Socially Impaired Super-Humans
Numerous occupational and social stereotypes related to visual impairment are presented clearly in Chinese film. In addition, the way blind people act and are treated by others in Chinese film gives valuable information regarding perceptions, power, and social freedom of the visually impaired. Characters with visual impairment have been portrayed throughout Chinese cinematic history, and have been treated somewhat differently than other disabilities in Chinese film, including possessing special talents such as advanced hearing, second sight, and an acute sense of touch. According to Steven Riep, “Characters with visual disabilities have become more prominent in Chinese cinema” (Riep, 2015: 1). As this trend continues, one might wonder, what stereotypes or other biases are associated with blindness within the minds of the Chinese people? How do these stereotypes influence the potential and social mobility of blind people in China? what draws Chinese society to visual impairment over other impairments? What stereotypes or other biases are associated with blindness within the minds of the Chinese people? As seen from numerous examples in Chinese film which will be touched upon in this paper, those with visual disabilities that are portrayed as being talented or proficient in sensory activities that rely on other sensory functions are limited in social potential[EH1] and independence, and are treated more condescendingly by others.
In order to properly introduce visual impairment as portrayed in Chinese film, I will first give a very brief background regarding the independence and autonomy of blind people in China as well as a brief history of blindness as portrayed in Chinese film. Then I will analyze blindness as portrayed in four films: A Touch of Zen, House of Flying Daggers, Colors of the Blind, and The Silent War. This analysis will help to reveal that the special skills or talents that the blind characters in these films possess are undermined by stereotypes and do not help to improve the independence and freedom of the visually impaired characters.
People with visual impairments have existed in China for as long as there has been history[EH2] . Revealing the historical social status and biases toward those with blindness in China can help us better understand the biases and social norms that exist in Chinese film and in modern Chinese society. Throughout Chinese history, those with visual impairments have been viewed as best suited for such occupations as musicians, fortune tellers and massage therapists, among other professions. These blind musicians are mentioned in the Shijing (Book of Songs, 1000-600 BC) and other classical literature. Moreover, the Da Cidian (1985: 3308) states that most of the musicians at the time had visual impairments. Julie Kleeman explains that “guilds of blind musicians and fortune tellers, which functioned in China at least until the middle of the 20th century, claim a continuous existence back to 200 BC” (Kleeman: 31). Emma Stone also notes that a character meaning “a blind individual,” (瞽gǔ), “comprises the symbols for eye and drum. It denotes a blind individual and more specifically, a blind musician, thereby ascribing musical talent or a musical profession for those with visual impairment” (Stone: 142). From this we can see that a bias that lack of vision improveslinking blindness senses ascribed to musical talent seems to have existed since ancient times. These stereotypes and occupational norms have existed for centuries in Chinese history and continue to influence current biases.
Blind people in history have also had many other stereotypical professions other than that of musicians. They have a made living as fortune tellers, story tellers, as well as beggars[EH3] (Riep 2015: 11). This rich history surely has an influence on biases that exist today as well as the societal expectations for the occupations of those with visual impairments. Because of this, these stereotypes have made their way to Chinese films, being portrayed in period films as well as films that take place in modern day. For instance, blind characters had been, shown in more recent films such films as a fortune teller in A Touch of Zen, a dancer in House of Flying Daggers, massage therapists in Colors of the Blind and Happy Times, and a musician in The Silent War. The portrayal of these characters and their professions can further reveal a great deal about their social mobility and autonomy.
In the past century, this bias of stereotypical occupations for those with visual impairments has still existed but thetheir social situation for the visually impaired is slowly improving. After the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) took control of China in the middle of the 20th century, the party created new forms of social organization, education, and employment for the blind and disabled. The most notable proponent of such change for the disabled was Deng Pufang, Deng Xiaoping’s son, who made notable changes in the 1980’s. He was instrumental in creating disabled social organizations and in helping disabled persons obtainget into factory jobss, and creating social organizations. As part of this reform, the Chinese government has promoted massage therapy as an ideal career for those who are blind (Riep 201510: 10). However, some have argued that this has created social stratification among the blind in China; tThose that are not privileged or do not have good enough connections to get the few jobs that are considered by society to be suitable for the blind are left to beg or find other odd jobs . Children born blind often live in isolation or are orphaned, and those blind persons in the countryside have almost no access to education. During times of financial crises, disabled people are often laid off before others[EH4] (Kleeman: 33).
Though the situation for the blind in China may seem grim, there have been many recent efforts to improve their situation. The government has tried to help by offering tax and other monetary incentives for factories to hire more disabled persons. “In Beijing, training programmes in massage and piano tuning are opening up new opportunities, if stereotypical ones” (Kleeman: 33). By clinging to these occupational stereotypes, the Chinese government still is far behind in bringing disabled workers into the mainstream workforce, and still claims massage therapy as the most suitable occupation for the blind. One of the most effective means of help and hope for visually impaired people in China is greater awareness and recognition in society, such as the creation of the China Disabled Person’s Federation, government occupational programs, as well as attention given by media outlets and films. However it will take much more time and effort to get rid of China’s history of bias and prejudice against those with visual impairment.
One might wonder, as Chinese biases suggest, do blind people generally have better senses than that of normal people, or is this only social bias? Some experts, such as the Helen Keller Blind Massage Center of Beijing (HKBMC) believe that the blind do have better senses and that “Massage therapy is one of the best jobs for the blind because their sense of hearing, sense of touch, memory and psychology are much more acute” (Riep 2015: 11). Such views are also promulgated in government magazines such as the Beijing Review, which claims, “Their acute sense of touch makes them suitable for the massage therapy trade” (Kuo: 29). However, there does not seem to be any substantial scientific evidence to support this claim, and many such postulations are perhaps strongly influenced by political leaders and other biased sources. Unfortunately this paper will not discuss this philosophical and scientific debate in detail, but instead focus on the effect of these biases (, whether they are real or not), have an effect on the autonomy and independence of the visually impaired in society. Through this analysis of Chinese fictional film, we can better understand whether or not these biases that have existed for centuries serve to improve the social autonomy and self-sufficiency of the visually impaired characters that are portrayed.
In the years since Mao’s death, visual impairment has been portrayed sporadically throughout Chinese film, and has played an increasingly important role. Disability was rarely seen in Maoist propaganda films before 1976, because disabled people did not fit communist ideals such as putting community over one’s personal problems, having strong and able bodies, and fitting into the roles of national heroes (Dauncey: 489). Riep explained the heroic accounts of war in the Maoist era, which focused on the hero’s triumph rather than tragedy, do not fit in with disabled bodies, so many disabilities including visual impairments during this time were not given much prominence (Riep 20085: 131). After Mao’s death, filmmakers were given greater freedom to portray disabled people on the screen and focus on their personal lives and problems instead of the nation as a whole (Dauncey: 489). As a result, blindness has been portrayed in such propaganda films as Colors of The Blind, but also in films more critical toward communism such as The Blue Kite. In addition, blindness has been portrayed in films not necessarily related to government commentary such as House of Flying Daggers, and A Touch of Zen. Blindness isThroughout these films, blindness has been portrayed differently in these films, but often these characters are seen as having special abilities and stereotypical occupations associated with visual impairment. Riep explains: “Filmmakers have depicted, engaged and critiqued both traditional and modern roles for those with visual disabilities, which include careers in fortune telling and massage therapy” (Riep 2015: 2). As blindness blindness is depicted more and more prevalently in Chinese films, many of the stereotypes and biases inherent oftoward visual impairment that are embedded in Chinese culture will likely appear just as prevalently.
These traditional and modern stereotypes for visually impaired persons include fortune telling, massage therapy, music, and other sensory, or even extra-sensory based activities. One may wonder what effect these special abilities and extra-sensory activities, whether real or perceived, have on the independence and autonomy of visually impaired people. This paper will explore how these superhuman abilities and talents serve to affect the overall social treatment and status of the visually impaired persons portrayed. In the following paragraphs, four films wille be analyzed that were chosen because they all portray characters with perceived heightened senses and abilities: A Touch of Zen, House of Flying Daggers, Colors of the Blind, and The Silent War. This analysis will determine how the special abilities or perceived heightened senses possessed by blind characters in these films affected their freedom and autonomy.
A Touch of Zen and House of Flying Daggers are interesting in the fact that the blind characters Mei and General Shi pretend to be blind, however this should not detract from the study of their perceived social freedom and independence., becauseW while Mei and Shithey pretend to be blind they are projecting their expectations of how a blind person should behave through their own actions, thus showing their own biases and stereotypes of how a blind person should act and what autonomy they have in society. In addition the characterspeople around them also treat them as they would a blind person. Going a step further, none of the actors in these films are really blind[EH5] , but rather they are projecting their ideas and the director’s ideas of how a blind person should behave. Thus these films that deal with people only pretending to be blind as well as fictional films in general are a proper reflection of stereotypes and biases that exist in the minds of the Chinese populous[EH6] .
The differing depictions of blindness in these four films have a definite effect on the overall social mobility and freedom of the blind characters in these films. In Erving Goffman’s Stigma, he stated that disabled people are subject to preliminary conceptions, which can cause people to treat them either better or worse than a normal person, almost always causing social problems (Goffman: 36). This stigma applies to visual impairment because the perception of having special talents or abilities will change the way blind persons are viewed by others. Also it effects how they feel about other people’s views of them, usually in a negative way. For instance, Ding Lihua, the main character in Colors of the Blind, who has exceptional athletic talent, seemed to be very self-sensitive about her blindness. Also in A Touch of Zen, Shi, a renegade general pretending to be a fortune teller, seemed to react anti-socially and keep to himself hidden from his enemies, shunning himself from society. This shows his own projected views of how a blind person should behave in society. Each of these four films show in differing ways how blind character’s perceived special abilities affected the blind character’s ir social mobility, as well as how treatment by others affected the visual impaired person’s autonomy.
An obiousobvious stereotype used in A Touch of Zen, [EH7] is the fact that Shi is a fortune teller[EH8] , a traditional occupational role for those with visual impairments. Because of his blindness and profession, Shi is thought to have second sight or a sixth sense that lets himthem see into the future or into the spirit world. As Riep put it, “inner vision” (内明neiming) in Chinese culture has been attributed to those with visual impairments because of portrayals in classical texts that misconstrue “special compensatory powers for those with impairments” (Riep 2015: 9). This stereotype may play a role in the way Shi is portrayed in this film; perhaps because he is blind, others around him believe that he holds “special compensatory powers” which allow him to see the future.
At the Beginning of the film, Gu, the main protagonist, is an unsuspecting painter in a small town. On his way home, his mother tells him the fortune that General Shi, the blind fortune teller, has told her: his lucky star is active this year and he should go take the civil service examination. At first, Gu seems to ignore the fortune. Because of Shi’s role as blind fortune teller and prophesying Gu’s good fortune, he “seems to underline the element of predestiny” that overlay the first ten minutes of the film (Teo: 33). Whether or not Shi has this “inner vision,” his prophecy about Gu does come true in a way; at the end of the film Gu becomes a successful strategist and is able to secure his filial obligation of producing a son. Overall it seems that Shi’s role as fortune teller seems to be fixed, and whether or not he is good at fortune telling does not seem to matter because he is blind and may have “inner vision,” and theso people around him accept him in this role. He also chooses this stereotypical role for himself, perhaps to influence those around him through his fortunes, but also to hide from his enemiesothers. It does not seem that General Shi, when acting as a blind man, has much social mobility, but is dependent on others’ belief in his fortunes to make a living, and is seemingly stuck in this profession.
In these films, the way in which characters treat themselves and others certainly affects their overall social freedom. In A Touch of Zen, Gu’s shrugging off of Shi’s fortune showed his lack of faith in the fortune being real. This could mean that Gu thought of Shi as an equal with no ability to tell the future over any other able bodied person, or it could mean that Gu thought that the fact that Shi was blind made him unfit to give life advice. In Stephen Teo’s King Hu’s A Touch of Zen[EH9] , he explains that Shi represents a “selfessselfless and asexual Wu hero.” He is a “blind follower” of Yang Lian throughout the film, and his blindness appears in his chaste relationship with Yang Lian “whom he is charged to protect,” (Teo: 148-49). Here the director could be using blindness as a metaphor to the intellectual blindness of Shi throughout the film. Also, while pretending to be blind, Shi did not interfere much with village affairs, except to tell fortunes; here perhaps he used societal norms of blind people secluding themselves to his advantage so that he could better hide from his enemies.
Throughout the film, Shi is constantly attacked and ambushed by his enemies. However, he continues to use his blind guise as a tool to evade his foes as well as lure them into a false sense of security. When Ouyang recognizes the blind fortune teller as General Shi, he kicks him in the back and General Shi [EH10] falls bloodied to the ground. He is however saved by Gu and his mother who bring him to the steps of the haunted mansion. This act by Ouyang could be showing his lack of compassion toward the blind person that he suspects to be an outlaw, but could also be seen as showing equality to him by not giving him special treatment because of his disability. One other interpretation could be that Ouyang is taking advantage of General Shi because he assumes that because Shi is blind he cannot fight back. In addition, during a scene in which an army of men come to fight Shi and Yang at the haunted mansion, Shi treats of himself in a patronizing way by using his blind facade to lure in new enemies, which shows his inherent belief that others perceive the blind to be weak and easy to overcome. Using this trap, he easily defeats his foes. Here, Shi’s the reclusiveness, ridicule, and perception of weakness of the blind Shi shows that interactions with others[EH11] and one’s self in A Touch of Zen weakened Shi’s overall autonomy and social freedom as a blind man.
In House of Flying Daggers, the blind character Mei is a dagger thrower by profession, with advanced abilities in hearing, touch, and martial arts. These abilities are shown at the beginning dance scene when she is able to tell which drums had been hit just by hearing. Also, after being escorted away by the renegade soldier Jin, she is able to tell Jin’s personality traits from just touching his body, showing her masterful sense of touch. In addition, her ability to dodge blows and attack her enemies throughout the film proved her advanced hearing and perceptive talents. One could argue that in these scenes she is simply using her eyes to see the villains, but often she is not looking at her enemies, acting as a true blind person would, and instead using a superior sense of hearing to locate her enemies. Because of these talents, her enemies fell before her. Despite Jin’s belief that she is blind, he respects her as a masterful knife thrower that can hold her own in a fight. Another interesting part of this film is that when Mei reveals her identity, she says that the real blind girl does not know martial arts; perhaps showing that being blind prevented her from learning martial arts. However, we are shown a scene where Leo, a dagger thrower disguised as a soldier, throws extremely accurate knives blindfolded, showing the way in which the warriors of the House of Flying Daggers train. Removing sight as a prerequisite for proficiently practicing knife throwing seems to conflict against the fact that the real blind girl could not practice martial arts. The fact that the unnamed real blind girl[EH12] for some reason cannot become proficient in martial arts seems to be strangely contradictory with the stereotype that lack of sight enhances ones other senses. In this light, it seems that despite efforts to show the advanced abilities of Mei as a blind martial artist, she is still overshadowed by stereotypes and biases that undermine this message.
In House of Flying Daggers, Mei is first and foremost taken advantage of sexually by Jin in the court; this perhaps shows a lack of respect that Jin had for the blind people and a belief he could take advantage of her because she could not see. Leo, a fellow soldier of Jin, also takes pleasure in fighting a blind girl for sport, patronizing her abilities while at the same time having a tough time beating her. After he rescues her, Jin feels inclined to lead Mei by the hand, even though she had shown earlier in the film by her riding alone on a horse that she does not need his help. This shows Jin’s inherent perception that she cannot get around on her own like a normal person. Her letting him do this also shows her own willingness to give up freedom of mobility. Overall the exploitative and [EH13] patronizing behavior toward Mei by others seems to have lowered her social freedom and independence.
In Colors of the Blind, Ding Lihua is depicted as a full time athlete. She is shown to have special athletic talent in an early scene in which her brother rides a bike in front of her ringing a bell and she chases after it. This may be indicative of her greater willpower or drive than that of an average person. Because of this, she is admired by her coach and others. However, this talent is not a typical stereotypical talent such as fortune telling or super hearing; most Chinese people would probably not think of a blind girl as being proficient at running. In this case, Lihua’s talent is not simply a bias or perceived ability, but an actual ability that is not necessarily related to her blindness.
Lihua’s superior athletic skills propel her to the Chinese Special Olympics where she wins athe gold medal. Despite these achievements and success in this area of her life, at the end of the film she is not shown to continue her passion in athletics, such as becoming an athletic trainer herself, but rather in the end she decides to abandon this skill and follow stereotypical societal expectations by joining a massage therapy school. Ding Lihua, despite advanced physical determination and ability, seemingly abandons her life as an athlete to become a massage therapist, showing that she is overcome and undermined by societal stereotypes of blind professions, unable to pursue her other passions [EH14] and talents.
Ding Lihua’s treatment by others seems to undermine her overall abilities and talents, ultimately lowering her social freedom. Lihua is treated somewhat patronizingly by her brother who rides a bicycle and rings a bell for her to follow, which inadvertently reveals her remarkable athletic talent to her coach.and sister, who wish that she would get married and stop being a burden to their household. The coach also takes advantage of her blindness by making her run farther and longer without telling her what time it was. Despite obvious affection between the two and romantic advances on the part of Lihua, the coach does want to pursue a relationship with her presumably because of her blindness. The coach’s girlfriend Yu Su also seems to think that blind people are unfit to compete, as seen when she first appears on the track and comments that the athletes are working too hard. In addition, Yu Su also asks Ding Lihua to tell her future, based on the stereotype that blind people are good at fortune telling. Lihua responded to this request by stating that blind people are stereotyped as doing “begging, singing, and fortune telling.” According to Riep, this “ambivalent view of disability runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes and reducing both Yu Su and Lihua to caricatures of the naïve, insensitive tormentor and her victim,” (Riep 2015: 26). In this light, it can be seen that Yu Su is putting down Lihua socially, assuming that she fits into a certain role. Also, Lihua’s family constantly tried to match her with a blind musician, another stereotypical occupation for the blind, as if she was only socially suitable to marry another disabled person. These stereotypes that others place upon her and that she places upon herself seem to completely overshadow Ding Lihua’s extraordinary talents and potential. W; whatever social potential and opportunities that may have come because of Lihua’sher advanced physical abilities , they seem to be restricted and overshadowed by her visual disabilityimpairment and other’s biases regarding it.
In The Silent War, He Bing is the assistant to a music professor, and has proficient ability in tuning pianos. Here, the age old Chinese stereotype that blind people are more proficient in musical abilities is shown clearly. Once his secret talent is discovered, he is chosen to find all of the KMT’s (Kuomintang’s) secret Morse code radio channels because of his superhuman hearing. Also bBecause of his ability and achievements, many people at the bureau applaud him and he is treated as a hero. However, he is still treated with special care by his boss Xuening, who always follows him closely and makes sure there is someone to watch out for him and give him care. She also does not seem to be content with his blindness, especially at the middle of the film when she offers him a surgery to recover his sight. After the successful recovery of his sight his work suddenly slackens and he commits a few errors in his transcription of Morse code, inadvertently causing Xuening’s death. After this he cannot forgive himself and gouges out his eyes. Once blind again, he is immediately able to improve his work and find new radio channels. This shows that blindness seems to be a key to his success at the bureau, and only true blindness, not simply concentration or closing one’s eyes, can empower He Bing to his superhuman abilities. The abilities and achievements that are caused by his blindness serve to elevate his status at the bureau, but this is undermined by stereotypes related to his blindness and the fact that he always being watched over.
He Bing’s treatment by others seems to undermine his special talent and in the end bring down his social freedom. He is treated most condescendingly by his mother; she calls him an “ugly blind person” (丑瞎子chǒu xiāzi) several times, but also compliments his hearing. He also treats himself as inferior when he tells his wife that he wants to be cured of his blindness and doesn’t want his wife to have married a blind person. Moreover, after a time in which he tries to romantically seek after his boss Xuening, she rejects his advances and tries to introduce him to other women. In the same scene, he thanks Xuening, his boss, for being so caring of a blind person, seeming to indicate that caring for a blind person had been toilsome and hard. He is treated somewhat equally by most everyone in the film, sometimes better than a normal person after becoming the hero that finds all of the secret radio stations. Despite his success, he is still treated as somewhat of a burden by others and is always under constant watch and care, even though it is clear that his advanced senses will keep him perfectly safe alone[B15] , and could do perfectly fine if given more autonomy and freedom. Overall it seems that his advanced hearing and accomplishments do not overcome his patronizing and condescending treatment by others, lowering his social freedom.
Despite the short term accomplishments and social praise that come as a result of the talents and abilities that the visually impaired characters in these films possess, they all seemed to be undermined by stereotypes and biases that serve to cause their overall autonomy and social independenceolence to be lowered. This trend is also seen in other cultures such as Japan. For instance, in Jay Kiester’s review of The Last Biwa Singer: A Blind Musician in History, Imagination and Performance by Hugh de Ferranti, he describes Yamashika, a famous blind Japanese musician who became famous in the biwa singing tradition, and was known as “the last biwa singer.” The work explores Yamashika’s portrayal in the media and his overall experiences singing, preparing, and making a living as a biwa singer. “In this account we learn of the real hardship endured by blind musicians, including discrimination and exploitation against the blind, who have always been treated as outsiders[B16] [EH17] ” (Kiester: 208). We can see similar biases in all four films. For instance in A Touch of Zen, despite Shi’s perceived abilities to see the future he is not largely accepted in society and lives a life of seclusion. Also, in House of Flying Daggers, despite Mei’s incredible martial arts and hearing ability, she is still treated patronizingly and put under constant care, undermining the accomplishments of her masterful martial arts and limiting her social freedom. In Colors of the Blind, Ding Lihua decided to abandon her athletic skill and talent to conform to societal norms of massage therapy, showing her social restrictions in the face of overarching stereotypes. Finally in The Silent War, He Bing, despite his super human hearing, is left in the constant care of others, and never allowed the autonomy and freedom that an able-bodied person might enjoy. The depictions in these films seem to prove, although somewhat indirectly, that those with visual impairments are still on some levels “strange and even shameful figures on the margins of local society” (Kiester: 209), despite the above average talents and abilities they possess.
In conclusion, it seems that the perceived special talents and abilities portrayed by the visually impaired characters in these films did not have a positive effect on their social power and independence. As discussed earlier in this paper, biases and stereotypes of those with visual impairments go deep into Chinese history and culture. These biases also appeared in various forms in A Touch of Zen, House of Flying Daggers, Colors of the Blind, and The Silent War; Those with visual disabilities were often portrayed as being talented or proficient in sensory activities other than sight, and this bias actually limited and undermined their social independence and potential.
Further study should focus on and shed light on whether or not perceived talents such as second sight or more acute sense of touch or hearing are real or only a figment of the Chinese culture. In addition, perhaps other films and literature can shed new light on whether or notthis subject, to see if these biases are gradually disappearing with newer films and in the coming generations. Further study of new films that depict visual impairment will do much to improve the understanding of contemporary biases and stereotypes toward those with visual impairments. Furthermore,In addition greater effortmore should be madedone to raise awareness about the current situation and socially limiting stereotypes regarding those with visual impairments in China. As Julie Kleeman said, “It will take time to extinguish the traditions of prejudice and discrimination, but as Confucius once said, ‘It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop’” (Kleeman: 33). Surely the future of the visually impaired will depend largely on society’s increasingly unbiased view of the potential of those with disabilities[EH18] [EH19] .
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