Armless Chinese Woman Named Embroidery Wizard

By: Marc Hartzman

Born without arms, Ren Jiemei has learned to do everything with her feet. The 65-year-old resident of Haiyang, in China’s Shandong province, can pour herself tea, wash her face, comb her hair, draw pictures and cut paper with her feet.

A 65-year-old armless woman in China has been named the best embroiderer in her village. And while this seems like an unimaginable achievement, given her disability, it is not.

Ren Jiemei, of Haiyang, Shandong province, is a modern-day armless wonder who, like many before her, demonstrates skills that are seemingly impossible.

Ren is said to be able to thread a needle without fail and works quicker and better than all her fully limbed peers. She holds the needle with her right foot and threads it with her left.

“I was born without arms. So from childhood, I swore to myself that I’d use my feet to do everything,” she told the Qilu Evening Post.

That everything includes eating, washing her face, combing her hair, drawing pictures and cutting paper.

Had Ren been living in an earlier era, she would’ve been touring the world with P.T. Barnum, like Ann E. Leak. In the 1870s, the armless Leak not only embroidered with her feet; she also sewed, crocheted, wrote and mastered the use of forks, knives and scissors.

During the same period, a young armless fellow named Charles Tripp left his home in Canada, marched into Barnum’s New York City office, took off his shoes and showed the showman what his phenomenal feet could do. He was hired on the spot.

Like Ren, Tripp was adept at cutting paper with his toes. His dexterity with scissors helped him craft paper dolls during performances. Painting, shaving, woodcarving, photography and penmanship were also demonstrated onstage. His efforts earned him as much as $200 a week. Tripp could even pedal a tandem bicycle with his legless friend, Eli Bowen, steering.

This armless wonder performed for 50 years and married late in life. He lived to be 74.

In 1933, “The Armless Musician” Ray Myers played a Hawaiian steel guitar with his feet in the Ripley’s “Believe It or Not Odditorium” at the Chicago World’s Fair. After returning from the exhibition with a footful of cash, Myers bought himself a car and learned to drive. He received licenses in both Pennsylvania and West Virginia. According to a promotional pamphlet, he never had a “serious” accident.

Myers married in 1937 and had a healthy son a year later. He went on to have a successful radio career, entertaining for decades before his passing in 1986 at the age of 74.

As impressive as these armless wonders are, they pale in comparison to my favorite limb-deprived performer, Matthew Buchinger — known as the Little Man of Nuremberg. Buchinger wasn’t exactly armless. He was born in 1674 without hands, feet, legs or thighs, but had minor stumps to work with. And did he ever.

The Little Man of Nuremberg was known to play the flute, bagpipe, trumpet and other instruments, perform sleight-of-hand tricks, shoot a pistol with accuracy, sketch figures and landscapes, and write exquisite calligraphy. A famous self-portrait features various psalms from the Bible forming the flowing curls of his wig.

Buchinger frequently performed before Europe royalty. Oh, and he married four times and fathered 11 children.

Ren, along with her remarkable predecessors, offers a powerful reminder of what the human spirit can accomplish. So the next time you think you can’t do something, count your limbs — and think again.