Peoples of China

Disability and the Three Traditional Chinese Belief Systems

Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism

Until recent decades, Chinese society labeled individuals with disabilities as canfei ren, literally “disabled garbage people.” Now, the official term is canji ren, literally “disabled sick people,” although the Chinese government removes “sick” when providing an English translation. Numerous citizens will avoid canfei or canji all together and say “the person who cannot see” or “the person who cannot walk,” which is the Chinese equivalent to “person first language.”[1] At least verbally, the situation in China for individuals with disabilities is improving. However, discrimination is still rampant. The question is why.

Every action—whether good or bad—stems from belief. Beliefs form stereotypes which in turn lead to prejudice and discrimination (Ditchman et al.). Therefore, scholars are examining Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism to uncover any hidden cultural prejudice and stereotypes towards people with disabilities.

Granted, researchers recognize that the Communist government has influenced the collective mindset, especially since the government controls media. Indeed, as researchers point out, the mass media has played a substantial role in shaping public attitudes and belief (Lu, Aldrich & Shi). In the 1980s and 1990s, the Chinese media attempted to raise awareness about people with disabilities to support the development of the China Disabled Person’s Federation, which officially formed in 1988.

Also, Christianity, which is growing in numbers and influence among the Han Chinese today (Starr), and societies with Christian traditions have yet to eliminate discrimination as disability advocates can underscore (Eiesland; Terrell). Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism have had strong roots in China for thousands of years. These three interwoven belief systems strongly influence the Chinese collective culture, including society’s view of disabilities. This article aims to present the main tenets of these beliefs as they relate to disabilities. The purpose is not to point fingers but to start a dialog about possible interventions.


Out of the three traditional systems of thought, Buddhism is arguably the most organized. However, Buddhism itself is not a uniform belief. There are two distinct Buddhist traditions: the Theravada and the Mahayana (Lyu). Some scholars add Lama (Tibetan) Buddhism as a third. Most Chinese Buddhists are Mahayana; however, most Chinese “Buddhists” whom this writer has met are merely cultural Buddhists, meaning that they will go to temples or perform other Buddhist rituals but will only do so for good luck or fortune. Nonetheless, most devout Buddhists believe that people can find a path to supreme enlightenment (Lam et al., 2010). A Buddhist disability scholar, Darla Schumm (2010), calls this journey a “path of compassion,” which encompasses interdependence. All objects and people are dependent on each other. Accordingly, “suffering and healing are simultaneously opportunities for offering and receiving compassion”(Schumm (2010), p. 133). She argues that a good Buddhist will give, forgive and deliver Buddha’s teachings to others while trying to reduce suffering. From this perspective, Buddhists should treat people with disabilities well, and in fact, there are many Buddhist groups in China that are serving families affected by disability.

A reason many individuals blame Buddhism for prejudice against disabilities relates to karma and reincarnation. In its simplicity, the idea of karma is this: every good action will receive positive results and every bad action will receive negative consequences. Therefore, some individuals claim that Buddhism sees disability as a punishment for past wrongdoings. In this thinking, a reincarnated man with a disability indicates a man who deserves punishment. Many researchers have concluded that this understanding intensifies stigma and discrimination.

However, Schumm (2010) and other Buddhist scholars indicate that this understanding of karma is an incorrect interpretation. Karma is very complex, and a human form in one’s past life is only one possibility out of six realms. According to this understanding, a reincarnated person may well have been something other than human in his previous life. Therefore, no one can determine what kind of life an individual with a disability once lived.

Perhaps more significant than the karmic debate itself, scholars raise a question about public stigma and ignorance. Even if Buddhist karmic ideas are not to blame for stereotypes and prejudice against disabilities, has the Chinese culture embraced such an understanding? Buddhist scholars assert that individuals who blame their prejudice on Buddhism are saying more about their perception of Buddhism, as they know it, than what Buddhism actually teaches. In other words, they argue the main culprit of discrimination is ignorance and not Buddhism itself. Especially in rural areas where formal education can be minimal, misunderstandings abound. For example, there is a cultural belief that a mother will give her unborn baby epilepsy if she eats lamb during pregnancy. Education is necessary to combat such ignorance.


In Taoism, there is no central key message or single founder. Still, Taoism has had profound influence on Chinese culture. For instance, the Tao or “the path” has strongly shaped Chinese traditional medicine. Taoists believe humans should be in harmony with nature and with each other in an uncertain world with changing ambiguities. Disability results from “a disharmonious fusion of nature and man” (Lam et al., 2006, p. 274).

The concern for disability advocates is that while vague and indirect, Taoism can reinforce prejudice against disability. An individual with a disability can expose an imbalance, a problem that needs to be fixed and realigned. Similar to the perspective of the medical or moral model, the primary problem lies within the person. However, scholars like Schumm and Stolzfus would recoil at these model comparisons and argue Taoism reduces stigma. Taoists believe all individuals live in ambiguity, no matter what their ability or lack of ability is. Therefore, the Tao offers encouragement and balance to people with disabilities as they deal with the uncertainties of life. Certainly, the end result for individuals with disabilities is debatable, but for Taoists, the crucial goal of healing is harmony and balance of the yin and yang.


Disability advocates are most troubled by Confucianism (Lam et al., 2010), which is regaining prominence in China. Confucianists believe that social order and harmony overpower everything else, even at the expense of one’s own opinions, beliefs or values (Lam et al., 2006). This social idea opposes Western individualism. It directly relates to the concept of “face”, which has been the focus of much stigma research. There is no direct Western equivalent—and therefore vulnerable to being misunderstood—but “face” involves social worth, reputation and image as it relates to both personal and social relationships in China. It mixes guanxi or formal relationships with strict rules of giving and receiving favors to build hierarchical social power (Lam et al., 2010). The more power one has, the more that person will have “the capacity to modify others’ states” (Greer & Kle, p.1032). A faceless individual or group is powerless to interact with society. A disability or any other kind of deformity is a serious loss of face, damaging the social power of the family. “Thus the Chinese rule: honor one, honor all—disgrace one, disgrace all” (Lam et al., 2010, p. 37).


In conclusion, stigma literature looks to pre-communist China to find the origins of such labels as canfei ren, “garbage people” (Kohrman). The motivation behind such a push is to hypothesize ways to reduce stigma towards people affected by disabilities (Ip et al.). This endeavor is complex, requiring much sensitivity to cultural nuances. Unfortunately, it is easy to oversimplify traditional Chinese belief systems, especially from a Western perspective. This writer purposes not to “fix” these traditional Chinese beliefs or even to suggest a perfect understanding of their tenets. Rather, this article aims to encourage an honest dialog with humble sensitivity. To combat prejudice and discrimination against disabilities in China, all parties must come together, unified in purpose and compassion.


Ditchman, N., Werner, S., Kosyluk, K., Jones, N., Elg, B., & Corrigan, P. (2013). “Stigma and Intellectual Disability: Potential Application of Mental Illness Research.” Rehabilitation Psychology, 58 (2), 206-216.

Greer, L. &Kle, G. (2010). “Equality Versus Differentiation: The Effects of Power Dispersion on Group Interaction.” Journal of Applied Psychology, 95 (6), 1032-1044.

Ip, M. L., St Louis, K., Myers, F. &Xue, S. (2012). “Stuttering Attitudes in Hong Kong and Adjacent Mainland China.” International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 14 (6), 543-556.

Kohrman, M. (2005). Bodies of Difference: Experiences of Disability and Institutional Advocacy in the Making of Modern China. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Lam, C., Tsang, H., Chan, F. & Corrigan, P. (2006). “Chinese and American Perspectives on Stigma.” Rehabilitation Education, 20 (4), 269-279.

Lam, C., Tsang, H., Corrigan, P., Lee, Y. T., Angell, B., Shi, K., et al. (2010). “Chinese Lay Theory and Mental Illness Stigma: Implications for Research and Practices.” Journal of Rehabilitation, 76 (1), 35-40.

Lu, J., Aldrich, J. & Shi, T. (2014). “Revisiting Media Effects in Authoritarian Societies:     Democratic Conceptions, Collectivistic Norms, and Media Access in Urban China.” Politics & Society, 42 (2), 253-283.

Lyu, S. (2012). “Development and Mission of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism in an Era of Globalization.” Religion East & West, 11, 45-51.

Schumm, D. (2010). “Reimaging Disability.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 26 (2), 132-137.

Schumm, D. &Stolzfus, M. (2011). “Beyond Models: Some Tentative Daoist Contributions to Disability Studies.” Disabilities Quarterly, 31 (1), 7.

Starr, C. (2013). “Classroom Christianity: How Theology is Flourishing in China.” Christian Century. 130 (3), 28-31.

Terrell, V. (2012). “Celebrating Just Living with Disability in the Body of Christ.” Ecumenical Review, 64 (4), 562-574.


  1. ^ Person first language is the most sensitive way to talk about disabilities. People often use the disability to describe the whole person and may remark, for example, “He’s a Down’s kid.” Person first language is an alternative way to talk about children’s disabilities that places the focus on the person and not the disability. It gives the person’s name (or pronoun) first followed with the appropriate verb and then the name of the disability: David has Down’s Syndrome. For further information go to
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Kevin Avery

Kevin Avery is a freelance writer with an interest in social science, cross-cultural communication and disability advocacy.View Full Bio