Student Uses Fame To Combat Kidney Disease in China

Zhang Uses Fame to Combat Kidney Disease in China
Courtesy of Rylie X.Y. Zhang

Rylie X. Y. Zhang '13 is photographed in a cafe in Hangzhou, China, during the summer. Rylie and her cousin were one of seven finalist teams who appeared on the TV show “China Dream Show,” a spin-off of “Britain’s Got Talent.”

Inspired to write and sing for her cousin battling kidney failure, Rylie X. Y. Zhang ’13 moved audiences in China this summer with a live TV performance of her song “I Believe in Dreams.” She and her cousin were one of seven finalist teams who appeared on the TV talent show “China Dream Show,” a spin-off of “Britain’s Got Talent.”

As finalists, Zhang and Li Gen were granted their dream to advocate and raise funds for terminally ill children by Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, who is famous for her roles in “Rush Hour 2” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” They have signed with a music label and plan to use their royalties to create the Rylie and Li Gen Dream Kidney Foundation.

Zhang recalled that early on, the China Dream Show judge asked her cousin what his dream was in an TV interview. He replied, “My dream is to be alive,” Zhang said.

“Our dream is to use our own music and to help others. We’re not here for commercial things,” she said. “We just want to write music and we want to broadcast it in a way that will help other severely ill children.”

Zhang began writing for her cousin Li Gen during her sophomore year at Harvard, when he was removed from the waitlist for a kidney transplant in China. Believing she only had a few months left with him, Zhang decided to write him a song.

“I wanted to make him feel like he had something to hold on to,” she said, “I just wanted to make him happy.”

That song, “Life-Light,” was first played at Harvard College in the spring of 2010, for her friend Jennifer K. Cloutier ’13.

“I honestly just broke down in tears because it was so good and so heartfelt,” Cloutier said.

Soon after, Zhang shared the song online, and it was quickly discovered by listeners in her home country, Canada. One Canadian family was so inspired that they donated $25,000 to help cover the cost of Li Gen’s transplant surgery. That allowed him to get back on the waitlist and receive a new kidney in March of 2011.

After his recovery, Zhang and Li Gen decided to try recording music together. Just two weeks after sharing their music on Youku in November—the Chinese version of YouTube—they were discovered by the directors of “China Dream Show.” After a long-standing invitation, the duo accepted the offer to compete this past March during Zhang’s semester off, when she worked in China.

Now, after her successful season, she has been asked by the “China Dream Show” to return for more performances. She decided instead to come back to Harvard to finish her degree, but plans to go back to China for shows during J-term.

“I think [Rylie’s] story is a really special one and I think it really touches the hearts of so many of us,” said Gorick K. H. Ng ’14, one of Zhang’s friends.

“I think we can all connect emotionally to a family member that has gone through challenging times,” he added. “What’s unique about her story is that she’s chosen to step up and do something about it.”

—Staff writer D. Simone Kovacs can be reached at dkovacs@college.harvard.edu.

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