- Productive Plagues:Epidemics, Public Health, and the Making of Asia's Modernity
We are now reminded of how epidemics of infectious disease can disrupt the very fabric of society: provoking fear, exacerbating inequalities, driving divisive nationalism. Although our own response to the most recent pandemic has yet to emerge, epidemics have historically prompted a wide array of responses, from advanced laboratory research to the lowly sewers that run beneath our feet. While these things remain invisible for most people, their importance becomes all [End Page 249] too clear when they catastrophically fail. It is at this point that we realize our struggles against microbial pathogens form the very foundation of modernity.
The covers of the books under consideration here all refer to this heroic battle between microbes and humans as waged in Asia during the twentieth century. In Robert Peckham's Epidemics in Modern Asia, germ-laden flies (and bombs) descend onto a sleeping village. In Farewell to the God of Plague and Public Health and the Modernization of China, robust farmers fight pathogens with shovels and chemicals. Prescribing Colonization features the results of a failure of this fight, as public health workers carry the coffin of a bubonic plague victim in rural Taiwan. All four works carry a clear message: the battle against infectious disease played a major role in shaping modernity in Asia. Some of the works demonstrate how probing the intersection between pathogens and society not only illuminates the nature of modernity but also reveals its deep discontents. Each work operates on a very different scale. What is the most productive way of understanding the relationship between society and pathogens in Asia? Should the historian take in a panoramic view of the entire continent or train a microscope on a handful of counties in one of its corners? And what do these different perspectives ultimately tell us about the nature of modernity in Asia?
Peckham's Epidemics in Modern Asia offers the broadest geopolitical and chronological range, encompassing multiple nations and an array of diseases from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. The approach is decidedly global in nature, but global from an Asia-centered stance. A focus on Asia as the origin of global pandemics that threaten the West, Peckham argues, has deflected our attention away from how these epidemics impacted Asia itself. The flipside to this problem is that historians who specialize in the study of Asia more broadly have tended to leave out the central role of disease. Peckham's goal is to reinsert epidemic disease as a significant driver shaping the political, social, and cultural histories of Asia: to understand both the way epidemics "impacted social and political arrangements," as well as "how diseases were experienced and understood" in countries across Asia from Afghanistan to Indonesia (p. 11).
Peckham tackles an entire continent by dividing the book into themes. Chapter 1, "Mobility," discusses cholera and plague in Asia [End Page 250] during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although most of the examples are from the Philippines, Japan, and China, the chapter challenges readers to go beyond national histories and think about networks, mapping, and movement. "Cities" (chap. 2) considers the ways that urban spaces were shaped by epidemics—a tried and true strategy in the history of disease since Charles Rosenberg told us about New York in his 1962 classic The Cholera Years—but Peckham visits relatively unfamiliar ports of call, detailing the hygienic transformation of Hanoi, the policing of venereal disease in...