Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and
National Transformation in Modern China

By Carlos Rojas 

Reviewed by Lei Qin
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright January, 2018)

Carlos Rojas, Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. 352 pp. ISBN: 9780674743946 Hardcover: US$45.00

Carlos Rojas’s book Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China (hereafter, also abbreviated as Homesickness), which came out in 2015 with Harvard University Press, can be seen as a paradigm for a truly interdisciplinary project. In his exploration of a vast range of literary and cinematic texts, as well as historical discourses and ideas from China’s late nineteenth century to contemporary times, Rojas bridges the fields of medicine and science with Chinese literature, cinema, and history.

Homesickness can first be seen as expanding the cross-disciplinary subject of “medical humanities,” which, according to Howard Y. F. Choy, became popular in China following in the launch of the journal Chinese Medical Humanities Review (中国医学人文评论) by Peking University Medical Press in 2007 and the subsequent establishment of the Peking University Institute for Medical Humanities (北京大学医学人文研究院) a year later.[1] While medical humanities may be a nascent field of study rising in prominence, research into the understanding of disease as historically situated, socially meaningful, and culturally manifested has a long history both in Western and Chinese scholarship. A brief survey of this scholarship will help us to better situate Rojas’s contribution.

Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor is one of the most influential and frequently cited studies. Straddling medical discourse and etymology, philosophy, politics, and representation in the literature of two major illnesses—tuberculosis in the nineteenth century and cancer in the twentieth century—Sontag launches a powerful critique of the use of illness as a metaphor, be it in political discourse, political philosophy, or literature. Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Shaftesbury are among the many political philosophers Sontag cites who use illness as a metaphor for social disorder and suggest how proper statecraft can manage societal health.[2] The modern use of disease imagery in political rhetoric, such as the Nazi declaration of people with mixed “racial” origin as syphilitics, Trotsky’s labelling of Stalinism as a “cancer of Marxism,” and the use by Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) of the term of “Maoist cancer,”[3] incite a medical fatalism that is bound to cause intellectual flattening—“we have a sense of evil but no longer the religious or philosophical language to talk intelligently about evil.”[4] The results, as Sontag suggests, are the destructive forces unleashed by violent events such as the French Revolution.

Though he does not explicitly quote Sontag, Rojas is writing in a similar vein, blending various fields of study to argue that discourses of illness/disease are never merely medical discourses but are already interwoven into the fabric of imperialism, nationalism, political agendas, and historical developments. Indeed, this line of thought even has premodern roots in the long, rich history of Chinese traditional medicine, as evidenced in the canonical medical text The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (黄帝內經, ca. 400-200 BCE). One underlying theme of the text is its conception of the body as part of the organic whole of nature, a system within which everything operates in accordance to cosmic law; ergo, the functioning and healing of the body are equated with political rule. The 1898 rediscovery of ancient oracle bones, which Rojas brings up toward the end of chapter 1, resulted in a rich body of scholarly works in the early Republican era. Philologists like Chen Yinke 陳寅恪 (1890-1969), Luo Zhenyu 羅振玉 (1866-1940), Wang Guowei 王國維 (1877-1927), and, later, Li Xiaoding 李孝定 (1918-1997) all tapped into the etymological study of Chinese characters like醫 (medicine), 疾 (illness), and 巫 (shamanism) from oracle-bone and bronze inscriptions, which suggested an origin of Chinese medicine in shamanistic practices that were usually related to the prediction of the future of a state. Rojas extrapolates such a relationship between medicine and the nation in his reading of The Travels of Lao Can (老殘游記). More on this below.

Choy has discussed much of the recent scholarship on the relationship between the body and the state, disease and politics and society, including Fan Zhunxing 范准行’s pioneering work on the history of Chinese medicine,[5] which inaugurates a vast body of research that frames the understanding and narrative of the body in the context of socio-historical developments. Perhaps the most widely read Western scholarly work in this category is Dorothy Porter’s 1999 Health, Civilization and the State: A History of Public Health from Ancient to Modern Times.[6] These cross-disciplinary works collectively assert, according to Hwang Jinlin, that the “existence of body is inevitably intermingled with the presence of many forces, such as those of politics, economics, society and culture.”[7]

Among the studies of disease, politics and history in modern China, Ruth Rogaski’s Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China[8] strongly underscores the intersection between colonialism, national modernity, and corporeal health through a study of the transculturation of the term weisheng 衛生 (usually glossed “health” or “sanitation”). Diving into nearly a century (1860s to 1940s) of cultural texts, records of disease, and personal health practices in the treaty-port city of Tianjin, Rogaski traces the process of “how health and disease emerged as a discursive center of Chinese deficiency under conditions of imperialism and traces projects of ‘awakening’ the Chinese nation, race and body to a state of corporal modernity.”[9]

Rojas’s Homesickness pushes the interdisciplinary boundary even further, by foregrounding the inner logic of immunology, contagion, disease, and alterity in his readings of literary and cinematic works from the late nineteenth century to the present day. By doing so, the book not only sheds light on our understanding of cultural texts but also on our understanding of Chinese history through the pivotal concept of “meme.” “Meme” is a term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Modifying Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Dawkins argues that it is “the discrete sequences of genetic material”—the meme—rather than species or organisms that disperse and diverge through self-replication to optimize “the survival of their gene pool” (cited by Rojas, 16-17). The organism’s phenotype is determined by these quasi-autonomous entities that “parasitically use the organisms they have helped create in order to maximize their own chances of survival and reproduction” (17). Rojas’s book builds on one of Dawkins’s tangential arguments by extending the biological discussion to the sphere of cultural production through the central term “meme.” According to Rojas, tunes, catchphrases, and, by extension, literature and culture, though not genes/memes in their own right, are “cultural expressions of memes.” Hence, a “memetic analysis . . . should focus on identifying the logics responsible for perceptual cultural forms” (18). As Dawkins does with genes, Rojas attempts to “extract a plausible cultural logic from visible phenomena” (18) by examining various texts against the interwoven texture of cultural, political and medical paradigms.

The title of the book “homesickness” connotes precisely the dynamism of cultural memes. The term is borrowed from the Chinese term lixiang bing 離鄉病 (literally “away/apart from hometown sickness”) coined by Li Ruzhen李汝珍 (1763?-1830) in his early nineteenth century novel Flowers in the Mirror 鏡花緣. Homesickness in this context does not mean missing home, as we commonly understand the term, but, according to Rojas, home as the site generating other-homeness (Unheimlichkeit), like a contagious disease that prompts a moving away from the state of home—“a logic of internal alienation and outward movement” (vii). Rojas then interprets an episode from the novel through medical metaphor. The illness of the character Melody Orchid (枝蘭音) forces her to leave her island nation and sentences her to a state of virtual exile, because she represents for other characters “nodes of alterity that must be expelled to ensure the stability of the society and its ruling regime” (viii). Here and elsewhere Rojas employs homesickness as a metaphor to link (re-)readings of disparate cultural texts from the late nineteenth century to the present to distill their underlying cultural logics. Among the related central tasks of the book is to show how “nations, families, and specific corporeal bodies are fundamentally heterogeneous collectives, and their imagined coherence is predicated on a perpetual tension with sites of internal alterity” (ix).

Like a clairvoyant camera lens panning through a vast amount of cultural productions from over a century, Rojas picks out representative moments of illness/disease tropes in literature and film, as well as medical and historical discourses that showcase such sites of internal alterity interwoven with forces of transformation in the political, historical, and cultural realms. The primary focus of the study, according to its author, “is not on ‘actual illness,’ but rather on “the logics of various tropes of illness within a body of cultural discourses” (16).

In introducing the relationship of Chinese socio-cultural concerns to medical discourses spanning a century and half, Rojas cites an anonymous poem circulating on the Internet on the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 entitled “To the West: What Do You Want Us to Do After All?—A modest tribute to part of world history over the past 150 years.” In juxtaposing the early modern critique of China’s perceived weakness and demonization by the West to its contemporary strength as a leading world economy and global superpower, the poem elicited an immediate nationalistic response. Rojas looks at two metaphors foregrounded in the poem that characterize the western perception of China in the late nineteenth century—“the sick man of Asia” and the pestilent “yellow peril”—metaphors that play pivotal roles throughout Homesickness. Both tropes started to circulate in popular discourses following China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). The late Qing scholar and translator Yan Fu 嚴復 (1854-1921) is often cited as the first to compare China to “a sick man” (3), in an 1895 newspaper article, followed by late Qing reformer Liang Qichao 梁啟超 (1873-1929), who referred to China as a “sick man” (病夫) with “effete (文弱) qualities” (5) in the political treatise On the New Citizen (新民說, 1903-1905). The trope “yellow peril” owes its creation to Kaiser Wilhelm II; Rojas notes that the term derived from Nietzsche’s slave morality that “transforms weakness into a strategic asset” (7). Liang Qichao picked up the term in his vision of the modern nation to suggest the potential of these effete qualities to infect foreign invaders. Therefore, for Rojas, the two tropes are not merely metaphors to link the state to disease and infection; they reveal the dynamism in the nineteenth century discourse of infection in the sense that the nation’s weakness could be seen as an empowerment for future strength.

Homesickness marks an attempt to mobilize biological models to understand the dynamism of the history of medical tropes, metaphors, and discourses. The book is structured in three parts, each based on the cultural products from one of three selected years—1906, 1967 and 2006—chosen by Rojas intentionally to avoid historical milestones, such as 1911 and 1949, and to resonate with Ray Huang’s “year of no significance.” However, all three years are significant in the sense that they are situated half way between major historical transformations of modern China: 1906 is half way between the end of the Boxer Uprising and the collapse of Qing—hence, a transition from a dynastic to a Republican regime; 1967 is midway between Mao’s launch of the Great Leap Forward campaign in 1958 and Deng Xiaoping’s launch of the Reform and Opening-up campaign in 1978—hence, a change from Maoism to the post-Mao Reform era; 2006 is the halfway point between China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and the 2011 announcement that China had surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest economy—hence, the PRC’s transition from an insular postsocialist state to a global superpower (23-24).

Part I consists of chapters 1 to 3 under the pivotal term “phagocytes.” Chapter 1 examines the early twentieth-century novel Travels of Lao Can by Liu E (劉鶚 1857-1909). Lao Can, an itinerant doctor, not only helps heal wounded bodies, he provides suggestions on flood control and gives advice on healing the political structure. Rojas focuses particularly on how traditional wisdom and thought in the novel are seen as healing forces for contemporary China. “The principle of harmonious equilibrium,” from a Han dynasty official who advocated for restraining human intervention in flood control, is intentionally followed by Lao Can’s discussions of similar strategies to control banditry—to first empower them so that they may then regulate themselves (50). The trope of “rivers and lakes” (江湖), well-known in the twentieth century from wuxia (knight-errant) novels and films as a space on the margins of society away from central political power and associated with banditry, serves as a central conceptual node in Rojas’s interpretation: a space of potential (healing) transformation from the margins of political authority. The chapter also observes the transformative and healing potential of early history in the text, noting that Lao Can frequently looks back in history to find a solution when he encounters a socio-political problem.

The discussions of flood control, medical treatment, and political reform in Travels of Lao Can coincided with Liu’ E’s findings on oracle bone inscriptions, on which he published a monograph. The Shang dynasty oracle bones, as Rojas points out, were originally used for divination directed to earth (地), which was perceived not as moral authority, as was heaven (天), but rather as a “mercurial force that shapes historical developments in fundamentally arbitrary ways” (61) Hence, according to Rojas, the discovery of oracle bones presents, just like other traditional teachings Lao Can draws from in the novel, “sites of difference and alterity with respect to his own self-conception” (65) from which to transform the “home” of the contemporary state.

Chapter 2 draws on the potential of transformation not from the past but from outside. The text under analysis here is Zeng Pu’s 曾樸 (1871-1935) early twentieth-century novel Flowers in a Sinful Sea (孽海花). It features a fictionalized version of the historical character Sai Jinhua 賽金花 (1870?- 1936), who achieved fame abroad and returned home to China to successfully convince foreigners to stop sacking Beijing by invoking her personal relationship with the German General Waldersee, head of the Allied Forces during the Boxer Rebellion. Rojas brings up the Freudian concept of the “uncanny” to shed light on understanding the text: Freud uses the German term “unheimlich,” translated as “uncanny,” to negate the word “heimlich,” which roughly translates as “homely”; the two words are interconnected in the sense that the homely and familiar often return to create a sense of the uncanny. While chapter 1 explores how domestic/familiar texts tinged with the unhomely/unfamiliar from a distance of more than three thousand years can return to infuse the present with transformative potential, chapter 2 explores the uncanny from abroad. Sai Jinhua (Fu Caiyun 傅彩雲in the novel) becomes the celebrated legend existing in the space between familiarity/home and unfamiliarity/abroad that brings up new possibilities for the nation.

Chapter 3 provides an insightful re-reading of Lu Xun’s famous lantern slide episode in a medical class in Sendai, Japan and his 1918 story “Diary of a Madman” (狂人日記) through the interplay of “recognition and misrecognition.” In 1906, after seeing the decapitation slide, Lu Xun determined to give up his medical studies and devote himself to literature. Rojas sets this transformation, perhaps one of the most significant in modern Chinese cultural history, in the context of the emergence of immunology. Since the 1880s, scientists such as Elie Metchnikoff had begun to develop models of the immune system to explain, among other things, how “vaccines provide an organism with immunity in the first place” (104). In his observations of the process of cellular consumption, Metchnikoff discovered that white blood cells were able to detect malignant cells and consume harmful microbes. In the 1910s, Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀(1879-1942) introduced Metchnikoff’s theory in a New Youth article where Chen coined the term shijun xibao 噬菌细胞) as a translation of phagocyte. Chen cloaks the word with militancy, comparing the white blood cells and other elements of the immune system to soldiers fighting bravely against an enemy even at the cost of the well-being of the organism itself.

Hu Shi 胡適 (1891-1962), in his New Youth review of Ibsen’s play Enemy of the People, also adopts the immunological metaphor to interpret the play: “a community might collectively target and ‘consume’ the very same reformist elements that are attempting to help heal the community in the first place” (115). It is in this vein that Rojas sets out to define the logic underlying Lu Xun’s transformation from his 1906 epiphany to his 1918 story. The fact that Lu Xun saw the slide in the context of a class in bacteriology prepared him to view the slide in a particular way: like a “spiritual physician,” Lu Xun responded to the visual stimulus of execution, or what Roland Barthes would call the slide’s punctum, by consuming the alienating image as would white blood cells, and transforming it into “an imaginary ground for his new self-conception” (105). In a similar manner, “Diary of a Madman,” like Enemy of the People, which revolves around a solitary individual who sees through the pernicious threat of his community and culture, can be read in light of “self-cannibalism” and “autoimmune crisis” (117). The madman’s vision of Chinese society and culture sits between recognition and misrecognition; the reading of the text is similarly accompanied by misreading in the sense that social reform, like the immune system, is understood not only as progressive elimination of the “malignant tissue” but also as the possibility of regressive misrecognition (i.e., of simultaneously attacking the benign elements of the body politic). The repeated use of the trope of medicine throughout Lu Xun’s oeuvre points to the node of “alterity” that Rojas identifies as a “figure of homesickness” on which the individual and the community/nation transform their self-conception. Each of the three chapters titles in Part I has a word with the prefix of “re”: “reform,” “rebellion,” and “rebirth” (the last of which echoes the title of the young Lu Xun’s failed literary journal New Life 新生), and each “re” word indicates a new cultural conception related to Part I’s umbrella term “hagocytes,” a force that both consumes and transforms.

Part II of the book, “Pharmakons,” revolves around another “year of no significance,” 1967. The chapter analyzes King Hu’s 1967 film Dragon Gate Inn (龍門客棧). The film is set in the Ming dynasty, when the court’s eunuchs held considerable power and controlled the imperial guards. Political struggles are highlighted in the film’s fascination with misrecognition and recognition of the target of assassination, with wrongly executed murder, innocent victims, and “double agents,” and “political reversals” (134). This film also testifies to the dynamism of the trope jianghu. Jianghu is traditionally associated with a space of righteous struggle against social injustice and corruption (usually associated with the imperial court), hence Mao Zedong’s famous critique of Song Jiang, the central character of the classical Chinese novel Water Margin (水滸傳), for his failure to fulfil that function, for capitulating to the court and allowing himself to be coopted into the imperial establishment. Rojas places great value on spaces such as jianghu that lie at societies’ margins. He compares jianghu to the Platonic trope of Pharmakons, a term with the underlying logic of a mode of “engagement based on a mobilization of elements with mutually opposed qualities” (141).

Pharmakons also highlights the logic of cultural production. Quoting at length Liang Qichao’s famous 1902 essay on the relationship between fiction and governance of the people, Rojas mobilizes multiple understandings and cultural logics of the Chinese word du毒. Du is usually associated with poison, but there are cases where it refers to medicine. In his essay, Liang juxtaposes the negative effect of fiction in “harming” and “poisoning” the people with its positive “nurturing” or “treating” effect. Rojas argues that Dragon Gate Inn, in a similar fashion, contains potent political commentary on real events of the mid 1960s because it occupies the marginal space of commercial cinema as opposed to the discourse of polemical political commentary.

“Phantasms,” Part III of the book, moves to the year 2006. It opens with a discussion of the Internet novel and Samson Chiu Leong Chun’s 2003 film Golden Chicken 2, both of which deal with SARS. The novel is as much about the potential of the Internet to generate and introduce new possibilities to the existing socio-political constellation as it is about SARS. The fate of the novel is like an infectious epidemic: it was first released online in 2005, resulting in subsequent shut-down of the host website, and then republished in print form; but the novel became famous only when released in 2006 through China’s major internet portal The novel’s circulation history points to “meme-like” behavior where the circulation of public information interacts with censorship and outgrows the latter in a self-replicating manner. The film Golden Chicken 2 also deals with SARS infection, particularly in Hong Kong. For Rojas, the image of the surgical mask in the film is a point of misrecognition and the blurring of identity between self and community, and therefore an image of transformative potential.

With Yan Lianke’s 阎连科 (1958- ) 2006 novel Dream of Ding Village (丁庄梦) as its focus, Chapter 6 moves from disease contagion to blood infection,. The story of blood-selling in a village in Henan province is situated in the historical context of the late 1980s, when the Chinese government implemented laws to restrict the import of foreign blood in order to prevent the entry of HIV into China. It hence caused a drastic increase in demand for domestic blood and a consequent loss of official control over the donation and collection process, paradoxically resulting in large numbers of blood sellers becoming infected with HIV. In the novel, the high demand for blood mobilizes the provincial village to join the global market which tragically results in over 60% of the villagers being infected with disease. In its exploration and exposure of the blood selling trade, the novel connects hyper-capitalist global market phenomena and the circulation of transnational labor to local and individual forms of self-commodification and commodity fetishism.

Lenin’s Kisses (受活), another of Yan’s novels, also takes up the issue of corporeal commodification. The plot revolves around a village’s purchase of Lenin’s corpse and installing it in a newly built Lenin Memorial Hall so as to boost the local economy through “red tourism.” Rojas sees the figure of Lenin’s body in the novel as simultaneously a symbol of death and an enduring/living legacy through commodity fetishism in the capitalist economy. He draws on a pair of opposing psychoanalytical terms to further understand the political significance of the novel: Julia Kristeva’s “abject,” the bodily element that needs to be ejected from the self in order to confirm the imaginary binary of Self/Other, and Lacan’s objet petit a, an imaginary element that emerges out of the self to become a desire in constructing the Other as opposed to the self. Rojas sees an interplay of the two opposing terms in Lenin’s Kisses, where the one-time standard bearer of Marxian principles (Lenin) has become a tourist attraction for boosting the economy of a provincial village in contemporary Chinese capitalist society. In this sense, the novel stands as a synecdoche for “a comparable logic at a collective level, wherein the constitution of the Chinese nation is grounded in the simultaneous rejection of the desire for figures positioned at the symbolic margins of the body politic” (214). Both of Yan Lianke’s novels focus on how death and disease can potentially ignite a dynamic interaction between destruction (e.g. death of the pillar-like state leader) and innovative transformation (e.g. economic take-off).

Chapter 7 explores Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2006 film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (黑眼圈), along with several other of Tsai’s earlier films. Rojas foregrounds the puncturing trope/image that appears through Tsai’s oeuvre, such as the eye/eye-circle, a hole in the ceiling, and the cinematic suture. These tropes offer a chance, albeit a distorted one, of an encounter between individuals and their surrounding communities that hints at a renewed understanding of human relationships, despite the films’ overwhelming atmosphere of isolation. In I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, it is the face mask worn by people in Hong Kong during the outbreak of SARS that even as it impeded verbal communication put socially marginalized protagonists into a sort of non-linguistic communication with other people. Another recurring theme of Tsai’s films discussed by Rojas’s is mother-son and father-son incest. The most disturbing scene of The River is a moment of sexual intimacy between a father and his son in a dark bathhouse room, leading to their mutual horror on discovering one another’s identity once the lights are back on. Rojas points to the way that Tsai’s film somehow portrays the taboo incident with a sense of strange liberation, as Rey Chow has argued. Rojas surprisingly (at least for this reader) seems to suggest that incest is not merely a moment of transgression but also one of potential liberation and renewal of interpersonal relations within dysfunctional and uncommunicative families or communities.

Rojas’s final chapter is entitled “Membranes” and focuses on, among other works, Yu Hua’s 余华 (1960-) 2006 novel Brothers (兄弟). Yu Hua’s works are often inspired by his early experience as a dentist, and he frequently blends brutal depictions of bodily violence with the dissection of political issues. Rojas’s discussion of the novel foregrounds the theme of symbolic barriers, particularly its fascination with hymens, which, he argues, have both corporeal and national connotations. On the one hand, the hymen both protects female corporeal integrity and defines a symbolic Chinese national purity (in the sense that the Great Wall is linked and likened by Rojas to a hymen for China). On the other hand, the hymen’s potential vulnerability to being ruptured suggests a point of encounter with the outside, where new meanings are born.

All of these moments in Chinese literary texts and films across the span of more than a century have been chosen as typical cultural phenomena from which one can extrapolate the underlying cultural logic (meme) that a nation, communities, and individual identities are heterogeneous in nature, perpetual “sites of internal alterity.” Illness and healing are treated simultaneously as literal and metaphoric: in bodies, they reveal heterogeneous sites of opposing cells in various degrees of balance (health) and imbalance (illness); metaphorically, Rojas addresses the illness of nations and communities, which likewise experience tensions between balance and imbalance.

Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China is original and ambitious in its historical sweep and transdisciplinary approach. “Homesickness” acts as a key term, uniting the various chapters and texts from different historical periods. As Rojas lays out in his introduction, homesickness is the inner force that drives one’s outward mobility away from home where “socio-political concerns can be engaged and re-imagined” (294). Rojas provides readings of a large and diverse body of literary/cinematic texts concerning corporeal phenomena of illness and disease—such as blood, the hymen, the family, the community, incest, etc.—through which authors and directors have explored political and cultural discourses and made connections to larger issues involving the nation, reform, revolution, national transformation, and modernization from the late Qing era to the present.

Yet it is precisely its wide-range of cultural texts, its sweeping historical focus, and its spanning of disciplinary boundaries that pose a number of challenges to readers and frequently risks undermining the book’s great strength—its thought-provoking arguments.

The general methodology Rojas undertakes in the body of the book is textual analysis. Narratives of disease, tropes, metaphors of illness are singled out for close reading and analysis. Oftentimes, however, the textual details analysed are subsumed under vague references to “cultural logic” or scientific “memes.” Given the use of a significant amount of cultural texts from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the arguments would likely also have benefitted from drawing upon post-colonial theory.

Of similar concern is the book’s historical framework. The three “years of no significance” that structure the book, 1906, 1967 and 2006, fall into three completely different historical discourses—respectively, enlightenment and cultural reform, revolution and class struggle, and postsocialist economics and capitalist commodification. First of all, it would seem important for the book to at least acknowledge the different historical contexts under which these cultural products emerged before putting them under the “re”- rubrics and conceptual frameworks into which the book is divided, with their binary pairs of polar antagonistic historical forces. Second, the historical framing of the three parts is dictated by the book’s general argument of home’s encounter with alterity—an encounter that generates the space enabling social and political events to emerge. Rojas’s intention with this historical framework is to explore how the thematics of disease and contagion in the selected cultural texts act as destabilizing forces within their historical moment—i.e., the uncanny return of the past and the foreign in, for example, the New Cultural Movement. But, as this example indicates, reading the history of China’s long twentieth century through a selective focus on the disruptive cum generative forces of internal alterity seems ambitious at best and somewhat arbitrary at worst. The two ends of the spectrum selected for each of the three historical periods omit many of the historical specificities that historians have carefully elucidated in order to make sense of and locate internal coherence in modern China’s historical development. For instance, there has been since as early as the late Qing substantial discussion from scholars like Liu Shipei 劉師培(1884-1919) and Zhang Binglin 章炳麟 (1869-1936) on ways of incorporating traditional culture into contemporary social and political reform. Along with it come generations of Chinese translators who introduced Western scientific discourses, political theories, literature, historical approaches, etc. I would argue that a focus on the era around 1906 finds social change coming from intellectual thought already self-consciously rooted in traditional thought—a process that does not jibe well with Rojas’s likening it to a Freudian “return of repressed” elements from the past or beyond the nation’s geographic borders (25). Likewise, in Part II, Rojas’s comparison of the knights-errant xia侠 who inhabit the space of jianghu to the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution will likely raise eyebrows among the many historians and literary scholars who have sought to prove that the CR was carefully orchestrated with rational calculation of political gains by participants at every level (including the political center for most of the time).

Another major challenge to me as a reader is how to understand the “plausible cultural logic” that Rojas proposes to “extract . . . from visible [cultural] phenomena” (18). On the one hand, Rojas convincingly mobilizes the cultural tropes of infection and disease out of set boundaries and places them under an overarching “cultural meme,” which allows for the reconfiguration of the tropes’ alterity as potentially transformative and renewing. On the other hand, however, the term and its functioning are borrowed from biomedical discourse of “the selfish gene” and Dawkins’s ontological inquiry into genomic elements and organisms. Rojas’s borrowing of Dawkins’s “cultural meme” makes a logical leap in that he uses metaphor as the only significant link between the logic of science and that of culture. The “cultural logic” extrapolated from Dawkins’s theory would have been bolstered if more rigorously matched and adjusted to historical specificities in the analyses of cultural productions from different periods.

This touches upon the larger problematics of medical humanities whose feasibility as a subject and even, to some degree, that of interdisciplinary research, has been questioned by many. While medical humanities broadens our understanding of illness and health and therefore is considered useful in educating physicians, it nevertheless lacks “academic rigor” according to some scholars.[10] Brian Dolan wonders whether the discipline should be considered education—a rigorous discipline aiming to train medical students in engaging emotions alongside intellect in every clinical encounter—or entertainment—a training mode usually involving reading novels, strolling through museums, or attending plays. Angela Woods further points out the “dangers and blind spots” in scholars’ mobilization of narrative to understand the experience of health and illness.[11] In light of these understandings of the potential pitfalls and/or flaws in medical humanities, a number of substantial links perhaps ought to have been addressed throughout Rojas’s broad historical survey. These include efforts to address the link between illness as a metaphor for igniting socio-cultural reform in the early twentieth century and infection as true depiction of the epidemic in the transnational capitalist economy in the early twenty-first century, and the link between medical genomic discourse to literary tropes and to national allegory.  Only then could such a study stand up to its stated ambition to not only to use “scientific models to develop a new cultural hermeneutics,” but also to use “the resulting hermeneutics to reassess the interrelationship between a set of scientific and political concerns” (x).

Given its strengths in mobilizing various discourses, literary and cinematic texts, and ideas about disease and infection throughout the modern era, Homesickness: Culture, Contagion, and National Transformation in Modern China will be of great interest and use to scholars as well as general readers who are curious about Chinese culture, the history of disease, and medical humanities in general.

Lei Qin
University College Cork, Ireland

[1] Choy, Howard Y. F., ed. Discourses of Disease: Writing Illness, the Mind and the Body in Modern China (Leiden: Brill, 2016).

[2] Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978), 78.

[3] Ibid., 79-84.

[4] Ibid, 85.

[5] Fan Zhunxing范准行. Zhongguo bing shi xinyi中国病史新义 (Reframing the history of disease in China) (Beijing: Zhongyi guji, 1989).

[6] Porter, Dorothy. Health, Civilization and the State: A History of Public Health from Ancient to Modern Times (London: Routledge, 1998).

[7] Cited in Choy, Discourses of Disease, 6.

[8] Rogaski, Ruth. Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in TreatyPort China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Brian Bolan, ed. Humanitas. Readings in the Development of the Medical Humanities (Berkeley: University of California Medical Humanities Press, 2015), 1-3.

[11] Angela Woods. “The Limits of Narrative: Provocations for the Medical Humanities.” (2011); accessed November 18, 2017.