Living Bravely

On Christmas Eve, 1951, a sprightly baby boy was born into the Xie family in Tainan, southern Taiwan. He was born at an auspicious hour, so his father named him “Liang-ji,” which literally means “good and auspicious.”

Being the youngest child of four, Liang-ji was doted on by his parents, who ran a laundry shop. His dad often took him along when he went out to deliver clothes to his customers, and Liang-ji was more than happy to tag along. He liked to be out and about; besides, on such trips he often got to drink a glass of store-bought iced black tea. However, being the center of his parents’ love and affection resulted in his having a bad temper.

Liang-ji joined his school’s baseball team when he was in seventh grade. He practiced diligently every day. An uncle who was once a pitcher gave him private lessons. Liang-ji’s own efforts, coupled with his uncle’s coaching, made him a skilled pitcher and a major player on his team. When the team won a national championship, Liang-ji and his teammates paraded through downtown Tainan, enthusiastically waving their baseball caps through the windows of taxis to cheering onlookers on the side of the roads. That was one of the most glorious moments of Liang-ji’s life.

Xie Liang-ji currently lives in a nursing home in Tainan. An older man now, his strength has dwindled and his eyesight has deteriorated, but he faces it all with a philosophical attitude. Guo Ming-juan

After graduating from an industrial high school, 18-year-old Liang-ji began his compulsory military service. He could throw a grenade as easily as a baseball. He only needed to throw one as far as 30 meters (33 yards)—but his grenades were flying 70 or 80 meters. He even coached many fellow soldiers so that they could meet the requirement too.

Liang-ji’s military experience had been smooth sailing until he began experiencing health issues. It seemed to begin one day when he accidentally became soaked in water. After that he started feeling sore and weird in his lower body, and there was often no strength in his legs. After seeing many doctors, he was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a debilitating inflammation of the spine.

Liang-ji turned to taking painkillers and drinking to ease the pain from the illness, but this only made life worse for him. After he was discharged from the military, he was unable to land a steady job due to his bad temper and illness. People around him assumed he was just being lazy. His neighbors even teased him: “Why can’t a fine young man like you go find a job?”

After his dad passed away from cancer, the custom had it that he had to get married within a hundred days or wait three more years before doing so. The elders in his family urged him to get married quickly, so Liang-ji tied the knot with a girlfriend he had been seeing for some time. The wedding was very low-key due to his dad’s recent death. There was no wedding banquet, nor photos taken by professional photographers to mark the occasion. The hasty affair seemed to augur ill for the couple’s future. 

Liang-ji loves baseball. He drew on his childhood memories to create this picture, in which he depicts children playing baseball using a bamboo stick as a bat and slippers as home plate.

One day Liang-ji and his wife had a fight, and in a fit of anger he slapped her face. She packed a suitcase, grabbed their bank passbook, and left home, leaving behind a son not yet one month old. She never came back.

 With his wife gone, his health doing poorly, and no steady job, Liang-ji left the care of his son to his own mother. As a result, his son was never close to him. Divorced with an estranged son, Liang-ji’s only constant companion was his illness. He worked when he could, but as his condition continued to deteriorate, he began to spend more time at home. By the time he turned 42, his back had become so bent he could not look ahead when he stood—all he could see was his own feet. He preferred staying home to going out and drawing stares from people. Though he was home a lot, he wasn’t completely isolated. He had a few friends who visited him, and together they would drink and shoot the breeze.

As if his illness and bent back weren’t bad enough, Liang-ji had a stroke when he was about to turn 50. His family sent him to a nursing home afterwards. He worked hard on rehabilitation to restore his physical functions, but just as he felt he was getting stronger, he noticed that his head was drooping lower and lower and that his tongue would stick out uncontrollably, making it difficult for him to eat. In the end he could only eat through a nasogastric tube. He struggled to live, even though life was a torture for him.

In August 2018, Liang-ji (front row, first from left) attended an exhibition at Tainan Jing Si Hall, where his artworks were displayed. The woman standing behind him is Tzu Chi volunteer Chen Ying-ying, who uncovered his artistic talent by encouraging him to draw. Zhong Yi-rui

Drawing as rehabilitation

In 2001, a doctor who had previously agreed to operate on Liang-ji decided not to operate on him. After obtaining consent from Liang-ji, the doctor transferred him to Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital in Chiayi, southern Taiwan. Dr. Chien Jui-Teng (簡瑞騰) of the orthopedics department became Liang-ji’s attending physician.

Dr. Chien was shocked the first time he laid eyes on Liang-ji. The patient’s spine was bent over 100 degrees. His chest and abdomen were pressed together, and his chin hung close to his chest. His tongue stuck out, causing him to drool non-stop. Chien couldn’t imagine how a person could allow himself to deteriorate to such an extent before seeking medical help.

What Chien didn’t know was that Liang-ji had been waiting for a long time for a physician who was willing to operate on him. Chien treated him with halo traction and performed seven operations on him. In three short months, Liang-ji was able to lie flat, stand, and walk with the help of a walker.

Liang-ji endured unspeakable pain during the process, but what awaited him was another big challenge—rehabilitation. Volunteer Chen Ying-ying (陳鶯鶯) and others accompanied and supported him during this time. They filled a void in his spirit and helped him open up his closed heart. Liang-ji told himself that the pain he was undergoing was only temporary, that if he could pull through he would come out on top. He remembered what he had said to himself when he was transferred to Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital: “I’ll endure anything to be relieved of this pain and to walk upright like a normal person again.” 

Liang-ji’s grandmother used to raise chickens when he was small. He remembers she would pick plants from the fields and collect river snails to feed them.

 Liang-ji lamented his hard-knock life. If he hadn’t fallen ill so young, his life would have turned out completely different. At the same time, however, he was grateful to everyone who had helped him. Out of a grateful heart and wanting to give back, he said to the volunteers who helped care for him, “When I’m able, I’ll volunteer like you.”

Those words weren’t just empty promises. After he was discharged, he checked into a nursing home ten minutes by car from the hospital, and he visited the hospital every day to undergo rehabilitation. During such visits, he would go to the volunteers’ room to help out. He enjoyed it, even if all he was doing was putting stamps on hospital forms or pasting name tags on patient identification wristbands. He also liked to visit wards to encourage and cheer up low-spirited patients.

Liang-ji was faring better than expected after treatment, but sadly his improvement didn’t last long. He suffered another stroke and his motor skills became worse. To raise his spirits and to help his hands move, volunteer Chen encouraged him to write his autobiography and to take up drawing.

Thus Chen unexpectedly uncovered Liang-ji’s artistic talent: She found he could draw pretty well. Though at first his right hand was weak and he couldn’t straighten his fingers, he used all his strength to improve. By and by his crooked lines became straight and his shapes and forms looked better and better. He drew unceasingly—except for eating and sleeping, all he did was draw. Guan Yin Bodhisattva, children playing hopscotch or jumping ropes (from his childhood memories), cartoon figures such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck—one lively figure after another emerged from his colored pen. He loved drawing because when he was absorbed in this creative activity, time flew by instead of hanging heavy on his hands.

Chen was surprised that someone who had not received any training could draw so well. The proportion, composition, and use of light all felt just right. Liang-ji’s works brought great pleasure to those who saw them.

An exhibition showcasing his drawings was staged in April 2009 at Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital. Liang-ji donated all the proceeds from selling his artworks—more than 40,000 NT dollars (US$1,400)—to the Tzu Chi Foundation to help the needy.

The lotus is one of Buddhism's most recognizable icons. It represents non-attachment as it is rooted in mud (which symbolizes worldly attachment and desires), but its flowers bloom on long stalks untainted by the mire below.

Keep going

Liang-ji later moved from the nursing home in Dalin to another one in Tainan, his hometown. Volunteer Chen Ju (陳菊) took over from Chen Ying-ying and began visiting Liang-ji at the nursing home. She also drove him to the Dalin hospital for follow-up visits or to volunteer.

Some time later, the nursing home staff finally reached Liang-ji’s family. An older sister started dropping in on him every once in a while. Later, when the staff got in touch with Liang-ji’s son, he also started bringing his wife and their two children to see Liang-ji. Only then did Liang-ji know that he was already a grandfather! However, every time they visited, Liang-ji’s son just waited at the entrance to the nursing home. He never went in to see his father. Only his wife and children did. Even so, Liang-ji was happy. Sadly, their visits dropped off over time, and he eventually stopped expecting them.

Life at the nursing home was uneventful. Liang-ji was most happy when Tzu Chi volunteers visited, and he always chatted cheerfully with them.

He continued to draw, lying in bed with his back propped up with pillows. His lines were simple and his colors straightforward. He said he especially liked to draw lotus flowers. In part, this was because of a saying by Master Cheng Yen: “A field of blessings awaits cultivation by all benevolent people in the world; ten thousand hearts as pure as the lotus flower create the world of Tzu Chi.” Another reason he liked drawing lotus flowers was because they looked serene and graceful, and they grew unsullied out of the mud. Every time he drew the flowers, he felt especially peaceful. 

When the staff at the nursing home learned that he had created many drawings, they hung up some of his works in some of the rooms, which greatly livened up the space.

However, Liang-ji’s eyesight, which had been affected by his strokes, continued to deteriorate with age, to the extent that he could only see as far as five to ten centimeters [two to four inches]. Also, his ankylosing spondylitis made him unable to sit for long stretches. As a result, he stopped drawing in November 2017.

Falling ill and taking up drawing were nothing Liang-ji expected to happen in his life, but both made deep imprints on his life’s path. Despite his tribulations, he said, “My illness didn’t knock me down. I’ll continue to live bravely.” Coming from someone who has been through so much, those words packed a punch. Taking inspiration from him, none of us seems to have much reason to whine and complain when things don’t quite go our way. 

A little boy who tries to approach a goose that is hatching eggs is chased away by a gander.


Another scene from Liang-ji’s childhood: an ox cart full of watermelons.


November 2018