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Higher Education Modules

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

Class 4: Health Campaigns of the Masses, 1950s–1970s


The theme of integrating public health into national modernity characterized China’s health campaigns throughout the 20th century. In the 1950s–1970s, mass movements called the patriotic health campaigns were carried out in urban cities and rural villages across China to get rid of the diseases that plagued people. They targeted major epidemics such as cholera, diarrhea, hookworm, typhoid fever, typhus, meningitis, malaria, diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, schistosomiasis, and other diseases. Health posters became an important means to disseminate health knowledge to the masses when China had about an 80% illiteracy rate in the rural villages in the 1950s. Posters were visually powerful, effective and fast in conveying health information and vivid in teaching new things. They were designed in a direct and self-explanatory manner. Health images often left indelible impressions in the minds of the masses about the causes of diseases, the importance of health, and the methods of preventive action in daily life. The mass health campaigns were closely tied with the guiding political, social, and economic concerns during specific time periods, such as the socialist reconstruction, the anti-pest movement, collectivization, and the Cultural Revolution. Major themes of the health posters included scientific explanations of the cause of disease, methods of prevention, urban and rural sanitation, knowledge of nutrition, and the promotion of barefoot doctors as paramedics serving the people in rural villages.

This class studies the mass health campaigns of the 1950s–1970s. Students will gain insights about the campaigns by examining online images of health posters, including extensive posters on anti-malaria and anti-TB campaigns.


Primary Sources

Bu, Liping and Elizabeth Fee. “Communicating with Pictures: The Vision of Chinese Anti-Malaria Posters.” American Journal of Public Health 100.3 (2010): 424-425.

Li, Yushang. “The Elimination of Schistosomiasis in Jiaxing and Haining Counties, 1948-58: Public Health as Political Movement.” In Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century. Edited by Angela Ki Che Leung and Charlotte Furth. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010, pp. 204-227.

Yang, Nianqun. “Disease Prevention, Social Mobilization and Spatial Politics: The Anti Germ-Warfare Incident of 1952 and the ‘Patriotic Health Campaign.’” The Chinese Historical Review 11, 2 (2004): 155-182.

Zhang, Daqing and Paul U. Unschuld. “China’s Barefoot Doctor: Past, Present, and Future,” Lancet 372. 9653 (2008): 1865-1867. Available on line at

Secondary readings

Chen, C. C. Medicine in Rural China: A Personal Account. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, pp. 119-141.

Lisowski, F. P. “The Emergence and Development of the Barefoot Doctor in China.” Eastern Horizon 19 (1980): 6-20.

Wegman, Myron E., Tsung-Yi Lin and Elizabeth F. Purcell, eds. Public Health in the People’s Republic of China. New York: The Josiah Macy, Jr. Foundation, 1973, pp. 109-232.

Online visual material for class use:

Chinese Poster Foundation. “Barefoot doctors.”

National Library of Medicine. “Go to the country side to serve the 500 million peasants, 1965.” Chinese Public Health Posters. //

___. “Public Health Movements.” Chinese Public Health Posters. //

___. “Prevention of Disease.” Chinese Public Health Posters. //

___. Consumptive Disease: Chinese Anti-Tuberculosis Posters, 1950-1980. //

___. Chinese Anti-Malaria Posters. //

Discussion Questions:

  1. What were the major diseases that the mass campaigns tried to get rid of? Why did the campaigns focus on these diseases?
  2. How did the poster images teach people to tackle the diseases? Can you tell if any posters specifically targeted the rural population?
  3. How was the importance of good health related to national development during these decades? Point out some political and economic implications of the health campaigns.
  4. What techniques did the posters use to make them effective and attractive in conveying health information?
  5. Why were many barefoot doctors in the posters female?