The Torchbearer — An Interview by Sang Ye


Bai Jian: impoverished foster father, teacher and Olympic torch bearer

Given the events surrounding the Olympic Torch Relay in London on 6 April 2008, we thought readers would be interested in the following interview with one of the Chinese torchbearers who went to London.

The interview was undertaken recently by the Australian-based oral historian Sang Ye. It is part of Geremie R. Barmé’s ‘Beijing as Spectacle’ project funded by the Australian Research Council and based at The Australian National University.

We would like to thank Linda Jaivin for her editorial work on the translation. Further material from Sang Ye and Barmé’s ‘Inside the Rings of Beijing’ will appear in coming months.

—Geremie R. Barmé


The Torchbearer — An Interview by Sang Ye

Translated by Geremie R. Barmé

Bai Jian (柏剑) is a 34 year-old physical education teacher in Number Two Middle School, Anshan, Liaoning Province, China.

This thing I have about fostering kids has to do with my personal history. I was born in 1973 in Jianchang County, one of the most notoriously impoverished places in the whole of Liaoning Province. My family were ordinary peasants who only just managed to scrape by; we were dirt poor.

When I started primary school in 1980 I walked five kilometers over mountain paths to get there every day. In the bitter cold of winter, I’d run, although I didn’t have any shoes. When I got home at night there were no lamps to read by—we had no electricity. In summer I’d use the tombstone on an old grave mound as a desk for reading and doing my homework by the last light of the day. In winter, when temperatures dropped ten or twenty degrees below zero, and the sun set early over the mountains, I couldn’t study at all.

When I started school over half the people in Jianchang County, that’s several hundred thousand people, didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to keep them warm, despite the fact that we’d been on the socialist road for more than three decades. I wasn’t the only one without shoes; most children went barefoot.

I passed the exams to get into Jinzhou Teachers’ College in 1992, and was able to complete my studies thanks to the financial support from my family, relatives and even my teachers. My parents have five children. One of my older brothers and one sister also did well at school, but when they graduated we were even poorer, so they never had the chance to go to university. They both ended up back home working on the land.

As I was the youngest everyone pitched in to pay for my education. My parents said if I did well at school they’d send me to university. By the time I’d finished they’d put enough together to cover my tuition, but apart from school fees I still had to pay for food and lodging. So I only managed to get through with the aid of relatives, friends and teachers. I am eternally grateful to them. Without them I’d never have been able to complete my education and through education turn my life around. I also worked at odd jobs while at university, and borrowed money too, of course. No need to thank myself for that.

After graduating in 1995, I got a job teaching physical education here at Number Two Middle School in Anshan. A PE teacher in an ordinary middle school. I could look forward to a life as a ‘king of the children’. That should have been enough, but I still had lots of dreams. So the following year I got into the MA program, but I had to face the facts: I couldn’t afford the fees at all. Besides, my life had changed, I’d taken in my first child.

I’ve been the foster father of twenty-four kids since 1996. Three have already graduated from university. Six are attending university. Four who didn’t make the grade are working. And the other eleven are still at home with me.

Only two of these twenty-four children were orphans. Some come from families too poor to feed them, let alone send them to school. Others come from impoverished households with single parents unable to look after them. Then there’s the kids who were left behind when their parents migrated to the cities to look for work as itinerant labourers. All but two had dropped out of school. Some had got into trouble with the law. In short, their families couldn’t or wouldn’t take care of them or didn’t want them. I ended up taking them in.

If I hadn’t, these kids would be on the streets. They certainly wouldn’t have been going to school, and who knows where they’d have ended up. This is a big city, part of the old rust belt, with high unemployment. There’s many temptations. It’s completely different from the small village where I grew up. So I have a duty to help see them through.

Although my resources are limited, I can give these kids a helping hand. By helping them change their current situation, they’ll have a better future.

My biggest headache is money. That was true when I was studying and with them at school, it’s still the case. There are so many of them. Anyone would find it financially crippling to raise so many kids. My monthly wage is a modest 2,000 yuan [USD 290]. I’ve racked my brain over the last few years thinking of ways to make more money. I’ve sold packed lunches, mobile phones, flowers, stationery, and, during my holidays, I’ve even set up a stall in the markets to sell shoes and tracksuits, that sort of thing. Some of these ventures have been successful, but not all. The sportswear I’ve sold are all counterfeit brands: phony Adidas, fake Nike. All of my kids wear fake brands, even now. The clothes you see on them now are rip-offs. I know its wrong to trade in counterfeit products, but what else can I do? Not only can we not afford to wear the real thing, we can’t even afford to wear anything good at all. These cheap and shoddy rip-offs are the cheapest things out there. Everyone knows they’re fake, even a blind man could tell by touching them, so they’re even cheaper than no-name products.

At the moment our household income consists of the 2,000 yuan that I get in wages as well as a variable1,000-2,000 yuan from the small shop that the older kids run selling mobile phones and pens. In addition, I’m contracted to the school as a cleaner. Every day after class, my sister takes a group of kids to sweep out the classrooms. That brings us in an extra 1,000 yuan a month. So, all told, we have an income of about 5,000 yuan. My sister thought my life was too hard, so she left our village to volunteer for me. Apart from cleaning the school she also collects used water bottles and soft drink tins from the school grounds and donates the money to me that she gets from selling them to the recycling station.

The brighter the kids, the more headaches for me. With six of them at university, in late summer and early autumn, as the new academic year approaches, I grow anxious about getting enough money together for their tuition. The year before last, I put up my apartment as collateral for a loan to cover their expenses. It’s a small place in a less than desirable location so I was only able to get 50,000 yuan, but that’s still enough to cover the costs of four of them. Then this year two more passed their high-school exams and got into university. I was at my wits end when I had a godsend. Just before term started I was voted one of the Ten Most Outstanding Teachers of Liaoning Province, an award that came with a 20,000 yuan prize. It was a life-saver.

My other constant worry is that there will be some emergency, for instance if one of our kids or their parents fall ill. It’s a real worry. If their parents are in trouble of course I have to look after them too. What’s strange about that? Some of them are poor single mothers, others are itinerant workers, with no one but their kids and me. Who else can they turn to? These are people who are completely marginalized, whose friends and families don’t have time for them and don’t want to make time—they feel having such ‘dregs of society’ in their lives is an embarrassment. So, when they have a problem, they have no one to turn to but their kids, and in practical terms that means me. So of course I look after them. I help them if they are sick and, not to put too fine a point on it, if things don’t work out I pay for their funeral. Quite a few have passed away in the last few years.

It’s true, I’m in quite a bit of debt. But as the saying goes, if you’re covered in fleas you no longer feel the bites; if you owe that much money, you give up worrying. I’ll pay them off eventually. I don’t dare think too far into the future. Things are as they are. It’s hard to repay all my debts, but I’ll worry about that after I’ve taken care of these kids.

This apartment is 60 square metres. At its most crowded we slept more than twenty people here. Things are much easier now. There’s one room for the boys and another for the girls. They all sleep in bunks, whatever their ages. There’s fourteen of us here: eleven kids, my parents and me. That’s how it is at the moment. The most pressing issue is to pay off the loan on the flat. Later I can think about improving our living conditions.

I’m over thirty, what they call an ‘old single’. Of course, I should be married by now, with my own family, but there’s no way. In the first place, I don’t have any time to find a girlfriend. I know some nice girls who are interested but whether we’d be able to live together happily is another matter. Besides, if I really did meet someone I could live with, how would that work? I couldn’t expect her to move in and live in the girls’ room while I stayed with the boys! That’s just how it is. Everything’s on hold until I can get these kids set up. Of course, it would be lovely to be happily married and debt-free, but the kids come first. I’m not that old. I can wait.

The first kid I took in was a problem child. Not long after he came to live here he stole 1,000 yuan from me. It really pissed me off. I hollered at him until I lost my voice. He admitted what he’d done and because of that I let him stay. He came good and started to behave. In 2000, he passed the university entrance exams, and graduated and is in the workforce now.

The time I found most difficult was around 1998 when I had about five or six kids with me. I was so stressed I didn’t know what to do. Funnily enough, by 2002, when I had sixteen kids, it seemed a lot easier. I was used to it; it wasn’t such a big deal. Anyway, when you have a whole group of kids things get easier because they’re different ages and can help look after each other.

… …

Many people have helped me in fact. My elder sister gives me a hand, and my parents too. One keeps an eye on the kids, the other does the cooking. And then there are all the relatives and friends who’ve loaned me money because they know I’ve gone into debt to take care of these kids. They know I can’t pay off my loans in the short term and tell me there’s no rush to pay them back. And there’s the guy whose car you were just in—he’s also a friend of mine. It must have been about a year ago that he told me one day, ‘Bai Jian, I’ve bought a car. When you have the time, let’s go pick it up.’ I was surprised because he had a good car already. I asked him what he needed a second one for. He told me that the new vehicle was a minibus that could seat twelve and could be useful for transporting people and things. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it. I really assumed he just wanted me along when he picked it up. Once all the paperwork was finished, he said that he wanted to leave the minibus at my place. I could use it to ferry the kids to and from school. ‘I’ll get in touch if I ever need it myself,’ he said…. He’s never used it, and he doesn’t plan to.

And then there’s this businessman from the south of China—who wants to remain anonymous—he saw a TV report about me being selected to be one of the Olympic torchbearers. He sent me 100,000 yuan in sponsorship. He asked me if it was enough to pay off my debts. Of course I said it was. He thanked me for doing something he had always wanted to do but never done himself. In reality, it wasn’t nearly enough to pay off my debts, because apart form the most pressing loans I still owe the bank and friends and relatives. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him it wasn’t enough, how could I have?

The Olympic relay torchbearers are selected for three levels: locally, for the Beijing run and for the international relay. Originally I just tried out to be a torchbearer in Anshan. There are 11,500 runners selected to run locally in cities throughout China. My kids and I discussed it and everyone agreed that on the day of the run they would all take the day off school or work so they could run along with me. Then I was selected to go to Beijing to be one of the 200 runners in the Beijing leg of the relay. Again, my kids said they’d take time off to join me. I didn’t think it would be possible, in particular because there would be heavy restrictions on the relay in the capital. They’d only allow torchbearers and security on the route. My kids said that they wouldn’t run on the route, but off to the side. I began thinking about what it would be like on the day. How we’d appear and things like that… Then I ended up being selected for the international relay. The kids were ecstatic, but disappointed too, because they’d have to watch it on TV.

I had no expectation whatsoever that I’d be selected to run overseas. All I knew is that all the people chosen to carry the torch overseas would be famous types with money behind them. I didn’t have fame or money. I thought I was just included in the competition to fill out the numbers. Chinese Central Television organized the selection process. I was even less confident after I arrived in Beijing: the whole affair was like one big promotional campaign run on behalf of major cities or businesses. Take the group I was in, for example. I was competing against a businessman, a philanthropist, a national model labourer, as well as some fashion model whom I’d never heard of but everyone else knew. None of them came alone, they all had support teams of dozens of people, including a cheer-squad, and an entourage of relatives and friends, not to mention their own personal PR people, local mayors, and even deputy provincial secretaries. Not me. I turned up with my small backpack, not even wearing a suit, and no support team—and no money to hire one. I knew my prospects were pretty bleak. It was even worse when I heard them all talking and I learnt that they or their backers had spent hundreds of thousands if not over a million yuan on their individual bids. I felt desolate. I thought to myself, if someone gave me even 200,000 or 300,000, I’d happily give up my place and go home to take care of my kids. I needed money; they craved recognition. We’d each get what we needed. I love sports dearly and coveted this honour, but I also have more important and practical responsibilities. I’d happily take the money and use it on my kids instead.

During the rehearsal the TV people noticed something was amiss. They asked me where my cheer-squad was. I didn’t have one. They told me that every contestant had twenty seats reserved for their cheer-squad and half an hour dedicated for the squad to stage a song-and-dance performance which reflected their regional culture. All the other contestants had complained that twenty wasn’t enough. ‘How come you don’t have any supporters?’ they asked. ‘It simply won’t do.’ I told them there was nothing I could do about it. I had no money. Only my school principal supported me, but she couldn’t take time off. Okay, they said, leave it to us; we’ll find you some free support, twenty university students. We’ll do our best, but the other cheer-squads are made up of professionals. Your team won’t be so slick, and since they’re not from your home province in the north-east they won’t be able to do your harvest dance. So, don’t blame us if you don’t get chosen.

Then they asked me about my entourage. They’d allocated twenty seats in the middle of the audience. I told them one of my kids was studying at university in Beijing. I could invite her. ‘Only one!’ They were shocked. Okay, I said, maybe two. You see, this girl is deaf and dumb, she was studying sign language and lip-reading in Beijing. She could still only communicate on a basic level, so she’d probably have to be accompanied by a classmate. Okay, they said, if that’s how it is there’s nothing we can do about it. We’ll round up some more audience members to make up the numbers.

With one phone call the TV people found me twenty university students and they turned up that afternoon. I started by telling them my story and they were all very supportive. They really got behind me. They said I should say it didn’t matter if we were poor, that someone in bare feet could win over people in shoes. Even if we lose we’d do it with dignity. But it was so little time to prepare, only half a day, all very last-minute. The harvest dance they did was really pathetic, and the only slogan we could think up was as simple as: ‘Bai Jian, Bai Jian, take heart, go forth!’

The official judging was on the following day. Like everyone else who was competing I first introduced myself to the audience. I said, ‘My name is Bai Jian. I’m a high-school teacher and I have taken in over twenty kids who, without my help, would not have any schooling. They’re all supporting my bid to run in the Olympic torch relay. One of them is a deaf mute studying at university here in Beijing. She is here with me today…’ My girl could read lips so she knew what I’d just said. She completely forgot about the rules of the show. She shouted out from the audience, ‘Daddy, I support you!’ Her pronunciation wasn’t very clear, but boy was her voice loud! It really moved people. That’s when my cheer-squad broke into ‘Bai Jian, Bai Jian, take heart, go forth!’ They just kept chanting loud and clear. They were really good! It was only then that I felt I might just have a chance. I thought that maybe people would vote for me because they wanted to do something which would make them feel good as well.

I won. I got the largest number of votes in my group, both from the people in the audience, and the viewers at home. And so I became one of the ten Chinese Olympic torchbearers who would travel overseas. I was going to London.

Democracy is a good thing—that’s what I learnt from competing in the Olympic torch relay competition. If everyone is on an equal footing, it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you are free to tell the people who you are, and they can vote for you at each stage. I am really grateful that such a model exists in the world; only in this kind of system would someone like me make it.

I guess I’ll get to see lots of things in London. What I want to see most are the city itself and its people. I have heard that the English respect rules and regulations; they line up for everything. So London’s sure to be a city with great public order; I’d love to see what that’s like. I know that you can’t create a modern material culture and spiritual civilization overnight; any good system or working model takes a long time to develop. But I’m so interested.

The people back home in Jianchang know I’ve been on the TV. They all reckon I’ve done something special. When I get back from London I’m going to take my kids and the Olympic torch back to the mountain village I came from and let the folks there see it and touch it. I want them to have direct contact with the Olympic Games that is being held here, right on our own doorstep. I want them to see clearly the value of education and democracy. No matter how poor we are, if we have such great things, then we have hope.

The least I want for my kids is that they can to take care of themselves and become useful members of the society. I am who I am thanks to the help of others. So I also hope that my kids will one day help other people too. Beyond that I can only dream. My dream is that one day one of my kids will be able to compete in a future Olympic Games, and even win a gold medal.

This dream might come true. Many of my kids are really good athletes. One of them came in fourth in the Beijing Marathon. If my dream were to come true, I would hope that my kid would be on the winners’ stand under the flag of China, which is flying for him or her, and tell people: When my dad started running he couldn’t even afford shoes. When I started running my shoes were counterfeit Adidas and Nike. It hasn’t been easy for us to get to where we are, but you can see for yourselves how far we’ve come. We’ve arrived.


Sang Ye’s most recent book is ‘China Candid, the People on the People’s Republic’, edited by Geremie R. Barmé with Miriam Lang, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. You can buy it on here.

Geremie R. Barmé’s most recent book is ‘The Forbidden City’, London: Profile Books/Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2008 ( You can buy it on here.

Image source: Anshan Communist Youth League website

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