Singing through triumph and disaster, the earthquake amputee whose courage captured the hearts of the Chinese nation
Woman who lost both legs in Sichuan disaster took centre stage on a TV talent show but is now struggling to raise the funds to buy new set of prosthetic limbs
The popular tourist town of Dujiangyan in southwest China is buzzing at night, with visitors enjoying local snacks and beer at eateries along its food street on the Min River.
Known for its incredible ancient irrigation system, the city was also just 32km from the epicentre of the devastating Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that killed more than 69,000 people.
Among the many buskers performing for the crowds on food street, it’s hard to miss earthquake survivor Li Yingxia. The 30-year-old lost both her legs in the quake – she now uses prosthetics – and soon afterwards her husband left her.
But it seemed her fortunes were turning when she shot to national attention in 2011 as a contestant on television talent show China Sparkling, then Dream of China the following year.
Li was crowned national champion in the former after winning the hearts of judges and viewers with her courage and strength. But like many who seek fame via China’s televised talent shows, she was soon forgotten.
Now she works diligently, busking in the street to earn enough money to upgrade her artificial legs.
Performing with a guitar, an amp and a microphone, she asks audience members to choose songs from a list and sings them for 20 yuan (US$3) a time.
She works from 6.30pm until 11pm – or after 1am in summer, the peak tourist season. Li said she gets headaches if she performs for too long – she also had facial surgery to treat injuries from the earthquake and has steel implants in her face.
Despite the many blows fate has dealt her, Li is grateful for what life has given her.
“It was deeply unfortunate to get caught up in the earthquake, but I met a lot of kind people because of it. I’m fortunate in that sense,” she told the South China Morning Post.
Li began busking at the age of 14 when, like many villagers in her hometown in Wangjiang county, Anhui province, she left to try to make a living elsewhere.
“It’s a poverty-stricken place. My parents could barely make ends meet with three daughters going to school at the same time. I was the poorest at school, so I thought why don’t I just quit and help them earn some money?” she said.
So she went to stay with her uncle, who had been busking in Sichuan for a few years, and started performing herself.
Nine years later, and by then married, Li was living with her mother and younger sister when the magnitude 7.9 earthquake struck, burying them all in the rubble.
Rescuers freed her sister and mother soon after the earthquake, but when they found Li the next day, she told them to save her husband first.
He escaped with only minor injuries but Li said her legs had to be amputated because she had been trapped under the rubble for too long.
Li did not want to give the man’s name, but said he disappeared after he heard the news and the couple divorced two years later.
“I lived in the shadows for several years after that. I cried whenever people asked about it,” she said.
But the media exposure that followed her appearance – and success – on the two national talent shows helped restore her self-confidence.
Asked whether she thought she won the China Sparkling title because of her singing skills or her life story, Li put it frankly: “The judges thought I was very brave. They gave me a lot of encouraging words. I think they were more touched by my attitude towards life.”
She was rewarded with more than 30,000 yuan in cash from the first show, and a guitar from the other.
But her success did not last long – not that she had expected it to.
“If I have a weakness, then I’d say it’s my singing skills, not my body,” she said.
When she began singing on the street, Li charged just 0.50 yuan per song. Her fee has gradually gone up and she said busking now provided her with a better income than she would get from working in a factory.
She has also recently begun posting short clips of her performances on a video-sharing app, for which she gets paid based on the views and shares of the post.
“I’ve made over 5,000 yuan from this so far. I’m hoping it can help me to earn enough money to pay for a better set of artificial legs sooner,” she said.
Besides giving her money, she said audience members had also encouraged her to carry on singing.
“Many people come to listen to me just to show their support. Most of them are very positive about life and they make me believe I’m not useless – that I can teach others to be brave,” Li said.
She recalled the time a businessman visiting from Zhejiang province hugged her and broke down in tears after hearing her sing.
“I guess he was at a low point in his life then. He took a photograph with me and said, ‘Life needs to be respected. You are so strong. I can’t find any reason to be weak’,” she said.
Li’s mother Nie Liurong has looked after her since the earthquake, helping her with everything from going to the bathroom to carrying her busking equipment.
“Actually it was my mum who was most hurt by the earthquake – emotionally at least. When she cries for me, I show her pictures of earthquake survivors who suffered even more than me. I tell her that I’m lucky,” Li said. “She’s always behind me when I sing. Sometimes she sells flowers too when she’s out with me.”
For now, Li is working towards her goal of saving money to buy a better-quality pair of prosthetic legs, which she has to pay for herself. The ones she has now were provided by a Hong Kong-based charity, and the government covers the cost of her other medical care.
“This is my goal for now. Oh – and I also want to say that I’m waiting for my Mr Right,” she laughed.