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Backyard Gardens in the Metropolis: Folk Abortions in Republican Shanghai

Sat, April 2, 10:45am to 12:45pm, Washington State Convention Center, Floor: 6th Floor, Room 619


As recent scholarship has demonstrated, in the early twentieth century the spread of modern eugenic and birth control ideas and the implementation of public health programs concerning reproductive health significantly affected contemporaneous urban Chinese perceptions and practices of reproduction and sexuality. While cosmopolitan urban elite achieved a critical position toward old patriarchal values, they appeared again receptive to the collective good advocated in the name of the nation and race and the universal superiority claimed by Western science. How did lower-class urban residents respond to the contestation of old and new reproductive and medical norms? On what types of medical and social resources did they rely to achieve their reproductive goals?

This paper sheds light on these questions using court case records from Republican Shanghai concerning charges of criminal abortions. Often involving illiterate migrant women working in the metropolis, the sample of about a hundred abortion cases I examine afford a direct contact with the language and medical concepts used by unprivileged social groups. Herb-based native drugs and folk surgical practices occupied a prominent position in working-class women’s fertility limitation. Packaged in a marriage of age-old popular healing concepts and trendy Western-style medical terms, the locally accessible folk medicine did not appeal to lower-class women through a denial of Western-style medicine. I argue it was precisely through its being in touch with the eclectic medical environment of the age that the controversial folk ways and backyard gardens flourished under the silhouette of the metropolis.