Written by Ta-wei Chi.
When it comes to literature and disabilities, today’s readers usually encounter the autobiographies of disabled people. As in many countries, Taiwan is home to many non-fiction books written by disabled people. Some of these books become high-profile bestsellers when their authors narrate how they have heroically transcended difficulties. However, this understanding of literature and disabilities is limited. As “life writing,” these books are only the tip of the historic iceberg when it comes to “literature about disabilities.” Underneath the surface, one can find numerous texts with disability themes scattered across history.
In the field of disability studies, there have been debates about whether “disabled people” or “people with disabilities” is a more satisfactory description of the people in question. In my blog on literature and disabilities, however, I choose not to use “disability literature” but “literature with disability themes,” for the former seems to suggest a literary genre strictly committed to representing disabled people positively. In contrast, the latter is a more inclusive label accommodating various texts. In these texts, disabled people might not always be in the foreground, nor are they always portrayed positively. Combining Taiwanese literature from various historical epochs, I came across numerous texts in which disabled people are assigned subsidiary rather than primary roles. Indeed, they are sometimes depicted as disagreeable.
Nonetheless, I believe that these texts, written before society slowly started to recognise disabled people’s human rights, are also useful and instructive for today’s readers. Ultimately, these texts provide evidence of how disabilities used to be misconceived—and people with disabilities mistreated—at different historical moments. Literature that adopts disabled people as well-rounded protagonists could not have emerged without the lessons of the earlier, more prejudiced literature.
I have observed roughly five periods of literature with disability themes. The first is the Japanese colonial period, during which leftist-realist fiction showed sympathy to disabled characters. The second is the anti-communist period of the 1960s, during which the supposedly apolitical romances portrayed disabled characters, mad women in particular, as grotesque threats to the institution of marriage. The third epoch occurred from the late 1960s and persists to the present day, with realist fiction remerging and recognising the virtually omnipresent disabled characters among common people. The fourth trend extends from the 1970s to the present, a time in which disabled people, many of whom are amateurs rather than professional writers, have started to publish their life writing. These autobiographies since the 1970s are the predecessors to the bestsellers published by disabled writers today. The fifth period began in the 1980s and continues to the present, with journalists publishing reportages on disabled people.
As noted by Prof Chun-ya Hsu, a senior scholar of Taiwanese literature, during the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), some of the most acclaimed Taiwanese writers portrayed disabled characters as victims of patriarchal feudalism and demoralising colonisation. Whereas writers widely accused society of injustice by depicting mad women, He-ruo Lu (1914-1951), a Marxist writer, distinguishes himself from his peers by elaborately showing the brutal production of disabilities. In his 1942 novella, Three Stars: Fortune, Prosperity, and Longevity, a wealthy polygamist indifferently lets his mistress abuse his wife, who eventually suffers from nervous breakdowns and is sent to a public institution. This story provides evidence that mental asylums already existed in Taiwan under Japan. The title of Lu’s 1943 story “A Pomegranate” might refer to the common association of a pomegranate, known for containing numerous seeds, with a household producing numerous children. The title is ironic, for the story focuses on a man too mentally disabled to be a husband or a father. After his eventual death, he is symbolically assigned a son from another man so that he does not die childless. The ending challenges the common presumption that a disabled person cannot be a parent.
During the Cold War, left-wing sympathy for the deprived became a political taboo. In the 1960s, the state under Chiang Kai-shek promoted anti-communist literature, whereas the common reader embraced Chiung Yao’s romances (aka Qiong Yao, 1938- ), arguably one of the best-selling and most influential romance writers in the Chinese world. Not interested in social change, romances in that period were a safe alternative to the repressive society. As Professor Fang-mei Lin observed, a senior scholar of Taiwanese literature, Chiung Yao tends to dramatise her romances by adopting disabled characters. In her 1964 novella, The Mute Wife, a rich man is married to a mute woman, who gives birth to a girl who is also mute. Horrified by the ableist hostility against the two women, the man chooses to abandon rather than support them. Professor Lin asserts that some of Chiung Yao’s novels are inspired by Jane Eyre and other Gothic romances in the UK. A famous example is her 1969 How Deep Is the Garden, in which a blind man, whose mansion burned down, waits for the return of his presumably dead wife. In Jane Eyre, a mansion is destroyed, and its owner blinded by a fire associated with the owner’s wife, who suffers from insanity.
I argue that a turning point took place in the late 1960s in the history of the literature about disabilities. Although Taiwan in the late 1960s was far from being democratic, many writers started to feel a democratic urge to represent the hitherto underrepresented underdogs. Among numerous established writers who portrayed disabilities since the late 1960s, Chi Teng Sheng (1939-2000) and Ching-wen Cheng (1932-2017) are worthy of mention in this short blog. A writer obsessed with social misfits, Chi Teng Sheng adopts a mentally deranged man as the protagonist in his 1967 novel, A Psychotic. The hero once admitted to a mental asylum, eventually kills his wife during sex. In his 1976 novel, A Sad Song of Sand River, the protagonist, a small-time clarinet player, is disabled not only because of tuberculosis but also because of his arm being maliciously maimed by his father.
Meanwhile, Ching-wen Cheng is one of the most persistent writers bringing attention to discrimination against disabled people. In his 1967 story, “The Coconut Trees on Campus,” a girl, having been habitually ridiculed for having a maimed hand, congratulates herself for being superior to others by having access to privileges in college. In his 1979 story, “Three-Legged Horse,” the protagonist suffers bullying due to his atypical body (with a birthmark on his face) and avenges himself by becoming a policeman during Japanese rule, torturing as many normal bodies as possible. Once retired, he enthusiastically carves three-legged (rather than four-legged) horses, representations of disability he has feared throughout his life.
As a researcher of Taiwanese queer literature, I have found intersectionality between the queer and the disabled in literature since the late 1960s. Commonly lauded as the most influential gay text in the Chinese-speaking world, Hsien-yung Pai (1937-)’s Crystal Boys (serialised since 1978, published as a novel in 1983) mentions how a couple of sugar daddies take home the hunks with developmental disabilities as their intimate partners. Pai’s 1969 story, “A Sky Full of Bright, Twinkling Stars,” typically considered a prequel to Crystal Boys, tells how both the youthful male prostitutes and their senior patrons are made disabled once they are arrested and tortured by police.
By the 1970s, with the growing access to education in post-WWII Taiwan, disabled people became empowered to read and write about disabilities. Thanks to Helen Keller’s life story’s persistent popularity in Taiwan, local disabled people often looked to her as a role model. Feng-hsi Cheng (1944-1975) was one of the first recognised disabled writers who took on an autobiographical format. Born in poverty with both calves distorted, he eventually gained access to prosthetic legs, a college education, a marriage, and parenthood. His life narrative, A Boat on the Boundless Ocean, has been a bestseller since the 1970s. Officially endorsed by Chiang Ching-ko, son and successor to Chiang Kai-shek, Cheng’s book is readily allegorical to Taiwan, once disabled but expected to overcome obstacles. Hsia Liu (aka Hsing Lin-tzu, 1942-2003), a lifetime patient of atrophic arthritis and a wheelchair user, has also been a bestselling writer since the 1970s. Because her hands are disabled, she cannot but write essays because they are shorter and less exhausting than longer genres. Liu has also become one of the earliest high-profile activists and demonstrators for the rights of disabled people.
In the 1980s, the reportages on disabled people emerged in the wake of disabled people’s life writing. Unlike the works of life writing focusing on the individuals’ rights rather than the wrongs of a society, the reportages have to offer a critical analysis of the social structure. Thus, they are more politically provocative. The left-wing magazine Humanity (Ren jian, 1985-1989) is such a reportage forerunner. Its report on local albinos in 1987 was made into one of the most influential documentaries in Taiwan. In the 2010s, with the publication of reportages on sexual abuses at special education schools and the potential empowerment of sex to the disabled citizens, the topics of sexualities of the disabled finally drew attention from the public.
Ta-wei Chi teaches disability studies and LGBT studies at National Chengchi University, Taiwan, where he is an associate professor in the Department of Taiwan Literature. The English translation of his science fiction novel, _The Membranes_ is forthcoming (Trans. Ari Heinrich. New York: Columbia University Press, 2021). He tweets @Tawei_Chi.
This article was published as part of a special issue on Disabilities and Society.