Chinese calligraphy, bicycling, and how to live with a handicap

The story of Daishen, a man with one arm and one leg

When you think of Chinese calligraphy, you most likely will not think of traveling, handicapped people or riding bicycles. However, this story is about a man I met in Dali Yunnan. In 1996 I arrived in Dali, Yunnan. It was in the days I was not cycling in China.

One arm and one leg, ride your bicycle!

bicycle blueprintI thought it was not possible, or better, I didn’t even realize it would be an option. It was my third visit and I enjoyed it very much.

I came from the north where it had been freezing with temperatures at day time of minus 10ºC.

Finally in Dali the weather was more pleasant. I expected to get even better weather while traveling to Yangshuo.

In Dali I would meet a man who would have an incredible effect on my life.

This man was a Chinese from Dalian, far in the north east corner of China.

Daishen died in July 2010

Daishen, the man who cycled Dalian-Dali 3 times died in Yangshuo in July 2010. He was sick for some time but early June it got worse. As one friend in Yangshuo described: “Daishen got crazy and 3 days later he died.

May he rest in peace.

The man had lost an arm and a leg in a traffic accident. His name was Daishen.

He traveled through China on his bicycle. With only a tiny piece of his right arm and almost no right leg, cycling alone was already an achievement.

But this man, his name was Daishen,  had done much more. I was lucky to meet a Taiwanese lady (on the upper picture the one on the left side) who told me the mans life story.

Daishen had lived in a little town not far from Dalian, far in the north east of China near the East China Sea. 12 years before I met him, it must be around 1984. By the time he was making his living by creating some amazing Chinese calligraphy.

One arm one legDaishen had been involved in a car accident. In that accident, he lost his full left leg and his right arm. Everywhere in the world this would mean trouble but In China, this means trouble and lost face. Without his arm and leg, he would no longer be seen as a “whole” man. He told me he had lost his will to live. After all, without an arm and a leg, he was no longer useful for society.

In those days the facilities for disabled were primitive. Someone told him if he couldn’t do anything anymore he could still become a monk. After all, “monks don’t need arms and legs for prayers”, he was told.

Daishen stayed a few years in the monastery and felt he was useful for the community. In the monastery he learned to live with his handicap. Even more important, he felt he found back pleasure in live.

The main problem now was, what else could he do to make his life enjoyable again, and to earn a living? Being right handed it was impossible to continue his work in Chinese calligraphy,… or not?

Like all mainland Chinese, he was able to write Chinese characters and he used to have a bicycle. Why not combine the two and make it a way of life. As soon as he had gained a plastic leg, he was using his old bicycle again to travel around from the monastery to the town. He felt completely at ease with it and at one day he decided he could do something that would prove he was still useful for the society and gain a living.

Others may have stayed in the monastery but this was not his destiny. He bought a better bicycle, a huge Chinese flag and started to travel. In the monastery he had learned to use the pencil and the idea was that he would be able to make his own living with calligraphy. To prove that he had traveled in all these towns he would pass, he decided to ask in the local post office for a stamp on his Chinese flag.

One arm one leg The way he made his living was by the art of Chinese calligraphy.
He wrote the characters using his right arm, or what was left of it.

The pencil under his armpit or with a band on the arm. Thus he created some beautiful typical Chinese calligraphy which he sold (and still sells) for making a living.

Obviously he didn’t cycle fast or did long distances. But he did ride his bicycle! By the time he was in Dali, he had done the journey from Dalian to Dali already three times.

Although I am not sure how many kilometers that was, I suspect it was no less then at least 10.000km, most likely a lot more.

I left Dali to continue my journey but the image and the story of that man with one arm and one leg kept following me. A few years later when I decided to start cycling from Holland to Asia, I had a lot of troubles with my bicycle.

It was probably in those days I started remembering more vividly this Chinese man who had been able to overcome problems which by far were greater then my bike problems. What I learned from him was that:


I have been regularly back into China but I never heard anything of Daishen. In Dali, I was told, he wanted to settle down to write a book about his adventures. The book would be written in Chinese but I was still interested. I was not able to pick up the trail until recently. He is living now in Yangshuo and has a small shop near the Li River. He still paints and does his Chinese calligraphy.

I don’t have any heroes in my life, but this man for sure was and still is one of my heroes. This man shows indeed that all you want in life starts in your mind. After reading this story, no one can say anymore that something is impossible, or that something can not be done. What you can say is that you don’t want it. Indeed, this man is a great teacher and an example of the power of the mind, I am lucky to have seen this man.

Isn’t this an amazing story?

I would answer that question with yes. You may have met, or seen other amazing people who did things you could hardly believe. Why not telling us about them? Fill in the form below to add your own experiences with amazing people.