Yi-Li Wu is a historian of Chinese medicine with appointments in History and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan. She’s the author of Reproducing Women: Medicine, Metaphor and Childbirth in Late Imperial China (University of California Press) and The Injured Body: A Social History of Medicine for Wounds in Late Imperial China (forthcoming). Gregory Parker talked with her about her scholarship and journey as a historian.

What is the origin story of Professor Yi-Li Wu, historian of Chinese medicine?

I took the most roundabout way possible to history. I was a political science major as an undergrad. After I graduated, I got a six-month internship at a think tank in Washington, DC. I then ended up working at a corporate research company for three-and-a-half years. I decided that I really wanted to go back into international relations, so I left to go to grad school. I got into Yale’s international relations MA program, and while I was there, I got to know my future doctoral advisor, Jonathan Spence. I decided that I wanted to stay on and do a PhD, but I was trying to make up my mind: Should I do it in political science, or should I do it in history? I thought history would offer me a lot more choices in terms of the kinds of questions that I could explore. I always tell undergrads, if you don’t know what you want to do by the time you graduate, that’s perfectly normal. If you had told me when I was in college that I was going to be a historian of China, I would’ve said, what planet are you from? It was the furthest thing from my mind.

Aside from other historians, do you have a particular audience in mind for your scholarship and teaching?

I grew up in California at a time when immigration to the United States from non-European parts of the world was just opening up [as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965]. So I’ve spent my entire life in the position of having to explain myself to other people. I do think it’s helped me develop the skills to reach wider audiences. I got into Chinese studies partly as a self-defense mechanism, actually. I would have people say things to me like, “The Chinese don’t care about human life,” and simply telling them, “You’re racist,” was not a very effective tool for dealing with it. I wanted to be able to teach them something and help them think in a more nuanced way. 

The desire to educate people and share what I know has always been an integral part of my work. For me, teaching is like being that kid who says, “Hey, here’s something really cool! Can I tell you about it?” When you teach about Asia in the North American academy, students also come in with preconceived ideas. So I design my classes to show students new ways of looking at the world.

What kind of nuance are you adding to the history of Chinese medicine?

The first thing I tell people is that I’m studying historical Chinese medicine, not Traditional Chinese Medicine.

For those who aren’t familiar with the history, Traditional Chinese Medicine refers to the form of Chinese medicine that developed under the influence of biomedicine. The name was coined after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, but the main changes started during the early twentieth century, when doctors of Chinese medicine were facing an existential crisis. The last imperial dynasty had fallen in 1912. People were trying to build a modern, strong nation to ward off foreign imperialist pressure. Bits of China had been taken over as spheres of influence and even outright colonies. People started criticizing Chinese medical practices as superstitious and unscientific and asking, should we allow these practices to continue?

For example, Chinese medical descriptions of what the liver does seemed ridiculous compared to what was known from dissection and laboratory science. At that point, doctors respond by saying that Chinese medicine is not actually talking about anatomical organs. Instead, it’s really talking about transformations of bodily vitality. They basically ceded claims over the physical body to Western medicine, and they did that as a survival mechanism. That then lays the groundwork for Traditional Chinese Medicine to develop as a form of “alternative medicine.” My work asks what was going on in the history of Chinese medicine before these changes occur.

So you have to examine this history on its own terms.

The fact that Traditional Chinese Medicine has a huge presence in the world today is both a blessing and a burden. The blessing is that I can easily explain the relevance of what I do, which is to help answer the question, “What is this Chinese medicine?” The burden is the common stereotype that it’s this ancient knowledge transmitted down through the centuries, some pristine form of ancient Chinese wisdom. What I try to say is that it’s neither a magical panacea nor superstition. Instead, it’s a body of techniques that people have developed and transmitted over time to address some pretty fundamental human challenges: how to deal with people who are in pain and sick and dying.

How did you decide to focus on injury medicine for your next book, The Injured Body: A Social History of Medicine for Wounds in Late Imperial China?

In my first book, Reproducing Women, I look at childbirth and women’s medicine. When writing it, I became dissatisfied with the idea that Chinese medicine is not really talking about the physical body and that it’s only talking about vitality. In fact, it’s talking about both—it’s not an either / or situation. But for a long time, the physical body has been pushed to the side. I want to bring it back into the center of Chinese medical history and then ask, what is it saying to us?

Injury medicine is dealing with damage to the physical body that is acute, possibly life-threatening, and almost certainly debilitating and disabling. So it forces us to focus on these physical and material aspects of the body that might not necessarily be at the forefront if we’re talking about things like fever or plague, although those are also very physical.

What types of injuries did you see in your sources?

Pretty much everything—stabbing, disembowelment, smashed bones, falling off horses and carts—military medicine is a big part of it. But I also noticed that there was a category that kept coming up whose name literally translates as a “stick injury.” I eventually realized they were talking about injuries from flogging, which was a major form of corporal punishment in imperial China. That’s interesting because it’s a kind of injury category that grows directly out of a specific social context. This led me to legal documents: What kinds of things would they be flogged for? How big are the sticks that they’re using? And of course, looking at medical documents: How did doctors get experience treating this? How did their experiences dealing with flogged people feed into their understanding of how the body works?

After years of research you’ve got mountains of sources piled in front of you. When it’s time to begin writing, where do you start?

I try to look for a case, an incident, or a question that presents a human story that’s going to engage the reader. This process forces me to think: Why am I writing about this? What is it that I want the reader to know? You might go in with a set of questions that you have, a set of suppositions, but you really have to listen to what your sources are saying.

There’s a line in your CV I’m curious about: a mini documentary for The Young Indiana Jones series.

The Young Indiana Jones shows the title character traveling around the world as a young boy. In one episode, he’s in China and gets very sick. He is then treated with Chinese medicine and recovers. Lucasfilm was issuing a DVD box set of the series, and they commissioned a series of mini documentaries to be the bonus features on the discs. For this one, they interviewed me as well as a prominent practitioner and interpreter of Chinese medicine.

I still can’t stand to watch myself on video, but it was a cool thing to do. I still regret that I never made it out to California afterwards, because the filmmaker said, “Hey, come out and I’ll show you around Skywalker Ranch.” 


Originally published in the 2023 edition of the History Matters magazine.