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September 27, 2004

'It is very easy to recognize a potential jumper - a person walks without spirit.' - Chen Si of Nanjing, China, on potential suicide jumpers on the Yangtze River Bridge


Jim Yardley wrote a wonderful article for last Tuesday's New York Times about this man, who devotes his life to deterring people from committing suicide off this bridge.

At least 1,000 people have jumped to their deaths since the bridge's construction in 1968.

Chen has stopped 42 people from jumping in the past year, although 5 others slipped from his grasp and plunged to their deaths off the 300-foot bridge.

"It's a place that has a 100% success rate, said Fang Xueming, an attendant who works at the portable bathrooms on the bridge.

Here's the story.


On a Bridge of Sighs, the Suicidal Meet a Staying Hand

The view from where Chen Si stood on the landmark Yangtze River Bridge captured the frantic, thrumming energy of China.

Honking trucks and buses poured over the span as hundreds of barges slid along the dark brown water below.

The sweeping downtown skyline rose in the distance.

But Mr. Chen watched the people.

He noticed a man standing alone, seemingly pensive, and walked toward him in short, quick steps.

He watched people unloading from city buses and gauged the slump of their shoulders as they trudged along the sidewalk at the edge of the bridge.

For hours on this recent Sunday morning, Mr. Chen watched and waited for that unknowable, unthinkable moment when one of the thousands of people who cross the bridge every day might try to jump off.

Mr. Chen comes almost every weekend, bringing along a thermos of tea.

He has become the bridge's self-appointed guardian angel.

"If I save one person," Mr. Chen said, "one is a lot."

By his own count, Mr. Chen, who is in his mid-30's, has stopped 42 people from jumping since he began his patrols a year ago.

He has talked them down and wrestled them down.

He will hike up his pant leg to show a deep laceration from one tussle.

He also has watched five people slip out of his grasp and fall to their deaths in the Yangtze.

It is a job that has required him to become a detective looking for clues in the souls of strangers.

He stands on the southern end of the bridge, wearing sunglasses and a cap to block the boiling sun.

He does not smile or talk much.

He watches people, particularly the solitary figures staring down on the coffee-colored water.

"It is very easy to recognize," he said of potential jumpers.

"A person walks without spirit."

Mr. Chen says he comes to the bridge because someone needs to - suicide is now the leading cause of death for Chinese aged 15 to 34.

The Yangtze River Bridge, like major bridges in other countries, attracts a steady stream of jumpers.

At least 1,000 people are believed to have jumped since it opened in 1968.

The bridge is a national landmark in China; it is also more than 100 yards above the roiling Yangtze.

"It's a place that has a 100 percent success rate," said Fang Xueming, an attendant who works at the portable bathrooms on the bridge.

On other iconic bridges, including some in the United States, people like Mr. Chen have been patrolling for years.

But Mr. Chen is believed to be the first such volunteer in China, a sign that suggests the stigma surrounding suicide has eased in recent years.

China still has no national plan for addressing suicide, but it is a subject that is beginning to penetrate the public consciousness.

"The fact that he's doing this as a volunteer is very hopeful," said Dr. Michael Phillips, executive director of the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center.

"There's still a long way to go, but in terms of openness about the issue, it has become somewhat depoliticized."

A decade ago, Dr. Phillips said, the police might have arrested Mr. Chen, but now the government is allowing a little more space for some forms of civic activism.

The officers on the bridge know him by name.

One said that officers regularly stop jumpers but that the main section of the bridge, nearly a mile in length, is too long to protect everyone.

Mr. Chen said some people come by taxi, stop in the middle of the span, pay their fare, then get out and climb over the railing.

Mr. Chen, a stout man with spiky dark hair, has a wife and a young daughter, and his mood lightens at the modest apartment where they live.

He said he began going to the bridge after seeing different reports about suicide in the news media.

He was appalled when he read about a crowd in another Chinese city that shouted at a desperate migrant worker standing atop a billboard to jump.

"We have to teach people to love life and treasure life," said Mr. Chen, who earns his living selling small commercial billboards.

He takes the bus on weekend mornings and arrives at the bridge by 7:30 a.m.

He has pamphlets that list his cellphone number as an emergency hot line, though he worried that a recent change in local numbers may mean some people are not getting through.

He said the people he met often have lost money, lost a spouse, lost hope.

If he can talk them down, or tackle them down, he takes them to a nearby restaurant to talk and eat.

"The people here all know him," said Zhou Congsheng, the restaurant owner. "He is a great person."

In recent months, Mr. Chen has gotten a smattering of attention in the Chinese press.

Several college students now help him, taking shifts patrolling the bridge, as do a few people he saved from jumping.

Mr. Chen says he needs the extra help and relief.

He had become a chain smoker.

He pours out his emotions in a diary that may soon be published in China as a book.

His phone rings with telephone calls and the weight of so much sadness, so much despair, can bear down upon him.

"A lot of people call from all around the country, but I cannot help them," he said.

Nanjing does have a crisis intervention center - a rarity in China - and also a hot line.

But Mr. Chen hopes that officials will also consider putting up a net along the bridge.

It would be expensive, and such requests have met resistance at other bridges in other countries because of the cost.

But Mr. Chen hopes something can be done.

"I've saved lots of people," he said, "but one person alone isn't enough to do this work."

"If I save one person, one is a lot."

So absolutely true.

Chen may not have heard of Maimonides, but he's carrying the great sage's philosophy into action.

What better and higher use of life can possibly exist?

"He who saves one life, saves the world," is how Maimonides put it in the 13th century.

Some years earlier, the Corinthians asked Paul, "What are the things in life that never change?"

Paul answered, "The things you cannot see."

September 27, 2004 at 03:01 AM | Permalink


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