Barefoot Lawyer a Lyrical, Thrilling
By Kathi Wolfe
Recently, I congratulated myself. Using
my white cane, I, legally blind, had successfully navigated my way through
Grand Central Terminal. As icing on the cake, I showed a skeptical stranger on
my train how I can read and write on my iPad by enlarging the text using the
zoom feature. I was pretty puffed up with my quite minor achievements until I
read The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Mans Fight for Justice and
Freedom in China by Chen Guangcheng (Henry Holt. 330 pp. $30).
In a memoir as spell-binding as
Vertigo, Psycho or any Hitchcock movie, Chen, a blind
man, tells the story of his battle over disability and human rights in China,
his escape from two years of house arrest, and his (ultimately successful)
struggle to start, with his family, a new life in the United States.
Sure, getting around in this country can
be difficult for people who are blind or who have disabilities due to
lack of mobility training, obstacles or inaccessibility. Even as the 25th
anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act approaches, theres
still discrimination against disabled people. About 70 percent of people with
disabilities are still under- or unemployed, according to the U.S. Census
Bureau. Yet, from the first paragraph of Chens gripping account, it
becomes clear: The prejudice and inequities that we with disabilities
experience here, though unjust, are first world problems compared
to the injustice and indignities encountered at every turn by our disabled
sisters and brothers in China.
Chen, born in the village of Dongshigu in
rural China in 1971, is known as the barefoot lawyer. Like most of
the people in rural villages there, his family was poor. Chen, one of five
children, became blind after falling ill as an infant. Chen and the others in
his village lived in poverty so severe that its almost impossible to
Even though the villagers were a
close-knit community, the people in my village lived on a knife edge of
survival, Chen writes. ... Like many rural Chinese, our family
owned just a tiny sliver of land, not enough to let us scratch out even a basic
When he was young, my father
possessed a single pair of pants ... The villagers made what they wore,
Chen continues, and they wore what theyd made until their clothes
were completely threadbare, often going without shoes even in the dead of
The people of Dongshigu were so
impoverished that they stripped the trees bare, devouring the leaves of
elms and poplars and locusts, he writes, gnawing the bark to ease
their raging bellies.
As a child, Chen didnt receive
formal education because in most parts of China, especially in rural areas,
blind people werent permitted to go to school. In China, there are few
career options for people who are blind other than that of being a
storyteller or practicing traditional Chinese medicine, according
to Chen. I wasnt even allowed in the villages two-room
schoolhouse, where my friends attended classes, Chen writes.
In lyrical and poetic writing, Chen
recalls how he learned, adapted to, and navigated in his world. I hear
the reverberating calls of birds, their overlapping, melodic lines spinning
through the trees, he writes, and the sounds at a spring nearby ...
the liquid splashing into the buckets and jugs. I hear a chorus of life:
songbirds trilling, animals lowing, bleating, barking ... each moving in and
out of rhythm with the others.
Chen writes of climbing a tree with one of
his brothers. 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
... until I reach that fork in the tree, where I can sit in perfect
As a teenager, Chen attended a couple of
schools for the blind away from his village. There, he learned that China has
written legislation The Law on the Protection of Persons with
Disabilities that protects the rights of disabled people. All too soon,
however, Chen discovered that this law has no teeth, that its a PR stunt
to make it seem as if China cares about people with disabilities.
Though the law says that blind people
should be able to ride the bus for free, Chen is told to pay his fare, he
writes. Contrary to the provisions of this legislation, disabled and blind
people are taxed and made to work, even if they cant because of their
disability. As a young man, Chen began his lifelong work of fighting for the
rights of disabled people and others who are oppressed in China.
After Chen protested when he didnt
receive the benefit provided by law, a government official told him,
There are so many disabled people ... if they were all exempt [from
working,] where would we get our money?
I scurried to a stone
staircase... breathing hard and listening... for any sign of disturbance...
from the guards. The snap of a twig could betray me.
Along with working to ensure that the
rights of disabled people were protected, Chen began working on other human
rights issues, such as opposing the Chinese governments requirement that
women only have one child. The authorities enforced this with violence,
physically harming and mentally abusing expectant mothers.
Though blind people have a low status in
Chinese society, people started to come to Chen, seeking help when their rights
were threatened. Although Chen didnt go to law school, he taught himself
by reading law books in braille. He became a barefoot lawyer,
providing legal services and advocacy on human and disability rights issues --
which many formally trained lawyers wouldnt touch -- to people not only
in his native village but in Shanghai and Beijing. Foreign media, such as The
Washington Post, reported on Chen and his advocacy.
His efforts didnt sit well with
Chinese authorities. After two kangaroo trials, Chen was brutally
beaten and imprisoned for four years. After his release, he and his
family were placed under house arrest and were under surveillance by guards and
cameras 24 hours a day. The guards violently beat him and his family. At one
point, his wifes eye socket was fractured after a beating.
They curse and yell and call us
names; we are running dogs, spies for the Americans ... Chen writes of
how the guards treated them. Youre barely human, they
say ... We want you and your whole family to be miserable, to have ... no
way to go on. They recorded themselves for their superiors.
He and his wife decided that their only
way out was for him to escape, alone, and travel to the U.S. Embassy in
Beijing. The most suspenseful and harrowing writing in The Barefoot
Lawyer is Chens account of his escape.
I scurried to a stone staircase I
knew was hidden from view, then stood at the bottom of those six rough-hewn
steps, breathing hard and listening with all my might, straining for any sign
from the guards, he writes. The snap of a
twig could betray me.
After an arduous escape and journey, Chen
made it to the embassy in 2012. There, complex negotiations ensued. The Chinese
government wanted him to study at a Chinese university, according to Chen. He
wanted to go with his wife and children to America and to study at New York
In his memoir, Chen writes that the U.S.
State Department and diplomats pressured him to accept Chinas terms for
his release. He was forced, Chen writes, by U.S. officials and the Chinese
government to get treatment for his foot -- which was broken during his escape
-- from a Chinese hospital, instead of an international hospital. U.S.
officials told him, he writes, that the Chinese government would charge him
with treason if he didnt accept Chinas terms.
After the publication of The
Barefoot Lawyer in March, some U.S. officials disputed some of the
elements in Chens account of these negotiations, according to Politico.
Many of Mr. Chens recollections dont match mine, but he
obviously was under a great deal of strain at the time, Harold Koh, a
former State Department legal adviser, told Politico.
The result speaks for itself. His
encounter with my ... colleagues and me ... took him from being an injured
fugitive to living here comfortably with his wife and family.
Today, Chen, who continues to be active
in human rights work, is a distinguished senior fellow in human rights at the
Witherspoon Institute, a think tank in Princeton, N.J.
The Barefoot Lawyer,
translated into English by Danica Mills, is a must-read for anyone who cares
not only about human rights, but humanity.
Kathi Wolfe, a regular contributor to Independence
Today, writes frequently on disability issues