Stuttered Speech and Moral Intent Disability and Elite Identity Construction in Early Imperial China

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Mark G. Pitner



When examining the history of early imperial China one is struck by the number of important personages, from Han Feizi 韓非子 (ca. 280–ca. 233 B.C.E.) and Yang Xiong 揚雄 (53 B.C.E.–18 C.E.) to Guo Pu 郭璞 (276–324) and Wang Wei 王微 (415–453), who are described in biographical records as kouji 口吃 (disfluent). This paper contextualizes these descriptions by examining both the hermeneutical tradition regarding the language used to describe this condition and its evolving understanding in the traditional Chinese medical records. These two broad bodies of social understanding provide a compelling tool for interpreting and contextualizing the many descriptions of individuals in the early imperial biographical tradition. It becomes clear when taken in this larger context and as a collective that this condition is not just a random oddity to be included in a biography as merely an outlying feature of an individual, but that disfluency was understood in the much more highly charged realm of language production and moral practice. It spoke to the long-standing tension over rhetorical skill versus moral intent, form versus content. Finally, what also emerges from the collective is a clearer understanding of the range of strategies that individuals with this disability found to navigate the specific social context of early imperial elite culture. It is out of these dual views, collective-moral and individual-functional, that this study provides insights into the lives of these highly influential individuals and adds layers to our understanding of the social and medical context for individuals with disabilities in early imperial China.

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