Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Book Review

Matthew Kohrman. Bodies of Difference. Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005, 213 pp. Paper 0-520-22645-3

Reviewed by Miles Beauchamp, Alliant International University

Matthew Kohrman's Bodies of Difference. Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China examines disabilities and the changing perceptions of disabilities within China and how those changes are converging as China becomes a world power and contemporizes itself in the world's social arenas.

The People's Republic of China (PRC) presents an interesting dichotomy (or dichotomies) — it has existed for thousands of years — in one state or another — and yet it's rather new in its non-feudal, caring and governing its citizen's methods and its new position on the world stage. Segments of Chinese culture(s) seem changeless, yet are in constant flux–particularly those segments that relate to society and economics.

Due to the decades of rigidly controlled borders and Mao/communism, and how the Western world reacted to and dealt with that, the PRC was viewed as an extreme (particularly because of its size) example of "otherness" of the world's nations. Much of that "otherness" undoubtedly came from the mindset of democratic nations and nations in close proximity to China who were fearful of a united, non-feudal China with a strong central government that was feeling powerful after the close of World War II.

But while a large part of the world was looking with certain trepidation at China, the nation was looking inward and transforming itself. This is not to say that there were no problems–there certainly were with the government refusing to sanction non-communist political parties or, for that matter, expressed thought outside the "official line." But the very government that was doing that was, itself, being changed from both the inside (as it struggled to care for its citizens) and from world economics. What western opinion could not change, macro-economics and progressive social thought (i.e. acceptance of contemporary medicine, less control of extra-border media, and a view of social justice that included how the "others" among them, i.e. the disabled, were treated) could.

Into this maelstrom of change, Kohrman examines the shifting perceptions of disability in the PRC and how those shifting perceptions have directed official and personal actions toward disabilities and the disabled. In his Preface, he states that, "the otherness that comprises the focus in this text is what Mandarin speakers in China increasingly refer to as canji and what more and more English speakers around the world refer to as "disability." He also notes that "This book is about the production of a new state bureaucracy within a national and international context" (p. ix). It is all that to be sure, and much more. To the author's credit, he does not allow what China was to impact his view of what China is becoming. And what China is struggling to become, beyond the world's perception, is a nation that is aware of, and responsive to (within its current means) its "other" citizens. That being said, in post-Mao China some changes are occurring at glacier-like speed. Too many entities are struggling against change because change puts them at risk — at risk of their job, their family economics, their political positions. Kohrman notes all of this; his viewpoints of China and what the nation is doing with its institutions are expressed clearly, succinctly, and without trepidation. That his work is important is apparent if for no other reason than it allows a clear view into a nation struggling to allow a large segment of the populace to simply be what it chooses to be within the economic and political constrictions in place (even as those constrictions are going through their own changes).

But there are other reasons for the work's value as well. The book furthers gender, ethnographic, anthropologic and political theories within the discourses of international disability studies. Kohrman's text is a significant addition to the canon.

Copyright (c) 2006 Miles Beauchamp

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