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NANNING, China (Reuters Life!) - Inside a brightly-lit room in a lighting store, painting teacher Zeng Bailiang and his group of volunteers are patiently teaching a group of blind students the basics of Chinese painting.
The students in the classes in Nanning, the provincial capital of China's southern Guangxi province, spend hours practising brushstrokes on a special paper, feeling with their fingers the different wet and dry areas to guide them on their painting.
Eventually they get to the point where they can dip a brush, similar to the ones used for Chinese calligraphy, into black ink and draw things such as mountains or bamboo trees with long strokes. Short strokes can create flowers or birds.
Zeng, 55, is a self-taught artist who has been conducting classes for the blind for the past several decades. He says the classes fuel his passion for art with a sense of satisfaction that comes from helping the students -- many of whom were orphans who came to him wanting something new and fun to do.
Through the years he has experimented with different methods of teaching Chinese painting to the blind students, since he sees standard techniques as conformist and lacking life.
"The way I teach will be different for different students, we should not use 'dead" techniques. Of course it would be convenient, but it would stifle their creativity," Zeng said.
"So we have to adapt to different people, because everyone is unique and they have their own intellect and we should respect that. My way of teaching is to find out what they are good at and use artistic concepts to help them grasp that skill."
It was a young blind orphan that changed Zeng's life and introduced him to the potential of the blind. One day he saw a boy drawing a circle and some dots on the sand, and asked him what he was doing.
The boy told him, in vivid detail, that he was drawing a red worm with black eyes and feet -- a response that shocked Zeng and, he said, made him realize the boundless imagination and artistic potential of the blind.
"We should not view painting as an aesthetic art form, but to put it accurately painting is an emotive art form. So I decided to teach blind people how to paint," he said.
"I must light the lamp in their hearts. And since then, I have been doing this for almost 40 years now."
Zeng said he felt blind people could do well in art because they are making better use of their other senses. He encourages his students with one-on-one lessons.
He used to teach at a cheap rented room in the village suburbs but a businessman who owned a lighting company learnt of his efforts and let him use a room in one of his shops for free.
Through the years, his efforts have sometimes met problems.
Many fellow artists opposed his work, branding it worthless and impractical. Some even told him it was impossible to teach blind people how to paint with traditional Chinese techniques.
In addition, some students left after a few lessons because they did not feel painting could help them support themselves.
So Zeng used his own money to set up a vocational school, with volunteers teaching Chinese painting as well as massage and acupuncture. Many of his students now make money as acupuncturists or massage therapists, both jobs the Chinese government encourages the blind to take up.
Chen Linfang, 26, who has been studying with Zeng for the past three years, said painting has helped her gain a healthier sense of self esteem.
"At first, my mental state was not good. In the past, I did not even dare step out of home," she said.
"After learning from Teacher Zeng, at least I felt I could walk out of my own home by myself. I am more confident now."
Editing by Elaine Lies