China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
Judging from missionary accounts, missionaries were the first to treat blindness and deafness as disabilities and to turn afflicted children into useful members of society. Yet if one looks at the eighteenth century novel Honglou meng, one can see that in the case of the blind, at least, a niche for them had already been devised. In chapter 39, we learn of “blind ballad singers, who sometimes visited the house.” In chapter 54 we witness an extended conversation between Grandmother Jia and two blind female ballad singers, which leads into Grandmother Jia’s famous disquisition on the clichés of romantic fiction. In chapter 62, we hear of a larger number of blind ballad singers, both male and female, who show up to offer birthday congratulations to Baoyu. We are told that these singers were “regularly patronized by the household.” What this evidence suggests is that somehow blind people managed to learn how to sing ballads and to play musical instruments in traditional China and that great families like the Jias patronized them. When it comes to deafness, however, Honglou meng yields no such evidence. Deaf characters are deaf because they are old, and they merely block the smooth passage of information in chapters 33 and 103. The paper will offer a picture of the blind ballad singer as drawn from the novel and will contrast it with missionary images of China’s treatment of the blind.