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

Author:Pitner, Mark G.
Position:Essay
 
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[phrase omitted] A noble man desires to be clumsy in speaking and fleet in actions. (1) When examining the history of early imperial China one is struck by the number of important personages, from Han Feizi [phrase omitted] (ca. 280 - ca. 233 B.C.E.) to Guo Pu [phrase omitted] (276-324), who are described in biographical records as kouji [phrase omitted] or kouchi in modern pronunciation, that is to say, disfluent in speech. (2) This condition is often generalized as "stuttering" in English translations. While illness and disability were regular features of premodern China, as they are in our own society, this particular disability seems to have had a deeper importance and perhaps prevalence than other conditions. As this study will demonstrate, a strong link was made between disfluency and the perceived moral potency of those suffering from it. Indeed, as the quote from the Lun yu above reflects, there had long been a tension in the Chinese tradition between smooth talkers and an analogical counter-preference given to clumsy or disfluent speech. By extension, the disfluency, at least of those whose lives people the dynastic histories of early imperial China, was thought to be linked to their inner virtues and sentiments. In addition to biographical sources, the link between this condition and the sentiments stirred by moral righteousness is echoed in medical sources of the early imperial period. The medical texts not only help to elucidate the assumptions behind the biographical sources, they also provide us with details about how the causes and mechanics of the condition were understood at the time. Despite positing a link between disfluency and highly prized character attributes, these same sources reveal the real struggles faced by early Chinese elites with this condition. In addition to exploring how the biographical and medical sources represented the early Chinese understanding of disfluency, these sources provide rich insight into how those with this condition found a range of strategies to navigate the highly competitive elite spaces of the imperial court. In addition to individual experiences a number of patterns emerge from the biographies of these men. First, there is a strong distinction made between their success as orators in contrast to written composition. Second, it is clear that in early imperial China the central modern medical observation on disfluency, i.e., that this condition is variable, also holds true. In particular, many people suffering from this condition can sing and recite without any sign of disfluency, but find extemporaneous oral argumentation very challenging. In a social context where oral performance--both extemporaneous and recitation--was central to success for elite men, this condition was considered a formative piece of information in how these men were memorialized, understood, and evaluated.

Remarkably, there is a long and varied history of interest in disfluency in the West, including such broadly discussed figures as Moses and the Greek orator Demosthenes (384-322 B.C.E.). (3) These are accompanied by a range of attempts to understand why this condition occurs in the first place. From Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) there was general agreement that the tongue was the place and cause of disfluency. (4) Following this observation there was a range of cures proposed, from Demosthenes placing pebbles in his mouth to Bacon's use of wine to warm the tongue. (5) The Western tradition resonates with some aspects of the Chinese tradition, particularly the focus on the tongue as the organ of disfluency, the fluidity of terminology, as well as a distinct focus on the global state of the body and its relationship to the symptoms. Furthermore, much as in the Chinese tradition, those with this condition where highly successful in prepared or recited speech rather than extemporaneous speech. The latter of these parallels is worth exploring briefly. As noted above, Demosthenes was known for his discussion of how he treated his disfluent speech, but in addition to this his historical biography lingers on how he navigated the demands of public oratory in Athens:

Demosthenes was rarely heard to speak on the spur of the moment, but though the people often called upon him by name as he sat in the assembly, he would not come forward unless he had given thought to the question and was prepared to speak upon it. (6) Here the tension being highlighted is between recitation and extemporaneous speech. In ancient Greece, just as in early imperial China, elites were expected to demonstrate their character through their speaking abilities. The Chinese men we will examine in this paper, just like Demosthenes in Greece, confronted a range of social expectation that they had to find strategies around. In the case of Demosthenes, his restrained and selective engagement in oratory was seen as almost unfair. Here a clear distinction with the Chinese tradition emerges. Of course these are very different social contexts: while Demosthenes was circulating in the Athenian assembly, the figures we shall examine by and large navigated the Chinese imperial court. The Chinese court and elite society in general valued restraint and thoughtful responses, which was amplified by the context of the power of the imperial institutions over the individual. It is this context that we will examine via the lives of those specifically labeled as disfluent. (7)

This study will begin with an examination of the language of disfluency paired with textual examples. Next we will explore the arc of traditional Chinese medical observations on this condition. Finally, we will conclude with a detailed analysis of the biographies of the figures who were reported to have suffered from disfluency.

As with so much in early language there is a set of related terms that are linked in the hermeneutic tradition: kouji, kouqi [phrase omitted],jian [phrase omitted],jianji [phrase omitted], jian [phrase omitted], ji [phrase omitted], se [phrase omitted], laoji [phrase omitted], ji [phrase omitted], ne [phrase omitted]. Imbedded in the hermeneutic history surrounding these terms are a number of clues as to how early Chinese understood the condition itself. As one looks closely at these graphs and the words they write it is clear that they represent a range of conditions. At times there seems to be an attempt to make distinctions while at other times there is an attempt to make associations--the latter being a natural result of hermeneutics, while the former is the result of a specific situation being described in a primary text. Kouji and related terms cover the whole range of disfluency from occasional difficulties due to being nervous and serious stuttering to such behaviors as being quiet and taciturn.

Within the description/definition of these terms, at times this condition is described as "conduct" wei ren [phrase omitted] while at other times as an "appearance" mao [phrase omitted]--one pointing to a moral underpinning in the interpretation of the condition and the other pointing to an underlying physiological mechanism. Overwhelmingly, there is not a hard and fast line between these two modes. These are seen as deeply related or relatable manifestations; in fact very often the whole point of providing such information is to try to relate the natural condition to intention, appearance, and action. That the Chinese tradition attempts to correlate these layers is one striking distinction between early imperial China and much of the Western tradition.

The first and most common word is ji [phrase omitted]; it is the word generally used to define the many other terms used to describe disfluency of speech. The Shuowen jiezi [phrase omitted] defines it as "ji means to speak with difficulty" [phrase omitted]. (8) There are a number of homophonous or near-homophonous words associated with this word, such as ji [phrase omitted] and ji [phrase omitted]. (9) As is seen in the Shuowen jiezi entry, jian [phrase omitted] is commonly associated with this condition. It is defined in the Shuowenjiezi as "jian means lame" [phrase omitted]. (10) The Shi ming [phrase omitted] states, "Jian means to be lame; it is an illness that prevents someone from working or performing duties" [phrase omitted]. (11)

The binomes jian ji [phrase omitted] and jian yan [phrase omitted] continue the usage of being "lame in speech," which eventually becomes more commonly distinguished with the graphs jian [phrase omitted]. It is also worth noting that the reduplications of all three of these words come to take on a moral meaning, "upright" or "forthright" in speech; someone who is jianjian ([phrase omitted]) is a straight talker. In fact, many of the words we will discuss also have this meaning as well as the meaning "to speak out boldly." These might be different words written with the same graph, but that is not how the tradition came to understand this cluster of words and meanings. As we shall see below, disfluency of outward expression is often linked to some inner strength and forthrightness. There was understood to be a hidden moral potency in this condition, which would come to be part of the coding in the biographical tradition. (12)

The next word bound to this condition is ne [phrase omitted]; it is often found in the phrase nese [phrase omitted] [phrase omitted]. The Shuowen jiezi defines ne as "speaking with difficulty" [phrase omitted]. (13) This word on a basic level refers to disfluency in speaking, but in usage it is frequently associated with weak rhetorical skills or being inarticulate. We see this in the Lun yu passage that opened this study, "A noble man desires to be clumsy in speaking and fleet in actions." (14) This is an important articulation that hinges on the tension between hidden and revealed, lame and graceful, appearance and conduct. This passage highlights how the discourse of disfluency overlaps with...

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