An electrifying memoir by the blind Chinese activist who inspired millions with the story of his fight for justice and his belief in the cause of freedom
It was like a scene out of a thriller: one morning in April 2012, China’s most famous political activist—a blind, self-taught lawyer—climbed over the wall of his heavily guarded home and escaped. Days later, he turned up at the American embassy in Beijing, and only a furious round of high-level negotiations made it possible for him to leave China and begin a new life in the United States.
Chen Guangcheng is a unique figure on the world stage, but his story is even more remarkable than anyone knew. The son of a poor farmer in rural China, blinded by illness when he was an infant, Chen was fortunate to survive a difficult childhood. But despite his disability, he was determined to educate himself and fight for the rights of his country’s poor, especially a legion of women who had endured forced sterilizations and abortions under the hated "one child" policy. Repeatedly harassed, beaten, and imprisoned by Chinese authorities, Chen was ultimately placed under house arrest. After nearly two years of increasing danger, he evaded his captors and fled to freedom.
Both a riveting memoir and a revealing portrait of modern China, The Barefoot Lawyer tells the story of a man who has never accepted limits and always believed in the power of the human spirit to overcome any obstacle.
Chen Guangcheng, known to many as "the barefoot lawyer," was born in 1971 in the village of Dongshigu, China. The son of a poor farmer, Chen was left permanently blind by illness as an infant, and his family had few resources to support him. But despite his disability, he was determined to educate himself, eventually learning to read and write at age 18 when he began attending a school for the blind. He would be the first person in his family to earn a college degree.
At school, Chen was confronted with numerous instances of injustice occurring around him. He began speaking out about the poor living conditions at school, and got involved in the case of a student whose rights had been violated. He began to take an interest in the law, but being blind, he was not permitted to study for a law degree.
Over time, with the help of his close family, he taught himself law and got involved in legal cases related to issues of civil rights and disability. His successful lawsuit against the Beijing Metro Corporation resulted in free ridership for the blind across China. He began to glean notice from the international media, eventually earning him the title, “barefoot lawyer.”
Living at home in his village, his legal work eventually lead to his investigation into the violent campaign carried out by the authorities to enforce the "one child" policy. He came under notice by the authorities, beginning a period of harassment and detention that would last over seven years, including repeated house arrests, black jails, and a four-year prison sentence. After nearly two years of brutal detention in his own home, he escaped his village, later seeking safety at the American embassy in Beijing. High-level diplomatic negotiations secured his travel to the US, where he became a student at NYU Law School.
Mr. Chen now lives in the Washington DC area with his wife and children. He continues to be active in human rights, and is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Catholic University of America, a Distinguished Senior Fellow in Human Rights at the Witherspoon Institute, and Senior Distinguished Advisor to the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.
“Chen Guangcheng has a life story unlike any other you will ever read. His memoir—eloquent, accessible, and necessary—is not only about his improbable path to prominence as a human-rights activist in China. It is, above all, about the universal power of will.”
author of Age of Ambition
“This exceptional book will join the ranks of classic accounts of individual bravery, principle, and vision in the face of cruelty and repression. Chen Guangcheng is known around the world for the daring of his escape from captivity; as The Barefoot Lawyer makes clear, his journey and the accomplishments before that were at least as remarkable. Anyone who wants to understand the struggle for China's future, being waged inside that country and by friends of China around the world, will want to read this book.”
national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly
“The life story of this blind, self-taught lawyer is a morality tale for our time. Chen Guangcheng’s unflinching sense of moral purpose pitted him against the might of the Chinese state, and ended up exacting an extraordinarily high price on his entire family. In his tenacious search for justice, Chen became a pawn in high-level geopolitical maneuvering between the world’s two superpowers. This gripping book provides a sobering vision of the brute power of a rising China.”
author of The People's Republic of Amnesia
“The Chinese government warns its citizens against ‘universal values,’ calling them a Western plot. But anyone who needs evidence that notions of truth and justice are inherent in human beings everywhere need look no further than Chen Guangcheng. Born to dirt-poor conditions in a small Chinese village, barred from grade school because he was blind, Chen has the gifts of tenacious intellect and a devotion to principle so unbending that, at the end of his saga, it proves stronger than those of U.S. diplomats who are schooled in human rights.”
author of An Anatomy of Chinese
“Chen Guangcheng. The Barefoot Lawyer from rural China. Think Huckleberry Finn growing up to be Atticus Finch. In this brave and undaunted book, Guangcheng proves himself the very best kind of trouble-maker. He fights monsters. Monsters who hide behind officialdom and party uniforms. Monsters of lazy sadism who flaunt the rule of law and violently oppose any chance for human dignity. A gritty and insanely inspiring story of a man who has been through Hell and come out smiling, The Barefoot Lawyer represents the ultimate victory over cynicism and cruelty. Tyrants Beware!”
“[A] riveting memoir … Chen has an excellent sense of pace and attention to detail, and he knows how to fill in the cultural gaps for those less familiar with China. The result is an eminently readable, albeit chilling memoir that will grip the attention of readers everywhere.”
“[Chen] was imprisoned for more than four years, then released into extralegal house arrest, with hundreds of state agents and hired thugs ... keeping him and his family under surveillance and isolated from the world physically and electronically. How a blind man escaped such a lockdown alone and on foot, navigating toward a neighboring village via smells and 'a kind of batlike echolocation,' is an amazing tale.”
—The Wall Street Journal
“Riveting ... [Chen] offers a poignant yet inspiring account of growing up sightless in the Chinese countryside.... It is remarkable how Chen's lone voice was able to shake the state to its foundations... Chen has lived most of his life in darkness but here casts a beacon of light into the shadows.”
—The Washington Post
“Truly inspiring... Chen's combative spirit seems never to desert him. His flight from his village to the American embassy is gripping.... The most dramatic story of a dissident's escape from persecution in Communist-ruled China [and] a powerful reminder of how some aspects of the country remain unchanged despite its rapidly growing prosperity.”
“Both an absorbing story of how a determined, courageous individual can make a difference in the lives of millions and an eye-opening portrait of the desperate conditions endured by China’s rural poor…. The Barefoot Lawyer is an inspirational, troubling read.”
“Tense and tightly written, [The Barefoot Lawyer] is a suspenseful window onto Chen's struggle, with disaster constantly on the horizon.… Richly layered and vibrant, Chen's stirring tale of bravery and perseverance in the face of oppression is a moving call to arms for the ideas of human dignity and the rule of law.”
“An astonishing story of one man’s fight to overcome personal odds for himself and for the cause of justice for the citizens of his nation.”
“A fast-paced, eye-opening read... Chen has an unwavering belief in the power of the human spirit to persevere against oppression.”