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Higher Education Modules

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

Class 3: Popularization of Western Interpretation of Human Body and Biomedicine


When hygiene and the germ theory were popularized via health campaigns, modern interpretation of the human body was taught at schools with the use of colorful images. In the 1930s, Fritz Kahn’s idea of man as machine was introduced to Chinese pupils in biology classes. However, Chinese visual presentation of Kahn’s idea of a mechanical body gained Chinese characteristics that were easy for young students to accept in their own cultural references. In contrast to the traditional Chinese concept of the human body as a microcosm, the Western concept depicted the human body in a mechanical system that can be broken down into different chemical components. The understanding of the human body was modernized in the sense that the body was scientifically analyzable and quantifiable in terms of its chemical components. The images in the “Understanding Human Body” section of the Chinese Public Health Posters online exhibition are educational posters for biology classes, produced by a Shanghai publisher in 1933. Compare these with the two Chinese medical images—illustration 1 and illustration 2 from the Images of the History of Medicine database at the National Library of Medicine.

Biomedicine was marketed to Chinese consumers in the context of scientific medicine. The commercial industry increased selling Western medicine significantly in large cities like Shanghai and Tianjin. The poster images of aspirin and veramon advertisements in the 1930s represent the flourishing biomedicine market in China.

Students are expected to examine the online images of the human body and analyze the transformation of Chinese presentation of Kahn’s concept of human body. They are encouraged to explain how Western anatomy was adapted to Chinese perceptions. They will also examine the pharmaceutical commercials of biomedicine to find out what Western advertising technics and strategies were deployed in making the ads appealing to Chinese consumers.


Primary Sources

Cochran, Sherman. “Marketing Medicine and Advertising Dreams in China.” In Becoming Chinese: Passages to Modernity and Beyond. Edited by Wen-Hsin Yeh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, pp. 62-97.

Debschitz, Uta von and Thilo von Debschitz. Fritz Kahn: Man Machine Maschine Mensch. Wien: Springer, 2009.

Rogaski, Ruth. Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004, pp. 225-253.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. Trans. by Ilza Veith. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1972, Books 1-3, pp. 97-146.

Secondary readings

Matuk, Camillia. “Seeing the Body: The Divergence of Ancient Chinese and Western Illustration.” The Journal of Biocommunication 32.1 (2006): 1–8.

Marchand, Roland. Advertising the American Dream: Making Way for Modernity, 1920-1940. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 117-163.

Online visual material for class use:

National Library of Medicine. 2006. “Understanding Human Body.” Chinese Public Health Posters. //

___. 2006. “Pharmaceutical Advertisements.” Chinese Public Health Posters. //

Discussion Questions:

  1. How different was Western interpretation of the human body from traditional Chinese interpretation? Provide examples by comparing the online images of the human body.
  2. Explain the characteristics of Kahn’s interpretation of the human body and describe how Chinese cultural elements were incorporated in the presentation of Kahn’s concept.
  3. What methods did the producers of Chinese pharmaceutical advertisements use to make the ads attractive and effective to Chinese consumers? Compare these methods with those commonly used in the United States in the 1920s-30s.