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Higher Education Modules

Disseminating Health Knowledge: Public Health Campaigns in 20th-Century China

Class 1: Western Influence of Modern Medicine and Public Health in China during the 19th and Early 20th Centuries


Modern Western medicine—biomedicine—was introduced to China in the 19th century by Western missionaries when they used medical service to open up Chinese society for evangelism. The missionaries promoted Western medicine as more scientific than Chinese medicine, which they dismissed as superstition. They also taught young Chinese Western medicine at hospitals and medical schools. In the meantime, increasing numbers of Chinese students went to Europe, the United States and Japan for modern medical education. By the 1910s, hundreds of them had returned to China, and they formed a professional organization, The National Medical Association of China (中华医学会), in 1915 to advocate for Western medicine. They differed from the missionaries, however, in promoting modern medicine as a means to strengthen China as a modern sovereign nation. The contention of scientific legitimacy led to the fight between practitioners of Western and Chinese medicines in the first half of the 20th century, resulting in the professionalization of Chinese medicine and its claim to scientific authority as well.

The germ theory, developed in the latter half of 19th century, fundamentally changed people’s concept of the cause of disease and led to an emphasis on preventive medicine. Hygiene and sanitation became subjects taught in schools, while public health campaigns became a popular movement to disseminate health information to the public. In China, hygiene education and public health campaigns began to be promoted in the 1910s for social progress and national modernization.


Primary Sources

Bu, Liping. “Social Darwinism, Public Health and Modernization in China, 1895-1925.” In Uneasy Encounters: The Politics of Medicine and Health in China 1900-1937. Edited by Iris Borowy. Germany: Peter Lang, 2009, pp.93-124.

Croizier, Ralph C. Traditional Medicine in Modern China: Science, Nationalism, and the Tensions of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968, pp. 36-56.

Rogaski, Ruth. Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004, pp.104-135.

Xu, Xiaoqun. “‘National Essence’ vs. ‘Science’: Chinese Native Physicians’ Fight for Legitimacy.” Modern Asian Studies vol. 31. 4 (1997): 847-877.

Secondary readings

Hsu, Immanuel C.Y. The Rise of Modern China. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, chapters 11, 18, and 21.

Kuriyama, Shigehisa. “Concepts of Disease in East Asia.” In The Cambridge World History of Human Disease. Edited by Kenneth Kiple. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993, pp. 52-59.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who were the major forces advocating Western medicine in China? What were their main purposes?
  2. How was Western medicine defined as scientific? Was science a contested concept?
  3. On what grounds was Chinese traditional medicine considered unscientific? Was this argument valid?
  4. Why was Western medicine important for China?