Part 1: Reflections on Research to Present
My approach has been to study medieval Chinese history from the perspective of gender, with particular emphasis on the interactions between law, medicine and women. Since being promoted to Research fellow in 2005, I have largely continued in this vein, while the scope of my research in both time and space has extended forwards and outwards.
My article “Women, Families and Gendered Society” (2019) presents a systematic analysis of medieval women’s history and was commissioned by Cambridge University Press for inclusion in The Cambridge History of China: Vol. II, The Six Dynasties.The piece begins with the story of a Northern Wei imperial daughter who was widowed twice before entering a Buddhist nunnery, then analyses the family status, social environment, and historical significance of women during the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern Dynasties through the lenses of ceremonial rites, law, medicine, religion, and politics. Besides synthesizing thirty years of my research on medieval Chinese women’s history, this chapter also brings in the aspect of medicine, so often neglected by history of the period in the past. This volume of The Cambridge History of China brings together the scholarship of more than thirty experts from around the world, and my contribution represents a highlight for both women’s history and Six Dynasties research. Responding to inquiries from curious co-authors and readers, I published “A Twice-Widowed Xianbei Princess” subsequently, which dealt specifically with the epitaph of the Northern Wei imperial daughter who opens the above-mentioned article, utilizing a particular case to elaborate on the social places and diverse choices of women in an era when religious fervor coincided with political upheaval.
A relatively complete picture of my research on gender and medicine in medieval China can be found in my 2008 monograph, A Women’s History of Medicine: Gender and Health Care in Early Imperial China. This book takes a comprehensive view of medical practice inside and outside the domestic sphere from the Han to the Tang and from the perspective of women’s participation in healthcare from cradle to grave. It was composed of my previously peer-reviewed journal articles, revised and accompanied by an introduction and a conclusion. Taking reproduction as a starting point, I describe the formation of Chinese gynecological knowledge and the gendered body view that emerged with it. I then extend the discussion to reveal societal judgements brought about by women’s participation as healthcare workers and the associated cultural implications. It was a pioneering work in the study of early imperial China and garnered affirmation from the academic community. Beneficial scholarly exchanges on the book subject later led to the publication of my 2015 article, “Gender, Medicine and Early Imperial China,” in which I further explore the duel perspectives of women as care givers and care receivers to argue that health care is a critical component to understanding the special characteristics of family and society of a given period. Historical research on gender and medicine enables us to study healthcare participants in socio-cultural context and breaks away from Whiggish historiography of science. Moreover, this approach goes beyond the traditional focus on chaste, talented or famous women of early imperial China, opening up new paths for gender history.
Indeed, the study of medical history, whether tackled from the perspective of gender or simply taking women as research subjects, continues to provide inspiration for my studies. For instance, while analyzing medical formulas for women’s disorders, I found that some materia medica kept appearing, which led me to investigate the phenomenon of gendering certain pharmaceutical ingredients. My 2017 article, “Essential Medicine for Women’: A Cultural History of Danggui in Traditional China,” was my first effort on this topic. It explains how the perception of danggui (now often rendered as Angelica sinensis) evolved from its traditional use as a pain killer to a sacred prescription in women’s medicine during the centuries when Chinese gynecology was gradually established. Recently, I have again delved into this topic, specifically the uses and implications of this common herb in Korean history. My upcoming article, “Historical Material of Danggui in Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty” (2020) discusses the transfer and transformation of medical knowledge through the lens of material culture. In addition, this reading of the global dissemination of gendered herbal pharmacology has also led me into the field of East Asian exchanges of gynecological knowledge and perceptions of women’s body. My 2018 article, “Histories of Menopause in Comparative Contexts” introduces the creation, translation and mixed application of the term “gengnian qi”(first coined to echo the term climacteric but is now often rendered as menopause) to provide a comparative background for investigating related ideas and practices in traditional China. Since historians have so far rarely worked on the subject, my article represents a pioneering work in the diachronic research on menopause and the treatment of middle-aged and elderly women in traditional Chinese medicine.
Gender is a research topic that receives international academic attention and is, along with its related fields of medical history and the history of the body, an important branch of ‘new history’. In the last several years, however, it has become apparent that age and seniority are influential factors in historical investigation, and this is especially true in studying Chinese women’s history. Hopefully, my recent research has not only moved a step forward in the history of women in medicine, but has also laid a preliminary foundation for the cultural history of the elderly in Chinese studies. In addition, in the process of engaging in cross-field and diachronic investigation, my research interest has extended beyond the scope of medieval history to explore the transformation in modern China and even comparisons with contemporary Taiwan.
I have used personal letters and church archives to study the American missionary Lillian Dickson’s work in Taiwan. An English version of this paper was commissioned and published in 2014 as “From Wife to Missionary: Lillian Dickson’s Medical Missions in Post-War Taiwan.” I also utilized her photographic records, and through comparison with biographies, film, and public television documentaries, composed an article in 2011 titled “Disease, Medicine and Culture in While it is Day: Lillian Dickson’s Taiwan,” which continued to examine the significance of gender in international health politics from the period of Japanese rule in Taiwan to the final days of the cold war. This preliminary success in crossing research boundaries encouraged me to explore the modern history of health education from the perspective of gender, and taking advantage of the opportunity to participate in joint projects, I published “Sex in School—Educating the Junior High Students in Early Republican China” in 2017. This paper brings together a large number of physiology and hygiene textbooks and analyzes the ways in which their rich textual and visual content are able to translate modern anatomy and endocrine science for their intended audience, admonishing young boys and girls to conform with the needs of a project to establish a new China in the first half of the 20th century. This article provides yet another example and tries to deepen the existing body of examination on hygienic modernity, and it also serves as a comparative background for my continuing research on sex education in Taiwan. For the latter purpose, I have so far presented a lecture on “Sex Education in Colonial Taiwan” (2016) and published an article “Sex and Reproduction in Physiology and Hygiene Textbooks of Post War Taiwan” (2013), both preparing the path for my upcoming work on A Century of Sex Education in Taiwan.
My research is rooted in medieval Chinese history but extends both forward and outward, a move that is also reflected in my explorations of gender in legal history. My small book, The Death of A Princess: Rediscovering the Legal History of Early Imperial China, published early in my career, describes how the moral principles of patriarchal family structure were codified in the period from the Han to the Tang Dynasties, as well as the intersectionality of ethnic culture, class interest, and gender difference at work. After its publication, the book received broad affirmation from the East Asian Studies community and continues to influence students at home and abroad. However, its argument centers around how the status of women was reflected in what we today define as penal law, barely touching on topics related to the modern sphere of civil law. My 2009 article “Women and Property in Early Imperial China” fills in this gap. Through evidence from recently excavated wooden and bamboo slips, accounts and narratives from received documents, as well as records of real estate institutions collected in official histories, this article discusses how women were able to obtain, retain, utilize, and allocate property (both movable and immovable) and analyzes the way in which marriage exerted influence on women’s property rights. Besides deepening our understanding of the economic lives of women in the medieval period, this research continues a dialogue with the gender equality movement today.
Because of my concerns for women’s roles and status in both history and historiography, I often reflect upon historians’ accomplishments and possible future research. In the “Introduction: Women, Gender and Historical Research” (2009) for the volume Series of New Chinese History: Gender History, I first analyze historians’ breakthroughs in the context of theoretical inspiration, the increase of known primary sources and the impact of contemporary socio-political changes. Later in “Women and Gender in History Theses and Dissertations of Taiwan” (2010), I further assess the pros and cons when young scholars try ardently to follow their predecessors to produce new work. Over the course of the past half century, women’s history has gradually shifted from a framework focusing on the narrative of victimization to one of the possibility of empowerment. Inspired by gender awareness, historians of law also began to ask the question, “who’s law?” and to evaluate women’s accessibility to the legal system. Nonetheless, as I point out in my 2012 article “Women and Gender in Recent Studies of Chinese Legal History,” taking the past twenty years of academic accomplishment as a whole, it is difficult to miss the fact that, in legal history writing, women continue to be portrayed mainly as victims, sometimes as the executors of violence, and only rarely as the plaintiffs of lawsuits. The vast majority of women in this body of research are the party that receives judgement, while a scarce few are on the side of giving judgement.
Women had few opportunities to participate in the investigation or trial of legal cases in traditional China, and we can only look for relevant information in the records of female rulers. The final chapter of my small book The Death of A Princess describes the complex implications of such a female ruler’s active role in legal proceedings in the medieval period, echoing the first chapter of the book, which includes some paragraphs to introduce women’s efforts in the legal movement to amend Taiwan’s family law. However, despite women’s growing access to the legal process in 20th century democracies, the majority of feminist scholarship in legal history today continues to revolve around inequalities in law and regulations, and rarely touches upon the gender and feminist positions of judges and prosecutors. My knowledge of traditional institutions and my concern for the present prompted me, over the past ten years, to collect archival records, oral testimony, and public as well as personal documents, culminating in my forthcoming work “Women Judges and Prosecutors in Taiwan: A History.” This long article dissects the emergence of and sharp increase of female legal professionals in Taiwan during the seventy years since the end of WWII; it examines these women’s education and training, career selection and preferences, diverse experiences in practicing law, and the significance, or non-existence, of feminist sentiment in their careers. As with my writing on the history of medicine described above, these efforts in legal history push boundaries and cross academic fields, opening up new ground for the history of law from the perspective of gender.
Part II: Directions for Future Research
In my future work, I will maintain the spirit of pushing boundaries and crossing academic fields, continuing my work on topics in medical and legal history from the perspective of gender. Specifically, I hope to complete three monographs: The Medical Cultural History of Danggui, The History of Women Judges and Prosecutors in Taiwan, and A Century of Sex Education in Taiwan.
First, I will discuss my work on danggui. In my investigations of the applications of danggui in China and East Asia, I noticed that late-nineteenth century sinologists from the West brought the herb back to Europe with them and promoted its use. From these samples, a German manufacturer made an extract and later produced a patent emmenagogue that was sold across Europe and America, even exporting it back to China. In the early twentieth century, this practice prompted Chinese pharmaceutical companies to make a competitive knock-off. After a visit to the historical archives of the German manufacturer, I obtained a large collection of documents, which enabled me to draft two conference papers: “Danggui and its German Connections” (2019) and “Danggui Crossing Borders in History” (2020). I will continue to research on this traditional materia medica in the future, analyzing the use, discourse, and related cultural implications of danggui in modern bio-medical contexts. There is an old saying that “shi fang jiu gui” (Danggui is included in nine out of ten medical recipes), and the herb was originally a very common prescription. However, the image of danggui evolved from the medicine used to ease Cao Cao’s headaches in the 3rd century to the prescription that the 16th century Li Shizhen called an essential treatment for women. Over the course of its dissemination to Europe and its return to China, the gendering of danggui became manifestly conspicuous. Tracing the history of this herb and producing a monograph on the subject will not only be a perfect demonstration of the aspect of gender in the history of traditional Chinese medicine, it will allow us to glimpse the unique implications of material culture amid the competitive interactions between East and West.
Next, I will address women judges and prosecutors. When the government of Republic of China moved to Taiwan after WWII, judges and prosecutors from the mainland also crossed the strait, allowing women legal professionals to emerge in Taiwan earlier than in other East Asian nations such as Japan and Korea. Uncovering and elucidating the past, present, and future of women judges and prosecutors in Taiwan opens a new horizon for the historical research of gender and the law and, furthermore, demonstrates Taiwan’s uniqueness in post-colonial East Asia. At present, besides the journal articles on this topic discussed above, I have also published a case study online entitled “Women, the Law, and a Gendered Case in 1950 Taiwan” (2018). In the future, I will continue to utilize writings and court records of women legal professionals I have collected in order to deepen my investigations and also to review the relevant state of the field in China, Japan, Korea, Europe, and America, trying to place this history in a world context.
Lastly, I will speak to the topic of sex education in Taiwan. A rich body of research exists on the history of modern school systems, and likewise, quite a number of articles and books have been published on women’s education from the Japanese colonial period to the present. However, few scholars have paid attention to the history of sex education in Taiwan, which demonstrates the constant interactive developments of gender, the body and the state. A preliminary survey shows that the youth was not able to access sex education in the colonial period due to Japanese imperial policy. Although the public school curriculum finally included sex related subjects in the post-war era, the pedagogical materials and methodologies were designed to harmonize with a resurgence of ethnonationalism and cold war politics. After the lifting of martial law in the late 20th century, however, Taiwanese society saw a series of movements regarding, in the early days, women’s rights and, more recently, same-sex marriage, all of which created debates on the scope and content of sex education in schools. Indeed, this topic embodies the dramatic and intense transformation of Taiwan in the long twentieth century, and deserves serious examinations by historians. Due to my awareness of traditional culture and my concerns of contemporary society, I have already begun a program of systematic research and published partial results. In the future, I will continue to collect sources and provide analysis, anticipating the day when I will complete a monograph that depicts a century of Taiwan in transition through the lens of sex education.
My research originates from the perspective of gender and, attempting to break through disciplinary demarcations, strives to locate a forward-looking path for the histories of gender, medicine, and law. Although, over the past few years, the object of my research has shifted from my early focus on medieval China to a much broader scope in both time and space, my primary goal remains unchanged: “To examine the borderline between nature and humanity, to understand the changes of past and present, and to offer historical interpretations of one’s own.” To this end, I have engaged in dialogue with scholars of different disciplines and have ardently helped disseminate my work and the achievements of other Taiwanese scholars to domestic and foreign audiences. I co-founded the Asian Society for the History of Medicine and held the post of secretary for eight years, doing my part to build a bridge between medical historians in Taiwan and rest of Asia. In more recent years, I have served as editor, associate editor, and a member of the editorial boards of several international sinology journals, offering perspectives and achievements of historians in Taiwan. My works are translated into foreign languages, and I have continued to participate in international projects and publications, all of which allows me to have lively intellectual exchanges with the scholarly communities of the world.
Reflecting back and looking forward, I cannot help but marvel at it all. “Knowledge knows no bounds, but one’s life is finite.” Try as we might to “rise early and retire late,” even “continuing to study in old age,” nevertheless “there are limits to one’s knowledge and experience,” and I hesitate to put pen to paper. We really cannot give up the fight, though! This is my most profound realization of late.