Cross-Currents e-Journal (No. 30)
Air-Water-Land-Human: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Health and Environment in East Asia
Taken together, the contributions to this special issue clearly demonstrate how questions of health and environment open up interdisciplinary inquiry perhaps better than any other field in Asian studies. Within this expansive framework, one can simultaneously talk of the dao (道) and PCBs, lysogenic phage cycles and empire, or petrochemicals and ethnic identity. Through attention to global comparisons, these articles highlight areas where East Asian cases can make crucial contributions as specific as the historical epidemiology of a single disease or as sweeping as the theorizing of new forms of environmental activism.
Among acute infectious diseases, cholera gained more attention in Japanese popular culture and among policymakers than any other. Although many facts about cholera’s historical existence seem settled, when one looks closely at the medical, biological, and environmental science, several of these facts—especially about the definitions of pandemics, epidemics, and endemicity—become fuzzy. In an attempt to reach a modicum of clarity, this article asks: What biological and environmental conditions allowed cholera to become endemic in nineteenth-century Japan? In answering this question, it makes the case that understanding this disease in history and, more specifically, why it took the course that it did in nineteenth-century Japan requires knowledge of the scientific literature. This claim is part of a broader argument about how understanding the physical world in its concrete manifestations through biological and environmental science is important to understanding human history. It is applicable not only to the history of disease, epidemics, and pandemics but to other fields, including environmental history, the history of technology, and the history of war, as well. This article also questions a number of boundaries: between disciplines, across time and space, and between evidence and assumption in what we consider facts.
Keywords: Japan, disease, cholera, pandemic, epidemic, endemic, environment, history, science, biology, historiography of cholera, GIS analysis
In the early twentieth century, while smallpox, cholera, and other diseases caused temporary but urgent health crises in China, pulmonary tuberculosis remained a leading cause of mortality. This article investigates efforts to prevent and control tuberculosis in Republican China, especially efforts to implement the Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine as a preventive measure against the disease. Published materials show that efforts to introduce this vaccine during the early 1930s met with skepticism on the part of Chinese physicians and inaction on the part of the state. Although the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) presented an obstacle to BCG research and development, it also provided new opportunities for members of China’s biomedical research community—many of whom had moved with the Nationalist government to the nation’s western hinterlands—to learn about new methods of producing vaccines and study methods of epidemic control. In the case of BCG, these processes bore fruit only in the years after the war ended, when a review of medical literature suggests that in the tumultuous years of civil war between 1945 and 1949, health administrators began to plan for implementation of the BCG vaccine on a large scale for the first time. But questions of the ability of this biochemical method to prevent an airborne disease, and the role of environmental and social factors in causing tuberculosis, lingered throughout this period.
Keywords: tuberculosis, Bacille Calmette-Guérin, BCG, Republic of China, public health, bacteriology, vaccine, immunization, epidemic
This article explores the relationship between qi and air in Chinese medical and scientific history in order to illuminate current approaches to air pollution and wumai (smog) in contemporary China. The modern concept of air is expressed in Chinese using terms related to the word qi. However, qi is a complex, multivalent term with a long history in Chinese cosmology and Chinese medicine and does not hold a clear one-to-one correspondence with air. Qi provided a resonating transcendent link between humans and their environment, yet pathogenic forms of qi arising from the environment could invade the body, causing illness and death. During the late nineteenth century, laboratory definitions of air as gas were introduced to China through the term qi, enabling some turn-of-the-century Chinese physicians such as Tang Zonghai to establish creative correspondences between air and qi that encompassed gas, vital energies, and even God. Such correspondences with their transcendent, potentially sacred valences appear to be unavailable today, even as contemporary Chinese embrace traditional medicines to ward off the effects of wumai. By probing the significant spaces between air and qi, this article suggests that the history of science in China has implications for how we might cope with and confront our current atmospheric crisis.
Keywords: qi, air, translation, wumai, Tang Zonghai, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), PM 2.5
This article analyzes media responses to a 2010 Greenpeace China report titled Swimming in Poison. Among other alarming data, the report states that fish from collection points along the Yangtze River showed elevated levels of harmful “environmental hormones” (huanjing jisu), also referred to as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Scholars have critiqued EDC science and activism for its heteronormative pathologizing of intersexuality, nonreproductive sexual activity, and impaired fertility, drawing attention to the “sex panic” at work in EDC discourse. This article shows that such sex panic is neither necessary nor universal in anxieties surrounding EDCs. Unlike media responses to EDC events in Europe and North America, Chinese news articles that followed the report did not focus on anxieties surrounding sexual transgression. Instead, media reactions focused on food safety, industrial capitalism, and the ecological scope of pollution. Based on this analysis, the author argues that the disruptive quality and analytic potential of China’s environmental hormones has less to do with a defense of sexual purity or bodily integrity, and more to do with acknowledging the depths to which human and nonhuman bodies in today’s China are suffused with the sometimes toxic social, economic, political, and chemical environments in which people eat, grow, and live.
Keywords: China, toxicity, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, pollution, Yangtze River, Greenpeace, milk powder, environmental activism, hormones
Different interpretations of what constitutes “trash” can reveal complex interactions between Tibetans and Han Chinese in the Eastern Himalayas. This article adopts the term “trash talk” to illuminate how the Tibetan practice of depositing garments as offerings to sacred mountains has become a center of Tibetan-Han debates about ethnic identity, morality, and personhood. Establishing the contours of waste-management infrastructure in a Tibetan area of Yunnan, China, that has been developed for tourism, this article examines the Tibetan term dreg pa དྲེག་པ (pollution), a morally laden notion of impurity. The author highlights how Tibetans seek to avoid dreg pa and achieve a reciprocal balance with “mountain-persons” (mountains as sacred beings) by making offerings of personal garments. The Han Chinese waste-management sector’s perception of these garment offerings as litter creates a dispute between Tibetans and Han as to what is sacred and what is trash. Drawing on field research, the author argues that the offered garments should be seen not as trash but as people—active entities that mediate the reciprocal relationship between humans and the environment. Further analysis of the experience of two Tibetan informants reveals how the issue of used garments and dreg pa can even form a basis for personal transformation and the reinvention of personhood. These linkages among the local notion of dreg pa, uncertainties surrounding used garments, and personhood suggest that waste-management policies must take local notions of waste into consideration in order to be both efficient and culturally sensitive, especially in the current troubled trash politics of mass tourism and global environmentalism.
Keywords: waste management, personhood, sacred trash, trash talk, Tibet, China, Yunnan, ritual offerings, tourism