Book Manuscript

Disabled but Useful: Blindness and the Making of Modern China, 1900-1945

Chao Wang’s current book project, tentatively entitled Disabled but Useful: the Blind in China, 1900-1945, examines different social welfare responses to the livelihood problem of blind people in a formative period of commercial and industrial expansion in China. Taking a journey through the urban experiences of blind singers, musicians, fortunetellers and beggars as they intersected with entertainment culture, philanthropic activism, municipal reform and welfare legislation, the manuscript explores questions such as how blindness enabled community inclusion and caused social marginalization, and how the institutionalization of disability (canfei) as a social welfare category created new demarcations of social citizenship.


Blindness—a bodily impairment that disables—challenges the basic assumption of a useful person in modern society. In the early twentieth century, being useful meant, among other things, the ability to work productively and participate in national life through reading and writing in a common language. This able-bodied conception of citizenship marked a radical departure from the traditional understanding of membership and belonging to the community. The older notion of blindness as an embodied qualification of livelihood in music and fortunetelling was reconceived by the modernizing state as a marker of cultural and economic deficiency of the nation. From the last decade of the Qing dynasty to the end of the Nationalist War of Resistance against Japan in 1945, new approaches to social welfare aspired to transform the blind from “disabled and useless” (canfei 殘廢) outsiders to contributing insiders of society and the nation.

For the blind, this process of becoming “useful” brought drastic consequences to their community and was often achieved at the cost of depriving and reconfiguring their livelihood. This dissertation focuses on Guangzhou and Chengdu, two cities where the fate of blind communities was closely tied to the expansion and innovation of social welfare by modern reformers and traditional elites. Beginning in 1920s Guangzhou, a series of modernist campaigns to reform social customs caused the removal of blind men and women from self-sufficient communities of fortunetelling and entertainment and undermined their social status as a minority working class. Responding to the livelihood problem, reformers first collaborated with Christian missionaries in educating blind singers and fortunetellers to become literate in Braille, and then expanded the relief capacity of government poorhouses to take in blind beggars and train them to do handicrafts in sheltered workshops. In the welfare state’s conception of disabled citizenship, blindness became a radical symbol of productivity based on the exclusion of the aged and physically handicapped people who were too disabled to work. This top-down approach to social welfare, which used disability as a justification for coercive labor extraction, contrasted the horizontal view of social welfare as a means of fostering livelihood.

Between 1920s and 1940s, Confucian elites in Chengdu continued to uphold traditional values of charity and its role in coping with family incapacity and social dislocation caused by war. Focusing on Chengdu’s largest charity hall, I show that the gentry effort to train blind boys as cultured musicians and encourage the reciprocity of care between elderly and disabled residents contributed to making disability a moral symbol of community belonging. This Confucian model of social welfare later coalesced with the welfare state model during the War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945), when the physical suffering of the nation pushed the boundary of able-bodied citizenship beyond the GMD understanding of productivity and refashioned an ethic of care for the national community. By analyzing the impact of different social welfare approaches to blindness and disability, my dissertation contributes to understanding changing notions of citizenship and belonging from the interplay between state and civil society.

Image on top: “Two Students Making Chairs, School for the Blind,” cited from Sidney D. Gamble Photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Accessed December 28, 2019.

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