Drawing and Interpreting Boundaries: Medical Discourses in Twentieth-Century East Asia and Beyond

AHA Session 32
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Maryland Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park)
Nicole E. Barnes, Boston College
Marta E. Hanson, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

This panel analyzes the discursive function of hygienic modernity to delineate boundaries between populations within and between the three major nations of East Asia: China, Korea, and Japan. Ruth Rogaski has argued that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries hygiene became a marker of civilizational modernity that defined power relations between western European colonizers and, in her case, the colonized Chinese population of Tianjin. Barnes, Burns and Kim apply Rogaski’s concept of hygienic modernity to other times and places, demonstrating that multiple parties have used claims of cleanliness to leverage a variety of medical agendas when working across social class groups, national boundaries, and geographical regions. 

Barnes and Burns show how the demonization of dirt lent discursive support to sterile midwifery work in twentieth-century China and Japan. Burns discusses the pro-natalist Japanese state’s delineation of the northern Honshu region of Tohoku as beyond the pale of civilization, and Barnes discusses Chinese from the eastern seaboard who retreated to Sichuan during the war and imagined the province as a culturally backward frontier. In both instances, the characterization of one locale and populace as clean and another as dirty fueled medical work that saved lives but also upset local power structures and targeted specific peoples for reform. Midwifery reforms empowered some women to fulfill new roles as medical professionals, while the very creation of this new group challenged the authority of their female elders, illustrating that although China and Japan’s transitions to institutionalized and scientized healthcare did not place control over childbirth in the hands of men, they did challenge relational hierarchies between women.

Kim shows that the impulse to protect the physical health of the state extended beyond a given state’s own borders. Her paper argues that Korea’s loss of national sovereignty supported the treatment of Korean lepers as diseased “others” to be ostracized from Hawaiian society, while the Japanese state’s concern for its international reputation informed the treatments of its own diseased nationals. This case of foreign lepers in early twentieth-century Hawaii demonstrates that the powers of extraterritoriality—held in this case by Japan—pertained more to the individual bodies of the colonized rather than to the political territory of the colonized state.  All three papers analyze the ways in which medical discourses supported the drawing and interpretation of boundaries between East Asian peoples in the twentieth century. Geography and sovereignty intertwine with hygienic modernity to justify projects that determined some people creators and others obstructers of medical progress.

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