The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West

By Karchmer, Eric | The China Journal, July 2009 | Go to article overview

The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West


Karchmer, Eric, The China Journal


The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West, by Larissa N. Heinrich. Durham NC; London: Duke University Press, 2008. xvi + 222 pp. US$79.95 (hardcover), US$22.95 (paperback).

The Afterlife of Lmages presents a unique approach to the study of late imperial and early modern China. The crux of this work is four sets of medical images that Larissa Heinrich weaves together into a historical narrative about how China became the "Sick Man of Asia". Heinrich argues that European imperialist interventions in the field of medicine combined with certain technologies of visualization helped to produce a new discourse about Chinese national deficiencies that both European and Chinese intellectuals embraced.

Using these images as a central node for her historical investigations, Heinrich explores the complex web of artists, representational techniques and imperial politics that made these images so influential in their times. The book is divided into four chapters, each devoted to a different set of images. Chapter 1 is inspired by a series of 18th-century Chinese drawings of children infected with smallpox which are part of the collection at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Heinrich shows how French Jesuits, missionizing in China but keenly aware of debates at the Parisian court about the value of inoculation, created an enduring image of China as the "cradle of smallpox". Chapter 2 centers on a haunting, beautiful collection of paintings commissioned by the missionary doctor, Peter Parker, and painted by the Cantonese artist, Lam Qua. Parker used these paintings to solicit financial support from groups in the US and Europe for the Canton Hospital, which he founded in 1835. He also displayed these paintings in the hospital to demonstrate to hospital visitors the power of Western medicine. Heinrich demonstrates how these images were also used to capture and ultimately pathologize certain Chinese "characteristics". In the third chapter, Heinrich traces the rise of medical photography in China and its relationship to new ideas about race in the late 19th century. As technological changes made photography easier, these images served important taxonomic purposes for missionary doctors and a small number of Chinese physicians, presenting Chinese pathologies to a global medical community. Chapter 4 returns to the mid- 19th century to examine the anatomical images of Benjamin Hobson, the first individual to publish a treatise on modern anatomy in Chinese. Heinrich' s interest is how the new ocular perspective of anatomical dissection ultimately influenced the 20th-century literary giant Lu Xun, renown for his critiques of China's national deficiencies.

The great strengths of this book are the images themselves and Heinrich' s unique style of analysis. Heinrich points out that the study of medical illustration has often been neglected in the history of medicine, and this observation is particularly true with regard to China. Heinrich not only brings these previously neglected images to our attention but also deploys her skills as a literary studies scholar to reveal the rich cultural and historical conditions of their production and circulation. …

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