Zhang Haidi and the ‘Troublesome’ Female Body in Chinese Literature and Discourse

November 13, 2017


When Zhang Haidi succeeded Deng Pufang, as Chair of the China Disabled Person’s Federation (CDPF) in 2008, she became the most high-profile disabled political leader in China. At the time, author and brand consultant Yang Songlin attempted to assess the significance of her promotion: ‘I believe that is a truly great event; it symbolises the birth of the “Chinese dream” and another step forward in social progress; it has momentous significance. How this was managed by a weak girl is the result of the immense social influence of Zhang Haidi the person.’ Her election as the figurehead of the CDPF – the leading national organisation that aims to represent the interests of disabled people around the country – certainly revealed the extent of her political appeal. For over 30 years Zhang Haidi had arguably been the most recognisable and recognised disabled person in China. Her work as an advocate for disability rights had seen her lauded domestically and internationally; her work as a fiction writer, translator and essayist had afforded her membership of the prestigious National Committee of the Chinese Writers’ Association. But now she would rank among the highest leadership of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a leadership that was for the most part male, and, as far as can be ascertained, 100% non-disabled. Perhaps this was the beginning of a ‘new era’ for disability and disabled women in China?


Yet, for all of these achievements, Yang Songlin’s ebullient assessment touches on the seeming contradiction (interestingly, both ableist and chauvinist in equal measure) at the very heart of Zhang Haidi’s meteoric rise to fame – how was all of this managed by ‘a weak girl’? Plucked from obscurity in 1981, Zhang Haidi (then aged 28) was quickly catapulted to a level of fame comparable to that of socialist stalwart Lei Feng. According to all reports at the time, she had triumphed over the tragedy of her impairment (spinal complications as a young child had left her paralysed from the waist down); she had embraced the spirit of socialism to educate herself at home (she had been unable to attend school because of her disability); she had gone above and beyond what was expected of any able-bodied person to prove that she was a productive member of society (she had taught herself numerous foreign languages and had found employment at her local radio station)! She was a new model for the new age, and young people around the country were quickly exhorted to ‘Learn from Comrade Zhang Haidi’!


Zhang Haidi and her remarkable story of ‘overcoming’ disability would provide not just a framework but also a language for understanding the significance of a disabled life in the post-Mao period. This is what I like to call the ‘Zhang Haidi effect’. Although her narrative clearly built on earlier stories of revolutionary service that came before her, its re-crafting in the new language of an increasingly neoliberal era meant that those traditionally considered ‘weak’ could be used to represent the ‘strong’ of new China; those formally referred to as ‘useless’ could become ‘useful’ and contribute to the new society. The ‘troublesome’ nature of her disabled body, which was without fail outlined in great detail at the start of every article about her, would highlight the great distance she had travelled and the vast obstacles she had overcome. Even the most intimate of details would be laid bare – in numerous articles, for example, she is said to have refrained from drinking or consuming liquid-like food to avoid soiling herself. Imagine the same or similar being included in pieces about Lei Feng… difficult, right?


In 1991, a decade on from her first appearance, Zhang Haidi’s debut novel Dreams from a Wheelchair was published, offering her the chance to reclaim ownership of her story. Set in the years leading up to, during and following the Cultural Revolution, the novel focuses on the life of a young girl, Fang Dan, and incorporates many of the details of Zhang Haidi’s life as told and retold in the Chinese media over the years. Feelings of shame at her ‘misshapen’ feet, frustration with her paralysed legs, and an oft all-consuming fear of isolation and uselessness are interwoven with Fang Dan’s everyday experiences as young girl growing up during a tumultuous time in China’s modern history. Her story is naturally humanised and nuanced by first-hand experience, but her disabled body is never celebrated – it is still posited firmly as the problem to be overcome by determination and spirit. And so, although there are elements to the story that complicated the state narrative of disability there remained a great deal of consonance.


Numerous national awards for literature and subsequent listing among the books for patriotic education assured Dreams from a Wheelchair a place in literary and political history. It has also provided a ready model for writing about disabled bodies. What is notable, however, is that such writing is often highly gendered. Regardless of whether a disabled woman is the author or the subject, she is more likely to expose herself or be exposed to a more intimate gaze. ‘The pain of being doubly incontinent and unable to care for myself affected me deeply,’ writes Yin Shujun in her 2012 memoir Facing Down Death, which narrates the story of her disablement after being knocked down by a car. ‘A lack of control over defecation, soaking the nappy at any moment, even soiling the bedsheets; each time it happened I detested my body. I had always loved cleanliness and never imagined that I would be like this. One traffic accident had brought me unending suffering…. I regularly felt down there to see if the nappy was wet or not; it was almost like I had developed full-on OCD. What’s more, I couldn’t sleep at night for fear that, if I did, the urine would seep out and soak the bedsheets.’


Such exposure of a woman’s personal bodily space, albeit self-narrated in this case, feels intrusive and voyeuristic. Yet, it is clearly part of the way in which disabled women have been encouraged to tell the stories of their body; it doesn’t appear to happen in such intimate, scatological detail in similar writing by disabled men. Writing by women about their bodies and their bodily experiences is, of course, nothing new to China. In her illuminating piece on ‘Women Writing, Women’s Writing’ in this issue, Wendy Larson highlights the potential conflicts that have arisen across the past 100 or so year when women have written and, more particularly, when women have written about their own gendered experiences. The so-called ‘beauty writers’ Wei Hui and Mian, whose heavily semi-autobiographical writing of the late 1990s and early 2000s reflected the ambiguities of being writers, women and sexual beings, illustrate these potential conflicts very well. Their most notable (and, domestically at least, notorious) efforts at what would become collectively known as ‘body writing’ – Shanghai Baby and Candy, respectively – explore the way in which the female body could be both celebrated and loathed, liberated and exploited.


Literary and other writing can, and indeed should, provide the foundation for embodied experiences, both good and bad. Like the narrator of Mian Mian’s Candy, who openly articulates her desire to ‘find a way of writing that’s as close to the body as possible’, Zhang Haidi, Yin Shujun and other disabled women writers have explored their own form of ‘body writing’. Unlike the ‘beauty writers’, however, the ‘troublesome’ nature of the female disabled body offers little opportunity for celebration and liberation, let alone sexuality; theirs are bodies to be loathed, mended or overcome, and the stories of their bodies prove ripe for exploitation. Writing about disabled bodies and bodily experiences involves a complex negotiation between private experience and public expression and, while their writing may give voice to their disabled bodies, internalisation of broader discourses of disability may determine the eventual shaping of those narratives. As a consequence, they find themselves receiving social acclaim, and even political approval, for telling a story that ultimately reinforces many of the prejudices and disabling social relations they had perhaps hoped to challenge in their writing. Whether the appointment of more senior political and cultural figures will eventually begin to offer a new space for disabled women in China to celebrate their bodies, or whether the ‘troublesome’ disabled female body will prove too compelling a socio-political story, only time will tell.

Sarah Dauncey is Associate Professor at the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham. She has published extensively on the social impact and cultural representations of disability in China, and is author of the forthcoming book Disability in China: Citizenship, Identity and Culture (Cambridge University Press). She tweets @chinesesarah. Image credit: Zhangxingshizu







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