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One eye on China: Challenging disability

by Stephen Hallett

6th October 2005

In Chinese, as in English, the language of disability can be loaded. The most widely used word for disability in Mandarin is canji, which literally means deficient/deformed and diseased. This graphic demonstration of the medical model of disability has now been challenged by some disabled people, including some members of the China Disabled Person's Federation, who advocate the more neutral term canzhang (incomplete and obstructed).
One eye on China logo
But many traditional, pejorative terms for disabled people are still in common currency: canfei (crippled and useless), yaba (mute), shazi (idiot) and xiazi (a derogatory term for blind people) can still be heard on the lips of many ordinary citizens of the People's Republic.

As we've learnt in the West, language is merely an indicator of deeper social attitudes, and changes in terminology are often only skin deep. However, China's growing recognition of the power of language in the disability debate has to be a positive trend.
Canji, meaning deformed or diseased
For more than half a century, war, revolution and Communist propaganda debased language in China to such an extent that many words lost their original meaning altogether. Words such as 'landlord' and 'aristocrat', once terms of respect, were put through the mill of class struggle and spat out as insults.

When I first went to China in 1980, the word tongzhi (comrade) was still the normal form of address between strangers. Nowadays many of the old, bourgeois appellations such as xiansheng (mister), xiaojie (miss) and taitai (lady) are on the way back. Ironically, the word tongzhi has now been adopted by the Chinese gay community as its own badge of mutual recognition.
Canfei, meaning crippled and useless
With everything in China now up for grabs, it isn't surprising that the language of disability is also undergoing something of a transformation.

During a training session for disabled people in Beijing, I was recently heartened when several of the students challenged us to explain the political correctness of the English word 'disabled'. "Surely," said one of them, "the prefix 'dis-' is a negative, so the word 'disability' means someone without ability."

Our British trainer went to great lengths to explain that what we mean by this is that we are disabled by society, not by our own physical or mental impairment: the accepted social model of disability. But the student clearly had a point. For most English speakers the idea of 'disability' is associated more with the problems of the individual than with those of society. Disabled is, therefore, a negative term which should perhaps be replaced by a more positive concept such as 'challenged'.

In China, the portrayal of disability in a more positive light goes hand in hand with the promotion of positive role models. This is not a totally new thing: back in the 1950s the Communist Party, eager to demonstrate its support for popular, proletarian culture, raised the blind peasant musician Ah Bing, to almost saintly status.
Blind peasant musician Ah Bing
Ah Bing was born in Wuxi in central China's Jiangsu Province in 1893. His father, a Taoist musician, taught him a number of traditional Chinese instruments before Ah Bing lost his sight through illness in his early twenties. Shortly after that his father died, leaving Ah Bing destitute. In age-old tradition he took to the road and became an itinerant musician, making a name for himself with his haunting, lyrical tunes. Later the Communists took him under their wing, recording and writing down his works and caring for him until his death in 1950.

Several of his pieces have now become standard works of the Chinese classical repertoire, including the famous Er Quan Ying Yue (Moonlight Reflected in the Erquan Pool), a mournful piece describing Ah Bing's feelings as he remembers the beauty of a landscape once witnessed.

Mao's instigation of the 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution' in 1966 was accompanied by the promotion of wholesome revolutionary heroes, such as the ubiquitous do-gooder Lei Feng, and during this time disabled people rarely got a look in. But in the early 1980s a new heroine emerged in the form of Zhang Haidi, a young woman whose courage and tenacity in the face of severe paraplegia moved the nation to tears.
Paraplegic author Zhang Haidi
Unable to attend school, Haidi taught herself English, Japanese, German and Esperanto, took university degrees by correspondence and published numerous literary works. She became China's very own Helen Keller, and was praised by none other than paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, whose own son had been rendered disabled during the Cultural Revolution.

As Deng wrote in an inscription: "Learn from Zhang Haidi, be a Communist with revolutionary ideals, sound morals, good education and strong discipline!"

Zhang Haidi, who later became a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, has certainly done a great deal to promote a more positive image of disability in China. While she is widely revered, she is also associated with an earlier generation of people whose unflinching loyalty to the Party and its policies left little room for creativity or debate.

Today a new generation of disabled Chinese artists, musicians, dancers and athletes is emerging, ever more ready to challenge earlier stereotypes. In February last year, millions of TV viewers were captivated by the performance of the Thousand Hand Goddess of Mercy, during China's annual New Year extravaganza.
Thousand Hand Goddess of Mercy
This dance by 21 hearing impaired performers was led by China's number one disabled ballerina, Tai Lihua. In a stunning feat of coordination and visual illusion she appeared as the only face at the front of a column of performers, moving their arms like a fan to represent the thousand arms of the golden Bodhisattva. This sacred Goddess of Mercy is a powerful symbol for people with disabilities, representing love, compassion and, I guess, dexterity.

Tai Lihua lost most of her hearing at the age of two, after treatment for a high fever went badly wrong. Luckily, the school for the deaf she entered at the age of seven had an innovative teacher who used the vibrations of a drum to teach the children rhythm. Tai Lihua was captivated by the sensation and began dancing.
Deaf ballerina Tai Lihua
At the age of 14 she was selected by the Disabled Person's Federation in her native province of Hubei to receive professional training, and in 1991 she auditioned for the China Disabled Person's Art Troupe. Now in her early 30s, she has performed in over 30 countries, including the Athens Paralympics and prestigious venues such as the La Scala Milan and New York's Carnegie Hall.

In an interview to the Chinese press in 2003, Tai Lihua explained her personal philosophy: "For each of us some things are given and some are withheld - we have no choice in this. But you can always choose your outlook on life. You can look more on the positive side of life and face life's disappointments with a cheerful, grateful heart".

Despite the massive problems still facing China's 60 million-plus disabled people, it is individuals like Tai Lihua who are giving people the courage to discover their own talents, assert their rights to a better education and develop their unique take on life. China's challenged are now a force to be reckoned with.
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