see them.
You were always inside when you were young. Did you develop any special fantasies?
Fantasies at that time? I can’t remember. I didn’t have many fantasies back then. Kids didn’t know anything. I always stayed inside and had little contact with the outside world. I think what I thought about most were my legs. I did not know it was a sickness. I was wondering why other people could run and I could not.
Then you entered primary school.
During primary school I just attended classes and there was nothing special. There were a lot of children of my age. I already liked making stuff with my hands at that time. I liked it ever since I was very little. So my classmates and kids from the neighborhood all came to me and asked me to make stuff. At that time we were short of toys at home and we had to make everything ourselves, like catapults, paper planes and peg-tops; nobody went to buy toys. I also liked to disassemble things.
How many kids were there in your class?
Above 40 kids were in the class.
Did you get any special treatment in the class?
I have a special memories to that period, because one teacher who taught us had the same problem with his legs as I do. Because there was also something wrong with his own body, he paid special attention to me. I haven’t seen him since I graduated from primary school but I still remember him. I keep no memory of other teachers. It is only in recent years that I recall pieces of memory to those days.
When you were in primary school, was there someone in your environment giving you guidance for your future life?
I would say yes. It was the same teacher, Mr. Du. He told me to master some handicraft next to taking the compulsory courses; to learn skills that can make a living. At the time I did not fully understand what he meant by saying that. It was a good advice. Back then jobs were arranged when one graduated, but nowadays everyone has to look for a job himself.
Following his advice anyway, the first thing I learned was repairing shoes.
How did you fit in your surroundings as a child?
I had little contact with the society back in those days. I had almost no friends at school; nobody talked to me, not even my teachers. Besides attending classes, I had no other activities at all. They would not include me when they had activities because I was not able to do anything.
Only with your brother or your younger sisters?
Yes, just with my brother and sisters. You know they say: “children speak the truth”. When I was little, kids from the neighborhood would not dislike or avoid me because of my handicap. But when we grew older … I will not say they disliked me or avoided me, but they just stopped inviting me to join them.
I made some stuff at home to entertain myself. For instance, I would make some paper-cut. There was nothing much to do. Since I was good at making stuff, some kids came to me saying “Go to Wuliang’s, he can make these things.” At those moments I did not feel I was disabled and I played together with other kids.
Often when kids enter their adolescent years, they have a period where they rebel against their parents. Did you have that period as well?
With my physical conditions… No I didn’t. You need to be qualified enough to rebel.
Or maybe later?
It’s hard to say anything about rebellion. Back then, based on my physical conditions, I accepted whatever they arranged for me. I was not able to arrange for myself. There was nothing to do about it.
Besides, people at that time … China was isolated then and we knew little about the outside world. These days, young people know a lot and think a lot. In our time people did not think much. They focussed on going to school, graduating and finding a job.
Social life was difficult in your youth. How was it when you grew into your twenties?
I had even less social activities in my twenties. Due to my physical condition, I could not join them easily, for instance when they wanted to climb the Xiangshan Mountain. So little by little I lost my contacts.
How did you meet your wife?
We were introduced by a mutual friend.
Did it change your life a lot after that?
That is for sure. Marriage changes one’s life. We got married several months after we met.
Unfortunately she passed away, eight years ago.
What was the best time in your life so far?
Each period of my life has its own merits and is not comparable with other periods. Talking about happiness, of course I enjoyed the freedom before marriage, when I could do whatever I liked. After marriage it became impossible to be free like that. After marriage my life was not easy due to my physical condition. For instance, I have two kids and at that time I often had to bring them to the hospital.
You have a daughter of 23, and?
And a son of 20. In general there is happiness in the bitterness and bitterness in the sweet. Talking about beautiful days, I would say the best days were those when I was playing basketball. I was in a wheelchair basketball team.
Meixin: He used to be in the national team.
I started playing in 1984 and I played for about 15 or 16 years.
Do you have a defining time in your life? A time where found answers on how to deal with your life and future?
I thought a lot when I was jobless. That was from my 16th to my 20th. Questions like: “What can I do with this life as a handicapped” where confronting me. I didn’t have much to compete with other people. But then I learned how to carve chops. Before that I only made simple things for fun, but this was a serious craft to learn. But I didn’t learn it to survive. I learnt this in the first place because I like it. Due to my physical condition, I could not compete with others in most professions. For instance I learned carpentry at school, but people told me it was useless for me to learn it because I would not be able to make a living with it. So at that moment I started thinking what I could really do. I chose this. Is suits me well because you can only do this work while sitting.
How long have you been doing this?
Around 30 years, but not constantly. I started learning this handicraft before I got married. After I got married, I had more family responsibilities; but I never dropped my trade completely.
What other crafts did you practice?
I’ve done a lot! Like this table and this closet, I made them myself. I even made my own vehicle for moving around.
(Looking at one of the chops) You are also selling these via “Gift of Hope”, right?
Meixin: Yes. He is very popular when we get a group of tourists. We present his art at different occasions. When tourists come, we arrange a specific time and we bring him to the tourists in their hotels. We will tell them background stories and tell that if they want to have a Chinese souvenir, this is something meaningful. We also sell other souvenirs, but his artworks can only be sold when he is present (because of the personal inscriptions), so we bring him to the tourists.
You are carving ancient characters. Recently, we saw an exhibition at Caochangdi where the artist carved these ancient Chinese characters from the Xi Xia language.
The Xi Xia language is older than the Xiao Zhuan (“small seal script”) that I use, according to the stages of the Chinese calligraphy. Xiao Zhuan is the so-called “Qin Zhuan”. There were many countries in ancient China, each country had a different calligraphy and thus each written word had many different shapes. Since the Qin united China, calligraphy was also united and Xiao Zhuan was defined as the standard one. All the calligraphy before Xiao Zhuan is called Da Zhuan.
Would you tell us a bit about your current interest?
At the moment this (chop carving) is my only interest, nothing else. Now I am too old to learn anything new, so I just want to go deeper in chop carving, either taking it as a hobby or as an inner resource.
If you don’t work on this, what else do you do?
I really don’t have other hobbies.
If you turn on the television, what is your favorite program?
I prefer those programs from which you can gain knowledge. For instance, Animal World, Discovery and Legend – these are my favorite channels. Those TV soap series are not for me.
I like working with my hands, so I also like reading or watching stories about small inventions. I enjoy watching other people inventing strange and small stuff.
Do you watch basketball on TV?
I also watch the sports channel and I enjoy watching basketball on television, like the NBA. When I was in the wheelchair basketball team, we also had to watch the regular basketball games to study the strategies. So when I watch basketball games, I am not so concerned with the results, instead I pay more attention to the teamwork. This has become a habit. In the wheelchair basketball team we made videos of games and then watched and learned the strategies and teamwork from other teams.
When you were a member of the national basketball team, have you also traveled outside China?
Of course. But I’ve only traveled to Japan and Thailand.
Do you still have contact with your old teammates?
Yes, we meet several times a year.
How do you compare the chances that modern society provides to handicapped people with 20 years ago?
The difference is huge; it is much better now. Back then there wasn’t any special offering from the society, but now the handicapped are all protected. The local community services can help those among the handicapped who are jobless by arranging jobs for them, getting them insured and making sure that they have something to rely on when they are old. I think the situation will further improve in the future.
The situation has improved step by step. When I graduated from school I had no job, and I waited for four years until the community service arranged a job for me. That was around 1980. As the society further developed, the treatment by the society of the handicapped has become really good. All the handicapped people around me have a job and labor insurance.
What do you feel is most important at this stage in your life?
Now my two kids are grown-ups. I hope that they can find good jobs and that I can have a comfortable late life.
Do you have a set of principles or values that you tried to transmit to your children?
My children don’t want what I try to transmit to them. I asked them to practise calligraphy and they didn’t listen; I asked them to learn my craft and they rejected too. They must have their own ideas, which are probably better than mine. I told my kids that a family like ours owes a lot to the society, to our families and to the cadres. When my wife got cancer, for example, we were in need of a lot of money and they provided it for us. So I told my children that they should repay the society when they grow up. I will just stick to my work and be useful at this age.
Most of the time you work at home. When do you go out ?
I go outside very frequently. I don’t like staying at home alone.
I don’t have a schedule, but I keep a habit of taking a walk every day. I walk for about one hour a day to stay fit. I mean I walk with my crutches, not with my motorbike; I walk to exercise.
What do you focus on for the future?
I still want to focus on my chop carving. This is not only work; when I carve a nice chop, I also feel accomplished and fulfilled. It is not a mechanical work; it includes making designs and applying patterns. Like painting, chop carving can be inspiring.
And how to you imagine yourself in 20 years?
20 years? Do I still have 20 years to live?
I can’t imagine that far. I think I will probably just stick to chop carving for the rest of my life.
Maybe you’ll live with one of your children?
I don’t expect that, because I don’t want to live with them. Many families suffer from conflicts between parents and their children because they live together. I don’t want to get there. Living alone is not that bad.
How do your children feel about it?
I didn’t ask them about it. They will surely have their own homes after marriage. My daughter will be married and my son too, and they have to look for houses of their own. My daughter is living with me and my son is living with my mother at the moment, because my mother was living alone and likes to have company and because my house is really small.
Before you lived with the whole family, the four of you, in this house?
Yes, we lived here together. My children were still small back then, so we extended that bed (pointing to a 2nd bed in the room) to fit for the two of them and I shared this bed with my wife.
Text and photos © Anton Hazewinkel 2012