Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Skill and Disability in Zhuangzi

Shelley Tremain and the NewAPPS "ableism" controversy have me thinking about disability. One of the most interesting philosophers of disability, rarely mentioned in this connection, is the ancient Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi.

At first blush, Zhuangzi might seem an unlikely critic of ableism (prejudice against people with disabilities). Two of the most visible recent Anglophone interpreters of Chinese philosophy, A.C. Graham and P.J. Ivanhoe both defend "skillfulness" interpretations of Zhuangzi, according to which what Zhuangzi most values is a kind of skillful responsiveness to the world that goes beyond what can be captured in words -- like the skill of a diver or a master wheelwright. You might think, then, that Zhuangzi's ideal would be the renowned, competitive athlete or the strong, healthy, elite craftworker (cf. early Yangism which emphasizes preserving the body; N.B. neither Graham nor Ivanhoe take the skillfulness interpretation in this direction).

I've criticized the skillfulness interpretation of Zhuangzi twice already on this blog. What I want to highlight now is how frequently Zhuangzi offers disabled people as positive exemplars, and how that might connect to his views about skill and conventional values.

The number of physically disabled exemplars is quite striking, given the brevity of the core text (Ch. 1-7). Here are some (Ziporyn, trans., with a couple modifications):

* When Gongwen Xuan saw the Commander of the Right he was astonished. "What manner of man are you, that you are so singularly one-legged? Is this the doing of Heaven or of man?" He answered, "It is of Heaven, not man. When Heaven generates any 'this,' it always makes it singular, but man groups every appearance with something else" (3.6).

* In the expiation ceremony, cows with white spots, pigs with upturned snouts, and humans with hemorrhoids are considered unfit to be offered as sacrifices to the river god. All shamans know this, and they thus regard these as creatures of bad fortune. But this is exactly why the Spirit Man regards them as creatures of very good fortune indeed! (4.18)

* Now Shu the Discombobulated was like this: his chin was tucked into his navel, his shoulders towered over the crown of his head, his ponytail pointed toward the sky, his five internal organs were at the top of him, his thigh bones took the place of his ribs. With sewing and washing, he could make enough to fill his mouth.... When the authorities called for troops... his chronic condition exempted him from service. When the authorities handed out rations to the disabled, he got three large measures of grain and ten bundles of firewood. A discombobulated physical form was sufficient to allow him to nourish his body... And how much more can be accomplished with discombobulated Virtue! (4.18)

* In the state of Lu there was a man called Wang Tai whose foot had been chopped off as a punishment. Yet somehow he had as many followers are Confucius himself. Chang Ji questioned Confucius about it. "Wang Tai is a one-footed ex-con, and yet his followers divide the state of Lu with you, Master. When he stands he offers no instructions, and when he sits he gives no opinions. And yet, they go to him empty and return filled.... What kind of man is he?" Confucius said, "That man... is a sage. Only my procrastination has kept me from going to follow him myself" (5.1-5.2)

* "Many two-footed people laugh at me for having one foot, which always used to infuriate me. But as soon as I arrived here at our master's place, my rage fell away.... I have studied under him for nineteen years and never once have I been aware that I was one-footed. Here you and I wander together beyond shapes and bodies -- is it not wrong of you to seek me within a particular body and shape?" (5.12)

* Duke Ai of Lu consulted with Confucius, saying, "There's this ugly man in Wei named Horsehead Humpback. When men are with him, they can think of nothing else and find themselves unable to depart. When women see him, they plead with their parents, saying they would rather be this man's concubine than any other man's wife.... And yet he's never been heard to initiate anything of his own with them, instead just chiming in with whatever they're already doing. He has no position of power... and no stash of wealth... and on top of that he's ugly enough to startle all the world.... In the end I prevailed upon him to accept control of the state. But before long he left me and vanished. I was terribly depressed, as if a loved one had died, unable to take any pleasure in my power. What kind of man is this?" (5.13).

* Suddenly, Ziyu took ill. Ziji went to see him. Ziyu said, "How great is the Creator of Things, making me all tangled up like this!" For his chin was tucked into his navel, his shoulders towered over the crown of his head, his ponytail pointed toward the sky.... He hobbled over to the well to get a look at his reflection. "Wow!" he said. "The Creator of Things has really gone and tangled me up!" Ziji said, "Do you dislike it?" Ziyu said, "Not at all. What is there to dislike? Perhaps he will transform my left arm into a rooster; thereby I'll be announcing the dawn.... Perhaps he will transform my ass into wheels and my spirit into a horse; thereby I'll be riding along -- will I need any other vehicle?" (6.39)
Now you might or you might not like how Zhuangzi is portraying disability in these passages; regardless it's clear that disability plays a substantial role in Zhuangzi's thinking.

I believe that Zhuangzi's positive portrayal of disabled people is of a piece with his positive portrayal of other disvalued groups in his era, including women, criminals, members of remote tribes, and people practicing the "lower" crafts, and that this in turn fits with his rejection of conventional evaluations generally, including the conventional evaluations of the four main schools of thought to which he reacted: the Confucians (valuing duty to family and state), the Mohists (valuing usefulness and practical benefit), the Yangists (valuing health and long life), and the logicians (valuing clear categorization and rational thought).

But I think Zhuangzi's emphasis on disability also has a specific connection to what I view as his critique of skill. Skillful action implies a standard of success and failure; and Zhuangzi is suspicious of such standards. The weasel is great at catching rats, but ends up dead in a net (1.14); Huizi was a great master of logic and Zhao Wen of the zither, but it is not clear whether they really accomplished anything worthwhile (2.27); archery contests start as tests of skill but devolve into wrangling (4.14). So what is successful by one standard fails by another. It's not that all these activities fail by the one true, absolute standard. Rather, there is no one true, absolute standard for Zhuangzi. Zhuangzi even repeatedly challenges the general assumption that life is preferable to death (3.7, 6.25, 6.46-47, 2.41 ["How do I know that in hating death I am not like an orphan who left home in youth and no longer knows the way back?"]).

By presenting disabled people as equal to or even superior to the non-disabled people around them, Zhuangzi is challenging conventional ideas about success and failure, about what is good and what is bad, and about what skills and abilities are worth having.

Zhuangzi also gives us this striking story about trying to force a standard appearance and set of abilities upon an unusual person:

The emperor of the southern sea was called Swoosh. The emperor of the northern sea was called Oblivion. The emperor of the middle was called Chaos. Swoosh and Oblivion would sometimes meet in the territory of Chaos, who always attended to them quite well. They decided to repay Chaos for his virtue. "All men have seven holes in them, by means of which they see, hear, eat, and breathe," they said. "But this one alone has none. Let's drill him some." So each day they drilled another hole. After seven days, Chaos was dead (7.14-15).
It is on this note that the Inner Chapters, the authentic core of the Zhuangzi, ends.

Revised Sept. 11


Shelley said...

Thanks very much for this post, Eric. I enjoyed it very much and appreciate that you have directed me (and others) to the work of a non-Western disabled philosopher of which I was unaware.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

And thanks again to you, Shelley, for helping me appreciate the importance and interest of philosophical work on disability!