Zhuangzi on disability: the radicalness of challenging ableism

Across times and cultures, it is common to see disability either as a morally bad feature or at the very least a misfortune. Philosophers have, by and large, agreed. You see ableist discourse in most of the prominent western philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, etc.

Ableism is also part of our culture, it is part of the (largely invisible) implicit philosophy or “philosophical plumbing” as Mary Midgley has called it, the invisible entrails of philosophical assumptions that underlie how our societies are structured.

However, as John Altmann and Bryan Van Norden argue, Zhuangzi — the radical Daoist Warring States thinker — goes against this ableism. His work celebrates disability as a valuable difference, as something that can be good for a disabled person, as a difference we should definitely not seek to erase. Splay-limb Shu, for instance, is described as a man who has his

chin stuck down in his navel, shoulders up above his head, pigtail pointing at the sky, his five organs on the top, his two thighs pressing his ribs. By sewing and washing, he gets enough to fill his mouth; by handling a winnow and sifting out the good grain, he makes enough to feed ten people. When the authorities call out the troops, he stands in the crowd waving good-by; when they get up a big work party, they pass him over because he’s a chronic invalid. And when they are doling out grain to the ailing, he gets three big measures and ten bundles of firewood. With a crippled body, he’s still able to look after himself and finish out the years Heaven gave him. How much better, then, if he had crippled virtue!

Zhuangzi, Book 1

Splay-limb Shu is doing well for himself. Altmann and Van Norden are right to point out that this celebration of disabled bodies, including people who have limbs cut off as a punishment, throughout the Zhuangzi is countercultural and long anticipates work on disability that is being done today. For example, his work resonates with Elizabeth Barnes’ view that disability isn’t something that necessarily makes you worse off, but that it is a difference analogous to features like sexuality, gender, ethnicity, and race. It is not a defect or departure from “normal functioning”.

However, by celebrating disabled characters as sages and happy people throughout the little stories in the Zhuangzi, Zhuangzi also challenges the deeper philosophical plumbing that gives rise to ableism.

People across cultures are bothered by disability and bothered by seeing disabled bodies because they challenge our implicit notions that human bodies and minds should conform to some standard, and they challenge our implicit notions that we human beings should be efficient workers who maximally contribute to the economy/society/etc.

Regarding the first point, Zhuangzi argues against the Confucian exhortation to conformism, expressed in clothes, eating habits, etiquette and other things. We see in Book 7 the following enigmatic story of what happens if well-meaning people help a disabled person by making him conform.

The emperor of the South Sea was called Shu [Brief], the emperor of the North Sea was called Hu [Sudden], and the emperor of the central region was called Hun-tun [Chaos]. Shu and Hu from time to time came together for a meeting in the territory of Hun-tun, and Hun-tun treated them very generously. Shu and Hu discussed how they could repay his kindness. “All men,” they said, “have seven openings so they can see, hear, eat, and breathe. But Hun-tun alone doesn’t have any. Let’s trying boring him some!”

Every day they bored another hole, and on the seventh day Hun-tun died.

Zhuangzi, book 7

What a terrible thing to happen to Hun-tun! The original word for kindness was “德” or virtue, a thick concept in pre-Qin philosophy that means a kind of inner charisma and goodness that radiates outward. Hun-tun has inner virtue and charisma, as well as generosity. But to repay him for this, the two well-meaning emperors end up killing him.

Now, Zhuangzi challenges part of the philosophical plumbing of his days, but we can see this kind of plumbing very much today. In American society, in spite of the high degree of individualism there is a very narrow notion of what being a successful person looks like: thin, young, university-educated, wealthy. All the while, fat people are being withheld medical treatment and shamed, or unhelpfully told to “lose weight”, the ideal of the slim, athletic body held up as the only body worthy to show in the media. Our teeth are being straightened at great cost with orthodontic treatments. Our eyesight and hearing is correcte, preferably by unobstrusive and invisible hearing aids and contact lenses.

Zhuangzi makes a link between moral conformity and physical conformity, and both he deems to be bad features. Hence, the remark at the end of the passage of Shu “With a crippled body, he’s still able to look after himself and finish out the years Heaven gave him. How much better, then, if he had crippled virtue!

A figure is pushed in a wheelchair. A painting by a Chinese artist, ca. 1850.
Chinese painting of a man in a wheelchair, ca 1850. Wellcome collection

The second way in which Zhuangzi challenges ableist narratives is by challenging that we all have to be optimally useful. Sometimes being useless is better, and numerous passages in the Zhuangzi celebrate the good of a life lived for its own sake, not because it would be helpful for us to achieve some end. This includes animal lives and even plant lives. In Book 1, Zhuangzi’s friend Huizi complains about a gnarled tree that he can’t use for carpentry and that it is too big to remove. Zhuangzi replies

Now You have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?

Zhuangzi, book 1

Much like the magnificent gnarled tree, disabled bodies challenge the tired utilitarian calculus that underlie our daily existence. Re-reading the Zhuangzi (as I have done several times now), I think this is perhaps the most radical aspect of Zhuangzi. We are so much trained today, as pre-Qin authors seemed to be too, to think of our lives as serving a purpose, to be economically active, and useful. Even ideas such as universal basic income are framed in terms of this usefulness, e.g., we should instate a UBI because it would be more efficient to give financial support, because it would give people more freedom to experiment (and hence offer them a chance to be economically more successful).

But, at the end of the day, all that efficiency and conformity doesn’t make us happy. Nobody on their deathbed says “At least I was economically very useful”. Zhuangzi saw that if you celebrate disability–not merely tolerate it but celebrate it–you also challenge all the related philosophical ideas that give rise to ableism. For this reason, Zhuangzi still challenges us today and is as relevant as he was in pre-Qin China.

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