A Woman’s Disease?: Hysteria, Cultural Appropriation, and Female Mental Hygiene in Republican China

Dr. Yun Zhang4

4Nanyang Technological University, , Singapore

This paper examines the medical discourse and cultural appropriation of “hysteria” as a mental ailment specific to women in Republican China. Although hysteria was originally conceived of as deriving from the womb in the Western medical thought, by the late nineteenth century, it had been considered as a general psychoneurotic disorder that could affect both sexes rather than a gynecological or obstetric one. Chinese medical professionals and obstetrical reformers, however, drew upon the original exegesis of this term and the traditional Chinese medical notion of zang zao (“visceral unrest”) to understand hysteria as both a mental affliction affecting only women and a catch-all term for all kinds of irregular female behaviors. Through an analysis of various sources from textbooks, popular medical manuals, and the periodical press in the Republican era, this paper explores the extent to which different actors attempted to construct hysteria as a gendered disorder closely tied to women’s mental hygiene. I argue that the identification of hysteria as female gendered was derived not so much from the need to sexualize the female body through biologizing discourses as an imperative to regulate the well-being of women’s bodies for the prosperity of the Chinese national body.


Zhang Yun is a postdoctoral fellow in the Center of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University. Her research interests lie in women and print culture in modern China, the history of gender, medicine, and health in modern China, and mass media and consumer culture. Her current research project explores the meanings of women’s reproductive health and bodies in Republican China.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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