This article is part of a series that explores life along the Hu Line, an imaginary diagonal line across China that has vast demographic, environmental, and political significance.
SICHUAN, Southwest China — The strum of a guitar slips into the spring evening from within a massage parlor. The drifting melody draws passersby inside, where a freckled teenager with short, curly hair sings about frustrated love.
To many Chinese, Kangding is the home of romance. The most famous of the city’s numerous ballads, the eponymous “Kangding Love Song,” immortalizes its dramatic surroundings: snowcapped mountains veiled in drifting clouds and dotted with temples.
The western Sichuan city is also home to more than 76,000 ethnic Tibetans, making up more than two-thirds of the population, according to official statistics. Historically, Kangding has stood at the crossroads of tea and horse trade routes, as well as on the frontier where the Tibetan and Han cultures have met, mingled, and sometimes married.
The 16-year-old singer in the massage parlor is the product of just such a union, but he prefers to go by his Mandarin name, Liu Weiwei, rather than his Tibetan name.
Weiwei is functionally blind. When he was an infant, he developed a viral eye infection; instead of taking him to a hospital, his devout Buddhist mother chanted scriptures and gave alms to a temple. His family even concocted a mixture made with leaves gathered from the grave of the boy’s grandmother. Nothing worked.
Today, Weiwei is seriously visually impaired, only able to discern colors up close. He resents traditional superstitions for taking away his eyesight, which is partly why he doesn’t like to use his Tibetan name. “From the bottom of my heart, I hate such beliefs,” he says.
His parents learned from the experience, so when Weiwei’s younger brother was born with a similar condition three years later, he was treated immediately and recovered completely. The brother now studies at a regular school in their hometown in Derong County, while Weiwei attends a special needs boarding school just outside Kangding, 600 kilometers away from his family.
A view of snow-covered mountains near Kangding, Sichuan province, May 8, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone
Founded in 2008, Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Special Education School was the first of its kind in the area. The institution began enrolling students in 2011, and Weiwei joined in 2012, when he was 11 years old.
Until then, Weiwei had stayed home, as there were no schools nearby that catered to blind or visually impaired students. Children with disabilities are often excluded from public schools in China, though new legislation from May 1 promises to promote integrated education. The 130 students at Weiwei’s school — divided into groups with vision impairments, hearing impairments, and intellectual disabilities — range in age from 7 to 22, as some of the older students had fallen far behind their age level after being previously denied an education.
Special needs schools like Weiwei’s offer students with disabilities some educational and vocational opportunities, but they typically funnel blind students into one of two traditional careers: massage or music.
A braille version of China’s national college entrance exam, the gaokao, was introduced in 2015, opening up more career paths for visually impaired youth. However, discrimination persists in terms of professional qualifications, household registration, and other national tests.
Though Weiwei misses his family — whom he only sees once a year during Spring Festival — as soon as he began learning braille at school, he felt motivated to succeed. He still remembers the first time he ran his fingers over the raised script. Nowadays, he writes fluently, his stylus making a quiet click-clack on his green plastic braille slate during math class as he punches the answers into the thick pages of his notebook.
Weiwei also learns massage skills at school. At first, he hated it: Like many of his classmates, he balked at the sense of servitude, the backbreaking labor, and the customers’ smelly feet. But now he has come around to seeing massage as a useful “survival skill.” At night and on weekends, he earns extra cash working at the massage center that also serves as a training facility for the school. For every 50 yuan (around $7) a customer pays for a back rub, Weiwei gets 10.
Liu Weiwei plays the guitar during a break at the massage training center in Kangding, Sichuan province, May 7, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone
But Weiwei’s real passion is his music, and he’s made some progress in his quest for stardom. In 2015, his school selected him to perform at a charity gala that raised over 58 million yuan in donations. National media reported that Weiwei’s rendition of “You Are My Eyes,” a popular song by Taiwanese singer and Paralympian Hsiao Huang-chi, was the highlight of the event.
Yet Weiwei was not pleased with the response. “I felt that the audience pitied me because I’m disabled,” he says. “I didn’t like that.”
Nowadays, Weiwei is focused on learning guitar and teaching himself to compose music. His family support his musical ambitions — two years ago, they bought him an acoustic guitar — but his massage instructors have questioned his priorities. Though the school signed him up for a couple of singing competitions, Weiwei feels they have discouraged him from pursuing music. “It was not for me; it was to promote the school,” he says of the contests.
To his teachers, it is not only Weiwei’s own future at stake but also the school’s reputation. In 2019, he will be part of the institution’s first graduating class. With limited staff and other resources, the school has had to be choosy about which students it enrolls, principal Tsering Namkyi explains, selecting candidates who show strong potential. “We really want our first graduates, such as Liu Weiwei, to do well,” he says. The school is in the process of building partnerships with local government and industry to ensure each graduate has a job lined up. “But we don’t know how it will go,” he says.
Students attend a flag-raising ceremony at the Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Special Education School in Yulin Township, Kangding, Sichuan province, May 8, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone
At a flag-raising ceremony one bright morning, students in yellow-and-green tracksuits stand against a backdrop of snowy mountains and clear blue skies. When the national anthem plays, some belt out the words while others use sign language. One boy with autism struggles to remain still as his classmates try to calm him down.
A bold red slogan painted on the side of one classroom building instructs students to chase their dreams.
Yet for Weiwei, the road ahead seems to demand defiance. Sometimes his step is sure. “I want to live in a free world,” he posts to his social feed on WeChat, a popular messaging app. “It’s up to me which way I go. No one has the right to stop me. Whether I wind up a beggar or a millionaire, it’s none of your business.”
But in other moments, his doubts cloud the way forward. “The years burn off. Where do dreams go?” he asks in another online entry. “As time flows by, when will my dreams come true?”
Editors: Qian Jinghua and Colum Murphy.
Over the coming weeks, Sixth Tone will publish stories, videos, photo galleries, and social media posts that chronicle our road trip across China along the Hu Line, as well as an interactive multimedia platform in the fall.
(Header image: Liu Weiwei plays the guitar during a break at the massage training center in Kangding, Sichuan province, May 7, 2017. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)