How a mother’s love saw China’s ‘folded man’ through years of pain

Alice Yan
·4-min read

China’s “folded man” Li Hua has a rare condition that left him with a severely deformed spine. In the second of a three-part series, we look at his mother’s tireless efforts to care for him.

Even when Li Hua was doubled over with a painful autoimmune disease, he still found a way to pay tribute to his mother, Tang Dongchen.

Li, 47, has a condition called ankylosing spondylitis, which caused his bones to fuse and his spine to curve forwards.

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In the last two decades, he has relied on his mother to help him get through each day, from preparing meals, to getting dressed and going to the bathroom. It is help that Tang has given with grace.

“I never complained about him and I never told him off,” Tang, 71, said. “He is my son. It’s not his fault that he’s got this disease.”

To show his gratitude, Li, who lives in Qiyang county in the central Chinese province of Hunan, would play his favourite song on the harmonica, In the World Only Mama’s Dear.

Li Hua practises calligraphy at home with his mother Tang Dongchen. Photo: Alice Yan
Li Hua practises calligraphy at home with his mother Tang Dongchen. Photo: Alice Yan

Li is one of three brothers in the family and, according to Tang, is the smartest of the siblings.

“Li was a handsome boy and wasn’t naughty at all when he was a child. He studied well at school,” she said.

In the 1980s, Tang was a village official involved in family planning in the community and her husband was working away from the home.

“When [Li Hua] was six or seven years old, he made breakfast for himself. After school, he cut grass to feed the pigs that my family raised. He had to do those household things because his father worked in another city and I was very busy those years,” she said.

Li’s condition began to worsen when he was about 18 and over time he became bent over, his face just a few centimetres from his thighs.

With her husband and other sons working away, the responsibility for Li’s care fell on his mother.

Before Li had a wheelchair, Tang would carry her son on her back, taking him to doctors in search of treatment.

Tang said that sometimes the pain left Li in tears and made him feel inferior to others.

“He would ask, ‘Why can others be cured but not me?’” she said.

“I comforted him, and told him ‘you can surf on the internet. Why not search for any hospitals that can treat this disease? I will take you there. I will borrow from friends and relatives to pay for it.’”

Then last year, Li had a series of complex surgeries in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, allowing him to gradually regain the ability to walk with the aid of a frame.

Li Hua still needs help with daily tasks. Photo: Alice Yan
Li Hua still needs help with daily tasks. Photo: Alice Yan

Neighbour Tan Xiaochun said Tang’s care saw her son through times of intensely low spirits.

“He can survive after so many years mainly because of his mother’s care,” Tan said.

Li’s father, Li Guoxiang, 74, also paid tribute to Tang.

“It was his mother who did everything, from making food for him, bathing him to helping him to go to the toilet. It was also his mother who took him to the hospital. I have been working in a factory far away from home,” he said.

Li Hua’s condition has improved since the operations. Photo: Alice Yan
Li Hua’s condition has improved since the operations. Photo: Alice Yan

Li Hua still needs plenty of help from his mother each day but the progress is a source of hope for Tang.

“I am old now. My only wish is that he can live healthily and be good enough to take care of himself one day. I want nothing else,” she said.

But Li’s thoughts are only for his mother.

“I feel sorry that my mother had to look after me like that for over 20 years,” he said.

“Now my body is straight again and I can stand up. I finally can see my mother’s face and her smile. But I am also worried about her health.”

The first part of the series is here.

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