When Ruth Rogasaki wrote about the “hygienic modernity” in the republican era, her statements reveal that there was a local conception of the “weisheng” in China that can be closely linked to guarding life than the modern practices that are related to public health. In china, the term “weisheng” was translated to represent the English term “hygiene”. According to Rogasaki, Weisheng is about maintaining health and not guarding life as the term was locally conceived to mean.
This paper explores the emergence of the term “weisheng” and outlining the special features in its discourse. In addition, the paper will focus on the historical significance of “weisheng” discourse in the East as an alternative notion of hygienic modernity. The position taken in this paper underlines that as they tried to translate the Western concepts, ideals, and practices into a Chinese context, the Chinese Actors did not focus on the actual techniques, rather, they were more concerned about their moral implications. Based on this view, the paper explains why in the republican period, due to challenges of translating of “Hygiene” into a local context, political leaders in china and other countries in the East Asia devoted a lot of energy on personal health without emphasizing on the development of a national system of public health. As a result, the local vision of hygiene brought forth the emergence of localized modernity that made communities in China to come up with alternatives in hygiene. It also led to development of the notion of selfhood, bodily sensibility and emergence of a moral community.
In order to understand the history of the modern China and the East Asia in general, it is worth looking at the groundbreaking research that was conducted by Ruth Rogasaki on the concept of hygiene (translated as “Weisheng” in Chinese) that literally means “”guarding life”. Rogaski translates Weisheng as “Hygienic Modernity” and showed its role in the expansion of Japanese into Korea, Taiwan including China. Rogaski (137) indicates that, this notion of hygiene emerged as an organizing principle and a source of contest between the state and the people. According to Rogaski the concept of hygiene remained unknown in East Asia until the second half of nineteenth century. However, the challenges in its interpretation of “hygiene” as “weisheng” resulted into ideas and practices that exceeded the original meaning of the western notion of hygiene. As a result, Rogaski proposed that the term “weisheng” should be translated as “hygienic modernity” as a way of emphasizing the fact that the popular “weisheng” notion in the East Asia, that was originally constructed by Japanese and later adopted in the rest of East Asia, served as a landmark in the history of the modernization of East Asia.
In tracking the divergent translation of the term “Hygiene” in East Asia, we will consider a Taiwanese medical historian (Liu Shiyong) who indicated that in the period around 1870, Negayo Sensai choice of the word eisei as a translation for “hygiene’ and emphasized that this does not involve protection of personal health alone. Instead, it also includes structures in government that are charged with the responsibility of protecting the health of the citizens, (Liu 47 in Lei 3). Earlier, before this translation, such a structure had not existed in East Asia and therefore there was no name to refer to it.
The newly introduced and indigenous discourses on weisheng did not meet the approval of the then day’s scholars. As a result, these discourses concerning “hygiene” did not receive a specific name. Therefore, as the discourses attempted to adopt the name and concepts of the Western “hygiene”, the path they followed was uncertain and treacherous. In my view, the result of the terminological confusion rendered the popular term “weisheng” to succeed in developing local meaning of hygiene that had little in common with the western understanding of hygiene. On the other hand, it is also likely that the upcoming understanding wiped away the notion of the western style hygiene to a point where it was not recognized in the local context.
The concepts of weisheng led to the development of alternative hygiene as a way of guarding life. The alternative hygiene would at times have some aspects of the western hygiene while in other time could have concepts that were very different from those of the western. hygiene. The popular precepts of guarding ones hygiene in the nineteenth century according to Rogaski starts with prevention of health. Weisheng advocated for people to prevent their health through observing various advices. According to Rogaski (27) some of the precepts include;
“In the fourth month, the way of heaven is moving west, therefore when travelling it is best to go in this direction. In his month the qi of life is in the Earthly, branch mao. In sitting and lying own, it is best to face due east.’
“In the morning, eat just one bowl of rice gruel.”
“If in the simmer you frequently are raw or cool melon and fruit in the fall take two litters of urine of young boys. Add five betel nuts finely sliced and fried. Rogaski, 27)
As observed above, the precepts of protecting ones hygiene comprised of warnings on avoidance of troublesome seasons including questionable cooking methods. On the other hand, weisheng principles included guarding life with drugs. It was acknowledged that drugs do work on a more intense level and with faster action produces dramatic results unlike when diseases are attacked by food only. Therefore, it is rightfully acknowledged that weisheng was much about curing diseases and also prevention of illnesses.
The translation of the term hygiene as weisheng in Chinese resulted in emergence of moral communities. According to Lei (23), the observance of personal hygiene does carry some serious moral implications to the people concerned and, in fact, does mould their self-identity, relationships, and their membership to the community. Lei (26) continue to indicate that western hygiene was largely criticized in China primarily due to the moral implications. It was viewed that, by observing the western hygiene practices, it would lead one to have egocentric behavior that means that, an individual would have a complete disregard for others. Similar views led to a general resistance to the popularity of the western hygiene as opposed to the precepts taught by weisheng and the Chinese culture.
Political leaders were also concerned with lack of hygiene. Sun Yat-Sen for instance was concerned about public health and often gave public lectures to Chinese people for instance, habits like spitting anywhere, belching in public, brushing ones teeth, keeping short nails, etc. Westerners therefore viewed at Chinese people as people who could not govern their bodies and to some extent they are unable to govern their nation. Major hygiene concerns at the society focused happened to be the same as those orientalists used to represent the character and behavior of Chinese people, for instance opium addiction, foot-binding among other behaviors (Lei 27). It will be noted that, the challenges in the translation of “hygiene” resulted in some major political milestones for instance in the personal hygiene was a crucial ingredient in modernizing the people and the nation. Chiang Kai- Shek initiated a New Life Movement in 1934 in preparation for invasion of Japan where so much energy was devoted to observance of personal hygiene concerned, for instance, with spitting and communal eating.
In conclusion, the challenges of translating western ideas, concepts and practices into Chinese and context for instance about “hygiene” helped to some extent in defining the identity of the Chinese people as they transformed into modernity. Therefore, the contest over the seemingly insignificant details of personal health that was not associated with western hygiene became a close connector to larger contexts about individualism, nationalism that characterized Chinese modernity.
Ruth Rogaski, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China. Berkeley:University of California Press. 2004.
Sean Hsiang-lin Lei, “Moral Community of weisheng: contesting hygiene in Republican China” 2009. International Journal of East Asian Science, Technology and Society. DOI 10.1007/s12280-009-9109-2