Sight Unseen: Harbin’s Blind Masseurs

Massage (anmo, 按摩) has long been used as a treatment in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and in Mainland China it’s both accessible and affordable.


Some of China’s best masseurs are blind. China’s cities lack handicapped-accessible infrastructure and social support services for the disabled, yet blind masseurs are able to earn a living wage and support themselves, taking the burden off their families who would otherwise be their only financial resource. 


The masseurs at the Blind Xuewei Massage Center in the Nangang neighborhood of Harbin are all legally blind or visually impaired.


They live onsite, sleeping on the massage beds at night. “It’s very convenient for us. We just go upstairs after work,” says Zhao Shengquan, 32, known as Little Quan among his colleagues and regulars.


He’s been working at Blind Xuewei Massage Center for three years, which was preceded by stints in northern Heilongjiang province and Liaoning province. “I worked in a lot of places before here, but my family is in Harbin; I have three older sisters here who look out for me.” 


Despite the long hours and laborious work, there’s a visible camaraderie at Blind Xuewei Massage Clinic. With classical Chinese music on the radio in the background, and exchanges between masseurs and regulars on everything from China’s gender imbalance to the best street food around, it’s a lively atmosphere. 


“… But you really should see this place in the summer.”

Inner Mongolia’s windswept grasslands are vast, unspoiled and forbidding. 

A world away from China’s densely-packed urban centers, Inner Mongolia’s northeastern landscape varies between prehistoric-looking natural formations and pristine boreal birch forests (albeit state-planned and controlled).

In late October there are still a few felt-wrapped yurts that dot the Hulunbuir grasslands. Used for centuries by Mongol (and more recently Han) herdsmen, the yurts are often arranged in a campground-like setting, primed for Chinese tourists eager to experience ‘authentic Mongol life.’ 

In the off-season– which spans most of the year–, the frames are disassembled or simply left to weather the conditions. Against the barren hills, it’s an eerie site that could be from centuries ago.

The grasslands are now a moonscape– in stark contrast to the summer months of lush vegetation and warm temperatures (and tourist buses jamming the towns).

Inner Mongolians are rugged, resilient and patient– qualities necessary to survive the harsh and unrelenting winters and repeated invasions over the centuries. It’s because of these invasions that this is one of China’s more ethnically diverse areas, with Russian, Evenk and Mongol townships saddling the Russian border (although Han Chinese still account for two-thirds of the population). 

Russian cultural influence is strong: the breads and blueberry jams served at meals, the ethnic Russian villages, the Chinese-speaking Caucasians. But Mongol culture holds its own; the prevalence of Genghis Khan portraits and public statues rivals those of Mao Zedong in other provinces.

At the same time, any historical evidence of Japan’s military occupation, which began in 1931, has essentially been wiped clean. The locals proudly talk about Genghis Khan’s legacy and the history of the Trans-Siberian railway which passes through here, but they have all but tried to forget the conquest.

More often, they’ll turn the conversation to how beautiful the Inner Mongolia landscape is. “… But you really should see this place in the summer.” 

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