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China and Inner Asia
In Session: Reading From Below: Alternative Literacies, Citizenship, and Community in Modern China
1: Reading By Hand and Heart: Literacy Ideologies for the Blind in Twentieth-century China
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
University of Chicago, United States
This study draws from reading primers, institutional records and oral history to situate Braille as an alternative form of literacy in three distinct phases of conceiving and fostering social and political identities of Chinese blind communities. First, Christian missionaries introduced Braille literacy to fulfill the need for alternative text formats in the context of late-Qing phoneticization movement. Tactile books helped provide social inclusion of outsiders who had print-reading disabilities, such as the blind and the illiterate poor. Second, the Nationalist state appropriated the ideology of “literacy for salvation” in its attempt to reintegrate the blind into state-run welfare facilities, in which the ability to read and work by touch contributed to the definition of “productive citizenship.” Third, during the Socialist period the visually impaired were further conceived as “the illiterate among the blind” (mangren zhongde wenmang). The standardization of Chinese Braille became a new political imperative for the remaking of “blind compatriots” (mangbao) into a special working class in a China unified under Communism. I consider Braille as a text that embodies physical and sociopolitical formation of blindness to show how “disability” worked as literacy ideologies from the perspective of both state and non-state actors, producing a language of citizenship based on alternative reading abilities in twentieth-century China.