The Afterlife of Images

Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West

The Afterlife of Images

Body, Commodity, Text

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Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: 42 illustrations, incl. 8 in color Published: February 2008

Art and Visual Culture, Asian Studies > East Asia, Medicine and Health

In 1739 China’s emperor authorized the publication of a medical text that included 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, Ari Larissa 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 culture studies, Heinrich analyzes the rhetoric and iconography through which medical missionaries transmitted to the West an image of China as “sick” or “diseased.” He also examines the absorption of that image back into China through missionary activity, through the earliest translations of Western medical texts into Chinese, and even through the literature of Chinese nationalism. 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.


The Afterlife of Images opens a new window through which scholars and students can see and debate how Western medicine and science participated in shaping modern Chinese conceptions of the body, the self, and the nation, as well as the Chinese imagination of modernity.” — Yanhua Zhang, China Review International

“Heinrich's book is an important addition to a growing interest in medical images in China. . . . Heinrich's work shows that the cultural importance of such images and their history transcends the boundary of clinical medical practice and helped shape the very nature of expression in China in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.” — Sander L. Gilman, Visual Resources

“In The Afterlife of Images, Larissa Heinrich not only achieves the difficult task of incorporating the epistemological significance of ‘ocular evidence’ into her historical analysis (p. 4), but she also addresses the cross-cultural dynamics in the history of conceptions of pathology between China and the West.” — Howard H. Chiang, Social History of Medicine

“This book is exemplary for doing what very few works of scholarship on Chinese history have done—privileging visual sources over textual ones. . . . [T]he effect of the book is remarkable, and The Afterlife of Images achieves its larger goals of pushing analysis of images to the forefront of the historical agenda, challenging us to look beyond written sources for the origins of the
discourse of China’s pathology.” — David Luesink, China Perspectives

“This is such a beautifully written, easy to understand, excellent book; I think Heinrich’s unwillingness to be bounded by the parochial limits of disciplines is a huge factor in the strength and success of her arguments. . . . Heinrich also makes clear through implication how easily the supposedly rational and objective discourses of science and medicine are repurposed and deployed for tendentious, politicized, even imperialistic purposes; in some ways the imposition of modern science and medicine on China, more or less with the threat of military force implicit in its background, mirrors the imposition at gunpoint of the supposedly universal and transcendent of international law discussed by James Hevia and Lydia Liu: chilling. If the topic sounds at all interesting to you, I can't recommend this book enough.” — Andrea J. Horbinski, Cognitive Resonance blog

“Very well illustrated, this work demonstrates how valuable the study of images and photographs is for rethinking modern Chinese history and literary change.” — Benjamin A. Elman, International History Review

The Afterlife of Images is a fascinating and important study of the ways that Western medicine participated in the formation of ideas of race, the discrete body, the autonomous self, the nation, and a modernist literary imagination in China. Well written, carefully researched, and loaded with subtle and persuasive interpretations, it is the kind of historical study needed to demonstrate the aesthetic and ontological constructions—the naturalizing powers of medical representation—that have given us our complex modern ‘nature.’” — Judith Farquhar, author of Appetites: Food and Sex in Post-Socialist China

“Larissa N. Heinrich deftly weaves a range of materials—including prints, painting, photography, and literature—into a fascinating narrative of the ways visual and linguistic tropes formed and reinforced certain eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western understandings of China. Furthermore, she is attentive to the dialectics of the relationship, especially the way that Western knowledge and ways of seeing shaped certain Chinese concepts about China and its problems, especially in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth.” — Stanley K. Abe, author of Ordinary Images


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ari Larissa Heinrich is Professor of Chinese Literature and Media at the Australian National University. He is the author of Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body, also published by Duke University Press, and coeditor of Embodied Modernities: Corporeality and Representation in Chinese Cultures.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1. How China Became the "Cradle of Smallpox": Transformations in Discourse 15

2. The Pathological Body: Lam Qua's Medical Portraiture 39

3. The Pathological Empire: Early Medical Photography in China 73

4. "What's Hard for the Eye to See": Anatomical Aesthetics from Benjamin Hobson to Lu Xun 113

Epilogue: Through the Microscope 149

Notes 157

Bibliography 197

Index 213
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4113-0 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4093-5
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