Professor Emerita of Chinese History
University of Southern California
10511 Almeyo Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90064
A long career like mine reflects the evolution of a discipline, involving many twists and turns. My scholarly wanderings, from intellectual history to gender history and the cultural study of medicine and science, from modern to ancient and back again, reflect the pioneering nature of post war American China studies, and its interaction with shifts in late twentieth century politics and culture that transformed historical discourse. In 1960 Chinese history was an undeveloped field for Americans, built on the narrow if deep foundations of Sinology—the largely European investigation of the canonical texts of a classical civilization---and hobbled by the break in diplomatic relations between the two countries that had begun in 1950. The Cold War and the Chinese communist revolution made China a target of the then-new academic “critical area studies” deemed vital to post-war America’s global role. I received my Ph.d. in history from Stanford in 1966 supported by grants from the National Defense Education Act. Though a reluctant cold warrior, formally speaking I suppose I was a foot soldier in the “area studies” project.
Like other young historians of that era who wanted to look beneath the surface of imperial China’s collapse and the revolutionary movements that followed it, I was drawn to the intellectual history of “China’s response to the West,” following the path of students of John Fairbank and Harvard’s East Asia Studies Center. The book based on my dissertation, Ting Wen-chiang: Science and China’s New Culture, is a biography of a British-educated geologist and public intellectual in Republican China, a scientific positivist and elite technocrat with a Confucian ethic of social responsibility. Ting Wen-chiang shaped the “new culture” of the May Fourth era by promoting a Western science defined basically as an epistemology. The intellectuals and reformers of my next project interested me for the way their various different policy and ideological agendas all reflected engagement with novel teleologies of time, change and human nature. My long essay, “ Intellectual Change From the Reform Movement to the May Fourth Movement, 1895-1920” was published as chapter 7 of volume 12, part 1 of The Cambridge History of China. It looks at major reform intellectuals like Kang Youwei, Tan Sitong, Yan Fu and Liang Qichao as evolutionary cosmologists and forgers of emancipated personality ideals of both sagehood and citizenship. By the second decade of the twentieth century, their thought (and that of contrarians like Zhang Binglin, Zhang Dongsun, and Liang Souming) was leading to fissures dividing sacred and secular domains, expressed in debates over science versus metaphysics, or the spiritual East versus the materialist West. All of these cosmological themes found echoes in the social utopianism of anarchist and communist revolutionaries of the May Fourth era.
Finally, the edited volume, Limits of Change: Conservative Alternatives in Republican China, shifted attention to ideas, both doctrinal and political, espoused by the National Essence historical scholarship, defenders of nationalist dictatorship, and “new Confucian” philosophers. The volume did not explicitly argue for or against revolution, but for the modernity of Chinese conservative alternatives, in fact what scholars would soon be calling the invention of tradition.
All three of these works were efforts to complicate and refine scholarly understanding of the meanings of tradition and modernity in thinking about “China’s response to the West,” and they highlighted intellectual currents that Chinese themselves revisited after the end of the Maoist era.
In the 1970s and 1980s historians of China responded to the PRC’s retreat from Maoist revolution and the opening of the Chinese mainland by looking back in time to imperial history: had we really known the deeper past of the country whose traumatic modern history we as Westerners had chronicled with such careless self confidence? We also followed the Anglophone historical profession’s linguistic turn to social and cultural studies. For women scholars there was the further tsunami of feminism. All of these currents shifted my scholarly identity. For about a decade I wrote essays to teach myself about kinship, gender and sexuality in the Ming-Qing periods, and in this way I gradually came to focus on the history of medicine. A turning point was my own fascinating year in China as a teaching Fulbright fellow in 1981-82, where I was able at last to get a more intimate knowledge of contemporary Chinese society, and to see for myself some of the archival riches of the literate medical tradition.
The book that emerged from this exploration , A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History 960-1665, was a long time coming. It required mastering the textual tradition well enough to understand the historical dimensions of medical thought and practice. Here I was fortunate to find as a resource two rich narrative collections of medical case histories, by the 17th century doctor Cheng Maoxian, and by the woman physician Tan Yunxian (1461-1554). With these and other writings from the learned medical tradition, there was the challenge of accessing female experience largely through male authored sources. Using linguistic analysis I had to find ways to link doctrine and body meanings, narratives of clinical practice and the social relations of healing. I had to grapple with the interpretive assumption common among scientists that the human body is a natural universal, and the one among feminist scholars that one understands female social gender through the sexed body. It was particularly challenging to provide an account of a largely unfamiliar historical world of bodily experience that would be intelligible for English readers while retaining its integrity.
The deep immersion in medical history required by A Flourishing Yin connected my scholarship to the cultural studies of science pursued by historians and anthropologists in the 1990s. This in turn spurred my interest in thinking about what medicine could teach about the shape of the sciences and natural philosophy in late imperial China. This led to “The Physician as Philosopher of the Way: Zhu Zhenheng 1282-1358,” an article-length study of a medical master who came to embody the late imperial ideal of the “scholar physician,” and who shaped neo-Confucian reorientations of medical cosmology and ethics. The topic of medical case histories opened up a longer term undertaking exploring the case history as a form of vernacular epistemology that medicine shared with Chinese law, religion and philosophy. Here I had wonderful collaborators on the edited volume that appeared as Thinking With Cases: Specialist Knowledge in Chinese Cultural History. Hopefully, this work can contribute to the comparative study of styles of reasoning in the sciences and the emergence of professional spheres of expertise in historical societies. (My introduction has been reprinted in a German anthology of essays on the case history method, and in Postcolonial Studies as an example of methodological innovation in science studies.)
In the last few years I have returned
to modern China,
to questions of colonialism in Asian medicine, and of Chinese medicine’s
globalization. As a retiree, I also claim the freedom to dabble—in such areas
as Daoist women’s meditation practices, reading the great eighteenth century
novel Hongloumeng, and the American
practice of Chinese medicine.
I recently received the Association for Asian Studies Award for Distinguished Contributions to Asian Studies. Here is the text of the award, as it was announced at the AAS in Toronto in 2011: