Interview with LRCCS Faculty Yi-Li Wu

Yi-Li Wu   Professor Women’s Studies

Yi-Li Wu

Women’s Studies

For this interview we sat down with Professor Yi-Li Wu, one of LRCCS’ newest faculty members, a long-time LRCCS affiliate who has just been hired as a faculty member in Women's Studies and History and will start teaching at UM in Fall 2019. In this interview, Professor Wu talks about her first experience with Chinese medicine, the relation between Chinese martial arts and medicine, and her current project on wound medicine.

Interview conducted and edited by Eric Couillard

LRCCS: Let’s start from the beginning – where did you grow up?

Prof Wu: I grew up in Southern California. I was actually born in Virginia, though. My parents came to the States to do PhDs in chemistry, and they both ended up at the University of Virginia. My dad then got a post-doc at USC, so we moved to L.A. when I was one.

I then went to UC Berkeley for undergrad, which I just loved. I thought about becoming a linguistics major, but ended up in political science. When I graduated, I got an internship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But I soon realized that politics in Washington, DC, wasn’t for me. So I moved back to California where I got a job as a researcher for a corporate intelligence firm. I worked in their San Francisco and then New York offices before deciding to go back to grad school.

LRCCS: When did Chinese Studies come into the picture?

Prof Wu: I had this general idea that I wanted to find a career in some kind of international organization, so I decided to get a masters in international relations. Happily, I got into Yale. It was an interdisciplinary masters, where you take classes with the grad students in regular departments. That’s how I got hooked in with the Chinese history folks. I had actually thought initially about being a Europeanist. I had done study abroad in France as an undergrad—poli sci in Bordeaux--and assumed I’d continue that trajectory in grad school. But because many of my M.A. classmates were European, I felt that I might not be able to compete. So I decided to focus on China and ended up deciding to stay and do a PhD in some aspect of Chinese studies. I picked history over poli sci in large part because I really couldn’t pass up the chance to work with Jonathan Spence ( It was his work that had gotten me interested in China back when I was an undergrad. And he was a terrific adviser.

LRCCS: Did you spend a lot of time in China growing up?

Prof Wu: Actually, no. I didn’t even go to Asia until I was 9, when my mom took me and my siblings to visit my dad’s family in Taiwan. But I have a ton of relatives there. My father was the oldest of 13 kids, and they all stayed in Taiwan except for his brother in Canada. My mom is the youngest of 9 and her older siblings stayed in the mainland while she and her mom and two younger siblings went to Taiwan during the civil war. I didn’t meet my relatives in the mainland until I was in grad school, but I got to spend time with some of them when I was there doing dissertation research.

LRCCS: When did Chinese medicine enter the picture?

Prof Wu: I was hunting around for a dissertation topic and decided to do something on women’s history. This was when Chinese women’s history was really taking off. We’d had a conference on it at Yale and that inspired me. I then found out that there was this huge body of texts on women’s medicine and that hardly anyone was working on this subject, so I thought it would be a good area to get into. My rationale was that if you want to understand women’s lives, you need to understand the material conditions that they’re living under, and medicine is part of that. I was also incredibly lucky to meet Charlotte Furth, who was the pioneer in this area. She was so generous and supportive.

When people ask me why I like working on the history of medicine, I say, it’s the same reason why there are all these popular TV shows about hospitals and doctors. There’s something very compelling and fundamentally human about dealing with illness—how you figure out what is wrong, how you try to fix it, all the competing beliefs and personalities involved. There’s also a technical side to medicine that I’ve always felt comfortable with – my parents were both chemists, and we had a lab in our kitchen when I was growing up.

LRCCS: Do you currently focus entirely on women’s medicine?

Prof Wu: So my first book was on women’s medicine, but I’ve branched out from there. When I was working on the book, I became interested in pushing back on stereotypes about Chinese medicine. The popular understandings tend to be simplistic-- tradition vs. modernity, science vs. superstition, timeless ancient wisdom, monolithic Confucianism, etc. A lot of innovative work has already been done in our field to break down these stereotypes. And I have been trying to contribute to that effort.

As you know, Chinese medicine is now an important form of alternative medicine. But this alternative medicine is historically rooted in certain stereotypes about Chinese views of the body. One of the big ones is that “Chinese medicine isn’t interested in the structure of the body, it’s only interested in vitalistic function.” There’s a great book by Sean Lei which explains how this stereotype arose during the early 20th century. Reformers were criticizing Chinese medicine by saying that its beliefs about the body were ridiculous in the light of modern anatomy. So the defenders of Chinese medicine responded by essentially saying, “We’re not talking about anatomy, we’re talking about transformations of qi.” This then colored the kinds of questions that scholars asked.

So, for example, when I was writing this book about women’s medicine, I initially followed the conventional wisdom that Chinese medicine didn’t care about the uterus. But I found that this is not historically accurate. If your question is, “How did Chinese medicine think about gender difference,” then yes, it’s true the uterus was insignificant. But if you want to know how they thought about women’s fertility, the health of the uterus is actually quite important. So I started to wonder, how else are body parts important in Chinese medicine?

And the book I’m working on now is an attempt to get at that question by looking at the history of medicine for wounds and injuries – basically that area of medicine that is concerned with broken body parts, managing weapon wounds, internal bleeding, broken bones, etc.

LRCCS: So there’s a distinction about looking at the body as vitalistic function vs anatomical parts. What’s important to you about that distinction?

Prof Wu: What I really want to do is problematize that distinction. It’s often used as a shorthand way for talking about the supposed differences between Chinese and Western medicine, and I think it’s artificial. And it also implies that the correct model is the Western anatomical model. Then Chinese medicine at various points in history is always being judged according to how close it does or doesn’t come to European thought. So I’m saying, let’s ask the question differently. And what I’m interested in is: how do doctors’ experiences with the material and structural aspects of the body shape their views of the body’s functions, and vice versa? This is a universal question. And I’m hoping this will allow me to decenter the Euro-centric model and give a more historically sensitive view of the Chinese body “on its own terms,” to borrow a phrase from Benjamin Elman.

LRCCS: Do you practice Chinese medicine, or get practiced on?

Prof Wu: No, I’m not a practitioner, but some important scholars in the field are. My first experience with Chinese medicine was when I was 9. I was in Taiwan and running a huge fever. My relatives gave me some powdered medicine to drink, but it tasted so horrible that the moment it went in my mouth I spit it out. My mom was not happy.

My parents were both chemists and big believers in science, so they never put any stock in Chinese medicine until my father got sick. He had a heart attack at age 47 and just degenerated from there. The doctors said there wasn’t anything they could do. My mom says they told him to just go to home and prepare to die. Then my parents saw a sign for a Chinese doctor one day in Chinatown and figured they didn’t have anything to lose. It definitely helped him.

People ask me if I “believe in” Chinese medicine. My short answer is that Chinese medicine does contain some effective techniques. But you need to find a good practitioner.

LRCCS: One thing I’m curious about – and this might be one of the stereotypes you mentioned – but in my mind, there’s a definite link between Chinese medicine and Chinese martial arts.

Prof Wu: Oh yeah, definitely. This is absolutely real. One of the chapters in my book is about military medicine, and I also talk about martial arts. Dealing with injuries from martial arts is definitely one of the things that contributes to medical knowledge overall. They’re dealing with contusions, sprains, dislocations, broken bones. In fact, there’s a whole tradition of injury medicine associated with the Shaolin monks. Meir Shahar has written about the history of this. Another connection is how you strengthen your body for fighting. There is also the belief that you can kill someone by hitting certain points of the body at certain times of day. And these points are related to acupuncture points. So yes, there are definitely many links.

LRCCS: So what are you working on right now?

Prof Wu: I’m finishing a new book called The Injured Body. It’s basically a social history of medicine for wounds in China up through the early 19th century. Each chapter is looking at a particular social context where the healing of wounds was important. So you have the military, but also law-and-order, because corporal punishment and torture were routine parts of the Chinese judicial system. I also have a chapter on forensics, because part of a magistrate’s job was to inspect the wounds of people who had been assaulted. The attacker would have to provide medical care to his victim for a certain amount of time, and if the victim died during that time, he would be charged with murder. The last chapter is on accidents in daily life. I’m mentally calling it “The Perils of the Populace”. It’s amazing how people have the same kinds of accidents no matter where you go--slipping and falling, horsing around, doing stupid things. I just read a historical medical case that I joke should be filed under “people never change.” This farmer goes into town and buys a fish hook. On his way home, he has an itch inside his nose. He decides it’d be really funny to use the fish hook to scratch it, but of course the hook gets stuck.

LRCCS: Haha, oh boy. What else is going on that you’re excited about right now?

Prof Wu: I’d like to give a shout out to the UM program in Gender and Health. It’s a relatively new major, but already extremely popular on campus. I’ve just been hired as a faculty member to teach in the program starting in the fall . It’s exciting because it’s thoroughly interdisciplinary: it brings together people from the humanities and social sciences with people from the medical school. I’m really looking forward to being part of it.

I’m also excited that I’ll get to work more closely with UM people in Chinese studies. We now have amazing scholarship constantly coming out on the Chinese medical humanities, and lots of people around the world are working on related issues. It’d be great to see more people at UM take an interest, and I’m hoping I can become a point person to facilitate those types of conversations.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for more interviews with new LRCCS faculty and Postdocs