Leprosy in China: A History

Volume 06, Issue 2

Angela Ki Che Leung's book traces the long history of leprosy in China from antiquity (fourth century BC) to the recent past (the 1990s). Reviewing the history of a disease over two thousand years across a vast territory is a daunting challenge, but Leung has succeeded thanks to her effective strategy. Her account impresses the reader with its meticulous and eye-opening detail; I believe this work will oblige both Chinese and Western scholars to reconsider how they think about illness and medicine in China. Leung uses the case of leprosy to argue for an alternative historiography of Chinese medical discourse. Her introduction contextualizes leprosy in China globally, a contribution to Dipesh Chakrabarty's crusade to "provincialize Europe" (16). This is an effort to portray "multisited histories of postcolonial medicine" (16), a reference to Warwick Anderson' ideas about non-Western medical history. Although Leung seems to see these approaches as one, I distinguish them here for the sake of discussion. In the first instance, Leung highlights the distinctiveness of the history of leprosy in China by making occasional comparisons with accounts of the disease in the West from ancient times through the colonial period to the present. She also invokes examples from India and Japan. As for the postcolonial history of medicine approach, Leung not only presents China as a long-neglected monolith in the world history of leprosy but also exhibits remarkable skill in exploring archives; the result is a series of vivid accounts of people and their leprosy stories that cross China's regional and cultural boundaries. The main body of the book, chapters 1 through 5, gives full play to these two rather ambitious interpretive strategies.

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