Masks and myopia – politics and protection in public health campaigns, with Yixue Yang and Sharrona Pearl
This seminar is part of the centre for History in Public Health seminar series: Historical perspectives on ethics, morals, and values in public health.
This seminar will examine the cultural and political contexts shaping historical public health interventions: Yixue Yang will examine the Protecting Students’ Eyesight Campaign in later Mao-era People’s Republic of China; Sharrona Pearl will explore the history of masking and its tensions in the US, from the 19th century to Covid. Find out more about the two talks below.
Revolutionary Vision: Myopia, Socialist Youth and Public Health Campaigns in China (1960-1976)
In 1960, under the name of preventing myopia among students from primary to high schools, the central government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) launched the Protecting Students’ Eyesight Campaign nationwide. State agents mandated hygienic guidelines focused on transforming schools’ built environment and students’ personal habits of seeing, reading, and resting. Medical experts collaborated with state agents in devising Chinese-medicine-based eye exercises which every Chinese student is still doing now twice a day in school. Intense grassroots propaganda immersed students all over China in a multisensory and round-the-clock experience in which the Campaign became an omnipresent arbiter of everyday life.
Complementing government documents with ample grassroots visual and textual ephemera, I find that in the 1960s and 1970s the PRC state continued to pursue what the historian Ruth Rogaski calls “hygienic modernity.” While no imperialist power remained in China in 1960, the racial discourse of indigenous bodily deficiency lingered, and was reactivated by new Communist elites. This paper also sheds new light on the particular anxiety socialist states like PRC had over the future of socialism. Myopia neither had visible carriers for people to kill, nor was it an infectious disease that could be bioengineered away with vaccines. Instead, the state increasingly blamed students for how they “misused” their eyes and their lack of political consciousness. Young people’s dangerous propensities had to be suppressed and even pre-empted for them to be qualified “successors to socialism.” The instrumentalization of youth was coated in the rhetoric of protection.
The mask: concealing and revealing
This talk seeks to uncover. To expose. To lay bare. I will take the mask itself – an object designed to conceal, to protect, to create barriers and boundaries – and see what lies within. Using a broad historical lens, I’ll explore the history of masking, exploring various sites and domains of practice to show its consistent use as a means of protection and division. The mask will show who, in a given context, is worthy of protection, and who is not. I’ll focus in particular on masking as a means of protecting: identities from detection; bodies from injury; emotion from clear expression; the health of the wearers and the health of those around them; and the souls and spirits of those engaged in religious ritual.
I will discuss contemporary masking from the anti-mask laws of the nineteenth century through to the pandemic, looking in particular at the tensions between exposure and concealment, both of which are perceived as mechanisms of safety. I’ll conclude with a discussion of racism in masking practices, arguing that for Black men in the US, structural racism was behind attempts to criminalize their masking even when it was legally required due to public health ordinances. What does masking mean for bodies that were always already wrong?
Yixue Yang, University of California
Yixue Yang is a third-year PhD student in modern Chinese history and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. Her research interests lie at the intersection of medicine and public health, modern state-building, and technology in the long twentieth century of China.
Sharrona Pearl, Drexel University
Sharrona Pearl is Associate Professor of Medical Ethics and History at Drexel University. A historian and theorist of the face and body, her current book, on the face recognition spectrum from face blindness to prosopagnosia, is forthcoming from Johns Hopkins University Press. Say hi on twitter: @sharronapearl.
Free and open to all, no registration required. Please note the speakers will be delivering this seminar virtually on Zoom however you can also join us in room 315 at LSHTM, Tavistock Place where we will stream the seminar.
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