This is another essay from a collection about the tiny Chinese village, Dang Jiashan, where I spent time on two separate occasions documenting village traditions. Anrong is the principal investigator of the original documentation project and Dang Jiashan is his home village, where volunteers were hosted by his family as we collected data in word, photography and video.


The World Inside

Two princes of heaven fell from a cloud.  The king in heaven sent soldiers down to close their eyes so they wouldn’t see how dirty and terrible the earth was.

I suppose much of the world’s sadness can escape the blind when they’re shielded from its images.  In many poor regions of the world, though, blind people suffer their own terrible sadness to make up for it, left to begging on filthy sidewalks, not even knowing who it is that passes them by, who scorns or pities their cup.  But Chinese culture has traditionally held a special place for blind people.  They are trained to be musicians.  When they are capable, they can then earn a living as a traveling musician, rather than a beggar.

Blind musicians have traveled the countryside for generations, and they are boarded in the villages they encounter.  Sometimes they simply travel without aim and show up unannounced; sometimes they travel a circuit and can be anticipated to show up on a vaguely regular schedule; and they can also be sought out for their services. Entire bands of blind musicians reside in some places.

A village will provide food and a bed to a traveling musician, and in return the blind performer will provide an evening of entertainment. My first year in the village, such a man was in the area, and Anrong’s family summoned him to their house.  When our team entered the courtyard, the man was sitting on the ground smoking a cigarette.  Anrong’s family had set out their tiny little chairs for us to hunker down on to watch the show.  We sat, and the man leisurely lit another cigarette.

“I have to smoke before I can play,” he said.

He was an elderly man, tall and lean with many wrinkles around his chin. He picked up his sian-xian -- a Chinese banjo that has a very long, thin neck and three strings -- and sat on a tall stool covered with a folded quilt.  I’d never seen a tall stool in the village; I suspect he must travel with his own.  He kept one foot on the ground and the other he put on top of a smaller stool so his knee was bent. He supported his banjo on this bent leg; tied around his thigh was a puffy cloth pouch with a small metal dish perched on top.  In his strumming hand, he held a wooden stick with a metal tip between his third and fourth finger by means of a metal strip that extended across the underside of his hand up through his second and third finger … so as he strummed his banjo, he could flick his wrist down such that the stick would hit the metal dish like a miniature gong.

Tied around the shin of the foot that rested on the ground was a wooden clapper -- two flat, smooth pieces of wood hinged together at the top, so that when the man moved his ankle up and down in time with the music, the wood pieces rhythmically separated and then slapped together -- a crude percussion instrument.  He was a real one-man band.

Blind musician playing a sian-xian with shin clapboards inside a courtyard in Shaanxi Province, China. Dang Jiashan village. Photo by Shara Johnson


He sang a long folktale for about an hour and a half about a mother and her son who were thrown out of their house by the woman’s other wicked son, out onto the streets in a city.  But the two outcasts ended up making lots of money through various ingenious enterprises, and became better off than the son who threw them out.  The best part of the performance was when the man spoke the dialogue of the mother character in imitation female voice, high-pitched and breathy.  And when a character laughed or was smug, he inserted “ha ha” between words in the dialogue.

If I had to make a comparison of the blind man’s singing style I would make it to Mississippi Delta blues.  If I didn’t know the story being told was more like a fairy tale, I would probably have guessed the guy was singing about his own down-and-out luck, losing his woman and his job and his dog run off, too.

The man’s eyelids were raised , but there were no iris and pupil beneath their curtain.  Only pure white eyeball looked out, a squishy apparatus void of anything to collect data with.  Sometimes I was fooled into thinking he was looking at me.

Head shot of a blind musician inside a courtyard in Shaanxi Province, China. Dang Jiashan village. Photo by Shara Johnson


Could he have any idea what I looked like?  Could he imagine a foreigner, who would have been described to him -- as all foreigners are -- as having a big nose and pale, hairy skin?  Could he understand how our eyelids and hair differed?  Did he wonder what my mouth looked like when it formed the strange words he couldn’t understand?

The blind musicians are becoming invisible themselves, their trade increasingly obsolete.  They’re blind to the world and the world is now blind to them; they’ve been obscured by radio, television, and soon MP3 players and iPods will come into the villages.  They are becoming beggars, for they’re still given food and rest, but their return service is being declined.  Villagers leave them to eat while they go inside and watch TV.  The blind men sit silently.  The sound of their chopsticks against the sides of a bowl and a steady slurping are the only rhythm and song anyone cares to have them perform.  They sit in the dirt courtyards and smoke a cigarette, inhale the clatter of the world around them, and exhale in defeat to cold, metal things they’ve never seen.


Two princes of heaven fell from a cloud.  Soldiers were sent down to close their eyes, but when they got down among the people, they couldn’t tell which ones were the princes.  So they closed the eyes of everybody on earth.

I think the soldiers meant to be benevolent, closing the eyes. That parable is from a Chinese movie called Life on a String about a blind musician who was told as a boy in training that when he broke his 400th banjo string, he would be able to access a secret compartment in his banjo that would reveal a prescription to restore his sight.  Finally as an old man, he starts to come close to that 400th string.  He begins to feel apprehensive about having sight.  “Is the world I’m going to see the same world inside of me?” he asks.  “No,” he answers himself.  Then, “Yes,” he changes his answer.

I picture the soldiers in the fable running around frantically looking for the princes, seeing the world themselves and becoming more and more upset as they see the poverty and the cruelty all around them.  Finally, in desperation, they just close everybody’s eyes.  Everyone’s eyelids fall shut and suddenly the world sighs deeply. Everyone sits down; they relax a bit in the darkness, and a blissful ignorance lulls them to sleep. At last, a deep sleep.  Meanwhile the soldiers look about with horror; now they alone carry the burden of knowledge of the atrocities that littered the earth and this patch called China ... they see the bent backs of the naked laborers on the Yangtze, naked so when they slipped and fell into the river to their death, their clothing -- more valuable than their lives -- would not be lost with them; the soldiers see the dark blood of countless ruthless battles, disgraceful whims of emperors, the inhumanity inflicted on women with bound feet, and a sea of people hollowed out by starvation. Perhaps they give up looking for the princes and glue their own eyes shut.

As the blind man who came to Dang Jiashan travels around, he can’t see the wilting, browning landscape succumbing to an inexorable desertification; he can’t see the barrenness, but I wonder if he can hear it.  Or taste it or feel it.  Can he hear the silence of sterility in the dirt?  Has he noticed the silence in the sky – does he miss the sound of thunder and rain?  With those white eyes – open but closed – he sings light stories to make the audience chuckle and smile. I think of the twangy light-hearted story-song, his imitation of women’s voices, the continual strumming of the strings and clinking of the cymbal, and the slapping of the shin boards. And I see him trudging from village to village with that monotony around his neck like an interminable yoke. He travels through the dusty hillsides, from courtyard to courtyard, haunted by the darkness that conscripts him to song.

I thought of that movie several times while I was in the village.  One warm night near the end of my second visit on my way back from the loo, I stopped and sat on the sifting platform beside the grinding mill just behind the loo, and looked across the valley at the moonlit fields of millet and soy. From the standpoint of a handful of books and a couple months of isolated firsthand experience, for a moment I had the audacity to feign knowledge of the Chinese character. Then I laughed. A cuckoo bird called.  A donkey briefly brayed.  Then it was utterly silent.  I closed my eyes. In the aftermath of the terse recitals of the bird and the donkey, in the deep silence the little village collapsed into the world inside of me. Surely it is not the same world that is outside of me.  What is the value of one over the other?

What is my inside world?  It may be romanticized, but it’s not without cruelty and poverty and tragedies – that’s what I see in the world more than anything else.  But its depth, its mass is something so mystical, so transcendental that emotion is leeched completely out.  It makes me cry – not from sadness or joy, but from sheer size, from being overwhelmed.

The world inside of me has silky threads that connect people with their past.  It contains a Chinese village I stayed in whose threads are so thick that I could hold on and slide down them like a fireman’s pole.  It’s populated by a peasantry almost sublime in their hardiness, their tolerance of bitterness and labor, people who have endured such incredible things that their spirit looms like a monstrosity over the modern genteel urban man.  There are places where historical, cultural and technological continuity is a tangible substance, like a smoky film in the air, like soot.  And men who are blind sit about and sing stories to strangers, and no one ever forgets about them.

I opened my eyes on the stone platform and looked around again.  The wooden pole supporting a snake of electrical wire across the village stood out starkly in front of me in the lunar light.  Was this sleeping world I saw now the same world inside of me? 


In the end, the prescription the old blind man extracted from his banjo at the snap of the 400th string turned out to be nothing.  He took it to the pharmacist, but the piece of paper was blank.

I laid down on my back on the stone, pitted from years and years of exposure to the rain. I could feel its topography on my bare shoulders. I looked up at the galaxy of stars, but only a few were visible beside the immense, shining moon.  While looking straight up, I could see all around me. The millstone next to me was starting to erode at the edges from countless hours of use and weathering; the lip at the perimeter of the grinding surface was considerably worn down.  To my right, on the other side of the grinding mill, the mud wall behind the two holes of the latrine showed signs of recent patching.  A mess of sticks and brambles lay next to the latrine, waiting to be used in some way.  A little drainage culvert crossed the well-worn path that was only a few feet in front of me, heading down to the valley.  To my left, two thick wooden doors guarded my courtyard and the feel of their weight had become ingrained in my hands; my muscles will never forget that exact heft.  Inside the courtyard, my yao – my house carved into the hillside like a cave – was slightly dank and musty, and suffused with the lingering smell of the cook-stove, which hadn’t been used in years but still carried the smell of burned sticks and stalks of corn, sorghum, millet, assorted weeds and coal. Papa and Mama slept peacefully just up the hill beneath a blue and red quilt.




View of the rural peasant village of Dang Jiashan in Shaanxi Province, China. Cave homes dug into the hillsides. Photo by Shara Johnson

Dang Jiashan village



The fable from Life on a String really touched me somehow. I used it also in an essay I wrote, “The Motion of Waves,” which was published in the Indiana Review. You can read this essay on my writing website,

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