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How Mobility Empowers

What do disabled characters look like in Chinese media? Professor Steve Riep spent years researching the answer to that question—here’s a glimpse of what he found.

At the beginning of his teaching career, Professor Steve Riep (Asian Literature and Film) spent several years poring over Chinese books and poems, performing groundbreaking research on the treatment of disabled characters in Chinese literature. After finishing that project, Riep decided to expand on his work, and, starting in 2017, he began writing a book analyzing the mobility of disabled characters in Chinese literature and films. In 2024, Riep concluded the first manuscript of this book, focusing on how portrayals of disabled characters in Chinese literature and film empower or disempower disabled people and make statements about the sociopolitical environment in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

Headshot of Professor Steve Riep.
Photo by David John Arnett

Riep gathered data on the representation of disabilities in modern (1919–1949) and contemporary (1949–present) Chinese literature and film. Previously, he had examined blindness in Chinese literature, but with this research project, he wanted to focus on more than one disability—this time, he wanted to examine all of them. Riep pulled information from works of fiction, poetry, and films originating from each of his three regions of study: mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

As he looked through each book and film, Riep analyzed how that piece of media portrayed two aspects of the disabled character’s mobility. He first looked at their physical movement throughout the story before then examining their sociocultural mobility—in other words, their ability to lead their own life, both physically and socially. He explains, “Authors depict characters’ abilities in a variety of ways. Sometimes, these disabled characters may have a very rich and full life; sometimes, they seem to be very limited in what they can do.”

One example of this comes from the Chinese film To Live (活着), which follows a family of four living in China from the 1930s to the 1970s. The couple’s daughter, Fengxia, suffers from a fever that leaves her unable to speak and partially deaf. Later, Fengxia dies in childbirth during a period known as the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During this time, many educated young professionals were forced out of the cities and into the mountains or villages, leaving only unskilled workers to hold important positions in every field. Millions of people also died from political persecution, starvation, and other causes related to the revolution. By the end of the film, Fengxia came to symbolize this nationwide suffering after receiving inexpert medical attention while giving birth and dying in the wake of this movement.

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers fixated on her inability to talk, and Riep notes that this portrayal of her disabilities objectifies her, making her character a “voiceless victim”—respected as a symbol, but not as an individual. Riep has noticed a pattern of disabled characters objectified this way. He says, “[There’s] a kind of contrast of two different depictions of disability: one that disempowers and one that empowers or enables.”

Though Riep has made many conclusions with his data, he says his “biggest conclusion is that if disability is used symbolically, you have to be very careful. In that move from a literal depiction of disability to a symbolic depiction of disability, the literal disability itself—be it blindness, [difficulty] hearing, mobility impairment, or autism— is often sublimated, and the symbolic meaning becomes important. And, if that symbolic meaning is objectifying—if it’s opportunistic—then you have problems.”

With so much to say on his findings, Riep ultimately hopes that his research will help readers become more intentional consumers of media. He says, “The films we watch, the books we read, the poetry we read, the plays we view, the art we see—whatever cultural product it is, they help us form our views. Like it or not, positive or negative, they can reproduce biases against people of certain ethnicities, ability statuses, socioeconomic statuses, religious beliefs, and so on.” Riep continues, “Becoming a reader who is aware of that, hopefully, will make [us into] someone who can also practice greater inclusivity and diversity.”

Check out the BYU Office of Belonging website to see how you can help make campus more inclusive!

To learn more about Professor Riep’s research interests, visit his faculty profile.