AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 125

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Session 125: Discourses of Disease: Writing Illness, the Mind, and the Body in Modern China

Organizer: Howard Y. Choy, Wittenberg University, USA

Discussant: Carlos Rojas, Duke University, USA

From Freud’s psychoanalysis to post-Freudian psychotherapy, from herbal treatments to scientific biomedicine, the meaning of disease has undergone such drastic changes in China since the last century that new languages describing the mind and the body have been invented to theorize diseases, redefine health, and reconstruct genders. Medical literature is thereupon rewritten with studies of psychopathology, histories of hygiene, and stories of cancer, disabilities and pandemics. This panel brings together groundbreaking interdisciplinary scholarships that reconfigure the fields of literature, psychology, history, gender studies concerning modern China by tracing the path of the “Sick Man of East Asia” through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. We begin with Eva Man’s cross-cultural critique of the first Chinese appropriation of European psychoanalytic theories by Pan Guangdan, who diagnosed a female poet’s illness as mental disorder and extended his reading to the condition of all women in early modern China. According to Nicole Barnes’s historical survey of public health documents in wartime China, the application of Western biomedical science during WWII alternately accompanied and displaced traditional Chinese medicine, shaping hybrid medical epistemes for our understandings of disease today. The 1990s and 2000s witnessed growing literary representations of patients and patient communities in an age of global consumerism as evidenced in the papers of Shelley Chan and Howard Choy. Chan sees in Yan Lianke’s novels of the handicapped and AIDS a return of the sick man as a national allegory of postsocialist China, whereas Choy finds in two Chinese women writers’ stories about breast cancer the practice of narrative therapy that empowers patients to re-author their experiences through story sharing. Our discussant is Carlos Rojas, guest editor of the forthcoming special issue of Modern Chinese Literature and Culture on the discourses of disease.

Writing Women’s Psychopathology: A Case Study by Pan Guangdan
Eva K. W. Man, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong

This research is an introduction to and a critical review of the first psychoanalytical application to women’s mental diseases in China. The case study of the woman poet Feng Xiaoqing (1595-1612) was conducted by scholar Pan Guangdan in 1922. It resulted in significant revelations of women’s physiological and psychological states in early modern China. Pan’s study started with a detailed analysis of Feng’s biography, writings, and the development of her mental illness. It was reported that Feng performed obsessive and narcissistic behaviors in her repressive and unhappy marriage life, finally leading to her tragic death. Pan then expanded his reading of the case to the physical and mental health of Chinese women of Feng’s times. He even conducted an elaborated account of the words and phases used in women’s literary works that implied mental and physical diseases as arguments. Pan related these phenomena to social discourses and gender construction in early modern China. His findings also revealed the quality of sex life among Chinese women living in a feudal and patriarchal cultural setting. This paper points out the strong influences of the psychoanalytic theories of Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud in Pan’s approaches, and it reviews his emphasis and appropriation of these theories. More importantly, his application of psychoanalysis is assessed from a cross-cultural perspective, which is very revealing in his case making of Feng’s mental disorder. This paper also reviews Pan’s propositions on women’s sex education in China. Finally, it provides a critique of Pan’s suggestions from the viewpoints of new woman psychology.

Writing Public Health: Medical Hybridization in Wartime China
Nicole E. Barnes, Duke University, USA

Biomedical theories of disease, armed with new knowledge of microscopic bacteria and viruses, fundamentally altered human understandings of health in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In China, this shift began in the late nineteenth century with the introduction of scientific biomedicine alongside Western imperialism, in a process often perceived as a unidirectional exchange of information. This paper demonstrates that Chinese medical theories in turn influenced the practice of biomedicine in China by examining changes in popular understandings of disease, dirt, public health, and hygiene in another era of heightened conflict and cooperation between Chinese medicine and scientific biomedicine—the war with Japan. Fifteen months into the war, in October 1938, the Nationalist government moved inland along the Yangzi River to establish its provisional capital in Chongqing. While the state espoused biomedicine in its National Health Administration, municipal hospitals, and public health programs, doctors and pharmacists of Chinese medicine constituted the bulk of the profession, and the two medical communities collided and collaborated in serving Chongqing’s medical needs. During this period, new linguistic expressions of the body and disease, revealing a complex interplay of medical epistemes, appeared in missionaries’ letters, records of foreign philanthropic organizations, didactic Chinese novels, medical journals, and newspaper advertisements, giving voice to wartime China’s hybrid medical community. The prevalence of biomedicine in Chinese hospitals and medical schools today, and the popularity of “alternative” medical practices such as acupuncture and herbal treatments in Western societies, attest to this hybridization of medicine in the twentieth century.

Writing Disabilities and AIDS: Allegorical Novels by Yan Lianke
Shelley Wing Chan, Wittenberg University, USA

China’s label as the “Sick Man of East Asia” was the collective anxiety of Chinese intellectuals in the early twentieth century. With the establishment of the new government in 1949, and especially since the hasty economic development of the past thirty years, China believes that it has shaken off this humiliating image. This paper examines two allegorical novels by Yan Lianke, an award-winning and controversial writer: _Pleasure_ (_Shouhuo_, 2004) and _Dream of Ding Village_ (_Dingzhuang meng_, 2006). In _Pleasure_, the handicapped people from a village form a unique skill troupe to make money by displaying their disabilities, hoping to purchase the body of Lenin from Russia so as to attract tourists. _Dream of Ding Village_ describes how peasants engaging in blood selling are infected with AIDS, and illustrates their lives in a quarantined village. Dealing with human lust, greed, and corruption, both novels are biting satire of contemporary Chinese society, which is socialism in form but capitalism in essence. Looking at China’s recent achievements, such as the 2008 Olympic Games and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, one believes that this country has become a strong power in the world. Yet the moral decline caused mainly by an excessive pursuit of wealth has driven this society to morbidity. This paper investigates how illness is used as a metaphor for the grotesque post-Mao China and raises such questions as: Can contemporary Chinese be likened to the numb men in Lu Xun’s iron house—strong in appearance but sick in spirit? Is the nightmare of being a sick man still haunting the nation today?

Writing Breast Cancer: Therapeutic Narratives by Women Writers
Howard Y. Choy, Wittenberg University, USA

With Lu Xun’s celebrated story “A Madman’s Diary” (“Kuangren riji,” 1918), modern Chinese literature started off in a medical approach often interpreted by critics as national allegory. The therapeutic function of storytelling on the personal level, however, has largely been ignored until recently. This paper focuses on the fictional writings about breast cancer by two contemporary Chinese women writers, namely, Xi Xi’s _Elegy for a Breast_ (_Aidao rufang_, 1992) and Bi Shumin’s _Save the Breast_ (_Zhengjiu rufang_, 2003). In light of Susan Sontag’s cultural critique of medical metaphor and post-Freudian, Foucauldian deconstruction practices of narrative therapy, these masto-texts have emerged as investigative reports to re-author or re-story fe/male fears of the malignant tumor that is not only incurable but also unspeakable because of its perceived relation to sexual characteristics. Buttressed by postmodern literary and poststructuralist therapy theories, this research undertakes a narratological analysis of the clinical stories to address issues of ethics and subjectivity. Advertized as the first Chinese psychotherapy novel by a psychologist, _Save the Breast_ relates an experimentation of talk therapy with a group of patients to deal with the biopolitics of breast cancer as both social stigma and physio-psychic trauma against the tide of medical marketing in today’s China. Its precursor from Hong Kong, _Elegy for a Breast_, the first literary effort of a Chinese woman writer describing her own experience of cancer treatments, draws readers into discovering their physical corpora as well as her textual corpus, suggesting an alternative authorship in the first-person narrative of a patient text. Though composed in different styles, both works examine the doctor-patient and author-reader power/knowledge relationships by reinventing narrative as therapy.