Public health campaigns were an essential element in creating a modern, strong Chinese nation, writes historian and Alma College faculty author Liping Bu.
A poster image on the cover of Liping Bu’s new book illustrates the methods rural Chinese people were taught in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s to prevent the spread of malaria.
“Malaria was a devastating disease in China, and a major effort of the anti-malaria campaigns was to teach the public the methods to prevent it,” says Bu, professor of history at Alma College and author of the newly published Public Health and the Modernization of China, 1865-2015. “This included spraying the pesticide DDT, covering standing water, using bed nets and window screens, and burning mosquito repellent incense.”
The messages were conveyed to the less literate masses largely by visual materials, such as health posters and pictorials. The illustrations provided the scientific information about the mosquito’s life cycle and how it spread malaria from the sick to the healthy, and the methods of prevention.
“The anti-malaria messages were easy to understand, and the images realistic to imitate and practice in real life,” says Bu. “The information encouraged people to change their health behavior. Using posters with illustrations spoke directly to the people.”
Public health campaigns were an essential element in creating a modern, strong Chinese nation, says Bu. As China faced pressure by other world powers to modernize itself, the public health movement was a crucial part of the modernization movement.
Modernization meant addressing the high illiteracy rate. A major achievement of the government of the People’s Republic of China was linking public health education with the literacy movement.
“You can’t teach public health without first teaching people to read and write,” says Bu. “Literacy classes centered on science and health practices and how to prevent diseases. The popularization of scientific knowledge was carried out in the literacy classes.”
The advances in public health were an integral part of China’s rise, writes Bu. Life expectancy in China improved from 38 in 1949 to 73 in 2010.
Published this spring, Bu’s book analyzes the public health concerns that were closely tied to China’s political and economic developments at different times. It also examines the dominance of scientific knowledge of medicine in public health education, the challenge of transmitting scientific knowledge of health and diseases to a large population with a high illiteracy rate, and how health campaigns contributed to the reduction and elimination of epidemic diseases such as smallpox, cholera and malaria.
She began the project in 2001, with research at libraries and archival centers in China, the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2006, an Andrew Mellon Fellowship at Needham Research Institute allowed her to study medicine and public health during her sabbatical at Cambridge University. In 2009, she received a $130,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to support her research.
“This is a book that was a long time in the making,” she says. “It’s a great relief to finally have it completed and published. At a teaching college like Alma, there is little time to write. So you find opportunities during holidays, term breaks, sabbaticals — any free time at all — to write. It was great fun, even though there was self-imposed pressure to finish it.”
Bu was born and raised in China, coming to the United States for graduate school and eventually joining the Alma College faculty in 1999. She personally experienced the public health system in China as a healthy child.
“I loved sports and played basketball and volleyball in school,” she says. “I remember that primary health care was available to all the people, though the technical level was low. China was not highly advanced scientifically because of the Cold War isolation from Western technical and scientific advances in those decades.”
Public Health and the Modernization of China, 1865-2015 was published by Routledge and is a part of the Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia.