Thu, 21 Jan 2021

by Xinhua writers Qiang Lijing, Tai Sicong and Yao Yulin

BEIJING, Dec. 2 (Xinhua) -- As a popular storyteller on China's online audio-sharing platform Ximalaya FM, headmaster of a training school and founder of an NGO offering mental health services, Cao Yan seems always full of beans and ready for new adventures.

"I would like to do things that others have never done before. Of course, such things must be useful to the society," Cao said.

However, her audience may never know that such a lovely voice belongs to a 60-year-old woman who has suffered from severe disabilities for decades.


Born in 1960 in an ordinary Beijing family, Cao had to walk with crutches as she suffered from infantile paralysis when she was six months old. Fortune had not been on her side: she lost her mother at the age of six.

During childhood, Cao was fascinated by the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen and made her mind to become a writer like the Danish writer. Instead of playing outdoors like other children, she spent most of her time with a radio.

To be a good fairy-tale writer, Cao needed to understand children's wild flights of fancy, so she started to visit the library every day and narrate stories to children at a primary school in Beijing as an after-school activity counsellor. She even learnt story-telling from Sun Jingxiu, a famous Chinese educator and storyteller for children.

In the beginning, some children would make fun of her disability. But her persistence finally won her a loyal audience.

But misfortune struck again when she was 26. A severe traffic accident condemned Cao to five orthopedic surgeries in the next six years and left her wheelchair-bound for life.

Despite all odds, Cao never failed to see the silver lining. She knows what she wants and what kind of person she would like to be.


Cao always makes plans for her life. After the car accident, she was desperate to become a teacher and open a school.

After initially raising 50,000 yuan (about 7,600 U.S. dollars), she opened the Beijing I-Shine Education for Young Learners in 1994 to provide art, science and language extracurricular classes for children.

The school now has more than 140 students and was rated a top-level private school in the downtown Xicheng District of Beijing.

"I always tell people you must be your own champion," the self-made woman said. "I cannot rescue people like the firefighters but I can help them in my own way."

To help more disabled people get rid of mental health issues, Cao established a mental health assistance center in 2012. So far, she has poured a total of 800,000 yuan into the welfare organization.

Apart from her school and programs for public welfare, Cao has never given up her longtime hobby and gift of telling stories. Just two months after a tongue surgery in 2017, she was invited to tell stories on the popular app Ximalaya FM.

"I had part of my tongue removed to avoid a potential serious disease and the doctor told me it might affect my pronunciation," she said.

To minimize the effect, Cao started to practice tongue twisters and read newspapers every day.

At first, she shared her own life stories with the audience on the app before reading a book by Zhang Haidi, a wheelchair-bound female writer and chairperson of the China Disabled Persons' Federation.

This year, Cao started trying something new -- telling fairy tales in a childish voice. Related audios have been played over 470,000 times on the app.

After years of misery and multiple diseases, Cao remains upbeat and beams at what life has in store for her.

"I have so many plans for the future. One of them is to tell stories for orphans and disabled children to help them regain hope in life," Cao said. "I feel grateful and contented for every single day in my life."

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