Ku-Li - Bitter Strength - Photo: canva.com/Vectortwins
Every two weeks, I usually meet Li Qiong at the apartment where she grew up. The second-floor residence is located just 200 metres from the intersection of lines 1 and 7 of Wuhan's Metro system, an ideal location in terms of transport. From the station, the first half of the short walk brings me by a stylish coffee shop on the ground floor of a towering new office block, a recent symbolic benchmark of the city's economic development. The second half of the short journey is like slipping over the edge of an economic cliff - the sleek shine of the skyscraper replaced by old concrete apartment blocks. Under the shadow of the office building, these humble homes still hold a fragile community together, as if counting the days until a pencil stroke on a planning office map will signal their end.
After walking up the dark stairs to the second floor, I knock on the outer door of rattling metal, which prompts an immediate acknowledgement from inside. Li Qiong opens the door, an action followed by her switching on the room's single light, sparingly used in the windowless living room. As I sit down, Li Qiong pours tea and passes it to me. Following initial greetings, her mother enquires about a topic that is always of interest to them: the price of vegetables. It would seem that information from my area might add to their understanding of economic trends in the city. When asked the question for the first time a few years ago, I struggled to give a clear answer, which seemed to surprise them. For them, a small price difference decides where they go to buy these essentials.
In 2002, a Catholic friend introduced me to Li Qiong and her mother. Their lives have not been easy. Born in 1976 following a long and difficult delivery for her undernourished mother, Li Qiong was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Ten years later, she took her first sliding tentative steps. Her speech has been restricted for her entire life. Efforts by her parents to register her at various schools fell on deaf ears in a country where teachers are assessed on the academic performance of their students. A childhood without education and an adult life without employment robbed her of the possibility of having school friends and work colleagues. When she goes to nearby shops, her struggle to speak and her restricted hand coordination produce more challenges.
A faith-based project initiated in 2006 provided Li Qiong with the opportunity of some work at home and a small income. The social interaction with the visitors every two weeks has probably been the greater benefit as she meets with people who are happy to know her.
In 2007, the traditional Chinese understanding of long-term security came to the fore when she was introduced to a young man with the possibility of marriage. At the end of the year their wedding took place at a nearby hotel. There was no honeymoon. The newly married couple lived in a simple rented apartment near her parents' home, a dark place, as if designed for residents who were allergic to light.
Two years later, there was a joyful announcement. Li Qiong was expecting a child. In China there is a strong preference for a newborn to be a boy. As the pregnancy progressed, Li Qiong's mother said that they were hoping the birth would provide them with a girl, certainly a counter-cultural approach. It was quickly explained that the birth of a girl would mean that she could eventually, as an adult, pick and choose from potential marriage partners, the big discrepancy between male and female numbers being the basis of such logic. A few days before Christmas 2010, a healthy child - a girl, as hoped for - was born. She is well loved and has brought joy in abundance to a family that has endured so much.
The English word ‘coolie’ has its origin in the Chinese language. The Chinese word 'ku-li' means bitter strength. In China, a person who can "eat bitterness" is admired as one who can persevere through all kinds of adversity. Another serving of bitterness awaited the family around the time of the child's birth.
Li Qiong's father, a kind person, a dedicated husband, a talented cook, a man who swam across the Yangtze River with his friends once a week, was diagnosed with cancer. Having lived to see the birth of his granddaughter, he died when she was just four months old.
More than a decade has passed by since those bittersweet months. Li Qiong's daughter has grown to be a bright energetic child whose performance in school has placed her near the top of the class. A delightful talent for dancing has emerged - her agile feet and flowing moves - a beautiful sight for a mother consigned to a life of shuffled movement.
As is understandable for a family in their situation, they have hopes that this child will make progress academically over the next ten years with the eventual possibility that she will provide some relief for the family's life on the poverty line. Six years ago, a small, low-rent apartment was made available to the family of three by the local authorities. It is a more comfortable setting, but it means one hour on a bus each morning for the child to go to school.
Li Qiong's husband works as a day labourer, installing and fixing water pumps. During the peak of the coronavirus in Wuhan he had no work and thus little money to support his family. When funds were running low for Li Qiong's family of three, a timely donation by Sisters at one of the city's convents brought some much-needed relief. Similar charitable efforts in various parts of the country by the Church and other faith groups also took place. Small against a background of tens of millions of disrupted people, it is nonetheless encouraging that charity is reaching some of those who are struggling. It conveys the message that faith groups are concerned for the wellbeing of Chinese people who are suffering at this time even though they can only assist a few.
I look forward to meeting Li Qiong and her mother again at the second-floor home where there is restricted light but a warm welcome. Our discussions are likely to continue about the price of vegetables. Li Qiong is likely to continue serving tea and telling me to be careful as she pours it while instructing her daughter to distribute oranges to the visitors.
In the centre of the floor, the dislodged rattling grey floor tile, broken at one corner into a few pieces, will still convey the message that its ongoing mosaic presence is as secure as ever in this home of poor residents. As we drink the warm tea and eat the sweet oranges, we will discuss local issues of great importance while Li Qiong's mother, speaking for the family that has no connection with church, will again ask us to pray for them.
As guests among three generations of Chinese women, we will sit eating and drinking in this humble setting where many chapters of China's history have been lived through, believing also that the resurrected Christ is among His suffering faithful people.
Columban Fr Dan Troy lives and works in China.
Listen to "Low income families - 'Eat Bitterness'"
- Read more from The Far East - March/April 2023