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Review by Shixin Huang, University of Washington, Email: sxhuang@uw.edu

It is such a pleasure to read and review Sarah Dauncey’s recent book, Disability in Contemporary China: Citizenship, Identity and Culture. Although with a disability population of more than 86 million and situated in unique cultural, historical, and political dynamics, the lived experiences, cultural representation, and activism of people with disabilities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have so far received very limited academic attention. Dauncey’s book fills this gap by providing both a historical and up-to-date examination of “the construction of disabled identities and citizenship from the perspective of Chinese cultural epistemologies” (p.2). She adopts a chronicle style to review how disability citizenship and identities have been constituted by several historical periods of the PRC from the socialist period to the post-reform era through “situated reading practice” (p.9) of a variety of cultural productions including visual propaganda, film and literature, media reports, life writing, poetry, and documentary. 

The central arguments of the book revolve around what Dauncey proposes as “para-citizenship”, a concept that she develops to re-envision the relationship between disability and citizenship as a temporal flexible, receptive to negotiations and contestations, and thus dynamic construction that is constituted by and situated in socio-political processes of a particular historical period. She traces how the disabled bodies are represented, as well as how people with disabilities negotiate, contest, or internalize the hegemonic discourses of para-citizenship from the Maoist revolutionary era to the neoliberal reform period. 

The book unfolds in 6 chapters. The first and the second chapters are particularly intriguing because they shed light on disability representation in the rarely examined Maoist era and the 1980s – a period that the PRC just opened its door to negotiate its national identity as a modernized state. Chapter 1 begins with the noticing of the absence of disability in the socialist era and proposes that the rare exceptions laid mostly on cultural works that depended on disability as a “narrative prosthesis” to “serve a larger political purpose by drawing upon and building into broader narratives of socialist transformation and citizenship” (p.53). For example, Jiangnan in the North, a film released in 1963, depicts the wife of the main protagonist and her acquaintance of blindness to symbolize “the short-sightedness of the villagers as they are fooled by the class enemy and fail to see the benefits of following the socialist road” (p.43). In this revolutionary era, the citizenship ideals revolved around the themes of “the veneration of heroic sacrifice, the encouragement of active labor, and the delivery of revolutionary potential” (p.40). The politically and historically sensitive analysis of disability citizenship in the Maoist period is fascinating in that it shifts away from the Western notion of individualized, liberal citizenship that was rested in individual autonomy and independence, and in turn, showcases how cultural meanings of disability were alternatively nested in the political project of the socialist state-building. 

Chapter 2 examines the renegotiation of the disability representation in the period following the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the reform era, which “retain a strongly political function as the state continued to build an image of the “idea” para-citizen, but it would also soon become viewed as both a personal tool and a marketable commodity” (p.63). It sheds light on a well-known disabled model citizen, Zhang Haidi, a woman with spinal cord injury who later became the president of China’s Disabled Person Federation (CDPF), a para-ministry entity that is responsible for the development of disability policy. Dauncey traces the appearance of Zhang Haidi as a widely propagated model citizen to the political project of the “socialist spiritual civilization” in the reform era, which was yearning for new heroes in the PRC’s turn for market economy. Zhang Haidi’s supercrip life story of overcoming, or what is known as “broken in body but not in spirit”, “tireless self-improvement”, and “disabled but not useless” (p.78) in the Chinese contexts represents a “new view” of disability that expects “disabled people would be able to achieve equality by overcoming their feelings of loneliness and inferiority and contributing, materially and spiritually, to the advancement of the nation” (p.77). Disabled people under this new view are in debt of the society and the state which provides care and support to them, which needs to be paid back through self-transformation into valued, productive citizens. These notions of disability, in turn, pose far-reaching influences on how disability is interpreted and approached until today. 

Chapter 3 and 4 continue to discuss disability representations in films and literary genres such as the so-called root-seeking literature, scar literature, and zhiqing fiction, which emerged as a humanistic turn in cultural production after the disastrous decade of the Cultural Revolution. Although disabled figures began to appear in these works, disability narratives that revolved primarily around ideas of cure, rehabilitation, personal and familial tragedy, eugenics of the undesirability of disability, and self-improvement, remained largely unchallenged. An important turn in this period, as exemplified by the work of the disabled writer, Shi Tiesheng, is the opening of the personal experience of disability that was never a theme in cultural narratives. This challenges the inclusive political discourses of “model citizen” discussed above in a way that personalizes the experience of disability and demonstrates “how disabled people were treated as liminal and precarious citizens” (p.112). 

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on more recent forms of literature written for or by people with disabilities with a realist orientation in the narratives of disability experiences. Chapter 5 unravels Bi Feiyu’s 2008 novel, Blind Massage. As a person without a disability, Bi Feiyu develops the ideas of the novel through his interactions with his blind massage therapist and with an ambitious attempt to challenge the stereotypes of people with visual disabilities. Although with clear limitations in its imaginaries of disability through the appropriation of the normalization/ differentiation stereotypes, the novel excitingly opens up new possibilities of disability representation by showcasing the life of love and intimacy of people with visual disabilities, as well as demonstrating the contestation of disabled subjects against the state discourses of self-improvement and repaying the society. The last chapter explores the real-life experience writing of Yin Shujun, a young woman who was paralyzed in a car accident 84 days after her marriage. Distinct from disability life writing following the Disability Rights Movement (DRM) tradition in the west, Yin Shujun’s diary refused to identify herself as disabled and laid within the “inspirational porn” genre. The ideal citizenship in this period continues to stress on “the cultivation of a ‘broken in body but not in spirit’ attitude, taking part in charitable activities, or becoming an inspiration for others”, and the showing of gratitude. 

The biggest contributions of the book are two folded. First and foremost, it contributes to the understanding of disability representation, identity politics, and citizenship beyond the western contexts and instead builds upon a culturally sensitive conceptualization of disability that is situated in the particular cultural, social, and political dynamics of a community. Secondly, from my knowledge, this book is probably the best work that seeks to draw disability politics in the PRC in conversation with social theories of the DS. It is fascinating to read that concepts such as narrative prosthesis, supercrip, citizenship, identity politics, and the rights-based approach (the list goes on) are being adopted to understand disability experience in the PRC. 

That said, the biggest limitation of the book is also generated through its shining points. By introducing DS concepts that are rooted in disability and social experience in the Western contexts, the author risks losing important nuances of an East Asian, authoritarian state with a socialist history. Citizenship and rights, the core concepts that the book revolves around, for example, entails liberal political ideals that define the relationship between the state and its “citizen”. I wonder to what extent can this idea be used to understand disability experience in the PRC. Does citizenship entail different meanings other than liberal ideals of freedom, reasoning, autonomy, equality, etc.? And alternatively, what can a localized understanding of disability subjectivity contribute back to the Western DS theories?

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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