Westernization, Modernity and Hygiene in Shanghai

I would like to focus my long essay on spaces regarded as ‘hygienic’ and ‘non-hygienic’ in Shanghai. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it seems that notions of sanitation and hygiene were very closely tied to Westernization, at first by missionaries and concession governments, then later by Chinese newspapers, through advertisements of new ‘hygienic’ products. I would like to investigate who pronounced a space as hygienic or not, and how conceptions of these spaces changed over time. Shanghai is an ideal place to investigate the relationship between hygienic/non-hygienic spaces because it allows us to see notions of hygiene played on the scale of entire concessions, down to specific types of shops or interiors.

From the late 19th century, British medical missionary journals consistently ‘othered’ Chinese residents in Shanghai through health and hygiene practices. Leung argues that this is particularly seen in British medical practitioners’ insistence that China was similar in climate to the tropics, despite the fact that most of China was not in a tropical zone (Leung, p.111). Leung goes on to argue that calling a place ‘the tropics’ was a Western way of defining something as ‘culturally and politically alien, as well as environmentally distinct from Europe’ (Leung, p.115). The Medical Missionary Society in 1847 reports that “the natives have of course become thoroughly acclimated, and are not affected by the climate to the same extent as the foreigners” (Chinese Repository Vol. 17, p.189). This implies that even as the first missionary hospitals are being established in Shanghai, medical practitioners dictated a different health and hygiene standard for Chinese and foreign patients. Therefore, it is easy to agree with Leung’s argument that hygienic regiments and standards were not a method of maintaining health, but rather a way to “distinguish and distance the European self from the native other”(Leung, p.124).

Particularly in Shanghai, the way in which concession governments discussed the presence of Chinese houses in their European concessions demonstrates that they regarded Chinese spaces as unclean, unsanitary, and un-modern. This is particularly evident if we look at the reports from the ‘Conseil d’Administration Municipale de la Concession Française a Changhai’. A report from the Hygiene Committee in 1923 contains a speech on the ‘rural houses’ on Route Pere Robert, stating that “it is hardly acceptable that in this quarter, that has become an important European centre, exist a cluster of constructions as dirty as these ones. These houses do not have a single drainage, excretions and debris of all sorts of nature overrun…we cannot do practically anything there, all the disinfection would be only temporary and very costly” (Sèance du Comité, p.141). The report continues, and mentions under a section titled “Houses that are un-Sanitary and un-Aesthetic” the existence of a “typical town, not drained, typically dirty, a house on the border of Avenue Joffre constructed out of bamboo … almost all the real estate is in a state of dilapidation”(Sèance du Comité, p.142), concluding that these houses are a danger to public sanitation. This report demonstrates the severe ‘other-ing’, and complete blame the French concession government placed on these houses. The French government were using sanitation to insist that nothing non-European should exist in their concession.

Rogaski also explores this desire to create parallels between hygiene, modernity and Westernization by bringing up a 1930s short story called “Etiquette and Hygiene” by Liu Na-ou, about a Chinese couple living in the international settlement. The husband of the couple takes a walk from their home to enter the Chinese neighbourhood, and immediately describes how he has entered a ‘danger zone’, filled with ‘ghastly stenches’, and ‘prostitutes soliciting customers in alleys smelling of urine’ (Rogaski, p.225). This short story demonstrates that the association between hygiene and Westernisation had been prevalent in the early 20th century, as in the late 19th century. The descriptions offered in the short story are not dissimilar to descriptions from medical missionaries in 1850, where Shanghai was described as filled with a “stench that pervaded the whole city (…) If it had been wished to invent a plan for making a district unhealthy in the highest degree (…) perhaps none could have been devised so likely to prove prejudicial to the people, or one better adapted to produce extensive disease” (Chinese Repository Vol.20, p.154).

If we investigate spaces on a smaller scale, however, the concern with hygiene increases as we near the early 20th century. For example, medical missionary William Lockhard wrote in 1861 that “At Shanghai, there are numerous bathing houses established…[that are] for the most part very commodious and clean, and much resorted to” (Lockhard, p.40). Bathhouses would have been used as a social space, and a space for physical health and cleanliness. Here, the bathhouse is seen as a clean space, encouraged for use by everyone. However, if we compare this social space to tiger stove shops in the Nanjing Decade (1927-37), the relationship with hygiene is entirely different. Tiger stove shops sold hot water for drinking and bathing, and at night functioned as a ‘tea house’, which provided shelter for the night for the price of a cup of tea. These shops, like bathhouses, performed a social and practical function. This time however, they were regarded as filthy and unregulated. Historian Lu indicates a source where the writer complains that “the authorities have paid much attention to the hygiene of restaurants and the like, but (…) there has not been a single effort to regulate the filthy tiger stove shops- this can be counted as an oddity in the concessions!” (Lu, p.291). The Nanjing decade saw an increased interest of the state in regulating shops and businesses, and this seemed to come with an increased awareness for hygienic and non-hygienic spaces, and thus an increased pull towards all things western.

So, by looking at reports of concession governments, advertisements in newspapers, and works of medical missionaries, as well as the works of historians like Hershatter, Rogaski and Lu, I hope to explore how this relationship between modernity, westernisation, and hygiene developed, both in larger spaces like concessions, and in smaller, social spaces.



Primary Sources:

Lockhard, William, The Medical Missionary in China: a Narrative of Twenty Years’ Experience (London, 1861).

n.g, ‘Sèance du Comité d’Hygiène du 10 Juillet 1923’, Conseil d’Administration Municipale de la Concession Française a Changhai: Compte-Rendu de la Gestion pour l’Excercice 1923, pp141-142, <https://www.bnasie.eu/coreWeb/docReader/myReader.php?fID=bnPeriodical_ID-32_No-02.pdf> [accessed 28.10.2021]

Williams, Samuel Wells (ed.), Chinese Repository Volume XVII, (Canton, 1849).

Williams, Samuel Wells (ed.), Chinese Repository Volume XX, (Canton, 1851).


LaCouture, Elizabeth, Dwelling in the World: Family, House, and Home in Tianjin, China 1860-1960 (New York, 2021).

Leung, Angela Ki Che, Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century (Durham, 2010).

Lu, Hanchao, Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (Oakland, 1999).

Rogaski, Ruth, Hygienic Modernity: Meanings of Health and Disease in Treaty-Port China (Berkley, 2004).