From “Sick Man of Asia” to “Sick Uncle Sam”: Tracing the History of a Trope
On Thursday, September 24, Marta Hanson, associate professor of the history of East Asian medicine at Johns Hopkins University, presented on the racist “sick man of Asia” trope and its recent reversal to the trope of “sick Uncle Sam.” In this timely and engaging discussion, Dr. Hanson explored the history behind the relative success of East Asian countries in addressing the COVID-19 virus compared to the United States. Dr. Hanson also discussed the different approaches behind Eastern and Western medicine, as well as how these two forms of medicine could be used together.
Dr. Hanson’s journey of studying Chinese and Western medical traditions began when she first studied the Chinese language at Central High School in Minnesota under her teacher, Margaret Wong. Since then, Dr. Hanson has led a fascinating career exploring questions surrounding cross-cultural medical history; the history of epidemics, diseases, and public health in China and East Asia; and more.
Dr. Hanson traced the history of the sick man metaphor and how it was applied to Turkey, China, and North America. Next, Dr. Hanson described the “East-West role reversal.” From the Chinese perspective, the narrative of the “sick man of Asia” is being reversed as the COVID-19 pandemic and structural racism expose the weaknesses of the American healthcare system.
Dr. Hanson outlined the history of pandemics and epidemics in Asia to show how these earlier experiences with pandemics have led to the strengthening of medical and public health infrastructures. Dr. Hanson also introduced the audience to the differences between the “fast medicine” of Western medical treatments and the “slow medicine” of more traditional medicines, and how the two could be combined in a medical pluralism approach.
In the Q&A session that followed, Dr. Hanson responded to audience questions about the differences between Eastern and Western medicine and the ways that cultural values have impacted different nations’ responses to the virus. Dr. Hanson noted that "a contagion consciousness and a community, collective consciousness” is required to effectively respond to the pandemic.
About the Speaker
Marta Hanson is associate professor of the history of East Asian medicine at Johns Hopkins University. She previously taught late imperial Chinese history at the University of California, San Diego. Her first monograph is titled Speaking of Epidemics in Chinese Medicine: Disease and the Geographic Imagination in Late Imperial China (Routledge, 2011).