Blind People Handling Their Own Fate

Accounts of earlier social responses to blind people particularly in Japan, and to some extent in China, indicate a measure of both group and individual autonomy within reserved and valued occupations, ostensibly reflecting a status model more 'normal' than blind people enjoyed in much of European history. (Excerpt From: M. Miles (2000) Disability on a Different Model: Glimpses of an Asian Heritage.) Internet publication URL:

Excerpt From: M. Miles (2000) Disability on a Different Model:
Glimpses of an Asian Heritage. Disability & Society 15: 603-618.


Models and stories embodying them arise in social situations, and any different conceptualisations in Asia cannot be understood without dipping into social history. Accounts of earlier social responses to blind people particularly in Japan, and to some extent in China, indicate a measure of both group and individual autonomy within reserved and valued occupations, ostensibly reflecting a status model more 'normal' than blind people enjoyed in much of European history.

Improved status in Japan traditionally dates from the blind son of a ninth century emperor, for whom "many blind men of good families" were recruited as companions (Dixon, 1891; Yoshimoto, 1908). A national revenue was supposedly devoted to the welfare of blind people from this time (Golay, 1973). Contrary interpretations have also appeared. Susan Matisoff (1978, pp. 19-22, 28-31, 39-46) assembles detailed evidence suggesting that blind, lute-playing, mendicant friars (biwa hoshi) originated in China and reached Japan in the 6th century. Their successors slowly constructed a semi-legendary past, conflating stories of more than one blind prince in an effort to raise their very modest social status - an interesting reminder that disabled people have not always been helpless targets for model-making by a dominant environment.

Whatever may underlie these legendary beginnings the traditional professions of musical performance, song and recitative became a recognised speciality of blind people, with the less elevated alternative vocations of massage, acupuncture, fortune-telling, and later money-lending. Various schools emerged, teaching the standard professional curricula with local innovations or flavours. The training and certification process was controlled by powerful blind guilds. Over several centuries, the Proper Path Guild of blind Heike reciters eventually

"...extended its control to include all blind lute performers in Japan. They became, in effect, a country of the blind, controlled by their own system of regulations outside direct government management." (Matisoff, 1978, p. 43)

The original apprentice-style training also became a broader education. Music on the curriculum extended beyond learning to play the lute - blind musicians were expected to have a repertoire of stirring songs, so parts of the literary heritage were memorised by students. Hrdlickova (1965, p. 229) cites a field study where blind or illiterate Chinese storytellers "could sing and recite three months on end without repeating themselves", suggesting the formidable immersion expected of learners. The therapy skills of acupuncture and massage extended to coverage of body parts and functions together with a grasp of client psychology.

Thus it was that in 1760 young Hokiichi Hanawa, who would become one of Japan's founding academic bibliographers, went to a private school for blind youths at Edo, now Tokyo (Yoshimoto, 1908). There he should have learnt skills of music and acupuncture under Ametomi Kengyo. Failing to gain proficiency in those skills, he succeeded 'only' in learning classical literature, and was taught later by the famous Kamo no Mabuchi.

This sort of well established and differentiated educational provision in urban Japan (and systems with some similarities in China) compares favourably with the situation in 18th century Europe. Hokiichi Hanawa was already launched on his bibliographical career by the time Valentin Haüy, at Paris in 1771, was shocked to see a mock orchestra of blind people pretending to read and play music, a jape meant to attract passers-by to a café. Eventually in 1784 Haüy founded a school to provide more dignified work for blind people, and the chance genuinely to learn to read and play music (Farrell, 1956, pp. 18-29). He was a pioneer in Europe - it is only a pity that Haüy could not first have visited Japan and China to learn how some blind men had for centuries managed their own education and professions.

The extent of education and employment for blind people in Japan is hard to quantify, even more so in China where earlier developments of the same professions and 'blind guilds' had taken place, at least in cities. Perhaps a majority of blind young people learnt some local craft or skill within their families, while people losing their sight in old age were cared for by relatives. Occasionally such familial concern brought a wider practical application. The northern Chinese provincial governor Lü K'un (1536-1618) was an enthusiast for welfare measures. Reportedly,

"Lü ordered the officials of each city to train the blind in a profession such as music, singing, storytelling, and fortune telling. Although he did not believe in the last himself he compiled a simple textbook from which the younger people among the blind might be orally taught." (Goodrich & Chaoying Fang, 1976, vol. I, p. 1007)

Lü's particular concern for blind people arose from the experience of his mother losing her eyesight suddenly in 1547, the family's unavailing search for treatment, and their hiring of a succession of blind women musicians to restore her spirits. Joanna Handlin (1983, pp. 161-163) suggests the pattern of Lü K'un's thoughts in which crisis, the power of music, and the means for self-reliance recurred to take him beyond a 'charitable' model of response, to one in which independence and self-support were central and the government's duty was to provide skill training and work tools.

Some rather positive glimpses appear above, for which evidence is available; yet for large numbers of blind people there was certainly no ideal Asian world. Beggars were plentiful, particularly on urban streets, and during the periodic famines those with disabilities were swept away by disease, neglect and starvation along with millions of other people. An archetypal image of early 19th century dispensary clients showed "old, blind, decrepit men, 'with staff in hand,' led thither by their little grand-children" (Canton Dispensary, 1833). The condition of blind Chinese women was often pitiful. In the 16th century, Juan Gonzalez de Mendoza (1588, p. 68) reported of such that

"...when she commeth vnto age, she doth vse the office of women of loue [i.e. works as a prostitute], of which sorte there are a great number in publike places."

The evidence is strong that some children were deliberately blinded for urban begging and prostitution, an activity not unknown also in Europe (Lockhart, 1861, p. 250; Hanks, 1872, p.13). Twentieth century writers such as Susanna Hoe (1991, pp. 173-176) and Lucy Ching (1982, pp. 19-21 47, 50, 274-275) remark on the ongoing sexual exploitation of blind women, the latter because it was still commonly assumed to be her own destiny in the 1940s. Blindness was turned to advantage in prostitution presumably because the client's own identity and defects were thereby spared the scrutiny of a knowing 'professional gaze' - there was only a defenceless, sightless body for temporary hire. On the other hand, the absence of physical sight benefitted blind women working as spirit mediums (itako) in some north-eastern Japanese prefectures, because of the widespread belief that blind people 'see' things that sighted people cannot see. Carmen Blacker (1975, pp. 140-163, 337-339), who studied these mediums and their personal experiences, realised that what she witnessed was far from the original shamanistic practice:

"A girl is impelled to become an itako purely and simply because she is blind. ... By becoming a medium she will become a viable member of her community rather than a burden." (p. 141)

What these mediums performed for their clients seemed to Blacker all too clearly a stilted act rather than a genuine trance. Yet the aura of 'otherness' attached to their blindness seemed sufficient for rural participants to suspend any disbelief and to be greatly moved by what they took to be evidence of communication with the dead. Blacker made no comparisons with the performance of blind prostitutes, nor delved into questions of who was exploiting whom.

Ambivalence of relations between the blind and the sighted worlds was exploited in several Kyogen dramas. These poignant farces originating in 13th century Japan depict humankind in the raw. The peculiarities of blind people are fair game, as "not only were blind people very much a part of everyday life in Japan, but they were also intimately involved with the performing arts" (Golay, 1973). One of the best known, Tsuki-mi Zato, opens with a blind man in a field at full moon, soliloquizing about the delightful voices of the insects. A sighted man from a posh locality enters, also to view the moon, and they strike up an amicable conversation, even sharing a jug of wine. Eventually the two men part with warm thanks for each other's company. The blind man moves away, cheered by this chance encounter.

The sighted man is cheered by his own kindly condescension; but suddenly it occurs to him that he could have a little more fun by sneaking back and 'accidentally' bumping into the blind man, then roughing him up. He promptly does so, shouting abuse in a disguised voice, before running off. This dramatic bouleversement shocks the audience into nervous laughter. Picking himself up, the blind man bitterly confides to the stunned audience that he is "amazed at how different from the man before this pitiless rascal was" (Kenny, 1989, p. 211); the double-edged irony forces the audience to laugh again in spite of itself. The blind man's conduct throughout is a model of decent if naive human behaviour - no 'disability model' is required; but the sighted audience is confronted by its own recognition that other people's trust and vulnerability may evoke sharply contradictory responses in oneself. The advanced model of human intercourse slips readily into the barbaric.


Blacker, C. (1975) The Catalpa Bow (London, Allen & Unwin).

Canton Dispensary (1833) Chinese Repository, II, pp. 276-277.

Ching, L. (1980, reprint 1982) One of the Lucky Ones (London, Souvenir).

Dixon, J.M. (1891) The habits of the blind in Japan, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, 19 (iii), pp. 578-582.

Farrell, G. (1956) The Story of Blindness (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

Golay, J. (1973) Pathos and farce: Zat_ plays of the Ky_gen repertoire, Monumenta Nipponica, 28, pp. 139-149.

Goodrich, L.C. & Chaoying Fang (Eds) (1976) Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644 (New York, Columbia University Press).

Handlin, J.F. (1983) Action in Late Ming Thought (Berkeley, University of California Press).

Hanks, L.W. (1872) Blindness and the Blind (London, Chapman & Hall).

Hoe, S. (1991) The Private Life of Old Hong Kong (Hong Kong, Oxford University Press).

Hrdlickova, V. (1965) The professional training of Chinese storytellers and the storytellers' guilds, Archiv Orientalni, 33, pp. 225-248.

Kenny, D. (transl.) (1989) The Kyogen Book (Tokyo, The Japan Times).

Lockhart, W. (1861) The Medical Missionary in China (London, Hurst & Blackett).

Matisoff, S. (1978) The Legend of Semimaru, blind musician of Japan (New York, Columbia University Press).

de Mendoza, J.G., transl. R. Parke (1588, reprint 1853) The Historie of the Great and Mightie Kingdome of China (London, Hakluyt Society).

Yoshimoto, T. (1908) Past, present, and future of the blind in Japan, in: Report of the Second Triennial International Conference on the Blind and Exhibition, Manchester July 24th - Aug. 1st, 1908, pp. 174-181 (Manchester).