Friday, May 15, 2015

Nonfiction: The Barefoot Lawyer by Chen Guangcheng

I entered to win The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man's Fight for Justice and Freedom in the New China by Chen Guangcheng through the Goodreads giveaway program, and was thrilled to win and receive the book just a few short weeks later. My interest in the book began after coming across the shorter version of Guangcheng's story in the National Book Award winning Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos. The story of a blind man escaping the surveillance of literally dozens of guards while he is under house arrest is just too good to pass up.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book, pretty much a memoir, written by Guangcheng after he managed to escape from China into the U.S. with his wife, Weijing, and his son Kerui and daughter Kesi. The many social and political themes include discrimination and prejudice against the disabled, social justice, access to education, the economic divide in China, common practices of the communist party, and even some common Chinese customs when it comes to weddings and funerals. After losing his sight as an infant, Guangcheng would be discriminated against because of his blindness, with even close friends and family believing he'll never get married and only be able to make a living as a wandering storyteller or psychic, which is the fate of many blind people in China. Even his access to education would be affected, and it didn't help that his family was extremely poor and could hardly afford pay his share of the taxes, much less send him to college and pay the tuition, room and board. Guangcheng will be able to attend a school for the blind, but his options regarding his profession were still narrow. And although he studies medicine, Guangcheng would eventually become what is known as a "barefoot lawyer." While he held no formal law degree, he still studied it, practiced it, and advocated for himself and those around him. It is this advocacy, specifically concerning the one-child policy, that would land him in prison, and after his release, oppressive house arrest. It is a story of overcoming enormous obstacles in an effort to fight for what is right.

My Verdict: While this story is autobiographical and mostly talks about Guangcheng's life growing up, and how he came to be under brutal persecution in his own country, the very beginning of the book, as well as the ending, include his time in prison, and reads much like a political or suspense drama. Also, there are many moments when this book almost becomes an exposé of all the things Guangcheng believes to be wrong with China, and there are a lot. The man names names, repeatedly, of both those who persecuted him and those he is grateful for (the latter list includes many American political figures that most readers in the U.S. will easily recognize). And the book reads as if Guangcheng went over his story with a fine-toothed comb, making sure to leave nothing out, as he wants the world to know what is happening in his home country. Guangcheng has one purpose, to get this story out to as many people as possible. I have to admire his bravery and boldness, as well as his resolve and persistence. Those that are interested in what really goes on in China - all the stuff they are so eager to cover up - may want to read this book. 

Favorite Moment: The very beginning, when Guangcheng, a blind man, manages to escape the watch of literally dozens of men who have surrounded his home, and in broad daylight.

Recommended Reading: I definitely recommend the aforementioned Age of Ambition by Evan Osnos. This book will give a much broader view of China's political history and practices, as well as how they came to be the economic powerhouse they are today, and how the people are dealing with this change.

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