On May 12, 2008 a massive earthquake struck the province of Sichuan, leaving close to 100,000 people dead and millions homeless. One woman affected by the tragedy was Liao Zhi, a dance instructor who lost her daughter and mother-in-law, and both her legs. Some rescue workers from Vancouver gave her a Bible, and helped her go to Canada for prosthetic legs. She became a Christian and was able to return to dancing. Her story inspired many people, both believers and unbelievers in China.
This is a translation of her story in the online magazine Territory, published to their WeChat page.
Liao Zhi: After the earthquake, I finally learned to love others
[Editor's note: On April 25, 2015, an 8.1 earthquake struck Nepal. The earthquake was the most powerful earthquake to strike the country since 1934. Over 2,000 people were killed. Territory is republishing the story of Liao Zhi who lost both of her legs in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan province. Despite that, she did not lose faith, hope, and love.]
Liao Zhi was a dance instructor in the city of Mianzhu in Sichuan province at the time of the 2008 earthquake in which she lost both of her legs.
In the earthquake she lost both of her legs and her one-year-old daughter. She miraculously survived after being pinned under the rubble for 26 hours.
She says she is not an exceptional person, that she has a weak side. Still, she is not a feeble handicapped person; she can live and work independently. Life is not just about a single happiness and a single sadness; there are many levels. She is very fortunate. Not only can she continue to dance and confidently take the stage in the show "Step Up;" she can also share her experience to encourage and inspire more people with disabilities to live with courage and strength.
On April 21, 2013, after an earthquake struck near Ya'an in Sichuan province, Liao Zhi, wearing prosthetic limbs for the first time in a disaster scene, distributed supplies, comforted injured children, and participated in rescue operations. Her extraordinary actions momentarily attracted the attention of the media and micro-bloggers. But, rarely known to anyone was how Liao Zhi could dance after losing both legs. How could her spirit heal after the trauma she suffered from the earthquake? And how could she use the experience of that misfortune to comfort those who suffered similar hardships?
Prayer from under the Ruins
Before the May 12, 2008 earthquake, I had thought that I already had whatever I should have in my life. My daughter was almost 11 months old and learning to walk in a walker. What could make me more content than to see such an adorable child? I did not feel the need to be grateful because everything was as it should be!
I was living with my mother-in-law at the time. At lunch, suddenly the house began to shake. “Run!” she said, “It's an earthquake! We lived on the third floor. My mother-in-law was behind me holding the baby. I ran to the door, but it would not open. Then I saw the sky as the whole room split open. I didn't think that it was real for a disaster to occur in the blink of an eye; I didn’t want to admit it. I immediately turned around and had my mother-in-law lie on the floor and hold my daughter against her body. I pressed myself against them. A mother's instinct is to think that she can protect her own children. But that was just my imagination. I closed my eyes and the building collapsed. When I opened my eyes again, everything was quiet and there was a lot of dust. It was difficult to breath. I shouted out the name of my daughter, but there was no sound. "Don't call out,” my mother-in-law said. “She's asleep…"
It would have made more sense for me to be the first one to die. But the floor stuck up in just the right way to obstruct the falling slabs of cement. We were squeezed into a very narrow space. I heard people outside coming to the rescue, but we waited a long time. People outside said the people upstairs could not be rescued, so we in the middle definitely could not be rescued either. Soon there was no sound coming from my mother-in-law. I put my hand on her nose; she wasn’t breathing. I felt cold from head to toe. When I was young, there were several times when I wanted to end my own life because I was unhappy. But in this moment I was not at all ready to face death.
Then I heard my father calling me from the outside, constantly calling out my name and telling me not to go to sleep because I might not wake up. I wanted to die with my child. I lay under the rubble and did not answer him, not willing to say anything. Then an aftershock hit and afterwards someone advised my father to leave. My father said, "As long as she is under there, I will continue to stay here." The call of my father's love came to me. I knew someone was bearing the pain with me. If I died, what would they do? I burst into tears and shouted out, "Daddy, leave. It's too dangerous. I'm still here."
However, my father could not save me. He, like me, was small and frail. In the most desperate and helpless moment, I began reflexively to pray, "God, if you really have a spirit, if you are God, then you must be all-powerful. Please get me out of here! I beg you, if you help me out, I'll repay you with the remainder of my life." I prayed over and over again.
On the evening of the 13th, when I was finally rescued, people ran up hugging me and crying to say that I must endure. I was the only one rescued from that building. I learned later that more than forty people died in that building. I looked at the sky again and said thank you. But, I felt very ashamed. Why me? I am not at all a person worthy of praise; I have a lot of shortcomings. I know very well that God saved me because apart from him, no one could save me.
Nothing to Laugh about
I began to fulfill my promise to give the rest of my life to God. When I was in the hospital and smiling, a reporter said, "I can't believe you can be so strong that even when you have nothing at all you can still smile!" Right, if I were him, I would also not believe it. But, he doesn't know there is a God and how bountifully God treats with those who call on him in despair.
One day, a group of people came to the hospital for a visit. An old woman who was among them stood in front of me, shaking her head and heaving a sigh. Then she took my mother outside and whispered to her in private. From the time my mother came back in until the evening, she was frowning and anxious, shaking her head and sighing. She didn't even eat dinner. I kept urging her to eat and finally she could not help but let it out, "Maybe that old woman was right earlier. Tomorrow we'll take you to get an X-ray. She said you lost a child, your husband did not come to see you, your family and legs are gone, and you still sit here laughing like an idiot. Was your head damaged in the earthquake?"
I finally realized that she was really worried about this. At that moment I was very moved. It’s true I didn’t have anything to laugh about. A lot of people have lost a house, a wife, a car, or money and they are unable to laugh. I think I was happy because I experienced the grace of God. Even if I had nothing, I still had hope. He even saved my life; what can he not do? I believe Him because I experienced him, and I want to continue to seek Him.
In fact, when I was very young I was searching for God. In third grade I read a very touching story about love in Reader's Digest. The article closed with words taken from the Bible, "Love is eternally patient; love is kind. It does not envy; it does not boast; it is not proud. It is not rude; it is not self-seeking; it is not easily provoked. It keeps no record of wrongs."
This is so well put. I had been thirsting for this kind of love, but I couldn’t see anything like it around me. My parents are like most other Chinese families. They are chock-full of all kinds of contradictions. I grew up in this sort of environment and was witness to their turbulent lives together. I have always wondered why they would want to be together when there is no love between them. No one around me could tell me what love was. So I started looking for a Bible. I went to many places in our hometown. I got a library card. I spent ten years and never found a Bible. I think that God knows everything.
To Dance with "Feet" Again
After the earthquake I returned home and met a group of people from Vancouver who were assisting with rescue operations. A woman among them wore a necklace with a large cross. I remembered the plot of a Hong Kong TV drama that mentioned how these types of people should have a Bible. So, I asked them, "Are you from a church? Do you have a Bible you can give to me?"
After I got a Bible, I read it voraciously every day, even though I didn’t know how to read it. The first time I just flipped it open and landed on Job. I took joy in seeing that there are other people who are worse off than me! I didn't completely understand when I read the dialogue between Job and his friends. What I could understand was that, although Job lost everything, God later doubled his blessings. And, God stood up to speak for him. Ah, so God has this loving kindness? The notion I grew up with was that God is strict and frightening. When I was small my mother taught me about things like karma and punishment. I thought at the time that maybe God is not so frightening.
So I continued to read. When I did not understand, I wrote to my friends in Vancouver who gave me the Bible. They said I should first read the New Testament. Even though I still didn’t understand what a Christian was, I read through the entire New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job.
On May 28, 2009, I took my first trip abroad to Vancouver to get fitted for prosthetics. I asked friends of the church, how to actually become a Christian They said, as long as you believe in your heart that is enough. “Then I became a Christian long ago,” I said to them.
When prosthetics are first fitted, a person can only stand there. Every little move is very painful. No one believed I could accomplish this kind of recovery. The doctor even said, "You don't need to expend so much energy, you can't possibly walk like you used to. Don't even think about dancing. We will take care of you." I did not want to accept this, but after hearing a lot of people say this I became disheartened. I started to give up. I did not want to practice using the prosthetics. I spent all day long being pushed in a wheelchair.
One day when no one was at home, I had to go to the bathroom. I had no choice but to climb up and try to put on my prosthetics. I staggered to the bathroom, but fell headlong into the room. My head hit the toilet and my hair fell into the toilet. I struggled to stand up. I looked in the mirror and saw a big bump on the side of my head, my hair dripping with water, and the look of my face puffy from sleep. I burst into tears. I did not want to become like this. Why had God rescued me? I did not want this kind of humiliating life!
In my greatest desperation I heard a voice say, "Did you not say you would give the rest of your life for me? Did you not say that if you survived you would cherish life? Although many people say it's impossible, what have I to say to that?"
I went back to the room, opened the Bible, and read a passage. I forget the original text, but the meaning was, "What God desires to help with, no one can resist." God desires to give people an abundant life. An abundant life is definitely not a life that looks like this. I want to find the abundant life promised by God.
The next day I started to kick my legs and twist my hips facing the mirror. I didn't know how long I would need to train. Many people with prosthetics at the recovery center still fall after seven or eight years when walking, and they still depend on wheelchairs. Yet, I remember that God said, "I did not say its impossible."
One day, water in the kettle came to a boil and for a long time no one paid attention to it. So I walked out of the room to pour the water. Then my father heard this and quickly rushed out. He looked at me and saw the whole process I had just completed. I raised my head and saw his eyes reddening. I asked him, "What's wrong?" He said, "How did you do that?"
I realized that ten days earlier I would have stood there shaking, just holding a book. As soon as my finger turned a page I would fall. At that moment I shocked myself. I rushed back into the room to thank God. It didn't take years; it only took twelve days and I could do it. Then I realized that because of people's own weakness, people are too easily defeated by their surrounding environment and influenced by other people's words. But God creates this environment. He created this environment to make us learn to trust him. God said that things that are seen do not require people to believe in them. Things that are unseen require us to believe. This is true faith. At that time, I learned what it is to believe in him.
I not only can stand up again; I can also get back on the stage and dance like I have never danced before. I got a new life. And I continuously say to everyone around me, "God is very good to me."
Why Did God Take My Child?
Soon afterwards I began to hit a wall. Very rational people said to me, "Because you work really hard at it, you can depend on your own training efforts to make use of prosthetic limbs and even to dance." I said it was God's grace, but they retorted, "If it is God, why did he take your child and not give her back to you! If you can explain this, we will believe in your God."
I could not answer. I started feeling depressed. I asked God to answer me so that I could answer my own heart and others' doubts. I waited a long time. Sometimes one must wait a long time for the voice of God.
At the end of 2009, my primary school teacher wanted me to teach some arts activities to disabled children who had survived the earthquake. An able-bodied teacher has no way to comfort them, no way to teach them because the children are very combative and resistant. They say to the teacher, "You all have working hands and legs. How can you understand our pain? How can you know what we can do?" So I thought, maybe I can do this thing because I've lost my legs. In the course of teaching these children I too continuously asked, "God, why did you take my child and not give her back to me? Why?"
Six months later, the children were slowly learning to walk. They became cheerful and even began to use their prostheses as toys. This made me very happy, but my question still remained—why did God take my child?
My questions remained up until the children performed on stage at a joint school performance. I watched the kids come out from their self-isolation after the earthquake and take the stage with confidence to dance and sing. All the parents in the audience were crying. While I applauded and cried, I suddenly understood why God took my child. I needed to be a mother because only a mother can appreciate how a woman loves her child. And as for a mother, as for me, maybe, just maybe, only after losing my daughter could I understand how precious was what I had at the time; and only then could I know how to love all children with a mother’s love.
At that moment I suddenly understood that God so loved the world that he not only loved me, Liao Zhi; he loves everyone. He gave me so much grace even though I had lost so much. He cannot retrieve what I lost, but he wants to use what I lost, to use my weaknesses, to encourage people with the same weaknesses. God loves the world, whether they love him or not. He loves them all the same, including me. God is using my experience to bless more people. I can finally share again with everyone why God took my child. His desire is wonderful.
I began to understand what an abundant life is. That is, before in my prayers I would only become distressed about my own difficulties. Now, because of the love of God, I have finally learned to love others. This is God's grace.
He takes us from our selfish human nature, from serving our own needs and changes us into people who are more open, more understanding of how to care for others, and more willing to invest in others. Because Jesus acts as our example, and because he is our only example of love, without him I really would not know what love is.
All people and human affairs are fickle. Yet, because love is ever patient and kind, thanks be to God, he enables me to share his love with others.
[Postscript] After the earthquake, Liao Zhi's husband lost several relatives and his psychological state was extremely frail, so he divorced her. On June 1, 2014, by God's miraculous guidance, Liao Zhi married a Chinese-American Christian. He is a prosthetics manufacturer. In the church, Liao Zhi sat in a wheelchair draped in her wedding gown with her amputated legs exposed. Her husband, wearing a suit, crouched down to fit Liao Zhi with her prosthetic legs. This photo [seen in original article] shook the hearts of many people.
Original Article: 廖智：地震后，我终于学会了爱别人 (Territory)
Image credit: Beichun City View V, by David and Jessie, via Flickr
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