Yang Li – Chinese woman with no arms is turning her online fame into social change
“Let’s shake hands,” Yang Li says, getting up from the couch to greet a visitor. She lifts her right foot above her waist, curls it around and gives a slight squeeze to an outstretched hand.
It’s the kind of unexpected everyday gesture that has won the young office worker a huge and growing following in China. Ms. Yang’s loss of her arms in a childhood accident − both were completely amputated, leaving no possibility of prosthetics − and no-nonsense mien have made her the subject of national interest and an icon for disabled people.
Ms. Yang, 28, uploaded her first two videos to Kuaishou, a short-video platform in China, last July. “Watch me eat,” she says, then uses her right foot to manipulate a large set of tweezers and raise food to her mouth, a movement that would require painful contortions for most people, but which she accomplishes with practised smoothness.
She put the video online for fun. “I never expected a clip of my daily life to be that popular,” she said. But within a day, she had 50,000 followers. “I was overwhelmed, actually,” she said.
She began uploading more clips of activities that were unremarkable to her, but almost unbelievable to those watching her dextrously navigate life with feet and toes in place of hands and fingers. In colourful dresses and stylish shirts, she brushed her teeth (4.4 million views); opened a fridge to extract grapes (2.9 million); washed dishes (3.4 million); played a cellphone video game (3.6 million); and hung a nightshirt on a clothing rack, balancing as she raised an outstretched left foot to shoulder height (2.1 million).
Each video is only a few seconds long and most include no words − but they have been compelling enough for Ms. Yang to amass 2.6 million followers.
“To a certain extent, Yang is similar to Stephen Hawking − both of them represent the positive attitude and great achievements that disabled people can make. So she is definitely making a difference,” said Du Peng, vice-president of the China Disability Research Society and a professor at the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University.
“Expressing herself on an open platform will increase mutual understanding,” he said, and “public awareness is one of the biggest obstacles for the improvement of disabled people’s conditions in China.”
It was only in 1980, barely a decade before Ms. Yang was born, that the common word in China for people with disabilities was translated directly to “handicapped and useless.” Since then, laws and language have changed, as have attitudes among the general public.
One 2010 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse found that people in China hold a more favourable disposition toward people with disabilities than Americans. A 2016 national action plan called for 80 per cent of people with disabilities to receive basic state care services and new education regulations in 2017 encouraged the inclusion of students with disabilities in all classrooms. The Chinese public raucously embraced swimmers Huang Wenpan and Xu Qing for their combined eight gold medals at the Paralympics in Brazil.
But systemic issues persist. The Chinese government has sought to tackle disability in part by excising it. The same 2016 action plan called for the majority of women to receive prenatal screening for hereditary conditions − a thinly veiled plan to abort fetuses deemed imperfect.
A recent Save the Children survey found that only 32 per cent of Chinese parents are “very supportive” of the idea of inclusive schooling; others either harbour concerns or totally oppose the idea. And after decades of segregated schooling, students with disabilities have endured what Save the Children calls an “astounding” gap in achievement. Only 72 per cent complete nine years of compulsory education, compared with virtually all able-bodied students.
China counts 85 million people with disabilities; their families, on average, have half the income of national norms. Some 36 per cent of those with disabilities in China are illiterate, according to the China Disabled Persons’ Federation.
Ms. Yang has sought to use her own life to repudiate the numbers.
She was born in Bengbu, in Anhui province, historically one of China’s poorest regions. When she was 4, she ran into a 110,000-volt electrical wire while rummaging for wild fruit in a transformer substation. It took three days for her to see a doctor, at which point both of her arms were amputated at the shoulder.
At first, she was dependent on others for everything. Then one day, she tried to grab a cup of water with her mouth. It dropped and shattered and her mother determined “she would teach me how to do things with my feet.”
Ms. Yang began with large tweezers used for surgery and slowly built from there. Some skills were harder than others. She once sat on the toilet for 12 hours waiting for her mom to return and refasten her pants. She can now button a blouse.
“Despair always forces a person to grow up. So I gradually learned to do things on my own.”
She can eat with chopsticks and does most things herself, short of tucking her long hair into a pony tail. She has developed a sense of balance that would put most gymnasts to shame, easily standing on one leg as she raises the other to grab an apple off a counter.
As she talks, she occasionally intertwines her opposite toes together, clasping feet. She moves her legs with the ease of arms, so much so that it is, after only a few minutes, slightly disconcerting to see her then use them to walk.
But little has come easy. A primary-school headmaster refused to admit her “because I was disabled and couldn’t write characters,” she said. “So my mother began teaching me at home.” Using her feet, she drew circles, then numbers, then the building blocks of Chinese characters.
Eventually, she was allowed into school. She worked hard enough to rank among the top 10 in her class. Given no extra time to write the time-limited gaokao, China’s gruelling national university placement test, she wrote it twice, eventually scoring high enough to secure university acceptance. She majored in Chinese language and literature at Anhui Agricultural University.
But it took three years after graduation before someone would hire her, as an office assistant.
“Finding a job for a disabled person in Chinese society is still quite difficult and probably ranks at the top of the list of difficulties,” she said.
“As a disabled person, the first thing to learn is that if you want to live a decent life, you have to be strong and equip yourself with real abilities,” she said. “If you don’t work hard and improve yourself, solely depending on sympathy and charity is a road that leads nowhere.”
It’s that independence that has won her so many fans − although she admits that many also “think I am pretty. Some call me the ‘Venus of China.’”
On Kuaishou, Ms. Yang Li is competing for viewers against people eating wasabi by the tube and putting fireworks in their pants. Kuaishou’s corporate motto “is that every user is unique” and each should be able to find someone “like him or her, no matter whether they are healthy or not, good-looking or not,” spokeswoman Cui Zheng said. But it’s a controversial service.
The platform has been criticized by the Chinese public and government for trading in outrageousness and morally questionable content. Some have called it a freak show for the digital era.
Indeed, an occasional Kuaishou commenter will react with disgust to her use of feet to eat, particularly in public places. One called it “uncivilized.” But most are supportive. “The pain you experienced earlier in life will turn into great fortune in the next half of your life,” one viewer wrote.
“Watching your videos makes me feel ashamed of myself, because even though I’m a healthy person even the smallest difficulty can easily get me down,” another wrote. “I think I need to learn more from you.”
For her part, Ms. Yang Li embraces the idea that her unusual appearance and unusual skill can attract attention – and do a bit of good in the process.
“I think I’m a freak, because I’m different from you people in many ways,” she said.
“Think about it − all the things that are usually done by hand, I need to tackle them with feet. Isn’t that freakish or eye-catching? But I don’t see it as anything to be ashamed of. It’s natural. Maybe seeing me do something makes you feel strange, but for me, it is another kind of ‘normal,’ normal with quotation marks.”
Ms. Yang Li has transformed her considerable audience − which continues to increase by some 10,000 a day − into a source of revenue, launching a small online store selling foodstuffs. Fans also send gifts. It’s not enough to allow her to quit her regular job, but enough to improve her life, she says.