Ruth Rogaski, "Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China" (U California Press, 2014)


Since it was published in 2004, Ruth Rogaski's Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (University of California Press, 2014 reprint) has won four major prizes in fields ranging from history of medicine to East Asian history. It is easy to see why. Set in the Chinese treaty port of Tianjin, the book follows Chinese elites over the tumultuous decades that spanned the middle of the nineteenth century to World War Two. Chinese elites in Tianjin engaged British, French, and, importantly, Japanese imperialists and traders in their midst, creating what Rogaski thinks is best called a "hypercolony." Simultaneously, Chinese elites pressed their own nation-building projects, working to distinguish themselves both from the foreigners and also from the masses they ruled. To do so, they adopted, adapted, and cultivated particular ways of building a modern nation in the final years of the Qing dynasty, which hung, importantly, on practices of hygiene. These ideal ways of being hygienic, thus modern, fundamentally rearranged the urban landscape of Tianjin and the practice of everyday life. Rogaski writes wonderfully and leads the way through tricky historical evidence, pointing out how Chinese elites modernizing projects were apparent in the changed meaning of weisheng. In the early nineteenth century, the term referred to individual ways of guarding health and a century later had come explicitly to refer to government-directed public hygiene measures--"hygienic modernity"--without ever shedding its earlier inflections. The book shows that modernity is not so much a time period, but an aspiration and a process--always incomplete, seemingly right around the washroom corner. Creatively designed and insightfully analyzed, this study defies any simple binaries of colonizer and colonized, or of indigenous and scientific medicine. Rogaski wears her theory lightly and has plenty new to show--not least to historians of medicine who may be most familiar with the stories of colonial medicine from Africa and India. Ruth Rogaski is Associate Professor of History at Vanderbilt University and generously agreed to a live faculty-student interview as part of a collaborative final project for Laura Starks course History of Global Health. To learn more about using the New Books Network for classroom projects, see Laura Stark's essay "Can new media save the book?" in the Fall 2015 issue of Contexts.

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Laura Stark

Laura Stark is Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University’s Center for Medicine, Health, and Society.

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