It had been nearly two years since Zhao Bin's parents saw a smile on the 28-year-old's face.
Since serious glaucoma made him blind, Zhao's life fell into darkness too.
He had to give up his profitable job as a mechanician in southeast Beijing's Tongzhou District and he also felt he had little chance of finding a new job because of his sight problems.
"I felt life was completely hopeless at that time," recalled Zhao.
Thanks to a campaign initiated by the China Disabled Persons' Federation, Zhao's life brightened up thanks to a promising new job as a therapeutic masseur. He has a junior-level masseur's license and is now studying for the next level.
He has already got an offer from a massage clinic in central Beijing with a monthly income of 1,000 yuan (US$121).
Therapeutic massage has been used as a form of treatment in traditional Chinese medicine since ancient times. Since the federation's project began in late 1997, the job is increasingly being done by blind masseurs trained in special institutes to work in hospitals, clinics and hotels.
The nationwide project aims to nurture a healthy market for massage by the blind by setting up a system involving training, exams for professional qualifications, registration of clinics and tax preferences, according to Wang Tiecheng, director of the Beijing Instruction Centre for Massage by Blind People.
"The past six years was the period that saw the fastest development of blind masseurs and clinics for massage by blind people," Wang added.
There are more than 40,000 professionally qualified blind masseurs across China, according to the director.
Wang said Beijing used to have only 103 blind people working as masseurs, 49 of whom worked in the Beijing Massage Hospital, which was the birthplace of China's modern medical massage by the blind. The other 54 worked in eight small clinics.
"As of October 2002, 217 clinics for massage by blind people were registered in Beijing, employing over 1,000 blind masseurs," Wang said.
All blind people between the ages of 16 and 59 can learn the skills in local training centers at a very low charge and the supply of blind masseurs is still unable to meet demand, Wang said.
There are four different professional levels for classifying blind masseurs -- junior, intermediate, senior and master.
Local instruction centers host exams every year in which blind masseurs can try for a higher qualification level.
"Blind people regard becoming a masseur as a step forward, offering a chance of greater independence," added Wang.
Hope in their hands
However, the job is not an easy one.
Zhao almost gave up after his first two days of classes.
"It seemed impossible for me to remember thousands of new words in the field of Chinese medicine that I had never heard of before," Zhao recalled. It is even harder to find dozens of accurate acupuncture points in a human body using just the hands, he added.
"It is not easy for able-bodied people, let alone for blind people," he said.
Zhao was lucky enough to meet Li Yuan, the 28-year-old director of the Beijing School for the Blind's Massage Training Centre. Li spent two days persuading Zhao to stay and continue his studies.
Li, who has taught massage for six years, said: "I've seen too many successful cases and I deeply believe massage can be learned by all visually impaired people and, so far, being a masseur is one of the most realistic and best choices for them."
Blind masseurs in Beijing widely recognize Li because most of them have learned their skills at her school, which Li has trained several hundred masseurs.
The school has nine experienced teachers who teach more than 20 classes, said Li. The classes include basic Chinese and Western medicine theory and college-level courses in medical massage.
"I think this suits blind people well," she said. "They tend to have a good sense of touch."
Li admitted that the visually impaired students find it difficult to finish all the theory courses and practical work using only their senses of hearing and touch. They need more patience, will-power and persistence, she said.
"Sometimes, my students have to stand there for a whole day to practise massage techniques, no matter how tired and sore their legs, arms and fingers feel," Li said.
Qi Qingsong, 21, is one of the best students Li has taught. His excellent skills have already got him a senior-level qualification after only three years of study at the school.
When talking about his teacher, Qi said he always felt a little "guilty" because Li endured too much "pain" for the sake of her students.
Qi said the students usually practised in groups of two, with one giving and the other receiving the massage in turn. However, when it comes to the exam, the teacher has to be the one receiving the massage. He or she has to tolerate the students' technique in order to give them a mark and correct their errors.
Qi said: "After we graduated by learning how to massage using comfortable and useful techniques, first-year students came in again with the wrong techniques, so the teachers would never have the chance to enjoy the comfort of a massage."
Li seemed not to care too much about the "sacrifice."
"Compared with what the blind people have experienced, the little 'pain' we endure is nothing. It is worth it if it can help them find the way to a bright future," Li said.
Earning a living and respect
Not everyone -- not even all blind people -- believes that massage really can improve people's health.
For 22-year-old Wang Jiaji, becoming a masseur would be a last resort.
With his musical talent, singing ability and good training at the local school for the blind, Wang became a tenor in the China Disabled People's Performing Art Troupe when he was only 16.
But his parents suggested that he learn medical massage when he got a chance to enrol in Changchun University's Special Education College in September 1997 in Changchun, capital city of Northeast China's Jilin Province. They wanted to ensure their son would have a job with a stable income in the future.
However, during his five years of study, Wang showed little interest in massage although all his grades were excellent. What obsessed him was music.
Yet he changed his mind last October when he was taking part in the fifth National Art Festival for the Disabled. He found that massage could really help people.
He used his skills to relieve the pain felt by the troupe's make-up artist. The make-up woman told Wang that she would feel unbearable pain after standing for only 30 minutes and she felt the same pain when climbing stairs or gently pressing her knees.
After one massage from Wang, the woman was able to stand straight up and the pain was greatly relieved.
After the week-long festival ended, her knees had totally recovered.
"It was so amazing that I could really help others with my own hands," he said proudly.
Encouraged by his first successful massage, Wang found a job in a Beijing massage clinic after doing three months of practice in Changchun Massage Hospital.
He now earns more than 1,500 yuan (US$182) per month. He said he is happy that he can earn a living on his own as well as win the respect of his patients.
"What is very encouraging is that we can bring health, comfort and relaxation to people, despite being blind."
To update his theoretical knowledge and massage skills, Wang still reads medical books in Braille after work every day -- "Just as most of my blind colleagues do," he said.
"Not only do we need professional skills and good manners when communicating with people but also a sense of responsibility for the people coming to us," Wang said when asked about the qualities needed by a good masseur.
"That's the only way we can protect the precious massage 'brand' with our own hands," he said.
(China daily March 28, 2003)