Blind singer-songwriter Zhou Yunpeng has come a long way from the days of busking in front of college students. Zhang Kun reports
Zhou Yunpeng faced a full house of eager listeners at Shanghai's Fudan University on Nov 24, as he spoke about his poetry and songs. But some years ago, when he was busking in a similar lecture hall in Beijing's Tsinghua University, a student called in security to throw him out.
Zhou's performances are now so popular that tickets sell out weeks ahead, and their audio/video clips are viewed by millions on the Internet.
In 2008, he was honored as a "young leader" by Southern Weekend, one of China's most influential newspapers, and was also voted "best ballad artist" and "best lyric writer" at the eighth Chinese Media Music Awards.
The 40-year-old blind singer, songwriter and poet recently released his collection of poems published by Shanghai Literature and Art Publishing House, as well as his new music album Flocks and Herds Come Down the Hill.
Zhou is currently busy with a series of live concerts and talks to promote the book and disc in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Ningbo.
At Fudan University, he talked about how the theme of his lecture, The Way Up is the Way Down, was inspired by T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets, and the natural connection between music and poetry.
In contrast to the fierce-looking cartoon image hanging in the background, Zhou was a picture of serenity and humor, despite his big build, long hair and dark glasses. He took regular gulps from a bottle of Chinese rice wine.
"I like his songs and the beautiful images of his lyrics and poems," says Yin Xiaodong, editor of Zhou's book. "He is blind, but is a bright person - full of intellectual curiosity and involved deeply in the world around him."
As an independent musician, Zhou's folk ballad music style is a marginal genre in China today, but Yin is confident that readers will be drawn to it after reading the book.
Zhou lost his sight to a cataract when he was 9, despite his parents' best efforts to stave off the worst. He was taken from his hometown of Shenyang, in Liaoning province, to many hospitals around China for treatment.
"I remembered the bright neon lights on Nanjing Road, that I'd never seen back at home then," he says of his first visit to Shanghai.
That was among the last things he remembers seeing, along with endless stretches of green paddy fields in Zhejiang and firebugs, which were nowhere to be found in Northeast China.
Although the tuition was a burden for the family, his parents insisted he should receive a proper education. They hoped that would enable him to secure a respected job in a State-owned factory, and avoid the fate of other blind people - begging, or becoming a fortuneteller or masseur.
After graduating from a special college for the visually-impaired he did find a factory job. But he soon discovered that he had no real work and had only been employed so the factory could save on taxes.
One day in 1995, Zhou, then 25, told his mom that he was visiting a friend for a few days, and boarded a train to Beijing.
Although he used to listen to music and had learned to play the guitar as a teenager, it was only after he arrived in the capital that he became a professional musician and tried to make a living out of it.
He busked in front of universities, and sometimes in lecture halls where students gathered when no lecture was on. Usually he would sing one song, take the money and leave quickly, but one day people applauded so loudly that he went on and on. That was when one of them called in security.
Once he had saved some money, he began traveling, going as far as Tibet, Yunnan, Sichuan, all by himself. "I simply liked to travel," and the main challenge, he says in jest, was "to find the men's toilet".
One night as he was waiting for the train in Xining, Qinghai province, "I heard someone pulling at my luggage", he says. But, exhausted, he pretended not to hear.
He lost not just his old clothes, but also his cherished Walkman.
While singing on the sidewalk in Changsha, Hunan province, a friend suggested he should try singing in a pub, and that's how he started performing in pubs and bars in 1997 and wrote some of his most popular songs, such as Children of China and Love that Can't Speak.
"Thanks to the troubles facing the traditional music industry, independent musicians like me have found an opportunity to survive," he says.
In recent years, many grassroots folk musicians have become increasingly popular in China, "since we don't belong to any music label, we write our own songs and have total control of our musical style", he says. "This has also been helped by the lack of creativity in mainstream pop."
Zhou says he used to like Western musicians such as Bob Marley and Jim Morrison but now is more interested in China's indigenous culture.
In 2009, he left Beijing where he was based for almost 15 years, and moved to Shaoxing, Zhejiang province, preferring its lower living costs, peaceful lifestyle and rich cultural heritage.
He also called on fellow independent musicians to start an aid project to help visually impaired children in China. The project was named after his album Red Bulldozer, a collection of children's ballads.
"We buy them reading aids and musical instruments," he says, "also toys and clothes - we respect the wishes of the children".
So far the project has helped around 30 children in different parts of China.
There are more than 10 million blind people all over China, and many of them live in poverty. A reading tool will help them to start thinking, and changing their lives, Zhou says.
Zhou Yunpeng gives a performance in Shanghai. China Photo Press
(China Daily 12/16/2010 page20)