“Science” After Birth: A Study of Postpartum Discourse in The Ladies’ Journal, 1915–31

Cover of  The Ladies’ Journal (vol. 1 no. 9). The image is titled yao guo guan xin (caring about medicine).

by Qingyang Sonia Li

This paper investigates the media representations of the Chinese practice of postpartum recovery by examining The Ladies’ Journal, a popular women’s magazine active in early 20thcentury China. I argue that a dichotomous portrayal of the modern West against the obsolete Chinese was intentionally crafted within the magazine’s postpartum discourse through the homogenized representation of traditional puerperal care as unscientific, unhygienic, and inhumane. Such rhetoric based on negative self-framing and the urgent need to “Westernize” reflected the period’s tide of intellectual crusades during the New Culture Movement that called for a Chinese future built on modernized values. Linking childbirth with the survival of the Chinese race, science became the nexus between women and nationalism in the public discourse, as the female body during and after labor became the conceptual battlefield of traditionalism against modernity. It was under the banner of science that the concern for Chinese women’s wellbeing elapsed into the larger longing for a stronger Chinese state.

Author’s bio:
Qingyang Sonia Li is a student of the M.A. program Global History at Freie Universität Berlin and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She holds a BA degree in Japanese studies and is currently writing her MA thesis on the memories and emotions of Japanese settler colonialism in Northeast China.

Registered attendees received access to the video presentation and shared questions and comments below.

4 replies on ““Science” After Birth: A Study of Postpartum Discourse in The Ladies’ Journal, 1915–31”

Hi Qingyang. Thank you for your fascinating research into the trends and developments of this particular discourse (over a relatively small period of time!), and the lessons to be drawn from it. I was especially intrigued by one of your final points: the progression you isolate between 1926-31 that marks a shift from the designation of the female body as physical and material entity to something of prominent symbolism and representationalism. In the context of the theme of this year’s conference, I am curious about what ’symbolism’ entails when contrasted with what you could call the categories of the ‘corporeal’ or ‘material’ (several names one could give this, including also ‘literal.’) It seems that, based on what your research draws, the shift to symbolism might be read as one which, in supplanting our engagement with the material female body, and at the same time generalizing and reifying it, thus inflicts a kind of violence to the body. Still, there is a way to think of the shift to the symbolic as an attempt to elevate and dignify the subject (in this case, the female body) beyond its material particularities—for instance, we might think of an analogous and archetypal kind of symbolism in the way that a flag can serve as the symbol for the peoples of a nation, affording them a unified identity and singular cause. The symbolic and the ‘irrational’ overlap greatly, it seems to me, especially when we think of the ‘physical’ and ‘material’ as closely twinned to the categories of the ‘literal’ and ‘rational’. I wonder if, critically, you yourself come down in any way on this question: does ’to symbolize’ entail an act of violence, or can the progression toward symbolism be perceived as an effort of valorization, enabling unprecedented modes of thinking about (e.g.) the female body?

Thank you for your paper Qingyang. I really enjoyed it and found it very stimulating!

My first question is about the gender biases derived from the predominantly male authorship, editorship, and readership of the Lady’s Journal. Is it possible to reconstruct discursive positions taken by women in the journal? Did articles written or edited by women oppose or challenge this male and Westernizing view of the Chinese modernization process? In one line, is it possible to draw a contrast between discursive strategies in male v female-authored articles?

The second question is if you know to what extent articles in the Lady’s Journal sparked critical reactions in other journals or newspapers? Maybe some opposition to their editorial line or narrative was being promoted elsewhere. Could that be the case?

Finally, I have a doubt that is a bit broader. I wonder how Westernized discourses on science have conditioned the study of medicine in Chinese universities until the present. In other words, to what extent Europhile approaches to the study and practice of medicine have prevailed in Chinese medical schools? Or to what extent a “hybrid” or mixed approach of Western and traditional Chinese medicine has been more recurrent?

Hi Qingyang! Thank you for a fascinating and well-written paper and a great performance on the video!

I really enjoyed getting to know your research and your viewpoint to it, and the topic was especially interesting for me because I have studied the discourse on female body in 19th century Britain as well. This is why I find many similarities (such as women’s capability of reproduction, the physicality of female body, and the laws of physiology) that were not outright universal, but rather reminded each other. For example, the avoidance of wind and cold (page 2 in your paper) were something all British citizens were notified to be careful because of the importance of body temperature. On the other hand, I found the notion of so called “state of pollution” (page 5) very interesting. In Finnish tradition, a state of pollution was cured with the practice of “kirkotus” (kirkko = church, kirkotus = purifying practice in church) still visible in 1950’s, which was a cultural cleaning practice for postnatal women. As you mentioned the long history of postpartum practices in Chinese tradition (page 2), I was wondering whether the Western postpartum period (or puerperium) originated from Chinese tradition – do you happen to know? The way you contextualized the discourse on postpartum practices with the aspect of modernization and nationalism was wonderfully done. The same phenomenon – women’s responsibility of both the negative degeneration / positive improvement of race – is visible in my own research material, 19th century British health manuals. Also a Finnish historian, Dr Anna Niiranen, defended her thesis on the medical writing on expectant mothers in 19th century Britain (https://jyx.jyu.fi/handle/123456789/71832) if you would like to have a look on it. One thing that could be stressed more early on in your paper is the notion of intersectionality or class: were less wealthy mothers able to afford “the sitting month”? You pay attention to the class in the reading audience of the magazine (page 8) and in the end of your paper (page 19), but it could be done already early in the beginning as a short mention. But this is just a small detail! ☺

Thank you for letting us getting to know your research! It was highly interesting for me as I compared the Chinese and British traditions in my mind while reading your paper.

Hi Sonia, thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to learn about such a fascinating theme! My questions largely connect to points raised by the other participants, but hopefully will allow you to expand on them further.

One of the things I found most interesting about your paper is your attentiveness to parallels between the Chinese case and trends and practices elsewhere. (Lotta’s comment is intriguing; I have a friend here in Cambridge who is working on analogous practices of lying-in and subsequent purification through “churching” in late medieval and early modern England, and she has told me that these practices were still alive in Ireland until just a generation or two ago!) I’d be interested in any further reflections you might have on the parallels between China and other cultures—do you think that they might tell us anything about patterns of global dissemination of certain cultural practices, or about the structural workings of patriarchal societies in general? More broadly, what are your thoughts on the value of comparative history from a methodological perspective?

My second question relates to Pablo’s question about responses. Whether this is done intentionally or not, your paper seems to posit a divide between a theoretical discourse produced by a small élite and the real practices of the majority (including the women themselves)—but what about divisions amongst the educated male élite? Surely the journal’s editorial line reflected the views of only a section of this élite? Am I correct in reading your account as suggesting that this editorial line was generally in agreement with the agenda pushed by the state/dominant political force? If so, would you go as far as describing the journal as a propaganda instrument? Were there any expressions of disagreement, and through what means were they voiced?

My third question also relates to a point raised by Pablo: that of readership. You effectively seem to suggest that the magazine was not only written by men, but also largely read by men—but if (as you stress) men didn’t in fact have any active role in childbearing, what do you think the journal’s editors were trying to achieve with these proposals? Was this anything more than a general expression of discontent with traditional Chinese culture and of a commitment to “modernisation” along Western lines or to national resurgence? Did they actually hope to have any practical impact, and how exactly?

At any rate, I really enjoyed your paper and presentation; your material is presented in an accessible and stimulating fashion, and your topic is incredibly rich even for someone who works on radically different subjects. Thanks again!

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