Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects, and Eugenics in China

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In 1995 the People's Republic of China passed a controversial Eugenics Law, which, after a torrent of international criticism, was euphemistically renamed the Maternal and Infant Health Law. Aimed at "the implementation of premarital medical checkups" to ensure that neither partner has any hereditary, venereal, reproductive, or mental disorders, the ordinance implies that those deemed "unsuitable for reproduction" should undergo sterilization or abortion or remain celibate in order to prevent "inferior births." Using this recent statute as a springboard, Frank Dikötter explores the contexts and history of eugenics in both Communist China and Taiwan. Dikötter shows how beginning in Late Imperial China, Western eugenics was imported and combined with existing fears of cultural, racial, or biological degeneration in Chinese society, leading to government regulation of sexual reproduction.

Imperfect Conceptions is a revealing look at the cultural history of medical explanations of birth defects that demonstrates how Chinese assumptions about the relationship of the individual to society form the very core of their attitudes toward procreation. Dikötter explains the patrilineal model of descent, where a person is viewed as the culmination of his or her ancestors and is held responsible for the health of all future generations. By this logic, a pregnant woman's behavior and attitude directly influence the well-being of her baby, and a deformed or retarded child reflects a moral failing on the part of the parents. Dikötter also shows how the holistic medicine practiced in China blurs any distinction between individual and environment so that people are held responsible for illness.

Drawing on cultural, social, economic, and political approaches, Dikötter goes beyond a simple authoritarian model to provide a more complex view of eugenic policy, showing how a variety of voices including those of popular journalists, social reformers, medical writers, sex educators, university professors, and politicians all disseminate information that supports rather than questions the state's program.

Imperfect Conceptions reveals how Chinese cultural currents—fear and fascination with the deviant and the urge to draw clear boundaries between the normal and the abnormal—have combined with medical discourse to form a program of eugenics that is viewed with alarm by the rest of the world.

Columbia University Press

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Editorial Reviews

Asian Studies Review
generally on the mark...valuable contributions

— Gary Sigley

Asian Studies Review - Gary Sigley
generally on the mark...valuable contributions
SOAS Bulletin
This short, powerful, luminous book, a model of taut argument and relentless logic, draws on a formidable breadth of shcolarship. Dikötter has apparently read everything in every language in every sort of publication in every relevant field, and uses it with masterly selectivity.
Diane B. Paul
Dikötter provides a generally nuanced and certainly much-needed historical perspective on contemporary Chinese eugenics. His book should do much to raise the level of discussion of policies that are decried more often than understood.
In 1995, the People's Republic of China passed a controversial Eugenics Law, stressing prevention of "inferior births." Using this statute as a springboard, the author explores the contexts and history of eugenics in Communist and Republican China. He shows how Western eugenics was imported and combined with existing fears of cultural and biological degeneration in Chinese society, and demonstrates how Chinese assumptions about the relationship of the individual to society form the core of their attitudes to procreation. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231113700
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 12/16/1998
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Frank Dikötter is a lecturer in history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is the author of The Discourse of Race in Modern China and Sex, Culture and Modernity in Modern China.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

1 Introduction 1
2 'Imperfect Conceptions': Medical Theories and Birth Defects in Late Imperial China 13
Elite Medical Theories in Late Imperial China 16
Medical Discourse and the Consolidation of the Lineage under the Qing 26
The Regulation of Desire: Sex, Blood and Semen 32
The Dangers of Excess: Marital Harmony and Cosmological Consonance 43
The Torments of Imagination: Maternal Imprints and Ghostly Foetuses 51
Epilogue: Lineage, 'Race' and Reproduction during the late Qing 58
3 'Defective Genes': The Regulation of Reproduction in Republican China 64
The Medicalisation and Public Display of Monsters 64
Nationalism, Degeneration and Soft Inheritance 68
'The Intermediate Sex': Embryology, Hermaphroditism and Gender Distinctions 74
Teratology, Recapitulation and Heredity 81
Conception, Imagination and Natural Retribution 97
The Improvement of the Race: The Spread of Eugenic Discourse 104
4 'Inferior Births': Eugenics in the People's Republic of China 119
Air, Water and Food: The Foetus and the Environment 124
Blood, Genes and DNA: The Inheritance of Social Deviance 134
'Superior Births': The Science of Foetal Education 146
Liminal Figures: The Medical Semiology of Monsters 156
Eugenic Laws and Reproductive Health 160
Social and Ethical Implications of Population Policies 175
5 Conclusion 184
Bibliography 187
Character List 219
Index 223
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