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Spit, Chains, and Hospital Beds : : A History of Madness in Republican Beijing, 1912-1938

  • Author(s): Baum, Emily Lauren;
  • et al.

This study examines diverging ways in which insanity was understood and experienced across different segments of Beijing society during the early twentieth century. Approaching the history of mental illness from both institutional and phenomenological perspectives, the dissertation shows how entrenched views of madness continued to hold sway among the Beijing populace in spite of institutional change. The first part of the dissertation, which describes the evolution of Beijing's first municipal asylum from its establishment in 1912 to its later reorganization under the auspices of the Rockefeller Foundation, offers a colonial, Whiggish interpretation of institutional advancement in the wake of Western involvement. The second part of the dissertation then goes on to demonstrate how such narratives of medical and institutional "progress" were largely ineffective at influencing popular understandings of madness, which remained rooted in traditional cultural values and contemporary sociopolitical concerns. Due to the wide variety of economic, educational, and social factors shaping understandings of health and disease during the early Republican period, no singular understanding of insanity was able to fundamentally eclipse all others. This portrayal of discursive coexistence challenges previous depictions of mental illness in Republican China, which have tended to portray understandings of insanity as having been strictly influenced by top-down discourses of scientific rationality and biopolitical control. In contrast, this dissertation argues that there is no singular "History" of madness in China, and that institutionally based narratives of madness reveal only a partial - and frequently skewed - perspective of the larger picture. Instead, an analysis of everyday attitudes toward insanity reveals a plurality of dispersed and conflicting interpretations about the causes and cures for mad behaviors: interpretations that were influenced more by contemporary concerns than by officially sanctioned discourses

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