Yi-Li Wu joined the University of Michigan as an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies and History earlier this year, and began teaching in Fall 2019.  We talked with Professor Wu about why she loves teaching in the Gender and Health program, the role of traditional Chinese texts in medical treatment today, and her past life as a corporate sleuth.

Interview conducted and edited by Simon Nyi

Tell me about yourself.  How did you become a historian?

I was born in the US, and grew up in California. After I graduated from undergrad, I spent six months in Washington, DC doing research for a think tank. I decided that I liked research, but I didn’t really like the atmosphere in Washington. So I went back to California where my then-fiance, now-husband was, and got a job as a researcher with a corporate investigations company.

The company got a fair amount of press, and was billed as “Wall Street’s private eye.”  We worked on due diligence for banks, white-collar crime investigations, money laundering, that sort of thing. I worked with former FBI agents, former Secret Service agents, former detectives, former federal prosecutors -- it was a very testosterone-heavy place, as you can imagine, but it was fun.

But I had always been interested in international relations, so I decided to go back to grad school to do a master’s in international relations.  I ended up at Yale, where I decided to stay and do a PhD in Chinese history.  As I was looking for a dissertation topic, I knew I wanted to do something on Chinese women.  I found out that there were these medical texts, and at that point there were only a few scholars who had started to write on them.  So I thought, well, I’m interested in understanding the material conditions of women’s lives – what kind of ideas were governing the way that people approached healthcare for women?

Right now, Chinese medicine is a prominent form of alternative medicine, and one of the areas where it’s really growing is in reproductive medicine. These medical ideas are an important part of the culture that still needs to be fully explored, and it’s something that’s still relevant to the way people think about healthcare today.

Do you mean specifically in China?

Not only in China. The use of techniques drawn from Chinese medicine in reproductive medicine is a very big field, and many of the consumers of that are people in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Chinese medicine is being used around the world, and there are whole communities of practitioners outside China. It’s actually quite a big growth industry. I have a friend who’s just published a book on birthing acupuncture, for example.

And present-day practitioners regularly draw on history and historical texts. So the question is, what is this thing that they’re using, and how are they transforming it in the present day? These are pretty big topics in the anthropology of medicine and history of medicine. And I think the topic of traditional or indigenous medicines in general is also quite important.

To many Westerners, the term “traditional medicine” might imply that something isn’t supported by science.  Would you agree – not that that’s necessarily true, but that it has that reputation?

So, “Westerners” is a really big category. I would say that different people have different perspectives. For example, U of M has medical researchers studying acupuncture and acupressure. They have an Integrative Family Medicine program, and the medical school even has an Integrative Medicine Fellowship.

You might have heard of Tu Youyou -- she’s a Chinese researcher who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, which was extracted from an herbal found in ancient Chinese texts.  These things might once have been dismissed as completely superstitious.  So I think the debate right now is not whether or not traditional medicine has any value. The issue is which parts of it have value and to whom.

Fundamentally, my take is this: people throughout the ages have gotten sick, have died in childbirth, have suffered infertility.  So human beings have developed strategies to try to impart some sense of predictability and control over their well-being. And what I’m looking at is how people in China did that. My first book focused on reproductive medicine, and the book that I’m working on right now is about injuries.

The Women’s Studies Department mission statement emphasizes interdisciplinary collaboration, and connecting scholarship and practice.  Broadly speaking, what do you hope your students will carry with them as they move through the rest of their education and into the world?

People like to say that you should think outside of the box. But if you want to think outside of the box, you have to know where the boundaries of the box are. And my two departments – Women’s Studies and History – are fundamentally about learning to see the box: namely, the ways that societies create different viewpoints, and how they create practices and institutions based on those viewpoints. And one of the things I’m trying to do is to show students how different societies construct understandings about the body, and about the body’s healthy and pathological states.

The other thing I try to do is to de-exoticize China. As you said, some people are like, “Oh, it’s kind of hocus-pocus. Oh, you’re sticking needles in people.” And what I try to help students understand is that human beings have done similar things in societies over time, everywhere, in healing and in other areas of life. That doesn’t mean they’re all the same, of course, but it does mean that there’s a certain set of universal questions that we’re all dealing with.  So let’s take a look at how people in this particular place, at this particular point in time are dealing with those basic human issues.

That’s the heart of empathy, the crux of cultural competency. I’m asking these questions about China, but you can apply this approach to anything.  And hopefully that mindset will stay with students long after they’ve forgotten what was on the final exam.

It sounds like an interdisciplinary place like Women’s Studies is a good fit for you.  

Oh, definitely. When you work on the history of medicine, by definition, you have to do it in an interdisciplinary way. And what I love to do is show people how medical issues are connected to all sorts of areas that don’t seem obviously medical at first.

An example is popular culture. We have hit TV shows about hospitals and medicine, right?  Why?  Because there’s so much human drama, and because it’s something everyone can relate to.  Everyone knows someone whose had a medical problem, people who have had cancer or had a car accident, and I think it’s just a basic human impulse to want to figure out why people are suffering and what we can do about it.

These kinds of stories come up again and again in my historical sources as well. Medical authors will say things like, “I wrote this book because my parents died and I couldn’t save them.  And so I went around collecting all these useful prescriptions, and I’m printing them here so maybe somebody else’s parents won’t have to die.”

What’s one thing you’re especially excited about right now here at U of M?

I’m really excited that I will be teaching a course in the Gender and Health major next semester, one on “Gender and Health in East Asia.” It’s a topic that I love, and I’ll be contributing to the program’s roster of globally-related courses.  And I will also be teaching a course in the History Department next semester – in retrospect, I should have come up with a sexier title – but it’s called “Transcultural and International Histories of Medicine, Disease and the Body.”  We’ll be  looking at medicine as a force in international relations and international relations as an influence on the development of medicine.

What’s one thing you’re especially excited about right now that’s completely outside of your work here?

I haven’t been able to do much this term, but last year I started singing in a choir.  We sing in residential homes and nursing homes.  It’s a really great group of people.  I’m excited to try to work that back into my schedule next term.

Anything else you want to mention?

I would encourage students to give the Gender and Health program a look. As far as I know, U-M is the only university to offer such a program, so it’s really very cutting-edge.  It’s trying to educate people who are interested in the health professions about the different social and cultural factors that influence the way that medical decisions are made, and also to allow people who are interested in social and cultural history and anthropology to think about the way that medicine is implicated in constructions of gender.  And I think that given the kinds of healthcare debates that are going on right now, it’s a really important time to be thinking analytically about the connections between gender and health.