Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1991

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SELF-DETERMINATION OF BLIND WORKERS IN CHINESE GUILDS

by C. Edwin Vaughan, Ph.D.

Editor's Note: This following article was published in the April, 1988 Braille Monitor.

(Dr. Vaughan is Professor of Sociology at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He is also one of the leaders of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri.)

In the United States the history of blind people has been characterized by the domination of agency-based programs. Until recently blind people themselves had little influence on the direction of agency programs and philosophy. The struggle is now intense, as blind people require agencies to provide programs and activities consistent with goals of independent living and full participation in society. In the United States most of the—professional—writing about rehabilitation and blindness describes narrowly focused inventions or programs aimed at helping blind people adjust to the world as seen by blindness professionals.

Almost never do we see articles describing self-determination alternatives for organizing opportunities for the blind. This article provides an historical and comparative perspective of one instance of self-determination by blind people—The Guild of the Three Emperors, a guild of blind entertainers in Beyshing, China. As early as ancient Rome and Greece individuals of like interests organized themselves into guilds in order to more efficiently pursue religious, social, or economic concerns. Guilds were frequently organized to protect the interests of members, either from forces within a society where government was weak, or from government itself when its representatives could easily exploit individuals.

In medieval Europe many occupational areas were organized as guilds for either craftsmen or merchants. These guilds regulated access to employment opportunities and provided training to enable individuals to enter and progress to higher levels of employment. In medieval China for at least 1,000 years guilds of craftsmen, workers, and merchants were common. Their purpose was to prevent exploitation from government officials and to provide internal regulation of trade and craft areas of employment. There was in Beyshing, formerly Peking, a guild comprised of blind persons who made a career of singing, entertaining, and storytelling. Parents would seek to place a young blind son into this guild so that he might learn a trade for his future lifelong employment. As he mastered the required skills, he would rise in status in the guild to the level of master.

Blind guild members in China were self-governing. The guild was governed by a board of forty-eight members of whom forty-seven were blind. The secretary was the only sighted person. The guild governed itself with regard to membership, including the discipline of members, the charges for services, and the recruitment of new members into the guild. The guild met twice each year, and, not unlike some of our annual conventions, the meetings lasted until 5:00 a.m.

"The Gild of the Blind, who make a business of singing, storytelling, and entertaining holds its meetings on the 2nd of the 3rd month and the 8th of the 9th month, celebrating the Chinese festivals on the 3rd of the 3rd moon and the 9th of the 9th moon, as the meeting lasts until 5 o'clock the next morning. It was our good fortune to be given the privilege of attending one of these meetings. As the gild has no gild hall, it borrows the Ching Chung Miao, a temple in South City outside of Hatamen, and there, all day long, a constant stream of blind men was coming and going. They were greeting their friends, discussing politics and conditions of business, and enjoying the tea and cakes that had been provided; and it was a strange sight to see so many blind people together, each with his long bamboo cane, tapping, tapping, tapping, as they moved around the hall."1

Note the use of long bamboo canes for mobility purposes. Had they been taught by sighted, "credentialed," orientation and mobility specialists? The field work on which these observations were based was completed by 1925. Apparently custodial treatment was not the dominant form; the blind master assumed no responsibility for the safety of blind apprentices. A special understanding relieved the master from any responsibility for his blind students who might possibly be injured in the course of their training.2

Self-discipline characterized this guild. Blind members who broke the guild rules were punished by other guild members, punishment ranging from seventy to one hundred strokes with the bamboo cane. Younger members were punished by the cane while older members were required to pay a fine.

The guild was named the Three Emperors Association after its three patron gods: The God of Heaven, The God of Earth, and The God of Men.3 After the initial religious ritual the meeting progressed with elements that may strike a familiar note:

"After all forty-eight of the officers had worshiped before the gods, the musicians gave a two-hour concert with their best songs and music. Any who had written new songs during the past year were called upon to give them at the time. Following the concert, the business meeting was held from 12 to 2. It consisted of reports and the discussion of methods for strengthening the gild, and of ways and means for making the business of the blind entertainers more prosperous. At the end of the meeting a report giving a statement of the condition of the gild, a resum of the business the past year, and the names of all the officers, musicians, committeemen, and subscribers was burned on the alter so the gods might have a complete report of the work and development of the gild."4

The book from which these remarks are drawn had no special interest in blindness. We know little about the condition of the blind in the China of that day except for that of guild members. We do learn that this group of blind workers was self-determining. Such examples from the past and other cultures can give us a vantage point more clearly to view modern day custodialism.

1. Burgess, John Stewart. 1928. The Guilds of Peking. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 103.
2. Ibid., p. 160.
3. Ibid.,
p. 104.
4. Ibid., p. 105.

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