As the daughter of a thoracic surgeon growing up in Southern California, I had no idea that my parents' choice of residence and profession would lead me towards research on the social and cultural history of Chinese medicine. Living in Los Angeles, I was always aware of the global importance of Asia and the Pacific. Raised in the home of a physician, I became curious about issues related to health and disease. My formal training in Chinese language and culture began when I was an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz. A junior year abroad in Taiwan solidified my interests in the region and upon graduation I worked for several years with Volunteers in Asia, a non-profit organization affiliated with Stanford University. Shortly after the U.S. and China reestablished formal diplomatic relations in 1979, I led the first group of American volunteer English teachers to the mainland. Initially schooled in international relations, my two years living in the historic city of Beijing stirred a deeper and more abiding interest in Chinese history. I returned to Stanford University and completed my Ph.D. in modern East Asian history in 1991. After teaching for four years at Williams College, I relocated to the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where I now teach courses on modern China, the Pacific World, and the social history of medicine.My interest in China's disease history emerged during my graduate studies at Stanford. While there is now a substantial cohort of young scholars working on the social history of Chinese medicine, at the time few had studied the history of disease in China. My first book was an epidemiological and social history of plague in nineteenth-century China. Using archival and published materials, I analyzed how economic growth and development in the eighteenth century produced ecological changes that promoted the spread of plague throughout much of southern China in the nineteenth century. Eventually, this epidemic exploded on the world scene as a global pandemic at the end of the century. The book thus explains the origins of one of the major disease outbreaks in world history. It also links foreign interventions during plague epidemics to the political impact of imperialism on China, and the ways in which European cultural representations of the Chinese influenced the theory and practice of late nineteenth-century colonial medicine. Finally, the book documents the emergence of new Chinese public health institutions in the early twentieth century, largely in response to the perceived threat to national sovereignty posed by foreign-imposed plague control measures.My Wilson Center project represents a shift from the study of infectious diseases that characterized morbidity in China prior to the twentieth century to an analysis of cultural habits that impact morbidity and mortality in contemporary China. Tobacco use in China now poses a potentially calamitous epidemic of smoking-related illnesses. With 350 million smokers (one-third of all smokers globally), China has the highest rate of cigarette consumption in the world. Smoking is already causing 750,000 Chinese deaths per year and if current smoking patterns continue the World Bank projects that it will cause more than one million deaths by the year 2010. I seek to analyze the deep and enduring reasons behind China's current smoking epidemic. The long history of smoking in China, combined with the broader social and cultural meanings of tobacco, particularly the ways in which smoking gradually came to be associated with masculinity and the construction and maintenance of social networks, makes its eradication particularly difficult in the Chinese context. It is my hope that this book, by providing an historical and cultural context for contemporary practice, can contribute to the development of successful tobacco control policies that will stem the burgeoning epidemic.


B.A. (1977) International Relations and Peace Studies, University of California at Santa Cruz; M.A. (1985) East Asian Studies, Stanford University; Ph.D. (1991) East Asian History, Stanford University




  • Associate Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of History, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1999-present
  • Assistant Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and Department of History, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., 1995-99
  • Assistant Professor, Department of History, Williams College, Williamstown, MA, 1991-94


20th century Chinese history; social history of Chinese medicine and disease; history of public health

Project Summary

My project—-a social and cultural history of tobacco consumption in China from its introduction in the mid-sixteenth century to the present—-seeks to analyze the historical and cultural factors that have shaped Chinese tobacco use over the longue durée. Tobacco smoking has long been a conspicuous feature of Chinese daily life, yet to date there are no monograph-length studies in English of how or why this national habit came into being or how patterns of tobacco consumption changed over time. This study will explore socially stratified and changing patterns of tobacco smoking in China from 1550 to the present and will document the continuous and on-going value of tobacco as a gift commodity with social and symbolic significance. When completed, it will shed light on a number of themes in China's material culture, its comparative patterns of commodification and consumption, its interactions with the outside world, changing ideas about gender, class, and generation, and enduring values of hospitality, sociability, and reciprocity. It should be of interest to epidemiologists and public health experts working in the People's Republic of China, as well as to specialists in medical history, the history of consumption, and late imperial and modern China.

Major Publications

  • Bubonic Plague in Nineteenth-Century China (Stanford University Press, 1996)
  • "Framing Plague in China's Past" Remapping China, eds. Gail Hershatter, Emily Honig, Jonathan Lipman, and Randall Stross, Stanford, 1996, pp. 27-41
  • "Policing the Sick: Plague and the Origins of Chinese State Medicine" Late Imperial China, 14:2, December 1993, pp. 60-77