Unlucky, Unfazed, Unbroken

Times Staff Writer

This is the story of He Tianwu: Farmer. Husband. Father. Widower. Odd-jobs man. Coal miner. Amputee. Gold prospector. Brick maker. Big-city vagrant. One-armed human mule.

As China sheds its communist past to embrace the capitalism it once deemed evil, countless rural Chinese have had to reinvent themselves again and again to survive. An estimated 120 million have made the leap from farmer to worker in a turbocharged economy that feeds on the anonymous cheap labor supply and rarely bothers with its human heartache.

But there is heartache, a hundred million times over, and this is the story of one man’s struggle to survive unbroken despite the odds.



He was born in 1962, the first of four sons in a dirt-poor village in Shaanxi province, ancient home of China’s first emperor and a revolutionary base for Mao Tse-tung before Mao took power in 1949.

As a teenager, He dreamed of becoming a soldier. He loved watching the village garrison take target practice. When the People’s Liberation Army swept through in search of recruits to post to remote Tibet, he wished he could join up.

But the family needed him to stay home and help till the land.

“If I had gone, I probably would not have had such a bitter life,” He said from his $6-a-month, one-room rental here at the foot of Huashan, one of China’s most treacherous mountains. “The army would have taught me some useful skills and given me glory for serving my country.”


Instead, when he was 16, a matchmaker found him a fiancee from a nearby village. She was three months older than him and had an elementary school education. (Having attended some high school, He is the most educated person in his family.) He knew what she looked like from annual spring festival gatherings but had never really spoken to her.

They were 21 when they became husband and wife. Shortly after their wedding, she was diagnosed with a congenital heart disease.

Few rural Chinese families have medical insurance or the minimal social safety net available to city dwellers, so He borrowed $1,200 from relatives, friends and the local bank, an astronomical sum 20 years ago for a family that earned less than $50 a year. The couple made many trips to the hospital.

But doctors couldn’t save her. She was 27 when she died, leaving him with two boys, a 5-year-old and a 10-month-old.


“I don’t regret marrying her,” said He, 44, who has not remarried. “I accept it as fate.”

With high cheekbones and large eyes, He would have made a handsome soldier in uniform. He carries himself with pride, even after he suddenly lost his full mop of black hair a few months ago -- probably from poor nutrition and stress, he said.

He had no idea how his life would unfold after he became a widower in 1989. The mass movement of rural migrant workers had yet to transform China into the world’s factory. Like He, most Chinese farmers had never left their villages, and wouldn’t know how.

But heavily in debt and with a young family to support, He had to figure out something quickly.


“The baby needed formula and my older boy needed to go to school,” He recalled. “I decided to leave home.”

Leaving his children with their grandparents, he began his odyssey with odd jobs nearby -- repairing roads and fixing track at the local train station.

But the pay was so bad he had to move on.

He took a train to the next province and ducked into a coal mine. China’s coal pits are the deadliest on Earth, claiming thousands of lives a year. The nation’s insatiable appetite for energy has created a proliferation of illegal mines, whose authorities pay little heed to worker safety or benefits.


He didn’t have time to understand that. What he needed was a paycheck. Little did he know that after living expenses and fees were deducted, he would make only a few dollars a month. The meager salary was rarely paid on time.

After the late shift on a hot July day in 1992, He’s foreman asked for a volunteer to work overtime to make up for the production delay caused by a disabled coal cart pulley.

“I needed the extra money, so I said, ‘I’ll do it,’ ” He recalled.

Around midnight, He was in the pit loading coal when the steel cable that moved the carts to the surface became stuck again. As He pulled on it, it suddenly jerked into action, yanking his arm so hard that his body flew 10 feet into the air before he was slammed back down. He instantly lost consciousness.


When He awoke two days later, he was in a hospital bed. His left arm was gone, amputated from the shoulder down.

Despite the accident, He begged for his job back. In a country where potential employees are passed over for being too short or too ugly, He knew that he would have trouble finding new work as a disabled man. His boss refused, gave him $500 and told him to go.

On the crowded train home, a thief sliced open He’s backpack and walked away with half the bills he had hidden there.

While He was at home recovering, a coal-mining accident claimed the life of his younger brother.


“He was only 23, never even got married,” He said.

His two other brothers, both farmers-turned-miners, couldn’t afford to give up the deadly trade. Falling rocks broke one brother’s shinbone. A floorboard collapse crushed the other’s ribs.

“Our family gave so much to China’s coal mines, but we never got much in return,” He said.

But there was no time to sit still. He began practicing digging dirt with one arm. Neighbors watched him fill part of a local riverbed with sand and plant corn that grew so well it became the envy of the village.


Then a flood ruined his harvest.

He took to the road again. First he was hired at a brick factory in a small town in Shandong province, mixing mud and water for 25 cents per 10,000 bricks. But with one arm, he couldn’t work fast enough to make the piecemeal pay add up.

“When I left, I didn’t have enough money to buy a single piece of hard candy for my sons,” He said. “That sure didn’t feel good.”

Next he went to a gold mine, where he helped load and unload rocks but saw no gold.


Back on the farm, his children began to feel the effects of He’s desperation.

His older son, He Xijun, 12 at the time, ran away from home to pick garbage for a living. Today, He doesn’t know exactly where his son, now 22, is. All he knows is that the young man said he wouldn’t come home until he had made good.

His younger son, He Xihai, became a child laborer at 13, hopping a train to the Xinjiang region in far western China to dig ditches, lay pipes and mine coal.

Saddened, He did the only thing he knew how to do: He kept on moving.


Friends suggested Shanghai, figuring that China’s most modern metropolis would be more civilized and offer more opportunities for the disabled. They were wrong.

He roamed the streets and inquired at every construction site he could find. He slept in parks and went days without food. A sign for an association for the disabled offered a glimmer of hope. He didn’t expect handouts, only a possible job lead.

But the staff waved him off as if he were a fly.

“I didn’t even get a chance to open my mouth,” He recalled.


He had hit rock bottom. One night he spent his last coins on cheap liquor and a pack of ramen noodles. After he ate, he planned to drown himself in the Huangpu River.

“At the last minute, I thought of my aging parents and my two young sons who still need me,” He said, his eyes wet. “I just can’t give up yet.”

Soon after, someone told him about Huashan, and the mountain that has evoked fear in generations of Chinese because of its steepness became this one-armed man’s stairway to heaven.

It takes about seven minutes to ride the cable car up Huashan; on foot, the trip can take more than 10 hours. Some passages are so steep that climbers must get on all fours and cling to a metal chain that rattles against the side of granite cliffs soaring 7,000 feet into the clouds.


For six years, He has scaled Huashan nearly every day, balancing a straw basket loaded with about 100 pounds of supplies for people at the top.

“On my first day I carried about 50 pounds and made $1.80,” He said with a proud smile. “Afterward my back and legs were so sore I could hardly move. But they paid me cash right away. That’s better than any job I’ve ever had.”

What little money He made he sent home. During a visit, his younger son, He Xihai, 12 at the time, hiked up the mountain and saw how his father earned a living.

“I was on all fours and I was petrified,” said He Xihai, now 17. “I asked my father, ‘How do you do it?’ and he said, ‘One step at a time.’ ”


The older man says he’s hardly brave.

“Of course I get scared. But I keep the fear inside and don’t dare look back,” He said as he looked up at the giant sand-colored boulders that stand like a metaphor for the challenges in his life.

“If I want to make a little money, I must keep going. So far this is the only place that gives me the freedom to do that.”

Fate finally took a gentle turn for He late last year when a local TV station interviewed him about his star-crossed life. Viewers touched by his story sent him a few hundred dollars, and He was able to pay off some long-standing debt.


He was surprised by the kindness, but said he had no plans to give up his life in the mountains. He has a new dream, though: to participate in the 2008 Special Olympics, perhaps in running or shooting events.

“It’s my way of thanking all the people who have helped me,” He said. “I want them to see that this man is worthy of their help.

“I have all the willpower in the world. All I need is an opportunity.”