Vectors of Contagion and Tuberculosis
in Modern Chinese Literature

By Andrew Schonebaum

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 23, no. 1 (Spring 2011), pp. 17-46

Tuberculosis is a symptom of modernity in literature around the world, and it has been discussed that way in its various iterations in Chinese fiction as well.  It usually marks it carrier as decadent, or poor, as a lover or an artist. Considering the resonance in many regards with famous tuberculars from Chinese literary history like Lin Daiyu, it makes sense to view a popular character like Marguerite from La Dame aux Camelias, as a modern version of an old archetype, or an imported version with updated features. If we consider medical history in the Ming and Qing dynasties, and understand the multi-valenced meanings of contagion and of tuberculosis/consumption/laozheng as they were understood then, we get a different picture. Translated Marguerite and modern characters remindful of her suffer from lineage transmission.  The modern figure of the tuberculosis patient is one who wants to define their disease as a modern one, but knows that it is at heart, a congenital condition and that it is traditional culture that is making them sick.