Pathologizing China: Duality in Illness and Cure of China’s Modernity
1: Organic Body, Split Medicine: Phage Therapy in the Great Leap Forward
Saturday, March 26, 2022
10:30am – 12:00pm EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 315
Georgia Institute of Technology, United States
This paper examines the short-lived prominence of phage therapy during the Great Leap Forward. Phage therapy uses bacteriophage, a viral agent isolated from a bacterium, to in turn attack and “devour” the bacterium. During the Great Leap Forward, when the drastic increase in injuries from molten metal and the lack of antibiotics undercut the superiority of socialism, phage therapy was promoted as a cutting-edge treatment of bacterial infection and boosted the masses’ confidence of “making steel in a big way.” The breakthrough in the rescue of the steelworker Qiu Caikang in 1958 officially elevated phage therapy to a socialist panacea against the capitalist vital statistics and monopoly of antibiotic production.
Comparing narratives of the Qiu Caikang case in news reports, reportage literature, stage performance, and film adaptations, this paper investigates the multilayered and often psychopathological meanings of “socialist medicine.” The scientific rationale of phage therapy affords two contrasting conceptualizations of the body: as organically interconnected and potentially cannibalistic. To displace the latter onto the former, in the mass media, medical knowledge gradually gave way to the dramatization of self-sacrificial and collaborative individuals and social organs. This strategy allows socialist medicine to be interpreted as an ecological cure that heals infection from within. However, I argue that the utopian docu-fictional narratives must be complemented in the dystopian context of the Great Leap Forward, where cannibalism constituted the literal and symbolic reality.