Zhang Lijie
(b.1981) Photographer based in Beijing, China
Chunchun and Minghua

From China to America: The Parallel Lives of Two Disabled Women

Two childhood friends reconnect after a decade apart, living their lives on opposite sides of the globe.

/ 图文:张立洁 /

Chen Chunchun sits in bed after showering at a budget hotel in Jiashan, Zhejiang province, May 25, 2016. Zhang Lijie



Chen Minghua and Chen Chunchun have a lot in common. They both contracted polio at a young age, were abandoned by their families, and grew up together in the same Chinese orphanage — which gave them the same family name. But in 2001, Minghua, then 11 years old, was adopted by an American family, embarking on a new life and leaving Chunchun behind.

The “sisters,” as they refer to each other, lost contact until 2011, when Minghua was offered an internship in China and visited the orphanage where Chunchun still lives. The two women have kept in touch ever since, video-calling each other frequently.

Xray film of Chunchun's upper body.春春的脊柱X光片显示她的脊椎变形非常严重,医生说这将影响她的内脏功能,甚至影响寿命。姐姐明华在刚去美国的时候在养父母的帮助下,接受了长达12小时的矫形手术,很大程度上缓解了这方面的风险,但春春却因为现实原因错过了最好的手术时机。

Chunchun is unflinching about her physical disability. “This is just me,” she says. “I can’t hide it, and I don’t want to hide it.” Her spine is bent as a result of polio, putting pressure on her organs and making it difficult to breathe.

Chunchun lives a relatively happy life in Chenzhou, a city in central China’s Hunan province. She has her own room at the orphanage, which provides her with the basic necessities for a life with dignity. However, she would rather she didn’t have to rely on others so much when going outdoors. As facilities for the disabled are uncommon in prefecture-level cities like Chenzhou, Chunchun has to ask her male friends for help getting on and off public transport.

Two years ago, Chunchun met Lei Yu, a blind masseur who would later become her partner. Lei is Chunchun’s feet; Chunchun is Lei’s eyes. Though Chunchun and Lei have not registered for a marriage license, they have abundant respect and affection for one other. “Two people in love, that’s all there is,” says Chunchun. “Many of my friends are married or divorced, but I am perfectly satisfied with the present situation.” Lei’s children call Chunchun “Mommy.”





Chunchun used to make and sell handicrafts, and more recently she’s been going out onto busy streets to sing for passersby. With Lei and other friends, she founded a team of street performers with disabilities. They travel from town to town putting on two- or three-hour shows, singing, dancing, and doing acrobatic stunts in exchange for donations from spectators. Sometimes the whole team might earn less than 1,000 yuan ($145). After subtracting costs, there is often nothing left. Chunchun, normally strong and stable, can’t help but feel demoralized when this happens.

On the other side of the world, Minghua lives a markedly different life. At the London School of Economics (LSE), she is studying for her master’s degree. Minghua feels satisfied with the campus’s accessibility features, which make her daily life safe and relatively easy.

Chen Chunchun’s partner Lei Yu carries her on a train in Jiashan, Zhejiang province, May 25, 2016. Zhang Lijie 两年前,春春认识了现在的男友——盲人按摩师雷雨。雷雨是春春的腿,春春是雷雨的眼,坠入爱河的两人开始了相依为命的生活。图为从老家湖南回到浙江嘉善县,雷雨抱着春春往车厢门口挤。虽然春春只有六十几斤不算重,但是大包小包都要照看到,总是很狼狈。



Minghua lived in oregon with her adoptive family — a mom, dad, and two brothers who treated her as one of their own. After living independently for years, Minghua can both take care of herself and lend a hand to others.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Minghua moved to New York to work in administration and translation. Though her job wasn’t bad, Minghua hoped to continue her education. After working for two years, she was admitted to a master’s program in the history of international relations at LSE.

Chen Minghua attempts to cross the raised threshold of a restaurant in London, June 8, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chen Minghua attempts to cross the raised threshold of a restaurant in London, June 8, 2016. Zhang Lijie

Minghua can go just about anywhere she wants in London, which has a reputation for being wheelchair-accessible. However, seemingly insignificant aspects of everyday life, such as steps in front of restaurants, are still an obstacle for her. Minghua says she feels embarrassed when she has to rely on other people to help her move, so she tends to avoid eating out.

With the help of her adoptive parents, Minghua underwent a successful orthopedic surgery after she arrived in the U.S. The operation lasted 12 hours and prevented Minghua’s spine from curving further.

Chen Minghua chats with her friend Chen Chunchun during a video call from her dorm room in London, June 7, 2016. Zhang Lijie for Sixth Tone

Chen Minghua chats with her friend Chen Chunchun during a video call from her dorm room in London, June 7, 2016. Zhang Lijie


Although Chunchun missed out on the ideal window for surgery, Minghua has been in contact with an international medical organization inquiring about treatment plans for Chunchun. After surgery, Chunchun would be able to breathe more easily, and Minghua says it’s her dream to help her friend get the same treatment she did.

Though Chunchun and Minghua live on separate continents, the distance doesn’t separate them. Even after so many years apart, Chunchun still considers Minghua her closest friend.

Minghua is studying her Master's degree in LSE 2016. 地球的另一边,姐姐郴明华的生活则是一个与春春完全不同的,又互相平行的世界。2016年5月,正在写论文开题报告的明华,来到学校图书馆归还图书。当时正在伦敦政治经济学院就读硕士项目的明华对那里的学习生活很满意。图书馆、自习室、食堂……在学校的各个地方,她都几乎能够畅行无阻。

Minghua's life in London while she is studying her master's degree in LSE. 性格相对内向的明华希望通过篮球来挑战自己,一方面可以锻炼身体、结交朋友,一方面也可以让自己更坚强、勇敢。拼尽全身力气,尝试了不下十次,明华终于投进了一次罚球,队友欢呼着和她击掌相庆。

Link: http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1691/from-china-to-america-the-parallel-lives-of-two-disabled-women#

© ZHANG Lijie 2016
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