Session Abstract: East Asian texts, whether written or cinematic, have long engaged with—and thereby constructed—blindness. Etiologies for visual impairment range from moralistic pronouncements about karma to medical cause-and-effect discourses; filmic interpretations range from depictions of blindness as cruel fate to blindness as source of supernormal powers. The popularity and explanatory power of each mode of interpretation—moral, medical, and filmic—has fluctuated over time, such that a close analysis of specific Chinese and Japanese texts, which preserve their creators’ struggles to understand blindness, illustrates the socially constructed nature of visual impairment as disability. Our panel’s pre-circulating four papers investigate these issues. Christopher Jensen considers the polyvocal perspectives on blindness seen in sixth- and seventh-century Chinese Buddhist hagiographies, with rhetorics of blindness as spiritual incapacity and karmic consequence seemingly incommensurate with tales of monastic healing. Rosaline Kyo reads the 1963 PRC film Serf, showing how bodily health, including freedom from disability, is credited to political faith in the revolution. Sean O’Reilly analyzes Japanese cinema’s strategies for depicting blindness, arguing that two main tropes, i.e., the provocation of either sympathy or admiration/envy, both problematically other the blind. Wayne Tan surveys medical texts on visual impairment from early modern Japan, demonstrating that Tokugawa-era medical discourse, despite itself being socially constructed, offers important insights lacking from the contemporary social model of disability. Taken together, these papers explore a variety of approaches used throughout East Asian history to define, explain, and ascribe meaning to blindness as both a concept and an embodied reality.
Paper Presenter: Sean D. O'Reilly – Akita International University
Paper Presenter: Christopher J. Jensen – Carleton University
Paper Presenter: Wei Yu Wayne Tan – Hope College
Paper Presenter: Rosaline (Yi Yi Mon) Kyo – Davidson College