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  • Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century by Angela Ki Che Leung and Charlotte Furth, editors
  • Jia-Chen Fu (bio)
Angela Ki Che Leung and Charlotte Furth, editors. Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. 352 pp. Hardcover $84.95, isbn 978-0-8223-4815-3. Paperback $23.95, isbn 978-0-8223-4826-9

In his thoughtful summation of the collection of essays contained in the recently published collection edited by Angela Ki Che Leung and Charlotte Furth, Warwick Anderson observes that the relative ambiguity or perhaps even marginality of China’s role in the “colonial drama of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” may complicate any straightforward analysis of the Chinese experiences of the medical dimensions of imperialism. He points out that while the contributors to this collection have revealed in various ways and to varying degrees “other late styles of colonialism, other ways to fashion colonial and protonational subjects, differing (at least in degree) from those familiar in African and South Asian histories” (p. 274), they have done so without explicitly presuming or invoking a nation-state framework.

Instead, the collected essays, all of which broach medical topics at the intersections of power, culture, and science in diverse geographical regions—Manchuria, Taiwan, Jiangnan in the lower Yangzi delta, and the Pearl River delta—help recast the social study of medicine as a complex interchange between global systems and local adaptations. Each of these places constitutes one China in the midst of many Chinas. Though none were centers of Chinese state power, each location experienced distinct, if nonetheless related, forms of imperial and national rule, be it under the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the Japanese (1895–1945), or the communist and republican regimes succeeding these empires. As Charlotte Furth argues, “The very different regimes of empire engaged here—dynastic or colonial—do not produce an overarching narrative of imperialism as the shaper of colonial medicine; nor do the various localities examined easily stand in for China as a whole” (p. 2).

This absence of any clear identification with one state or political regime and the lack of an overarching narrative of imperialism serve as both strength and weakness for the collection. In terms of strength, the many case studies presented here reveal how pluralistic the ideologies of modern medical science were over the course of the twentieth century. Moreover, these contributors demonstrate the importance of indigenous and local knowledge systems and practices in coloring interactions with colonial, national, and transnational power centers.

Angela Ki Che Leung draws the reader deep into the nexus of classical Chinese medical thought and examines the evolution of the idea of chuanran—a term that has come to stand as the standard translation for the biomedical notion of “contagion” or “the communication of disease from one person to another by bodily contact” (p. 26). Leung argues persuasively that the term has encapsulated [End Page 520] many layers of meaning throughout China’s long imperial history. Although the word ran has long expressed basic modes of the spread of disease, the specific combination of chuanran emerged only in the tenth century and eventually eclipsed the other older terms containing ran. Its subsequent ascendancy had important consequences for the conceptualization of the spread of disease. As Leung explains,

Among its many layers of meaning, transmission by contact—in particular, direct physical contact with the sick not necessarily related by blood—probably became most significant. It conveyed the sick body as a dangerous body producing contaminating breath, bodily fluids, and excrement, and as a lascivious sexual body polluting its sexual partners and producing sick infants. The sick body was dangerous even after its death, as it would pollute the environment, provoking an epidemic qi and contaminating not only its progeny or relatives by the process of zhu [i.e., person-to-person transmission], but also strangers in contact with the emanating qi.

(p. 43)

Some of the implications of this infection-contagion set of meanings for chuanran, which were largely considered distinct and pertained to different kinds of diseases, is illuminated in Sean...