Mary Brazelton’s new book, Mass Vaccination: Citizens’ Bodies and State Power in Modern China (Cornell UP, 2019) could hardly be more timely. During the Covid-19 pandemic, China was in the headlines of Euro-American media as the site of the first cases of the disease. China is also centerstage in Brazelton’s insightful, antiracist book—not as a source of disease but as the source of an effective and pervasive global public health strategy that other nations during the Covid-19 pandemic have strained to implement: mass vaccination.
As a historian of modern China and a historian of medicine, Brazelton offers a trustworthy and well-documented account of the National Epidemic Prevention Board and its successor agencies during the republic’s war-torn twentieth century. The location—and relocation—of the Board and its refugee scientists was decisive, Brazelton argues. During World War II and Japanese occupation (1937-45), the Board’s labs and scientists decamped from China’s coastal cities to the mountainous southwest borderland of Yunnan—exactly because the area was rugged, sparsely populated, and far from China’s urban hubs. In Yunnan, scientists were not isolated, but rather set within an idiosyncratic health infrastructure and network of longstanding political rivals vying for sway in the region—including France to the south, UK to the east, the League of Nations in the capital, and everywhere indigenous rulers, who retained local authority as the Nationalist Party struggled to consolidate power in the early years of the republic. The distinctive geography, epidemiology, and communities of health knowledge in Yunnan channeled the Board’s research and strategies. This regional system, developed under the banner of the national Board, became the blueprint for public health interventions for the People’s Republic of China after the Communist Revolution (1949). In the 1970s because of its repressive practices, China was officially excluded from the global health community, which was dominated by Europe and the US under the World Health Organization. Yet, China’s program of mass vaccination and strategy of universal primary care directly informed practices of new and nonaligned countries.
Brazelton’s important new book addresses a classic puzzle of biopolitics in the history of science and medicine: when and why did governing regimes build public health programs that prioritized changing people’s behaviors and values (sanitation, hygiene; mask wearing, social distancing) rather than changing people’s health with quick technical fixes—such as vaccination.
The interview refers to the image on the book’s cover (also p130) and to the important, related work of Alicia Altorfer-Ong, Ruth Rogawski, and the Connecting Three Worlds project. The conversation was a collective interview by Vanderbilt students in Laura Stark’s course, American Medicine & the World.