It was around 4 in the morning. Ding Yuefu got up and dressed himself quietly without disturbing his 37-year-old wife Sun Xiuying and 12-year-old daughter Ding Zhaoyan.
It was just another ordinary but busy day for Ding, a 52-year-old peasant who lives in Jiazaishui Village at the foot of the Changbai Mountains in northeast China's Jilin Province.
Ding tiptoed out of the room and began to do household chores as usual: sweeping the floor, tidying up the kitchen, and splitting wood for the stove which was going out.
The house was about 20 square meters and the family was too poor to afford any nice furniture or decoration. But Ding liked to keep the house clean and tidy, because he believes "living in a clean house helps make life happier."
For the past 21 years, Ding has devoted himself to supporting his family, and, in particular, to looking after his wife, who has a serious illness.
Sun was born with a lump on the left side of her face. As the years passed the lump grew bigger and began pressing on the nerves of her brain, eventually Sun became paralyzed and essentially confined to her bed.
Every morning, Ding helps her get up, get dressed, wash her face and brush her teeth.
Despite her grotesque appearance, in Ding's eyes, Sun remains the love of his life.
Ding believes the Chinese saying that one day together as husband and wife creates an emotional bond that lasts for 100 days. For him, this means forever.
"Although she looks ugly, she's brought me the most precious thing in my life -- a sweet and beautiful daughter," Ding told China Daily during a telephone interview.
"Though her face is deformed, she has a beautiful mind," Ding added.
As the eldest child in a large family, Ding began helping his father in the fields when he was very young. But poverty and hardship did not diminish Ding's passion for life.
His talent in singing and dancing made him a popular performer whenever there were festivities in the village. Some of his fellow villagers even dubbed him the "party prodigy" because he was such an inspiration at those times.
Ding was also a good story-teller. When night fell, children in the village would gather under the big willow tree in Ding's courtyard, to listen to Ding's wonderful renditions of stories from Journey to the West and The Three Kingdoms.
During the Spring Festival in 1983, Ding met a member of a singing troupe who promised to introduce him to a young woman living in Linjiang City.
The matchmaker told Ding the woman was very nice but had a deformed face. "What's wrong with being ugly?" Ding replied humorously. "As long as she is a woman, filial to my parents and can bear me children, it'll be okay!"
Even though the matchmaker had forewarned him, Ding was still shocked when he met Sun for the first time a few weeks later.
Sun had been born with the left side of her face severely deformed. People avoided her and gave her queer looks from the time she was a child. Not surprisingly, Sun had never gone to school and seldom stepped out of her home to meet strangers.
Ding was greatly moved by Sun's story. "We have both been unlucky in life, so probably we'll be a perfect match," said Ding, who accepted Sun in the end and agreed to marry her.
Two days later, the two prepared to set out for Ding's home, but the bus driver was not willing to take them because of Sun's looks. So they had to walk the 70 kilometers to Ding's home in the snow.
But the wedding was really great. All the villagers came to the ceremony and congratulated the newlyweds. Their marriage turned out to be more blissful than most people had expected.
Ding was much happier than he used to be and worked in the fields from dawn to dusk. Sun stayed at home taking care of her elderly parents-in-law and doing the housework.
But the lump on Sun's face continued to grow bigger and bigger, and Ding helped her comb her hair and wash her face and feet when he returned home every night.
One day in May of 1991, Ding went home as usual but found that Sun had made a grand dinner for him. "Guess what, I have great news for you," Sun said.
Ding noticed his wife had her hand on her stomach and realized at once. "We're having a baby, right?" Ding was so happy that his eyes filled with tears.
On February 28, 1992, Sun gave birth to a baby girl. The couple called her "Xiao Yanzi," which means little swallow in Chinese.
The new life brought great happiness to the family, but Sun's health began to worsen after the birth of their daughter.
Since they were too poor to afford proper treatment in the big city, Sun could only get simple medications from the small local clinic.
By the summer of 1997, Sun had become totally paralyzed and was bedridden.
In addition to taking care of his paralyzed wife, Ding had to work hard to make enough money to pay her medical bills -- about 100 yuan (US$12) every month.
For years, the family mostly lived on the corn and beans Ding planted, with an annual income of 7,000 to 8,000 yuan (US$845 to 966).
During the slack season, Ding often went up into Changbai Mountains to collect medicinal herbs. Sometimes he was able to earn as much as 500 yuan (US$60) for a trip.
As their daughter grew up and began to go to school, Ding was faced with further financial pressure.
Misfortunes never come singly. Unwilling to be a burden to the family, Sun had tried to poison herself in May, 2003. When Ding returned home and found his dying wife, he carried her on his back and rushed to the clinic. Fortunately, they managed to revive her.
When she finally came around, Ding held her in his arms and tried to comfort her: "Don't worry. Everything will be all right. Your being alive is our greatest joy."
In the following months, Sun tried to commit suicide two more times the same year, but Ding intervened both times.
"I must have done something good in my past life to deserve such a wonderful husband," said Sun when he saved her in October.
Ding also won praise from his fellow villagers for his devoted love for his wife and family. His neighbor Duan Lianwen still remembers a scene from several years ago. One day he saw Ding and his daughter walking by. To cheer up the little girl, Duan gave them two ice lollies. As they were leaving, Duan heard Ding say to Little Swallow, "Take my lolly home and give it to mum."
Even today, that touching scene is still fresh in Duan's mind.
After struggling in the dark for so many years, the family finally saw a light of hope.
Ding and Sun's story was reported in the Changchun City Evening News in early February and soon drew the attention of people throughout the country.
Ding received calls from hundreds of people from Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and other cities. Many of the callers offered to help pay for Sun's medical treatment and help Ding's daughter complete her schooling.
According to Li Jiali, a journalist from City Evening News who has been following Ding's story for over a month, the newspaper has so far received donations of over 49,000 yuan (US$5,917) for the family from all over the country.
With the help of the local government, Sun, accompanied by Ding and their daughter, was sent to Zhongshan Hospital in Changchun on February 12 this year.
After a physical exam, Sun started taking treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis.
Ding is pleased to see that his wife is looking much better now after a month in hospital. "Her mind is clearer, and even more surprising, she can stand up by herself and walk a few steps with the help of others," Ding told China Daily.
Their 12-year-old daughter has looked depressed ever since she arrived in Changchun, although she had never been to a big city before. She spends most of her time sitting beside her mother's bed and reading books.
Luo Qi, the neurosurgeon in charge of Sun's case, said Sun can have surgery to remove the lump from her face but it would be somewhat risky -- if the surgery were to fail, Sun could become a vegetable or even lose her life.
After discussing this with Sun, Ding finally decided to forego the surgery.
"My daughter and I can't lose my wife. Besides, she is getting better and better and I don't think taking the risk is worthwhile," said Ding.
Sun left the hospital on Friday and the family went back home.
Ding is fairly optimistic about the future. "I believe that one day, my wife will be able to walk by herself and live like a normal person."
(China Daily March 22, 2004)