In 1739 China's emperor commissioned images of children with smallpox to aid in the diagnosis and treatment of the disease. Those images made their way to Europe, where they were interpreted as indicative of the ill health and medical backwardness of the Chinese. In the mid-nineteenth century, the celebrated Cantonese painter Lam Qua collaborated with the American medical missionary Peter Parker in the creation of portraits of Chinese patients with disfiguring pathologies, rendered both before and after surgery. Europeans saw those portraits as evidence of Western medical prowess. Within China, the visual idiom that the paintings established influenced the development of medical photography. In The Afterlife of Images, Larissa N. Heinrich investigates the creation and circulation of Western medical discourses that linked ideas about disease to Chinese identity beginning in the eighteenth century.Combining literary studies, the history of science, and visual cultural studies, Heinrich analyzes the rhetoric and iconography through which medical missionaries transmitted to the West an image of China as "sick" or "diseased," as well as the absorption of that image back into China through missionary activity and through the earliest translations of Western medical texts into Chinese.
Heinrich argues that over time "scientific" Western representations of the Chinese body and culture accumulated a host of secondary meanings, taking on an afterlife with lasting consequences for conceptions of Chinese identity in China and beyond its borders. Through readings of the fiction of the doctor-turned-writer Lu Xun, she chronicles how ideas of the Chinese character as weak and fundamentally diseased were absorbed even into the literature of Chinese nationalism.
Ari Larissa Heinrich is Associate Professor in the Department of Literature at the University of California, San Diego. He is a coeditor of Embodied Modernities: Corporeality and Representation in Chinese Cultures.