Rediscovering Women at Work: A History of Practice on Chinese Women Doctors in Late Imperial and Republican China

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM
Salon 6 (Palmer House Hilton)
Shing-Ting Lin, independent scholar
Missionary and nationalist sources usually portrayed Chinese women doctors in late imperial and Republican China as Christianized subjects liberated from a heathen Chinese society or as ideal citizens of the new modern state. The image looks quite different when we take a practice-centered view, highlighting the quotidian realities of their lives and work. Chinese women doctors, especially those trained in Western medicine, have unprecedentedly transformed the patterns of treating women’s diseases by operating medical instruments and mastering surgical skills in a hospital. All too often, however, their practice was hidden from the discourse associated with a search for China’s modernity; we must inquire further into how Chinese women doctors actually worked that later identified as the “new (professional) women” in the twentieth century.

In this paper, I use hospital reports, technical writings, and photographs to reconstruct the daily work of Chinese women doctors in the Hackett Medical Complex, a leading missionary institution for women’s medicine in Guangzhou (Canton). I ask three questions: 1) What were the inner workings of the institution that inform us about the lives of women practicing medicine? 2) The channels of knowledge transmission: how did Chinese women become acquainted with “Western medicine,” the knowledge and techniques which were translated into textual, verbal, and visual forms? 3) The narrative of historical writing. As is often the case in historical research, the absence of women’s voices in the archival materials makes writing their history a difficult task. When the women doctors lived out these conditions rather than writing about them, how do we recapture a history of practice at the distance of centuries? In sum, I propose a new analytical strategy to write a history of Chinese women doctors: examining what the women doctors did, in addition to what they represented.

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