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Science, Public Health and the State in Modern Asia eds. by Liping Bu, Darwin H. Stapleton, and Ka-che Yip (review)
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Reviewed by
Liping Bu, Darwin H. Stapleton, and Ka-che Yip, eds., Science, Public Health and the State in Modern Asia London: Routledge, 2012. xvi + 208 pp. £90.00.

This volume is the latest in a spate of edited collections dealing with various aspects of public health in Asia. Some of these volumes are regionally specific—focusing predominantly on South or East Asia—but others attempt a wider geographical coverage. Science, Public Health and the State in Modern Asia falls into the latter category, including chapters on East, South East, and South Asia (Sri Lanka). The editors are well qualified for the task, having impressive track records in East Asian history, Western cultural expansion, and the history of public health. But what does their collection add to the large corpus of work that already exists?

To date, there have been three dominant themes in the historical literature on public health in Asia: its relationship to state power, its emergence as a transnational phenomenon, and the relevance of history to the public health challenges of today. The bulk of scholarship on these topics is concerned primarily with colonial states, although independent nations such as the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are increasingly the subject of inquiry. Some of the work that examines the role of public health in state building does so in sophisticated ways, eschewing simplifying narratives of progress or social control. The recent tendency has been to tease out the complexities of public health and to emphasize its local variations and the negotiations and compromises that are invariably involved. Historians have begun to analyze the engagement of the public and the agency of those acting as subordinates of the state (e.g., Johnson and Khalid 2012). Another interesting feature of recent scholarship is the attention given to ideas of health and disease and the cultivation of healthy and hygienic practices. This sensitivity to the cultural aspects of public health is probably best exemplified by some of the essays in Angela Ki Che Leung and Charlotte Furth’s (2010) collection on health and hygiene in Chinese East Asia. However, more traditional subjects such as epidemic disease campaigns continue to bear fruit, especially when they illuminate the distinctive approaches taken by different colonial and postcolonial states (e.g., Yip 2009). Differences between national policies, and the [End Page 363] different legacies bequeathed by the various colonial powers, remain important in understanding contemporary public health issues, as Milton J. Lewis and Kerrie L. MacPherson (2008) remind us in their recent volume on public health in the Asian-Pacific region. However, as the collection edited by Leung and Furth demonstrates, there is much to be gained from considering public health as a transnational or global phenomenon, as is clearly the case in the response to SARS.

The collection of essays reviewed here, edited by Liping Bu, Darwin H. Stapleton, and Ka-che Yip, develops several of these themes, although it is concerned primarily with the state and its interactions with the public. The volume contains useful surveys of public health in Hong Kong (Ka-che Yip), Singapore (Law Yuen Han), Republican China (Xi Gao, Bridie Andrews) and Taiwan (Michael Shiyung Liu). The remainder of the chapters examine the role of the Rockefeller Foundation in the development of public health in Asia, providing a welcome balance to the many studies of this organization in Latin America. Eric Andrew Stein examines the foundation’s work in Indonesia, Soma Hewa in Sri Lanka/Ceylon, Darwin H. Stapleton in China and Japan, Aiko Takeuchi-Demirci in Japan, and Liping Bu in China. The focus on the foundation’s activities—and on the mid-twentieth century more generally—lends coherence to the volume, permitting instructive comparisons to be made. Even those chapters that do not examine the Rockefeller Foundation address the issue of the transfer of scientific knowledge in the context of public health: the circumstances under which Western models were introduced and assimilated. All the essays show how Western concepts and practices were modified by local circumstances, be they the priorities of the state, resource constraints, cultural practices, or political tensions. The friction between colonial or national administrations and transnational organizations such as...