Changing narratives and persisting tensions: Conflicts between Chinese and western medicine and professional profiles in Chinese films and literature, 1949–2009

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This paper analyses the shifting images of Chinese medicine and rural doctors in the narratives of literature and film from 1949 to 2009 in order to explore the persisting tensions within rural medicine and health issues in China. Popular anxiety about health services and the government’s concern that it be seen to be meeting the medical needs of China’s most vulnerable citizens – its rural dwellers – has led to the production of a continuous body of literary and film works discussing these issues, such as Medical Practice Incident, Spring Comes to the Withered Tree, Chunmiao, and Barefoot Doctor Wan Quanhe. The article moves chronologically from the early years of the Chinese Communist Party’s new rural health strategies through to the twenty-first century – over these decades, both health politics and arts policy underwent dramatic transformations. It argues that despite the huge political investment on the part of the Chinese Communist Party government in promoting the virtues of Chinese medicine and barefoot doctors, film and literature narratives reveal that this rustic nationalistic vision was a problematic ideological message. The article shows that two main tensions persisted prior to and during the Cultural Revolution, the economic reform era of the 1980s, and the medical marketisation era that began in the late 1990s. First, the tension between Chinese and Western medicine and, second, the tension between formally trained medical practitioners and paraprofessional practitioners like barefoot doctors. Each carried shifting ideological valences during the decades explored, and these shifts complicated their portrayal and shaped their specific styles in the creative works discussed. These reflected the main dilemmas around the solutions to rural medicine and health care, namely the integration of Chinese and Western medicines and blurring of boundaries between the work of medical paraprofessionals and professionals.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)454-474
Number of pages21
JournalMedical History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Barefoot doctors
  • China
  • Chinese medicine
  • Health
  • Literary narratives
  • Rural doctors

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