Before being decorated as a "hero firefighter," Jin Chunming, 33, had all the disadvantages imaginable for joining the army ranks.
Born in a poor village in the northeast Chinese province of Heilongjiang, Jin lost his father to an illness at 5. Having no means to provide for the family, his mother abandoned him to his two aunts. The army recruiter almost turned Jin away for being too short and skinny, and being of the Korean ethnicity, he barely spoke any Mandarin after studying in Korean-language schools.
Jin overcame the adversities with his relentless dedication. Training as others rested and exercising even while sick in bed, Jin surpassed his peers to be promoted head of his squad in only one year's time. He also overcame the language barrier in mere months and would eventually earn a junior-college degree in law.
As for his unfortunate circumstances, Jin has turned it into his emotional support.
"Please let me," Jin would say to fellow firemen as they head into harm's way, "I'm an orphan. You have your parents to take care of."
Since becoming a fireman in Benxi, Liaoning Province, Jin has responded to thousands of firefighting and rescue missions.
"We would have a fire emergency about every the other day," Jin recalled, but none more memorable than a power plant fire in 1999.
The plant's underground cable tunnel caught fire, dense smoke gushing out of the exits. Jin was the first one into the tunnels. Wading through waist-deep water broiled by the searing walls, Jin had to change his respirator four times to continue on. When his last respirator cracked, he charged through intense smoke and barely managed to get above ground before passing out.
"I never thought life could be so fragile. I outpaced death by just one step."
Yet when Jin came to, he immediately grabbed a new respirator to join the group about to enter the tunnels. "Please let me," he said, "I'm already familiar with the situation below."
Saving many lives and excelling in various firehouse practices and competitions have not only earned Jin high honors and the nickname of the "fighting champion," he also received a sizable cash reward: 20,000 yuan.
For Jin, who grew up in severe poverty and relied much on the help from the village community, the 20,000 yuan did not feel like money he should keep for himself. Donating it all, and with the donations of other soldiers, Jin helped set up the "Chunming Scholarship," helping similarly unprivileged children pay for school and living expenses.