The Many Children of Sun Yat-Sen: Reconciling His Intellectual and National Progeny in the 1930s

Friday, January 6, 2017: 2:30 PM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center)
Joshua Hubbard, University of Michigan
The quality and quantity of bodies emerged as central objects of governance throughout the interwar world, as evidenced by the ascendancy of the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Health Division, the League of Nations Health Organization, and the International Union for the Scientific Investigation of Population Problems. European and American anxieties over contagion and high birth rates in the non-Western world focused particularly on China, believed to possess the world’s largest population and highest rates of mortality. Prominent eugenicists like Dr. Frank W. Notestein and Dr. William G. Lennox cooly opined that famine and war constituted necessary “Malthusian checks” and disguised “blessings to China.” Cosmopolitan Chinese intellectuals, like gynecologist Dr. Yang Chongrui and economist Chen Changheng, sought to intervene in these transnational discourses and in the political ideology of their native country by promoting reproductive health and contraception in their respective spheres. However, many in the Nationalist government perceived any effort to limit the size of the Chinese population as antithetical to the political ideology of Sun Yat-sen, the recently deceased and lauded “father of the country (guofu)” who advocated a large (and therefore formidable) Chinese nation. This paper traces the efforts of Yang and Chen to reconcile Sun’s “Three Principles of the People” with the perceived imperative to expand access to birth control in the 1930s. By reading Sun’s principle of “livelihood (shengji)” as most relevant to China’s subjugated position in the interwar hierarchy of states, Yang and Chen argued that ensuring subsistence, resources, and health accorded more with the principle of “nationalism (minzu)” than reductive readings focused on a large population. From this perspective, Yang and Chen promoted both eugenics and greater autonomy for women vis-a-vis marriage and reproduction, connecting these social issues to the primary aims of the Chinese state and the macropolitical structures of the interwar world.

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