In the spring of 1995, Zhou rented a small room at a village near the ruins of the imperial garden, Yuanmingyuan. He sang popular songs on the streets or in pubs for a living in Beijing. Long-time practice brought him continuous improvement of singing songs and playing the guitar. Usually he could earn 100 yuan ($15.85) a day.
Zhou found fame with the song The Cinema for the Blind. Zhou said he wrote it as a poem as early as 2001, inspired by a cinema for the blind in a book by Franz Kafka. Zhou built such a cinema in his mind, which had only sound but no pictures. In 2003, Zhou composed the song and soon it was promoted by the professional music magazine Popular Music. One year later, Zhou launched his first album The Silent Breath that also included the song.
In the song, Zhou sings about "carrying a guitar and traveling." He also put the names of places where he traveled into the lyrics. From Shanghai in the east to Lhasa in the west, he has been almost everywhere in the country. Zhou recorded all kinds of sounds, such as a flowing river, monks chanting and peddlers hawking goods. Zhou can distinguish the tiny differences in sounds. He said the birdcalls in Tibet don't sound the same as in Beijing.
Zhou believes that traveling is a kind of education. People will realize they are tiny when they travel, and they can broaden their minds. Zhou regards Homer, an ancient Greek poet, and Gao Jianli, an ancient Chinese musician, as his idols because they were both blind artists and enjoyed traveling. "They spent their lives recording history by singing," Zhou said.
Rich experience—composing, writing poems, making albums and wandering—gradually earned Zhou fame in the folk song circle. Though poor, Zhou is a romantic in this materialistic society in the eyes of young people fond of arts and literature. But Zhou never shifts his concerns from social reality. While wondering, he heard a lot of stories and hardships of the ordinary people.
"My father once advised me to be a massage therapist, and tried to prepare a marriage for me," Zhou joked. That would be an ordinary lifestyle for a blind man.
In 2007, Zhou published his second album, Chinese Kids. With the help of friends, he started a nationwide performing tour, and all 3,000 CDs of the album were sold out by the end of the year.
The album depicts the unfortunate children who died in tragic accidents, criticized the blundering consuming culture, and complained of living stress from soaring prices. Being full of critical realism, the album brought Zhou a lot of media attention. Some people called him "the conscience of Chinese folk singers."
The album was selected by Southern Weekend—one of the most influential Chinese newspapers—as Respectable Music of the Year 2007. Zhou also won Best Folk Singer and Best Lyricist at the Eighth Chinese Music Media Awards in 2008.
Zhou rose to fame overnight. His living standard has also improved a lot. As a result, he republished his collection of poems Spring Reproach and some essays in 2010. Zhou won the 2011 Poet Prize of the People's Literature Award. After ploughing and weeding for so many years, the harvest season finally arrived for Zhou.
Although Zhou received many honors and awards, his pure mind and thoughts remain. Zhou launched a public benefit activity called Red Bulldozer and established a foundation for blind children in 2009. Zhou and his colleagues collected funds by performing and selling albums. Then they donated money for those poor children. Many reputed singers took part in this event.
In 2011, Zhou staged a new round of activity with an upgrade title of Golden Bulldozer. This time, he targeted blind children in the Tibet Autonomous Region. "We will hold more events, green, blue and yellow to help those children in need," he said.
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