Friday, 3 December 2010
-A +A
He Carries the World on His Shoulders
October 8, 2010

Abandoned by his parents, 10-year-old Zhu Honglei turns to selling fruit to support his ailing grandfather. And he still misses his parents.


zhu honglei


"What is the life of a typical 10-year-old boy like? I think there should be cartoons and toys scattering around, scooter, after school plays, new clothes on festivals and lots of dreams. In a word, it should be a time when one enjoys love of the family and tastes the joyousness of growing up,” says the VJ of Discover Chongqing, who then introduces her subject of the day’s programme: the untypical life a 10-year-old boy, Zhu Honglei (朱鸿磊).


zhu honglei at home


6 o’clock in the morning. Knocks on the door wake Zhu Honglei up. It is Grandpa, the only one who lives with him in the old cottage. Mother went away years ago, sick of the poverty, and Father went to the city to make money but has never sent a penny home. Grandpa can’t work in the fields anymore – his rheumatism got worse early this year, which leaves him hardly able to get out of bed – so Zhu Honglei becomes the man in the family, at only 10 years old. Zhu Honglei rubs his eyes in the darkness. He switches the lamp on; a squirrel scrambles out of the empty window, but Honglei is used to it. He puts on clothes that he’s been wearing for a week. He only changes after showering to save on laundering, and he only showers once a week to save water. Every four days, Honglei will climb up to the mountain spring with a neighbour, to fetch water and fill the tank at home.


zhu honglei's usual breakfast


Once out of bed, Honglei comes to the kitchen on the other side of the wall to make a fire for cooking breakfast, which is fried pickles and some pumpkin leftovers from the previous night. Pumpkin is the main food in the house; Honglei can’t remember the last time he ate meat. He goes through his homework in the glow of the hearth. After breakfast with Grandpa, it is half past seven. Honglei puts away the dishes and leaves for school. He has to be quick since there are about 5 kilometres of mountain roads to hike before he can reach school, which starts at 10.

According to Liao Guoliu, principal of Cherry Elementary School, Honglei is never late for school. “There was a storm in July this year, resulting in a mudslide that blocked many mountain roads. We tolerate kids not coming to school whenever there are storms and mudslides. But Honglei climbed a whole other mountain to go around the mudslide for school. He arrived at 1 pm that day. Teachers were touched by his effort and made up his morning class for him before sending him home.”


zhu honglei playing badminton


Two hours later, Honglei arrives at school. Class hasn’t yet begun so he goes play badminton with his peers. The rackets belong to his classmate, one of which is broken in the handle. Honglei had asked Grandpa to replace the handle with wood, which is not very comfortable for hands though. He holds the racket with his right hand, and serves the shuttlecock up high. His partner gets it and returns a drop shot. Honglei rushes forward immediately but fails to reach the ball in time. The ball touches the ground, his peers laugh and so does Honglei, since he has bragged about his badminton skills before.

After a few rounds, Honglei is sweating. He sits on the ground and takes off his sandals that are thin as sheets and ruptured in the fore sole. “I can’t play well today, because the shoes are torn,” Honglei says. The shoes were given by his father when he was seven; they were meant to be oversized so that they can still fit when he grows up. Honglei’s best shoes are a pair of white mesh shoes. He takes very good care of them, wearing them only on Monday to flag-raising ceremony; other than that, he cleans them and puts them away in the closet.

He will take his book out and read quietly as if the book can distract his hunger.

Though there are over 300 people in Cherry Elementary School, it is too poor to build a canteen. Teachers and schoolchildren don’t have lunch. Many schoolmates will buy some snacks as lunch with their allowances. At such time, Honglei is all alone in the classroom. He will take his book out and read quietly as if the book can distract his hunger. Honglei says he eats twice a day, breakfast and supper, and he is used to it. He does have allowances sometimes. When Grandpa’s plum trees come to fruit, he will climb up the trees to pick plums and sell them on market. “I can sell over 10 yuan a day, and use the money to buy salt and bean oil.” says Honglei. “People won’t bargain with me.”

When asked why he doesn’t buy snacks when he has the money, Honglei says: “Grandpa won’t have anything to eat at home, I can’t eat.” He says so with tears in his eyes. Walking hours between mountains and enduring hunger at noon, this is school life for the 10-year-old boy Zhu Honglei.


zhu honglei with grandpa


3 pm. School’s dismissed. Honglei rushes home with greater haste than coming to school. That’s because he knows there is a 70-something-year-old Grandpa waiting at home for him to make supper.

After supper, Honglei sits at the kitchen doorway, doing his homework before the sun goes down. Because of this kind of persistence and diligence, Zhu Honglei moves from bottom in the class to above average.

After finishing homework, Honglei will stand at the doorway staring at the sunset. Their rice reserves are almost finished, while the recent corn harvest only yielded a couple of kilogrammes; the pumpkins in the field are not yet ripe, and the eggplants and carrots are still small. But Honglei says: “I will guarantee Grandpa can eat his fill even if I eat less.” He is already shorter than his peers due to malnutrition.

The image of Mother is fading in Honglei’s memory, though he remembers clearly the best food he has eaten was the cake Mother brought for him on his fifth birthday. “There was cream, really sweet, and flowers and jujubes.”

As for the father who abandoned the family, Honglei doesn’t hold any grudge. He still hopes that Father will show up at the front door one day.

Honglei fumbles around his closet, and takes out a letter he wrote on an exercise book. He reads: “Dad, I miss you and mum. Can you come back and take me to mum? Grandpa is sick and needs to go to hospital. I can’t sell enough fruit to pay for that. I hope you can earn money and come back early. I will study hard; don’t worry about me. I will take good care of Grandpa.” Zhu Honglei doesn’t know what to put in the “TO” blank, so he saves the letter in the closet.


This post was originally published in ChinaHush in September 2010.


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
(Comments on asia! are moderated before they appear on