Hygiene in Modern East Asia: How Local Advocates Helped Shape Global Discourses

AHA Session 20
Thursday, January 6, 2022: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Preservation Hall, Studio 8 (New Orleans Marriott, 2nd Floor)
Sarah Yu, University of Pennsylvania
The Audience

Session Abstract

Histories of hygiene and public health in modern East Asia have often centered on the efforts of certain types of authorities – governmental, scientific, colonial, and otherwise. We contend that assuming such a focus detracts from the role of individuals and their personal experiences in the transformative processes of hygienic progress. Local reformers and activists in East Asia did not work within their specific vacuums, nor did they simply accept the transfer of knowledge and infrastructure from colonial actors. Instead, as our presentations illustrate, they drew on different kinds of domestic and international resources to localize and make legible certain interpretations of hygiene for curious audiences. In fact, grassroots advocates were often key contributors to global discourses on hygiene as a valuable scientific agenda at the turn of the twentieth century.

Our panel consists of three presentations, which collectively consider how diverse stakeholders in China, Japan, and Korea negotiated local interpretations of hygiene and helped spark reform. Mark Bookman traces how blind elites’ efforts to combat government regulation of ‘unhygienic’ trades such as acupuncture and massage in Japan during the Meiji period (1868–1912) helped facilitate the rise of national advocacy networks and shape welfare policies before World War II. James Flowers demonstrates innovative Korean responses to Japanese rulers’ top-down attempts to define public health as a state project. For example, instead of accepting hygiene as the key factor in health, they acted from below by shaping a widespread and influential healthcare movement in which people actively participated, by nourishing life. And Sarah Yu assesses how the concept of "kitchen hygiene" evolved from mere sanitation for cholera control to incorporating elements of nutrition and food science innovation in Republican China in the early 20th century. Kitchen hygiene advocates in China not only took active roles in developing their agendas from myriad global and local influences, but also leveraged their successes as evidence of national ingenuity.

The papers in this panel advocate for an active, community-centric view of hygiene reform, where local actors were active participants in shaping global trends. Such a framework is also essential in bringing together more nuanced perspectives in public health and medical histories across the globe.

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