‘Healthcare in China, A Medical Humanities Perspective’: Conference Review

On Friday 14th June 2019, the Oxford Brookes Centre for Business, Society, and Global Challenges, in collaboration with Peking University HSBC Business School, hosted a research workshop: Healthcare in China, a medical-humanities perspective. The call for papers aimed to bring together experts from different disciplines to discuss the Chinese healthcare system and the role of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China as well as abroad. The attempt to locate the workshop in the field of medical humanities was successful since we were fortunate enough to welcome colleagues from history, sociology, economics, management, film studies, international relations, anthropology, political economy, and also science and medicine. The conveners, Dr Andrea Bernardi (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Jenny Wang (Peking University HSBC Business School), managed to attract scholars from a wide array of institutions across Britain and overseas for a day of rich presentations and discussions. There were thirteen papers and a keynote speech by Prof. Elisabeth Hsu, University of Oxford.

The field of medical humanities is now well established in Britain, but this is not yet the case in China; medical humanities contributions to the study of healthcare in China remain few and far between, even by western scholars, while potentially rich discussions between Chinese and western scholars are not as numerous as they could and should be. We wanted to begin the work of remedying this by disseminating medical humanities contributions by Chinese scholars and putting them together with western scholars interested in TCM and healthcare in China. Besides this academic goal, we also wished to make a wider public aware of the successes of the Chinese approach to healthcare in the past decades. For progress in Chinese healthcare is too rarely mentioned in the West, even though discussion of Chinese economic growth is omnipresent in western media.

Image credit: Andrea Bernardi

The workshop focused on both the history and the current-day status of healthcare in China and its effectiveness. We discussed the origins and the current use of TCM in both rural and urban China, and its diffusion abroad. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese healthcare policies, including mental and psychological health and the surprising coexistence of modernisation, technology, and tradition. We also briefly covered the potential impact of artificial intelligence and internet medicine. We sought to explore the ways in which Chinese approaches to healthcare could be a model for other nations too. We explored how political discourse influences healthcare today and under Mao. The design of the workshop was based on the belief that while economics and management can tell us about the efficiency of the healthcare system and its future challenges, to understand the implications for healthcare of recent political and cultural trends in China, it is to the humanities that we should turn.

The day started with a presentation by Yuling Ma (University of Oxford) on ‘Clinical evidence based scientific research of traditional Chinese medicine’. Yuling Ma is a scientist who works on the effectiveness of TCM. In addition to explaining her laboratory work on heart arrhythmia, she presented the history of TCM and how since 1956 Chinese research institutions have been working on ancient TCM remedies with modern scientific research in medicine and biology.

This paper was followed by a presentation by Michael J. Clark (China Centre for Health and Humanity, UCL). Michael talked about the notion of Self-care with his paper on ‘Yangsheng and Mutual Aid in Zhang Yang’s ‘shower’ (Xi Zhao 洗澡, P.R. China, 1999)’. Showing extracts from this modern Chinese film, he brought out its implications for well-being and community.

A management paper followed, by Minquan Liu and Qu Wang (Peking University, China). They presented their work on ‘Hazard-Resilient Health Services: A Supply-Chain Approach’, focusing on the interplay between State and NGOs in dealing with disasters.

A medical doctor, Richard Lehman (University of Birmingham) and his doctoral student Mi Yao (Health Science Center, Peking University) presented their work on the issue of trust, asking ‘Should Chinese Patients Trust Their Doctors?’ Their reflections discussed both the British and the Chinese professional environments.

We then moved to TCM abroad, with a presentation by two young American scholars, Yale graduates now based in China, Kelsi Caywood and Michael Collins (Yenching Academy, Peking University, China). They told us about the fieldwork across United Kingdom, South Korea, and Tanzania  in a talk entitled ‘Deployment of Traditional Chinese Medicine Abroad: A Case Study Approach to China’s Cultural and Global Health Diplomacy’. This study was followed by a paper on TCM in China as Wang Zhicheng (School of Public Health, Peking University) discussed ‘TCM acceptance among the public in Mainland China’.

An historian, Jin Ping Ma (University of Warwick), gave a talk called ‘Personal Psyche, Public Exposure: West Wind Monthly and Psychological Knowledge Dissemination’. This paper was focused on a Western-knowledge-translation periodical, West Wind Monthly (西风). The journal was published in the period 1936-1949 and was widely distributed in Shanghai and exerted nationwide influences in the first half of twentieth century. Another historical paper followed as Lu Chen (Centre for Global Health Histories, University of York, United Kingdom) spoke on ‘China in the Worldwide Eradication of Smallpox, 1948-1980’, providing fascinating insights on the role of propaganda in Chinese healthcare dissemination.

We then moved to a comparative work on how the design of medical careers in India and China can explain very different performances of the healthcare policies in the two countries. (Minquan Liu and Zhicheng Wang (Peking University) and Mohnish Kedia (National University of Singapore), ‘Is There a Better Model for HRH Development to Achieve Our Health Goals? A Comparison of India and China’.)

Meixuan Chen (Bristol Medical School) presented ‘Valuing health and the AMR regulations in rural China’, co-authored with Helen Lambert (Bristol Medical School) and Paul Kadetz and Robert Fisher (Drew University). Their empirical work deals with the risks of AMR in China and told an intriguing story of the way that Chinese healthcare providers are responding to popular – and not necessarily medically robust – ideas about cures and treatment for the common cold.

We then moved back in time of a few centuries with two historians of the early modern period. They presented a work in progress on the reception of TCM in early modern Europe. Rowan Tomlinson (Bristol University) and Simon Park (Oxford University) took us on a grand tour of European perceptions of Chinese medicine through a series of textual and visual analyses of printed works, objects, and illustrations (‘Encounters with Chinese Medicine in the Early Modern World’). They pointed to enduring concerns and assumptions that are still apparent in interactions between the West and China.

The next paper explored the links between ideology, politics and healthcare as Andrea Bernardi (Oxford Brookes University) and Donni Wang (Shanghai University) presented on ‘China as a Heterodox Model in Healthcare: The New Rural Co-operative Medical Scheme’. Using the political character of the Maoist barefoot doctors as a springboard and comparator, they reflected on the contemporary risks of political manipulation of healthcare discourse under Xi, Trump and Boris Johnson. This is the continuation of previous work already published.

‘Three barefoot doctors’, 1974, from WHO Archive, WHO/N52/180/2 CHN (2), File 2, WHO Study Missions to China

The last paper presented a fieldwork study on the role of empowerment in healthcare plans in rural China, taking as a case study a particular county but suggesting that the findings could and should be applicable more broadly (Jenny Q Wang (PHBS) ‘Empowerment and Health: The Case of One Chinese County’).

The day concluded with a keynote speech by Elisabeth Hsu (University of Oxford). She described her longstanding anthropological project on the presence of TCM in Africa. She projected and analysed numerous enlightening images from her fieldwork and discussed both her methods and her memories of her experiences as a researcher. A book providing a fuller account of these rich reflections is forthcoming. Her talk also included her reflections on the scope and variety of the papers presented during the day.

After the keynote, participants were invited next door by the Oxford Brookes Confucius Institute to try a TCM massage taster-session. This was performed by Dr Chi, a practitioner from London South Bank University who studied at Heilongjiang University of Chinese Medicine. The thirty participants of the workshop ended a richly enjoyable and scholarly day drinking Italian wine while observing an example of Traditional Chinese Medicine enacted on medical humanities scholars.

The proceedings will be published in an edited collection curated by Andrea Bernardi and Jenny Wang. Another participant, Donni Wang, announced a call for papers for a special issue inspired by the workshop. This will appear in the ‘Journal of Social History of Medicine and Health’ published by China Social Sciences Press on behalf of The History Department at Shanghai University.


Dr Andrea Bernardi is Senior Lecturer in Employment Relations and Organization Studies at Oxford Brookes University. His main research contributions relate to the co-operative sector, including Chinese co-operatives. He also works on employment relations and inequality and he has further interests in the study of time, the past, and history in management and organizational studies.


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