I speak braille

Life as a blind masseur

Life as a blind masseur

Bi Feiyu’s Tuina (推拿, a traditional form of theraputic massage) won acclaim and awards in 2008 for its portrayal of the lives of blind masseurs in Nanjing.

Tuina is a slow-moving, character-driven novel in which nothing much happens in the first third beyond introductions and background information, but once you get used to the pace of the author’s plain prose, it’s a hard book to put down. Each of the dozen or so masseurs has a story to tell about being blind in China today. Some are touching love stories, others are tragedies in which personal desires go unfulfilled in a society that has certain expectations of people with physical disabilities, and still others are harshly cynical about a culture that is blind to the interests of people who cannot see.

One of the bleakest, and funniest, stories is about Du Hong, a late arrival to the massage business who started out as a piano prodigy. After discovering she had a talent for music, her teacher set her straight about the way the world works:

Du Hong, you don’t know, you don’t understand! You’re blind, so where’s the future in becoming a singer? You’re not deaf, and you’re not mute, so where will you get by singing? Where’s the special education? Ah, how can you understand? In special education you’ve got to find something difficult, do something you’re unable to do. Like a deaf-mute singing, or like a physically-disabled person dancing, or like a mentally-challenged person inventing something. Each of these shows off the school and the miracle of education. In short, a disabled person only has the power to touch people’s hearts, to move a generation, and to shake society when she endures incredible hardship and puts herself through the fire to do something that is difficult or even possible for her to do, and does it well. What’s so special about a blind person like you singing? All you have to do is open your mouth. But playing the piano is hard. The hardest thing for a blind person is to play – the – piano. Understand? [62]

Du Hong eventually quits her studies after learning first-hand exactly why her playing touches people’s hearts. At a benefit concert, she chokes and turns in an awful performance, yet the crowd gives her a standing ovation. Afterward, the host interviews her for the cameras:

And then with a flourish she asked the big question: “And why did Du Hong come to perform for you all today?” Yes, why? Du Hong  herself wanted to hear the answer. A hush fell over the gallery. The host answered her own question in words that would bring a tear to your eye: “Poor Du Hong” came “to repay of society — all of you grandfathers and grandmothers, all of you aunts and uncles, all of you older brothers and sisters, all of you younger sisters and brothers — for the love you have shown her!” The violin music that had been playing in the background swelled up underneath the host’s words and echoed through the hall and throughout every corner of “society.” [64]

Language plays a noticeable role in the novel. Speech registers separate blind from sighted, although it’s not made clear exactly what that means. For example, Doc Wang, a masseur who returned to Nanjing from a high-paying job catering to foreign clients in Shenzhen when the economic downturn at the turn of the century evaporated his business and torpedoed his stock investments, often describes his old friend Sha Fuming as “talking like a sighted person,” and occasionally the narrator will observe that a statement that would have seemed entirely normal coming out of the mouth of someone who could see was surprising to hear from a blind person.

Written language also shows up briefly. The back story of Sha Fuming, who co-founded the massage business where most of the book is set, involves an episode in which he skips class to visit a bar with a sighted woman who introduces herself by writing her name on his hand with a piece of ice. He has to tell her, “I…can’t read.”

Sha Fuming was telling the truth. He spoke Chinese, but it wasn’t genuine Chinese, it was a special language. More precisely, it was braille. He had never spent any time learning Chinese characters, even though he knew the Three Hundred Tang Poems by heart. [123]

Chinese Braille is printed twice in the book: once when Sha writes his name in droplets of water for the woman (“That’s…so cool!” she says), and once on the cover. It’s mentioned a few other times, but Bi Feiyu isn’t really concerned with the mechanics of surviving as a blind person in Chinese society so much as the feelings that are created by the experience.

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