Life by a thousand cuts

By Tang Zhe | China Daily | Updated: 2013-07-03 05:46

Life by a thousand cuts 

Zhang Yonghong, who lives with brittle bone disease, sells paper-cut works in Beijing to support himself and earn money to treat his daughter, who inherited the disease. Photos by Katherine Rodriguez / for China Daily

 Life by a thousand cuts

Zhang Yonghong and Zhang Rui on the Beijing streets. Zhang Rui, a university graduate, volunteers to help Zhang Yonghong sell the paper-cuts.

 Life by a thousand cuts

A paper-cut featuring a tiger by Zhang Yonghong.

When Zhang Yonghong's daughter was diagnosed with the same brittle bone condition he has lived with all his life, he became determined to provide her with the best medical care available. He now ekes out a living selling his intricate paper-cut artwork, but daily survival remains a struggle. Tang Zhe reports.

Born with brittle bone disease, Zhang Yonghong is only half a meter tall and must use a wheelchair. His thin arms and legs can hardly bear any weight, and he is unable to take care of himself. However, his hands are able to produce delicate paper-cuts, artworks he hopes will free his daughter from the same destiny.

Raised poor and with little knowledge of the disease, the 39-year-old received no treatment when he was young and has suffered more than 100 fractures.

To support himself, he learned how to make paper-cut art from his mother. He sold his artwork and taught his techniques in Xi'an for eight years before discovering his young daughter inherited the disease, leading Zhang to move his wife and daughter to Beijing for better treatment five years ago.

Zhang's daughter's treatment costs about 30,000 yuan ($4,880) a year. The family's savings was wiped out in two years, and Zhang was forced to start to sell his work in underground passages with his healthy wife, who soon left him.

"She said the life was too hard for her and ran off with another man, but I can't give up on my child," Zhang says.

Life by a thousand cuts

The fragile father had to send his girl back to his hometown to be taken care of by his parents after his wife left.

"My 6-year-old daughter has fractured bones more than a dozen times. No school accepts her because she is too fragile and the schools are afraid of taking the responsibility," he says.

With a little help from government, Zhang says he was lucky to meet some kindhearted people in Beijing.

A Hong Kong businessman donated 60,000 yuan to him last year to treat the girl and start a small studio on Qiangulouyuan, a small lane off the capital's busy Nanluoguxiang, a famous hutong that attracts lots of tourists over holidays.

Lu Minchou, who works as a cleaner in a nearby hotel, volunteered to help Zhang with cooking and housework every day after work, to spare him the cost of hiring a nurse.

Zhang Rui, a university graduate, spends most of her time helping Zhang sell the paper-cuts, translating the stories the paper-cuts tell to English and selling the works on the roadside of Nanluoguxiang.

Organizations including the International Newcomers' Network and the International Center for Veterinary Services help him to boost the sales volume with their own networks.

However, the artist still lives beyond his income and struggles to maintain his small business.

Inside his little room, which is no more than 10 square meters, more than 100 artistic paper-cuts are displayed. With drawing and cutting all done on his own, Zhang normally needs five hours to create the smallest bookmark, while the bigger ones could take him days. However, sales are not high.

"We have a few customers. Most of them are students and only buy the small pieces sold for 20 yuan each," says Zhang, who has to pay 7,000 yuan to rent the shop every three months. "Sometimes we have no business for days."

Life by a thousand cuts

He is also not allowed to sell the paper-cuts on the roadside of busy Nanluoguxiang and has had his works confiscated by urban management staff, whose job is to clear the roads of peddlers.

"Selling paper-cuts is his only source of income. Without this, he can't support the family and treat his daughter," says Zhang Rui, whose family and friends have questioned her dedication to Zhang.

"Ninety-nine percent of my friends don't understand me and ask me to keep away from him. I just want to make myself happier by helping people in need. And I hope more people in society will help Zhang increase the sales."

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(China Daily USA 07/03/2013 page10)

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