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'Joy like a bird'

An earthquake victim in China lost her legs but found Christ, a loyal husband, and the ability to inspire a nation as a dancer

'Joy like a bird'

Liao Zhi, 29, craned her neck in the dance studio to watch as a group of Shanghai women in long dresses rhythmically stomped their heeled feet on the 12-count, following the instructions of the flamenco dance instructor. Subconsciously, the petite Liao found herself following along, turning to her husband Charles Wang to note that this was just the class she was looking for.

With Liao’s constant smile and breezy personality, it’s easy to miss that under the dancer’s long skirt are two prosthetic legs, complete with high heels. Liao’s life story is known throughout China—how the small-town dance instructor lost her legs and her baby in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, yet managed to return to dancing, even competing on China’s version of Dancing with the Stars. Yet Liao is also using her platform and story to share that it was God who physically and metaphorically pulled her out of the rubble and gave her a new life.

Liao grew up in the remote town of Hanwang in China’s Sichuan province, where Buddhism had survived the Cultural Revolution and dominated the lives of its residents. As a young girl, she started studying traditional Chinese dance at age 8, but by middle school her parents pulled her from classes, thinking that dancing would not be a lucrative career. Upset, Liao started questioning the purpose of living and seeking truth. She happened to pick up a copy of Reader’s Digest and read an article that ended with 1 Corinthians 13:4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. …”

This type of love described what she felt was missing in her life, and she desperately wanted to learn more about this holy book. Over the years she searched for Bibles at different libraries, but always came up short. As life compounded with difficulties—rejection from a career in dancing because of her short stature, dropping out of college, a difficult marriage—she felt she had outgrown the search for truth.

On May 12, 2008, Liao was in her third-floor apartment with her mother-in-law and 10-month-old daughter when she felt the floor shaking. She tried opening the apartment door, but it wouldn’t budge. Suddenly half the building collapsed, and Liao saw the blue sky and people from the above floors falling to their deaths. Terrified and with nowhere to turn, Liao draped herself over her mother-in-law and baby, hoping to protect them. The three of them fell with the building.

Liao found her legs pinned under the rubble, and hoarsely cried out to her daughter, but didn’t hear a response. At first her mother-in-law spoke with her, but soon she went silent as well. For 26 hours, she lay under the rubble all alone, listening as her father called to her from outside, begging her not to fall asleep.

Liao started thinking about what would happen if she died. She felt that she had wasted her life, that the idols she had spent her life worshipping seemed powerless and far away. Her life couldn’t be in their hands, could it? She was certain her life was in the hands of a bigger God, and wanted to know how to find this other God. “I started to think if there was a God like that … He could hear me if I spoke right now, so I started to pray. I told Him I didn’t know who He is, but if He let me live, I’d use my life to serve Him.”

When rescuers finally pulled her out of the wreckage of her apartment building, she looked to the sky and thanked the unknown God. Of the 40 people in her apartment building, only she survived.

The next few months were a flurry of grieving her daughter and her mother-in-law, the destruction of her hometown, mingled with surgeries and recuperation. Her husband, who had been seeing other women at the time, couldn’t manage their misfortunes. He divorced her. And yet as tragedy compounded on tragedy, she held onto the hope that there was a God out there who saved her.

When Liao was allowed to make a trip home, she ran into a group of Chinese volunteers from Canada who had come to join the relief efforts. She struck up a conversation with one of the ladies, and seeing the cross necklace she was wearing, asked if she had a Bible. The group turned out to be a missionary team, and they gave Liao the Bible she had searched so long for.

She started reading voraciously the Bible beginning in Job and was stunned at how God stood up to speak for someone who had similarly lost everything. Then she read through the entire New Testament as well as Psalms and Proverbs, asking the Canadian missionaries when she had questions. In May 2009, the Canadians invited Liao to Vancouver to get fitted for a better pair of prosthetics. While there, she asked the pastor how she could become a Christian. When he said she only needed to believe, she responded, “Of course I believe! I’ve read all His words.” Eagerly she told all her friends that she was now a Christian, yet her parents worried she had joined a cult.

While she struggled to walk again with the prosthetics, she remembered her promise to God in the rubble, and realized that if He could save her from that disaster, He could give her the power to stand. Soon with much practice, she was walking and even dancing again.

In the wake of a national disaster that killed more than 69,000 and left more than 18,000 missing, news outlets and TV programs flocked to Liao’s inspirational story. Liao starred in a film based on her life story, wowed the crowd on a national TV dance show (where she and her dance partner took second place), and wrote an autobiography that explicitly details her faith journey. Incredibly, in the officially atheist country where censorship is tight, Liao has been able to share Bible verses openly and write about her faith on social media and in her book.

Even when the others tried to tamp down the faith message, God intervened. When organizers asked her to speak at a Shanghai university, they asked her not to mention her faith onstage. She asked the organizer what would happen if a student asked her about her faith—she couldn’t lie about the fact that she was a Christian. The organizer was doubtful anyone would ask, but if it were to happen she could respond. Nervous, she looked around and saw one of her prosthetic specialists, who she knew was a Christian, and quickly pulled him over to pray. That morning she shared her story omitting the large role God played in her life. At the end of the talk, a girl raised her hand and asked, “You talked about how grateful you are, but could you talk about your faith?” Elated, Liao responded simply: “I am a Christian. I believe every word of Jesus Christ. I believe in His life.”

In God’s providence, Liao ended up marrying that Christian prosthetist, and together they spend time encouraging and serving the disabled. After the 2013 earthquake in Ya’an in Sichuan province, Liao arrived on the front lines in her prosthetics, providing aid and helping rescue efforts.

On the social media platform Weibo, Liao posted a picture of herself smiling with the words: “If I live with the freedom and joy like a bird, it’s because I no longer chase the world’s praise, but enjoy [God’s] sweetness in my soul.”

June Cheng

June Cheng

June is the East Asia correspondent for WORLD Magazine. Follow June on Twitter @JuneCheng_World.