July 26 was a special day for Zhang Junli and her family this year.
The day saw the talented 44-year-old-who has lived with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, for 34 years-open the first exhibition of her oil paintings in Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province, with the support of the local disabled persons' federation.
Despite 85 percent of her joints being unable to move, and her condition worsening year by year, Zhang created the 80 works displayed in the exhibition since 2015.
To her, the words "paralyzed", "disabled" or "sick", carry no real value. "An artist's mind is never bound by his or her physical condition," she said.
The days before Zhang became sick have already become vague in her memory.
"At first I always thought the illness could be treated and I could recover soon and then go back to school," she said. But she never returned to school.
Four years of treatment only saw her condition worsen until finally the illness kept her in bed at the age of 10. After realizing her life would not follow a normal track, she became bad-tempered and depressed. Her parents brought her endless books and comics to entertain her. Gradually, she accepted the truth and started reading, writing and painting, just to "kill time".
"I had a clear plan about my future much earlier than most children, and I just focused on what I could do and tried my best to do it well," said Zhang, whose dream was to become a writer and a painter. "I love painting and literature and I forget about the pain when I am lost in them.
"Every time I finish a piece, regardless of the quality, this satisfaction will always accompany it," she said. "I am so happy the exhibition will mean that more people see my paintings. I hope the paintings can give them hope and inspire them."
Zhang's mother, a 70-year-old retired teacher who takes care of her with her father, said: "My child has suffered from much more hardships than most people her age. She has a strong mind, and she is my pride and joy."
If it were not for her parents' support and care Zhang would not have made it, she said.
Such was their inspiration, that Zhang was able to get a picture she had drawn published in a science fiction comic in 1994. A year later, she had a story published in the same publication. She earned 800 yuan ($118) from the story, which was as much as the monthly salary at that time of her father, also a teacher. She said the payday gave her great confidence that she could earn her own living.
Yu Yimei, a woman from Sichuan province, became her pen pal after reading her story, and came all the way from Sichuan to attend the opening ceremony of Zhang's exhibition in Taiyuan.
It was Yu who encouraged Zhang to become a professional painter and writer, and introduced her to some online courses and teachers.
Some lines that are simple to draw for most people are difficult for Zhang. It is inconvenient for her to hold the drawing board with one hand and draw lines with the other, so she asked her father to make a new drawing board and a triangular support, so that she could use her right hand, which is limited in movement due to elbow stiffness, to draw slowly again.
Thanks to her perseverance, Zhang has written and published five novels since 2005, and she opened her own store on WeChat to sell her oil paintings in 2017.
"I still remember my first brush stroke learning oil painting on Jan 1,2015," said Zhang. "When the first stroke went on, a sense of joy emerged in my heart, because the touch of a stroke and the feeling that I could control the paint with my own hands let me know that this paint and this painting method are very suitable for me. At that time, there was a sense of ecstasy about finding something suitable for me."
The opening of her first painting exhibition is like completing a lifelong goal for Zhang. And her mother said the days leading up to it felt like the days before marriage.
Yu said that over these years Zhang's experience and spirit have always motivated her to make the best of what life gives her.
"Zhang is using her actions to tell people what a big difference perseverance can make," Yu said.
Yang Cong, deputy secretary-general of the China Commission on Promotion of Publicity for the Undertakings of Chinese Disabled Persons, who visited the exhibition, said, "Zhang's self-esteem, self-improvement and self-reliance are like a light in the dark, giving people hope and strength."