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    Young Tightrope-Walker Becomes Online Sensation

    How a former migrant worker’s ambitions for his child led to a viral balancing act.

    SICHUAN, Southwest China — In the early morning, with the sun just peeking over the horizon and the hills still shrouded in mist, 6-year-old Zhang Liwang plops a red helmet onto his head and begins walking back and forth along a thick wire guardrail down by the river. He’ll continue this exercise for the next three hours, as he does every day.

    Liwang, or “Wang Wang” to his parents, is not a trained acrobat, but an ordinary child coping with the weight of a father’s expectations: that he will grow up to become self-reliant and self-confident — and that cultivating a special talent for the tightrope might someday propel him to a better life.

    “I am not a capable person, so I have to ask my son to work harder himself,” Zhang Yu, Wang Wang’s 34-year-old father, told Sixth Tone. Because of personal and family health issues, Zhang retired as a migrant worker two years ago, returning to his village near Guangyuan, an industrial city of some 2 million in rural Sichuan province, to be a stay-at-home dad to Wang Wang while his wife was working in the eastern province of Jiangsu and taking care of their daughter.

    However, as Wang Wang began to gravitate toward mobile games, his father decided he needed a healthier diversion. “I’ve experienced hard times,” says Zhang, who knows what it’s like to be down-and-out, constantly looking for work. “I don’t want my son to take the same detour.”

    As a means of improving Wang Wang’s physical and mental health, tightrope-walking was a more challenging option than martial arts, his father concluded. At the end of 2016, when Wang Wang was just 5 years old, Zhang implemented a training plan. From online tutorials and techniques Wang Wang developed himself, the boy gradually learned to balance on wires and other narrow surfaces.

    During this year’s lunar new year holiday, photos of Wang Wang practicing circulated through the community, even attracting attention from local media. After obtaining some of the fanciest video equipment anywhere in his village, Zhang began regularly posting videos of Wang Wang’s high-flying feats on microblog platform Weibo.

    After a few months, one of Zhang’s friends suggested he broadcast Wang Wang’s tightrope-walking as a livestream, recommending several apps and websites. In May, Zhang registered an account for Wang Wang and started streaming. Two months later, the father-son duo’s page had over 50,000 fans.

    But the prerecorded videos and live broadcasts haven’t always elicited the moral support and constructive feedback Zhang envisioned, with some even accusing him of child abuse.

    “One time, Wang Wang fell from a rope during a livestreamed practice session,” Zhang recalled. “While I was distraught, the viewers kept ‘liking’ the video, posting comments like ‘That’s awesome!’ and ‘Why didn’t he fall to his death?’” Wang says heartless comments like these weigh heavily on his heart — so much so that he stopped posting from the account, despite its thousands of hard-earned fans, and moved to another online video platform where his viewers are “more rational.”

    During summer vacation, Wang Wang spends a significant amount of time training each day. Along with his father, he wakes up at 5 o’clock, climbs a hill to their practice site, and walks the ropes until 9. The pair take a long break during the hottest hours of the day to eat, play, and rest, before resuming practice at around 5 in the evening, for an additional two and a half hours.As he describes the rigorous training routine, the words Zhang keeps coming back to are “self-reliance” and “self-confidence” — two character traits he believes he is instilling in young Wang Wang, though he also acknowledges that his parenting methods may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

    As Wang Wang has become better-known for his talent, people and companies have reached out to Zhang to gauge his interest in commercial performances and other business opportunities — offers Zhang has categorically turned down. “It’s unfair to my boy,” he explains. “Once the word gets out, our mindsets could change. Fame and drugs share some similarities.”

    Despite these reservations about the potentially harmful costs of achieving celebrity status, Zhang hopes to get Wang Wang, with his superior skills at such a young age, a Guinness World Record. But with his limited education, he has to solicit volunteers for help. So far, no one has answered the call.

    When the new primary school semester began in September, Zhang had to adjust Wang Wang’s training schedule. “I make sure he sleeps for nine hours each day,” Zhang says. “Study takes priority.”

    With school effectively putting Zhang’s tightrope dreams for Wang Wang on hold, the former migrant worker has had to reevaluate his own professional aspirations. He says he plans to start a small, sustainable farm to help support his family. “I would do anything for my boy,” he says.

    As for Wang Wang, the 6-year-old has even loftier hopes for his own future. “If I were to stop doing tightrope,” he says, “I’d like to become an astronaut, flying high up into the sky.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Six-year-old Zhang Liwang practices tightrope-walking in Mumen Town, Guangyuan, Sichuan province, July 8, 2017. Zhang Min for Sixth Tone)