The significance of this film project goes beyond China.
It is about our shared human experience.
Though I was born and raised in California, since childhood, I’ve felt a calling to return to China to unearth her stories. Whether that was a result of feeling misunderstood as an American of Chinese descent or my way of making sense of my father and grandmother’s struggles in the Chinese countryside, I often find I return to China in the landscape of my creative imagination.
In recent years, China’s rapid rise has captured much of the world’s attention, yet her portrayal in Western media continues to be limited. To most, China conjures up mystery and exoticism, a repressive government or fears that it is the next “enemy” of the West given its economic growth. China is, however, a country of monumental change and contrast. It is a place where you’ll find coal mine owners driving Ferraris alongside school children suffering from vitamin deficiencies. In a country of 1.3 billion, nearly 800 million people live in the countryside, where many continue to face poverty and inadequate healthcare. Those unable to access social services later become ostracized from normal life; disabled persons are commonly treated as outcasts and sadly, often by their own families.
The winter before I completed my film school coursework, I became acquainted with the China Foundation for Disabled Persons and proposed a project which would seek to promote a greater sense of social and humanitarian awareness in China for the underserved and disabled rural population. That summer, with the foundation’s support, I was able to travel to remote regions of Ningxia, one of China’s poorest provinces; I accessed places routinely closed off to foreign visitors. Over the course of three years, I came to intimately understand the everyday challenges of families caught up in the tumult of China’s change and I met local heroes whose spirit of hope should inspire anyone who has ever pursued a dream.
I learned of the work of Dr. Zhang Xubin after first visiting public county hospitals serving the impoverished villages of southern Ningxia. Though many of the doctors I met before him were very dedicated to their work, they didn’t measure up to the unique sense of initiative, social responsibility, and constant self-improvement that characterized Dr. Zhang. China remains a country where patients commonly “tip” doctors handsomely before surgery, but I soon learned Dr. Zhang had given up lucrative big city prospects to return to his humble roots in Ningxia. He started a charitable mobile eye clinic alongside an independent practice he founded, paying for it all by selling his home (much to the heartache of his wife and family). There was something in his spirit that drove him forward, an unshakable faith in manifesting what he believed in.
I looked for an elderly character who could lend a greater sense of scope to rural China and came upon Grandma Yuan. A small lady with bound feet, Grandma Yuan was hard at work in the fields when I first saw her. Though I was asking her questions about her vision loss initially, I soon discovered through conversation that she had a beloved eldest granddaughter who shared my Chinese name, Rongrong, or “glory.” She told me her granddaughter had a keen passion for the arts, and despite a debilitating disability, hoped to attend college. I could sense the uniqueness of their relationship in the way Grandma Yuan spoke of Rongrong: full of pride, love and protectiveness; if Rongrong got into college, she’d be one of only a few in the entire region. I knew Grandma Yuan played a great role in this dream and I was reminded of my own grandmother who had raised me. I was amazed that although we happened to live worlds apart, Yuan’s family and my own shared so much in common.
I found the young boy, Li Juncheng, serendipitously. Our encounter occurred while I was visiting another family on a sandy cliff that we off-roaded several miles to reach. A young boy stood behind a locked gate. It was apparent his vision was impaired, yet he was beaming. As I neared, he started talking to me with excitement, trying his best to speak Mandarin, which came out in lively spurts. As I grew to know Li, it became clear that he lived each day full of possibility. He told me he wanted to go to school and to become a truck driver, even if he could not see. He spent each day locked in his yard, and yet, I could not have met a happier boy.
Following Li, Yuan, Rongrong and Dr. Zhang’s lives has been inspiring and humbling. While nursing my own grandmother recently, I’ve often turned to them for encouragement. For strength, I look to the resolve of Rongrong and her family. For a greater appreciation of what joy is, I remember Juncheng’s bright spirit. For confidence in forging my path, I seek the determination of Dr. Zhang. Their capacity for hope and quiet resilience enlighten us. My heartfelt thanks to them for everything they have taught me.
– Carol Liu
Writer/Director/Producer, Restoring the Light