Ideologies and its Cultural Impact on Disability in China

I aim to examine the detriments and benefits of a society structured by ideology.

One of the reasons that ideology is complicated in the structure of society is because of tradition. Traditions carry a sense of history and cultural importance, though they can become toxic if they are exceedingly glamorized. Especially since ideologies are often ancient ways of maintaining power over vulnerable minorities. Thus, when ideologies have a historical presence, they can be labeled as traditions which become rooted in culture, and by extension influence the identity and mentality of its people.

Sources of Understanding

I am exploring China’s cultural and ideological relationship with the disability community through James Palmer’s article “Crippling Injustice.”

These are the four ideologies that will be examined in Chinese society.

Defining Ideologies

Although some might label Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and Christianity as religion; in this analysis they will be referred to as ideologies since they all have elements of beliefs, philosophy, and religion.


According to Palmer’s article, Confucianism is one of the most structurally and culturally detrimental ideologies towards individuals with disabilities. This is because of the patriarchal Confucian notion of lineage that converges morality and biology. Thus the birth of a baby with disabilities is assumed to be a product of the parents’ malevolent actions or spirituality. In this particular ideology, a congenital disability garners a far worser reaction of disgust than an individual whom acquired a disability later in life.

In the 20th century however, Confucianism became much more dangerous when it began to be infused with politics. As China became influenced by Western concepts such as eugenics and the “fears of failing national strength” (Palmer), the identity of a citizen became entertwined with a nation’s strength. Thus, by having disabilities, one is percieved to be a burden not only to their family, but also to their country.


In Chinese Buddhism, there is the belief that being born with a disability is viewed as a punishment from a past life. This creates a justification to discriminate against and dehumanize people with disabilties.

One of Palmer’s testimonies from China shares that when she witnessed the struggles of disabled children at an orphanage, she wanted to give them candy and money, but she was quickly stopped by the orphanage’s staff, “Don’t give them anything! They’re like this because they were wicked in their past life.”

The conflation of body and morality is also present in Buddhism through religious art. In order to depict a Buddha, there are list of strict rules about how his physical body should be portayed, such as making sure he is right-footed and has rounded ankles. Proportion and physical perfection become vital elements in recognizing a Buddha. This further implies that physical abnormality becomes associated with ill morality.


Christianity has a particularly interesting place in Chinese culture. In the 1920s, Christians were some of the first to organize disability organizations in China, although they initially began as medical missionary care.

One of the core ways that this ideology benefits individuals with disabilities is that a component of the realtionship between God and his people is that he made them “in his own image.” Thus, there is a level of acceptance and welcoming of a disabled body. However, there are the Bible’s own issues in pushing a cure-or-kill paradigm in its treatment of Jesus curing the blind.


The philosophy of Daoism is that everything has it’s own way of being, and can’t be measured by productivity or determined by biological normality.

In Zhuangzi, which is considered one of the core texts of Daoism, there is a variety of physical abnormalities among the Eight Immortals of the ideology. Their “diverse and messy” (Palmer) characteristics make the most eccentric and deformed dieties the most popular.

Individuals with disabilties that partake in Daoism — or elements of Daoism — are able to have a new perspective on their life. For example, Palmer shares the testimony of Little Ma who was a dancer that lost her ability to walk during an earthquake as a teenager. Initially, she wanted to die, but after being re-affirmed that so many people loved her she learned to accept it and now uses Daoist fortune books “to tell other people what will make them happy.”

Each of these ideologies have the power to shape the social perception of disability.

The grandfather painstakingly holds his grandson's foot, He Zili, who suffers from mental challenges. The family must physically restrain Zili because his mental state can occasionally result in violence.

The grandfather painstakingly holds his grandson’s foot, He Zili, who suffers from a mental disability. The family must physically restrain Zili because his mental state can occasionally result in violence.

Now, the role of ideology in China’s social and legal structure must be further examined.

In terms of laws, China maintains a striking image of progressiveness when it comes to disabilties. The main reason for this is because of the China’s Disabled People’s Federation (CDPF) and their movement for disability rights that began in 1988. Their chairman was Deng Pufang, who was the son of China’s paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping. Their immense political power and pressure led to the creation of some of the most progressive disability laws. These include disabled people’s entitlement to equal education, proper accessibility, and occupations.

Yet despite these laws, people with disabilities in China still face tremendous discrimination that is both legal and social. Take for example, the issue of unemployment for people with disabilities. Although there is a legal enforcement to employ people with disabilities, according to CDPF, 90% of business don’t comply with the law and accept the financial punishment. A manager of an eatery in Tangshang told Palmer that he wouldn’t hire people with disabilties because, “people are uncomfortable with the disabled. If they saw we had disabled waitresses, they wouldn’t come.” This exemplifies the toxicity of ideologies structuring society. Even with the legal victories of CDPF, because there are deeply ingrained traditionalist notions of morality and biology in the cultural ideologies, the negative perception perpetuates through social interactions.

Even the CDPF, as it became a part of the government, consists of increasingly less members that have disabilities. Instead the people who do have disabilities are given jobs as a mandate and are treated poorly by the co-workers. Palmer shares a testimony that requested anonymity, but is a deaf official that works in Hunan section of CDPF: “Most of my colleagues don’t take our work seriously. They just think disabled people are always asking for money.”

The Confucian notion of citizen’s body correlating with nation’s strength recently surfaced in Olympic 2008 Games in Beijing. Where is was discovered that Chinese police sweeped the streets of “undesirables” — most of these consisting of beggars with disabilties — before the Olympic Games, in order to have a “social cleansing.”

Thus, ideologies — often in the forms of tradition — continue to structure current-day societies. Since they are embedded in history, they become a part of our culture, and influence our identities and mentalities. Ideologies carry immense power, that is demonstrated in the way that they fuel an ableist sentiments through Confucianism and Buddhism. Yet there are benefits with ideologies like Daoism, who aid in developing a positive and humanizing perception of disability and embracing diversity wholeheartedly. If we can confront our traditions and recognize that the ideologies that created them are often used as a way to maintain power over the vulnerable, then maybe there can be hope for transforming a culture that so profoundly oppresses people with disabilties.

“Maybe there can be hope for transforming a culture that profoundly oppresses people with disabilties.”