Birth Control and Population in Interwar China and India

AHA Session 132
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 4
Friday, January 6, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Room 403 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Wendy Kline, Purdue University
Wendy Kline, Purdue University

Session Abstract

In contemporary discourse, China and India have become emblematic of the promise and peril of a large population. Decades of social science research have highlighted the Malthusian anxieties that accompany human capital sufficient to fuel rapid economic growth in these Asian nations. Most historical research has focused on state-centered, population management efforts since Indian independence (1947) and the Chinese revolution (1949). This panel historicizes these endeavors and their related political struggles with a comparative and transnational analysis of the interwar period, which has received scant attention in existing scholarship. In the roughly two decades between World Wars, the well-documented, international concerns regarding the size and distribution of humanity focused disproportionately on China and India as prime sites for experimental regimes of reducing birth and mortality. In the issue of birth control, national debates regarding modernity and gender intersected with geopolitics, collecting the diversified investments of humanitarians, nationalists, feminists, demographers, and physicians.

This panel attends to both national dynamics and the global debates within which they were embedded. Mytheli Sreenivas highlights understudied texts that challenged (inter)national assumptions about Indian (over)population and its supposed links to underdevelopment, bringing to the fore interwar discourses later subsumed in the postcolonial state.  Mirela David traces the development of eugenics and population management from the Chinese tours of Margaret Sanger and Bertrand Russell in the 1920s to the 1945 promulgation of the first national population policy. Rahul Nair analyzes a fraught relationship between birth control advocates and the medical community in interwar India to emphasize the roles of legislation and public activism in ‘disciplining’ birth control within medical knowledge. Joshua Hubbard addresses Chinese intellectuals’ efforts to reconcile birth control advocacy with Nationalist ideology, and thereby intervene in both national public health and international assessments of China in the 1930s. Together, these papers bring national specificity to our understanding of the global, interwar discourse of population management, providing an analysis that is at once comparative and transnational.

In the process the panel hopes to engage directly with the “historical scale” theme of the AHA 2017 meeting in linking the regional, national, transnational and global dimensions of the population problem. Additionally this panel follows the AHA’s commitment to career stage diversity by bringing together panelists in different stages of their professional career including a graduate student, two junior faculty, and two senior faculty with associate and full professor ranks.

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