Oxford Brookes Business School

Healthcare in China, a medical humanities perspective

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Healthcare in China

On Friday 14th June 2019, the Oxford Brookes Centre for Business, Society, and Global Challenges, in collaboration with Peking University HSBC Business School, hosted a research workshop: Healthcare in China, a medical-humanities perspective.

The call for papers aimed to bring together experts from different disciplines to discuss the Chinese healthcare system and the role of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in China as well as abroad. The attempt to locate the workshop in the field of medical humanities was successful since we were fortunate enough to welcome colleagues from history, sociology, economics, management, film studies, international relations, anthropology, political economy, and also science and medicine. The conveners, Dr Andrea Bernardi (Oxford Brookes University) and Dr Jenny Wang (Peking University HSBC Business School), managed to attract scholars from a wide array of institutions across Britain and overseas for a day of rich presentations and discussions. There were thirteen papers and a keynote speech by Prof. Elisabeth Hsu, University of Oxford.

The field of medical humanities is now well established in Britain, but this is not yet the case in China; medical humanities contributions to the study of healthcare in China remain few and far between, even by western scholars, while potentially rich discussions between Chinese and western scholars are not as numerous as they could and should be. We wanted to begin the work of remedying this by disseminating medical humanities contributions by Chinese scholars and putting them together with western scholars interested in TCM and Healthcare in China. Besides this academic goal, we also wished to make a wider public aware of the successes of the Chinese approach to healthcare in the past decades. For progress in Chinese healthcare is too rarely mentioned in the West, even though discussion of Chinese economic growth is omnipresent in western media.

The workshop focused on both the history and the current-day status of healthcare in China and its effectiveness. We discussed the origins and the current use of TCM in both rural and urban China, and its diffusion abroad. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of Chinese healthcare policies, including mental and psychological health and the surprising coexistence of modernisation, technology, and tradition. We also briefly covered the potential impact of artificial intelligence and internet medicine. We sought to explore the ways in which Chinese approaches to healthcare could be a model for other nations too. We explored how political discourse influences healthcare today and under Mao. The design of the workshop was based on the belief that while economics and management can tell us about the efficiency of the healthcare system and its future challenges, to understand the implications for healthcare of recent political and cultural trends in China, it is to the humanities that we should turn.  

The convener, Andrea Bernardi (Oxford Brookes University) explored the links between ideology, politics and healthcare. With his coauthor Donni Wang (Shanghai University) they presented on ‘China as a Heterodox Model in Healthcare: The New Rural Co-operative Medical Scheme’. Using the political character of the Maoist barefoot doctors as a springboard and comparator, they reflected on the contemporary risks of political manipulation of healthcare discourse under Xi, Trump and Boris Johnson. This is the continuation of previous work already published.

The day concluded with a keynote speech by Elisabeth Hsu (University of Oxford). She described her longstanding anthropological project on the presence of TCM in Africa. She projected and analysed numerous enlightening images from her fieldwork and discussed both her methods and her memories of her experiences as a researcher. After the keynote, participants were invited next door by the Oxford Brookes Confucius Institute to try a TCM massage taster-session. The proceedings will be published in an edited collection curated by Andrea Bernardi and Jenny Wang. Donni Wang, announced a call for papers for a special issue inspired by the workshop. This will appear in the ‘Journal of Social History of Medicine and Health’ published by China Social Sciences Press on behalf of The History Department at Shanghai University.