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Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China / Edition 1

Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China / Edition 1

by Ruth RogaskiRuth Rogaski
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Placing meanings of health and disease at the center of modern Chinese consciousness, Ruth Rogaski reveals how hygiene became a crucial element in the formulation of Chinese modernity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rogaski focuses on multiple manifestations across time of a single Chinese concept, weisheng—which has been rendered into English as "hygiene," "sanitary," "health," or "public health"—as it emerged in the complex treaty-port environment of Tianjin. Before the late nineteenth century, weisheng was associated with diverse regimens of diet, meditation, and self-medication. Hygienic Modernity reveals how meanings of weisheng, with the arrival of violent imperialism, shifted from Chinese cosmology to encompass such ideas as national sovereignty, laboratory knowledge, the cleanliness of bodies, and the fitness of races: categories in which the Chinese were often deemed lacking by foreign observers and Chinese elites alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520283824
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/29/2014
Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes , #9
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 420
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Ruth Rogaski is Associate Professor of History at Vanderbilt University.

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Hygienic Modernity

Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China

By Ruth Rogaski


Copyright © 2004 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-24001-8


"Conquering the One Hundred Diseases"

Weisheng before the Twentieth Century

What associations would the term weisheng create in the mind of a Chinese scholar living in a nineteenth-century city? To understand how weisheng as "hygienic modernity" emerged in the twentieth century requires an understanding of weisheng's textual antecedents. By the end of the Qing period (1644–1911), the term weisheng appeared within a print matrix that encompassed well-known medical texts, household health manuals, and the Chinese classics. In the mind of a literate gentleman, weisheng might invoke a loose web of quotations and aphorisms about health and the body. Such an individual might know that the locus classicus for weisheng was in a Daoist text written in the third century before the common era. His library might hold weisheng titles originally penned during the thirteenth century. With servants, space, and leisure time, the well-off urbanite might even pursue the sometimes esoteric health and meditation techniques laid out in manuals of "guarding life." These textual references resonated in the minds of treaty-port Chinese as they encountered new configurations of weisheng at the end of the nineteenth century.

The goal of this chapter is not to generate a stable and precise definition of "premodern" weisheng. Instead, it seeks to demonstrate that few, if any, of the multiple meanings associated with the term weisheng during the late imperial period overlapped with concepts conveyed by the word in the twentieth century. Before the twentieth century, weisheng did not constitute an instrumental form of knowledge. It was instead a loose, luminous orb of a word that invoked multiple associations, all of which were related to techniques that the individual could employ in order to improve individual health. It was not associated with cleanliness, smells, or dirt. Nor was it associated with the state, the nation, race, or the public. By the early twentieth century, a powerful new set of meanings coalesced strongly around the word weisheng, causing it to split from its previous associations. The term became one of the most significant ways of naming the modern condition: a hierarchical principle that determined who would be included or excluded from the realm of civilization, a discourse that defined the difference between a sovereign nation and a subjected tribe. To distinguish this pre-twentieth-century weisheng from its modern meanings, I frequently render it literally as "guarding life," after the two characters that comprise it. I also translate it variously as "hygiene" or even as generally as "health," but weisheng as "guarding life" is significantly different from its modern parameters.

By 1900, translators in China and Japan were using the term weisheng to convey an approach to health that was dictated by the laboratory and the state. But at the same time, weisheng also invoked other understandings about health and disease, understandings that were woven into the very basis of lived Chinese culture. For a short time in the early twentieth century, the "Way of Guarding Life" (weisheng zhi dao) was still strengthened by associations with the ancients and still revered for its efficacious ability to "conquer the one hundred diseases." There was a window of time when Chinese elites used the cultural resonances of weisheng to contest and interpret the meaning of modernity.


An elite nineteenth-century reader would quite likely know that the locus classicus for weisheng is in the Daoist classic Zhuangzi ([The book of] Master Zhuang, third century B.C.E.). For the late Qing man with aspirations for cultural advancement, the works of some "masters" were more important than others. During the Qing dynasty, the official examinations that led to degrees and government posts emphasized the memorization and analysis of works attributed to Master Kong (Confucius, sixth century B.C.E.) and his follower, Master Meng (Mencius, fourth century B.C.E.), as annotated by a twelfth-century master, Zhu Xi. But cultural literacy of a more eloquent and expansive degree would require a familiarity with other masters from other philosophical traditions, including the masters of Daoism, Laozi and Zhuangzi.

The Zhuangzi, together with the Dao de jing (The canon of the way and virtue, late fourth–early third century B.C.E.) attributed to the "Old Master" (Master Lao, Laozi), constitute the two foundational texts of Daoism. Late Qing scholars would likely know that the locus classicus for the word weisheng was in the "Gengsang Chu," the twenty-third chapter of Zhuangzi. This chapter of Zhuangzi features Gengsang Chu, an eccentric old man who is a direct disciple of Laozi. A certain aged gentleman named Nanrong Chu (rendered by Victor Mair as "Rufus Southglory") has tried to study the Way under Gengsang Chu, but his obtuse teachings have only confused the hapless pupil. Hoping for clarification, Nanrong Chu packs up his belongings and seeks out Laozi himself. In desperation, Nanrong Chu begs the Old Master to dispense with profound dissertations on the Way. All he wishes to hear about are "the basic rules for guarding life [weisheng zhi jing], that's all." A man of advanced years, it appears that Nanrong Chu is more concerned with curing the infirmities of his body than improving the well-being of his spirit. He complains that listening to Gengsang Chu's advice on the Dao was like taking a medicine that only made him sicker. Nanrong Chu is probably not prepared for the Old Master's remarkable reply:

The basic rules for guarding life are:

Can you embrace Unity?
Can you keep from losing it?
... Can you stop when it's time to stop?
Can you cease when it's time to cease?
Can you give up looking for it in others and seek for it in yourself?

The Old Master tells Nanrong Chu that he should become as naive and as spontaneous as a child. A child has tremendous strength, energy, and concentration: It is able to cry all day without wearing out its throat, stare all day without blinking. The child "walks but knows not where, remains stationary but knows not why. It is intertwined with things and ripples along together with them." That, summarizes the Old Master, is the basic rule for guarding life. The implication is immediately clear: for Laozi, "the basic rule for guarding life" is to live entirely in harmony with the way of nature.

The aged Nanrong Chu's practical request for "the standard method for guarding life" and Laozi's mystical reply highlight some of the murky links between early Daoism, the origins of Chinese health practices, and the quest for immortality. Donald Harper has observed that the "scholarly convention" holds that Chinese health practices and the pursuit of immortality all originated in the "belief system loosely called Daoist." However, recent work on Chinese societies before the first unification under the Qin (c. 221–206 B.C.E.) demonstrates that the conceptions of the body basic to both the pursuit of health and the pursuit of immortality predated the emergence of Daoism as a formal system of thought.

Among the earliest extant medical texts are those recovered from the Mawangdui tomb (sealed 168 B.C.E.) in present-day Hunan. The Mawangdui medical texts demonstrate the Han aristocrats' obsession with preserving health, avoiding disease, and living life to the fullest. Many of these texts deal with what Donald Harper has called "macrobiotic hygiene," or yangsheng, a word more commonly translated as "nurturing life." Yangsheng texts described sexual practices, dietetic regimens, movements, and medicines designed to nurture the vital forces and ensure the proper flow of qi within the body. Yangsheng was recognized as a separate category of practice from medicine, a set of techniques that were specifically developed to prevent disease, harmonize the body's vitalities, and prolong life. Vivienne Lo has convincingly argued that yangsheng texts had considerable influence on the formation of canonical Chinese medicine during the foundational years of the Western Han (202 B.C.E.–8C.E.). Similarly, Harper has demonstrated that the organized Daoism that emerged between the second century B.C.E. and the second century C.E. adopted yangsheng health practices in its program for personal cultivation and salvation, but Daoism did not invent them.

Later on in the imperial period, individual practices for health were often associated with Daoism, but it is important to recall that their origins predated Daoism and did not exclusively belong to a distinctly separate "Daoist tradition." Health practices related to diet, meditation, and self-regulation emerged along with the very bases of Chinese culture, and were diffuse enough to be associated not only with being Daoist, but also with being Chinese. The Daoist textual origin of weisheng, however, is significant in this story of the emergence of hygienic modernity. In fact, the Japanese physician who first used weisheng to convey European ideas of a state centered public health claimed to have found his inspiration in Nanrong Chu's ancient quest (see chapter 5).

If our hypothetical nineteenth-century scholar regarded Daoist classics as frivolous distractions and instead spent all his time memorizing texts that would ensure him success on the government's civil service examinations, he would still discover a locus for weisheng in the orthodox commentaries to the Confucian classics by the twelfth-century philosopher Zhu Xi. For example, the tenth chapter of the Analects (Lunyu) describes the admirable qualities embodied in the personal demeanor of Confucius. After discussing the great master's way of walking, speaking, carrying, and dressing, the passage mentions Confucius's approach to eating: "He did not eat his fill of polished rice, nor did he eat his fill of finely minced meat.... He did not eat food that had gone off colour or food that had a bad smell.... Even when there was plenty of meat, he avoided eating more meat than rice. Only in the case of wine did he not set himself a rigid limit. He simply never drank to the point of becoming confused."

In one of his commentaries on the Analects, Lunyu jing yi (Essential meanings of The Analects, c. 1180), Zhu Xi praised the ancient sages for exercising control over the human desire to consume more than necessary. By leaving the table slightly hungry, not gorging on rich meats, and knowing when to put down the wineglass, Confucius followed the path of "guarding life." Zhu Xi provided a pithy quote that captured the healthy virtues of the sages: "By minimizing their desires, the ancients maximized the Way of Health" (gu ren yu xin ze gua wei sheng zhi dao ze jin ye).

The "Path of Guarding Life" or the "Way of Health" (weisheng zhi dao) appears in another Song (960–1279) commentary to the Zhou li (The rites of the Zhou dynasty). The ancient Zhou (1027–771 B.C.E.) court (the ideal model of rulership) appointed medical officials to oversee the health of the people and the court, including jiyi (literally, illness doctors) and shiyi (literally, food doctors). The "illness doctors" attended to the sicknesses of the common people, whereas food doctors made sure that court elites ate food appropriate to the system of cosmological correspondences. By steering a course of moderation and balance in their daily lifestyle, the Zhou rulers never got sick and thus avoided the use of "illness doctors" altogether. One well-known explication of the Zhou li from the Song dynasty notes that by balancing the yin and yang qi of their foods, the Zhou rulers achieved the weisheng zhi dao: the Way of Guarding Life.

For late imperial scholars, these classical references would perhaps be more respectable—and more memorable—than the Way of Guarding Life as it existed within a rambling Daoist text. Benjamin Elman has illuminated the ways in which Song commentaries became the intellectual lifeblood for aspiring scholars in the late imperial period: memorized, quoted, and internalized by generation after generation of young men. These passages reflect how a phrase that appears in several texts from the twelfth century—weisheng zhi dao —could become part of the cultural repertoire of scholars in early modern China. The Way of Health might be associated with the natural "rippling and flowing" of Master Zhuang's Daoism, but if asked to recall a passage in which weisheng appears, a nineteenth-century scholar might turn to the works of Master Zhu and associate the Way of Health with the perfect restraint and moderation practiced by Confucius. In either case, the weisheng that appears in all of these texts suggests that curing sickness before it happens requires an ability to discern the underlying patterns of the universe.


Neither the Zhuangzi nor the works of Zhu Xi contain information about the practices that were associated with weisheng. For this we must turn to the popular collections of medical aphorisms and household health manuals that circulated widely in late imperial China. The late imperial period saw an explosion of commercial printing that facilitated the spread of cheap print beyond urban centers and into small towns. Among the most widely dispersed books (besides copies of the Classics and guides for studying for the civil service examinations) were books that gave advice for daily life: almanacs, household encyclopedias, morality books, medicinal recipe collections, and manuals on preserving health. A glimpse into one such health compilation provides insights into more popular meanings associated with the term weisheng.

The Book of the Immortal Celestials (Wan shou xian shu, c. 1560) is a wonderfully rich combination of advice on the art of preserving health. By the nineteenth century, the book appears in local editions with crudely cut characters and clumsy illustrations, intended for household use on a mass level. The original authorship of the work is somewhat dubiously attributed to the renowned sixteenth-century literatus Luo Hongxian (1504–1564). Whether a brilliant optimus (zhuangyuan) in the Ming imperial examinations would have authored such a folksy compilation of health advice is questionable, but Luo was regaled as a famed student of the Dao, and thus attributing this work to him might have helped bolster its image. Authorship in this case is not an entirely applicable concept. The Book of the Immortal Celestials is not a coherent treatise but a down-to-earth collection of preventive, curative, and regenerative practices, expressed in hundreds of short essays and easily recited maxims (see fig. 1).

One subsection in the Book of the Immortal Celestials, entitled "Precious Precepts for Guarding Life" (Weisheng bao xun), contains the following advice:

• "In the fourth month, the Way of Heaven is moving west, therefore when traveling it is best to go in this direction. In this month, the qi of life is in the Earthly Branch mao. In sitting and lying down, it is best to face due east."

• "In the morning, eat just one bowl of rice gruel."

• "If in the summer you frequently ate raw or cool melon and fruit, in the fall take two liters of the urine of young boys. Add five betel nuts, finely sliced and fried. Take eight doses of this, and then take one dose of fresh ginger juice and water from melted snow. This will purge you two or three times, thus expelling the Cool things that you ate in the summer and the water accumulated in your bladder.... After purging, rice gruel with Chinese chive and sheep kidney—this is an excellent replenishing medicine."

• "During great heat or great cold, do not give in to lust, and do not enter the chamber when you are full and drunk."

• "One must frequently turn one's vision inside, sink the HeartMind [xin] into the Cinnabar Field, and make the Spirit [shen] and qi firmly embrace the Great Profundity."


Excerpted from Hygienic Modernity by Ruth Rogaski. Copyright © 2004 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: Sun the Perfected One’s Song of Guarding Life

1. "Conquering the One Hundred Diseases":
Weisheng before the Twentieth Century
2. Health and Disease in Heaven’s Ford
3. Medical Encounters and Divergences
4. Translating Weisheng in Treaty-Port China
5. Transforming Eisei in Meiji Japan
6. Deficiency and Sovereignty:
Hygienic Modernity in the Occupation of Tianjin, 1900–1902
7. Seen and Unseen:
The Urban Landscape and Boundaries of Weisheng
8. Weisheng and the Desire for Modernity
9. Japanese Management of Germs in Tianjin
10. Germ Warfare and Patriotic Weisheng


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