Theses Doctoral

The Female Hand: The Making of Western Medicine for Women in China, 1880s–1920s

Lin, Shing-Ting

This dissertation explores the transmission of Western medicine for women in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century China. It starts from the fundamental presupposition that one cannot reach a proper understanding of the medical knowledge available at the time without investigating the practical experience of doctors, medical students, and their female patients. Focusing on the practice of Western and Chinese missionary practitioners (male and female), including the hospital buildings they erected, the texts they translated, the ways they manipulated their senses in diagnosis and treatment, and the medical appliances they employed for surgery and delivery, I reconstruct these people’s daily-life experiences, while reassessing the broad issues of professionalization and gender, colonial medicine, translation, knowledge making, and interactions between the human body and inanimate materials in a cross-cultural context.
This dissertation first highlights daily life’s contributions to the history of professionalization by examining the on-the-ground, material circumstances of women doctors’ work at the Hackett Medical Complex in the southeast treaty-port city of Canton (Guangzhou). The physical conditions of the missionary hospital and its built environment embodied the multi-layered process through which the concrete elements of Western medicine were circulated, applied, and localized in China’s pluralistic medical landscape. Foregrounding Western missionary physicians and their Chinese students as practitioners who were practicing and learning medicine in a specific medical setting, I argue that the professionalization of medicine for women was not defined through a set of abstract theoretical criteria but was rather embedded in concrete daily practice, in observing, diagnosing, and treating patients.
Drawing evidence from translated medical treatises and manuals, I demonstrate in the second part of the dissertation (Chapter Two) how craft-based, material-centered medical knowledge from the West was disseminated in China via the vehicle of words. Missionary doctors integrated the topic of manual skills into their medical discourse and, hence, could monopolize the realm of pragmatic knowledge generated exclusively from the hospital setting. Here, I underline the role that text played in mobilizing female healing techniques. By doing so, I show how Western-trained physician-translators derived their authority not only as practitioners of women’s reproductive health but also as interpreters of female bodies.
Whereas published words served as a powerful vehicle in spreading speculative ideas, it was not the only channel through which Western medical knowledge was transmitted and acquired. Rather, an account of doctor–patient encounters at the Hackett Medical Complex clarifies the non-discursive modes of knowledge exchange that prioritized the interactions of skills, body, and instruments in translating technical know-how. As I show in this dissertation’s third part (Chapters Three and Four), missionaries created their new norms of medical practice by placing touching and handling at the center of diagnostic practice. Moreover, the apprenticeship approach and potential linguistic barrier between the missionary teachers and their Chinese students meant that a large body of knowledge passed from one to the other more by observation and imitation than by the study of books. Whereas most scholars in this field have characterized the Chinese encounter with Western science as a translation practice relying on texts, I broaden this assessment by exploring a gendered mode of knowing that emphasizes the role of clinical practice and sensory experience.
My fundamental aim in this dissertation is to foreground knowledge transmission and the nature of the women doctors’ work at the level of practice, which was based mostly on their experiences and bodily labor. By focusing this history of profession-in-the-making in the multifarious exchanges between China and the West, I demonstrate how the “expertise” in women’s medicine was generated by doing—that is, by the technical dimension of the social practice of medicine.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia Y.
Ko, Dorothy Yin-Yee
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 15, 2015