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  • The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West
  • Yanhua Zhang (bio)
Larissa N. Heinrich. The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. xii, 222 pp. Hardcover $79.95, ISBN 978-0-8223-4093-5. Paperback $22.95, ISBN 978-0-8223-4113-0.

The image of China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the “Sick Man of Asia” has been deeply branded into the collective subconscious of the modern Chinese people. It has played an important role in the discourse of Chinese modernity and given an undertone of national and cultural redemption to many major social, political, and even literary movements and reforms in twentieth-century China. How did Chinese identity become associated with bodily pathology? How did the dynamic historical events and transnational agencies converge to produce and circulate the stereotypical image of a diseased and pathological China? Moreover, how did such an image and rhetoric in the course of translating between the West and China come to acquire a paradigm of meanings constitutive to the modern conceptions of the Chinese nation and its people? The Afterlife of Images explores these questions from the unique perspective of medical representations and offers an important analysis of the role that the West has played through medical missionary activity in the shaping of the national Chinese identity and its modernist imagination.

The Afterlife of Images focuses its analytical attention on a broad range of medical iconographies in late imperial and early Republican China. The images examined in the book include woodblock prints from a Qing dynasty medical anthology, oil paintings of bodily pathology that resulted from the collaboration [End Page 344] between a celebrated Chinese painter and an American medical missionary, early medical photography in China, and Western-style textbook anatomical illustrations. Larissa Heinrich traces the journeys by which these medical images were transmitted between the West and China and examines various contexts in which the meanings of the visual images were reinterpreted and transformed to “link the ideas about disease to Chinese identity.” Heinrich argues that over time, these medical images “accumulated a host of secondary meanings” and “took on a dynamic and ideologically complex afterlife” (p. 5). This afterlife, according to the author, “had lasting consequences for how ideas about Chinese race, pathology, culture, and identity were formed and conceived on the eve of modernity and subsequently communicated not only in literature and visual culture but also in culture at large” (pp. 5–6).

In a way, The Afterlife of Images is about visual culture studies, which has been largely absent in the study of the history of medicine and, as well, in the study of illness representation in modern Chinese literature. Heinrich demonstrates throughout the book that visual medical materials offer important analytical venues for understanding “the transmission of ideas about illness across cultures and across history” (p. 9). Regarding how China became the Sick Man of Asia, the familiar historical narratives tend to focus on textual rhetoric and see sickness purely as the metaphorical and allegorical representation of China as a dysfunctional polity and nation that has little to do with bodily pathology.1 However, Heinrich’s visual cultural studies of medical iconographies show that the formation and transmission of the notion of China as the Sick Man of Asia began with the visual and deceptively empirical representations of pathological Chinese bodies.

Specifically, this book comprises four sets of case studies organized chronologically. It offers a narrative of the stages by which ideas about Chinese pathology were transmitted from one culture to another and eventually absorbed into mainstream discourse in China.

The first chapter traces the origin and circulation of the idea of China as the “Cradle of Smallpox” back to a set of woodblock illustrations of children with different manifestations of smallpox from the eighteenth-century Chinese medical anthology Yizong Jinjian (The golden mirror of medical orthodoxy). These images were intended as a guide for the diagnosis and management of the disease through inoculation and other measures. They were lifted from their original Chinese medical context and sent to the Bibliothèque Royale in Paris in 1772...


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pp. 344-347
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