Eugenics In Asia Research Paper

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Eugenics, a term coined in 1883 by the English scientist Francis Galton, had its heyday during the first half of the twentieth century. Its proponents claimed that breeding principles such as assortative mating and artificial selection could improve the quality of human offspring. ‘Positive eugenics’ would ensure that individuals with above-average abilities would breed at a higher rate than ordinary people. ‘Negative eugenics’ would restrict the reproduction of inferior people, while those having subnormal abilities would have to be physically prevented from perpetuating their ‘infirmities.’ Mainline eugenicists assumed that intellectual capacity and behavioral traits were inherited and could not be significantly enhanced by education. Supporters included not only scientists, in particular geneticists, but also social reformers, journalists, and other members of the emerging liberal professions. Until recently, however, it was often assumed that eugenics only appealed to extreme right-wing thinkers or organisations in Germany or the United States, as the multifarious dimensions and extraordinary appeal of eugenics to individuals of very different social backgrounds, political convictions, and national affiliations was ignored.

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Far from being a politically conservative and scientifically spurious set of beliefs which remained confined to the Nazi era, eugenics belonged to the political vocabulary of many modernizing forces between the two World Wars. It was not only supported by scientific societies, pressure groups, and political institutions in such different countries as France, Brazil, and Sweden, but also developed a large following in Asia, in particular in China and Japan.

1. China

Eugenics in Asia is sometimes dismissed as a derivative manifestation of a more ‘authentic’ dis- course in ‘the West,’ a misleading interpretation which can only impoverish our understanding of the complexities of cultural and intellectual encounters between population groups around the world. When the history of eugenics is explored in a variety of cultural, social, and political contexts, it resists any reductive explanation, an observation which is all the more true as the less familiar shores of China and Japan come under investigation. As in European cultures, popular hereditarian notions—encapsulated in such sayings as

‘Like begets like’—helped the emergence and acceptance of eugenic ideas in Asia. Well before Darwin’s time, experts in China had attained a sophisticated level of knowledge about selection and breeding, particularly in botany and in goldfish. On the other hand, many medical publications discussed in great detail ways of improving the physical quality of a line of descent while also highlighting the medical dangers to future offspring of careless reproduction. Patrilineal culture, in which reproduction was represented as a potentially dangerous process that should be carefully regulated in order to enhance the possibilities of engendering healthy male descendants, permeated traditional medical literature in imperial China. The individual, seen in relationship to the lineage, was held to be responsible not only for his or her own reproductive behavior, but also for the health of future offspring.

Interest in eugenics, however, only appeared in China in the wake of the reform movement of the 1890s, which openly sought to challenge imperial institutions and/or thodox ideology. In search of wealth and power after the country’s disastrous defeat against Japan in 1894–5, reform-minded scholars used Darwinian theories—inspired by Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley—to propose a radically new political vision based on faith in progress. Slogans such as ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘struggle for existence’ became popular in China, increasingly represented as a ‘race’ which ought to be strengthened in its confrontation with imperialist countries. Public health, individual hygiene, even sexual behavior were targeted by reformers such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao as areas in need of state regulation in order to ensure the ‘survival of the race’ in a context of international competition. Only after the collapse of the empire in 1911 and its substitution by a republic, however, did eugenics develop a much wider following.

Eugenics in republican China (1911–49), as in other countries during the interwar period, was not so much a clear set of scientific principles, as a ‘modern’ way of talking about social problems in biologizing terms: politicians with mutually incompatible beliefs and scientists with opposed interests could all selectively appropriate eugenics to portray society as an organic body which had to be guided by biological laws. Eugenics gave scientific authority to social fears and moral panics and provided an overarching rationale for welfare policies in China. Powered by the prestige of science, it allowed modernizing elites in China to represent their prescriptive claims about social order as objective statements irrevocably grounded in the laws of nature. Eugenics promoted a biologising vision of society in which the reproductive rights of individuals were subordinated to the rights of an abstract organic collectivity.

Eugenic discourse had different meanings to different social groups in different contexts: it was appropriated and used in a variety of ways to accommodate radically divergent purposes and interests, being flexible enough to unite individuals or constituencies with contradictory agendas. One of the major dividing lines within eugenic discourse was that between a hard approach to heredity, based on genetics in Britain and Germany, and a soft approach combining an emphasis on the environment with hereditarian explanations.

The soft approach to eugenics was common in republican China as well as in other countries as diverse as Brazil and France. Professional groups in China campaigned for better public education in social hygiene and sexual health in the name of race improvement. Moreover, unlike researchers in countries which pursued a hard Mendelian approach, supporters of eugenics in China did not produce significant biological research or statistical studies. An emphasis on the virtues of education accounts for the relative absence in republican China of formal institutions, official organs, or professional organisations centerd around the promotion of eugenic ideals. Rather than emanating from a solid organisational foundation, eugenic discourse was supported by a variety of voices in the social field: it attracted popular journalists, social reformers, medical writers, sex educators, university professors, and political ideologues, all attempting to promote medical knowledge and reproductive health for the sake of a more eugenic nation.

Eugenics was actively supported by members of the professional classes, in particular intellectuals, university teachers, sociologists, and biologists, and cut across most political positions, from the fascist core of the Guomindang to the communist theories of Chen Duxiu. Cheap textbooks on heredity and genetics explained to the public the dangers of racial degeneration. Primers, self-study manuals, cheap pamphlets, and ‘ABC’ introductions to mainline eugenics were published throughout the 1920s. Hereditary principles, endowing sex with a biological responsibility for future generations, were thought to further highlight the need for social discipline. In the 1930s, eugenic discourses became increasingly common in medical circles, ‘degeneration’ and ‘racial hygiene’ being the catchwords of the day. There is little evidence, however, to show that the widespread interest in eugenic ideas was translated into actual practice before the advent of a socialist regime, although some isolated cases, such as the execution of lepers by the police in Guangdong province in the 1930s, point to a more radical approach in questions of public health during the Nanjing decade.

The Second World War, followed by the civil war between the Communist Party and the Guomindang from 1945 to 1949, was the main reason why eugenic ideas did not achieve institutional form. The Committee for the Study of Population Policies, organized by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1941, was the first official attempt to approach eugenics systematically. It recommended the segregation of physically and mentally handicapped persons from the normal population for what was called ‘cultural advancement and racial rejuvenation.’ Because people were recognized as being unequally endowed, the report advocated a differential birth-rate: ‘Thus viewed,’ said the report, ‘some individuals may have children, others not.’ The committee—whose members included Chen Da and Pan Guangdan—also encouraged the use of sterilization for the racial rejuvenation of the country and recommended that ‘(s)teps should be taken to segregate persons of hereditary defects, physical or mental, from the normal population’ (Dikotter 1998).

After the communist victory in 1949, the class bias of eugenics was systematically condemned, while genetics was denounced as ‘bourgeois science.’ As in the Soviet Union, Lysenko’s doctrine became dominant in the 1950s and 1960s while Mendelian laws of inheritance and T. H. Morgan’s chromosome theory were rejected for ideological reasons. This trend was only reversed after the accession of Deng Xiaoping to power in 1978. Medical experts and population specialists were put into powerful positions as official policies aimed at the limitation of births were initiated by the government. Besides the one-child family program, by which the government only in exceptional circumstances allows parents to have more than one or occasionally two children, an important component of these policies has been the improvement of the quality of newborn babies.

The one-child family policy has effectively prepared the terrain for a better acceptance of eugenic legislation among large sectors of the urban population: many families which are allowed to have one child only are keen to avoid ‘defective’ births themselves. A prolific medical discourse has responded to the general public’s concern for healthy offspring, a virtuous child, or even a genetically improved line of descent. Numerous pamphlets of scientific vulgarization thus dispense advice on the art of engendering a prodigy child, suggesting that the eugenist vision of the government is shared to a great extent by a population which is anxious to avoid what are called ‘inferior births.’

As the result of such consensus, local regulations have been passed virtually unopposed in a number of provinces and cities since the late 1980s. On November 25, 1988, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of Gansu Province passed the country’s first law prohibiting mentally retarded people from having children. According to the law, those mentally retarded people whose condition was either inherited or a consequence of marriage between close relatives were not allowed to have children; no mentally retarded people were allowed to get married unless they had undergone sterilization surgery; those who had married before the promulgation of the law were also to undergo sterilization surgery; and pregnant women suffering from mental retardation were required to have their pregnancies terminated. Individuals who violated the law by allowing mentally retarded people to have children would be punished by both administrative and economic means. A similar law was enacted by Liaoning province in February 1990, while Zhejiang province passed a law on the preservation of ‘eugenic health’ in June 1992 to combat the increasing incidence of ‘cretins,’ who were estimated to number more than 300,000. The Henan eugenics law of 1992 requires that if one partner in a married couple suffers from a ‘chronic mental disorder’ such as schizophrenia or manic depression, that partner shall be sterilized. The implementation of such sterilization laws at the provincial level is advanced by a system of incentives and disincentives. People who refuse to be sterilized or anyone who impedes the sterilization of another may be subject to penalties. For example, Henan’s eugenics law requires prompt reporting of those diagnozed as ‘needing to be sterilised’ who refuse to accept the operation. Differential fines for noncompliance with ‘eugenic measures’ are imposed for rural and urban residents.

Under pressure from a variety of lobbies, mainly family planning experts and geneticists, the provincial laws finally culminated in the People’s Republic of China passing eugenic legislation at the national level at the beginning of 1995. The law aims to prevent ‘inferior births’ from becoming a burden on the state and society. Renamed Maternal and Infant Health Law after protests against a preliminary draft entitled Eugenics Law (Youshengfa), it supports the systematic ‘implementation of premarital medical check-ups’ in order to detect whether one partner in a couple suffers from a ‘serious hereditary,’ venereal, or reproductive disorder, a ‘relevant mental disorder,’ or a ‘legal contagious disease’: it asserts that those ‘deemed unsuitable for reproduction’ should be urged to undergo sterilization or abortion, or to remain celibate, in order to prevent ‘inferior births.’ During pregnancy, medical testing will be compulsory and can be followed by termination if the foetus is found to have a serious disorder.

In the absence of any detailed studies by socialanthropologists and population experts, concrete information on the implementation of eugenic laws is missing. Foreign observers, however, have underlined that the implementation of eugenic legislation not only undermines the rights of the person vis-a-vis the state, but it is based on controversial if not antiquated theories of human heredity (O’Brien 1996, Lancet 1995, Nature 1994).

2. Japan

In Japan, eugenics developed gradually after modernizing intellectuals encountered evolutionary theories in the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer in the 1880s. In the wake of the Meiji revolution (1868), science and technology were perceived to be the key to national defence in an era of intense imperialism. As in many other countries, racial improvement became a popular notion among leading intellectuals who viewed the world in terms of a ‘struggle for existence’ among competing ‘races.’ Belief that individual reproductive decisions should be controlled by the state in the name of collective health flourished during the first half of the twentieth century. In the 1910s, works on eugenics by Umino Kotoku, Nagai Hisomu, and Saito Shigesaburo appeared, closely related to an increased interest in birth control, sex education, and public health.

Specialized journals were also established in the 1920s, both the Yuzenikkusu (Eugenics) and the Yusei Undo (Eugenics Movement) being crucial in spreading eugenic discourse to a wider audience. As in China, belief in the power of heredity led many followers of the eugenics movement to view venereal disease, tuberculosis, leprosy, and alcoholism as heritable conditions which should be strictly administered by the state in order to prevent the increase of ‘inferior offspring.’ Eugenics became part of such widely discussed themes as evolution, degeneration, civilization, and modernity, and touched on a wide variety of emerging fields like maternity, psychiatry, criminology, public health, and sex education.

In Japan, too, the orthodox Mendelian roots of eugenics were often disregarded in favor of a more flexible approach to eugenics which emphasized belief in the transmission of acquired characteristics. Contrary to China, however, eugenic ideas provided a rationale for welfare policies with deep institutional and legal ramifications. A first attempt to implement eugenic legislation took the form of an appeal to the Imperial Diet in the early 1920s (Matsubara 1998). Proposed by the New Women’s Federation, the petition sought to legally restrict the marriage of individuals with venereal diseases as a means of strengthening the nation. Despite support from leading intellectuals as well as members of the Imperial Diet, the petition was not adopted. Only in 1934–5 was a Racial Eugenics Protection Bill introduced by the Imperial Diet, which proposed the sterilization of persons with mental and physical diseases deemed to be hereditary, including serious criminals who were claimed to transmit their ‘bad traits’ to their descendants. The Japanese Association of Racial Hygiene, on the other hand, campaigned for a eugenics law limiting sterilization to patients with hereditary diseases. Headed by Nagai Hisomu, the group drafted a sterilization bill in 1936 based on the German Sterilization Law of 1933. Only in 1940, however, was a National Eugenic Bill passed, its enactment leading to heated controversy among government representatives and members of the medical professions. Objections came both from nationalists defending the need of the state to increase its population and from geneticists questioning the scientific validity of eugenics. While the Bill came into effect a year later, the government was compelled to prevent the enforcement of eugenic sterilization: by the end of the Second World War, only 454 operations were performed under the eugenics law.

After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, questions of ‘racial survival’ surfaced again in the context of occupation by the Allied Powers (Matsubara 1998). As abortion was legalized, a broad consensus emerged within medical and political circles around the need to prevent not only ‘inferior descendants,’ but also the reproduction of patients deemed to have ‘infectious diseases’ such as leprosy and nonhereditary mental disorders in the name of ‘eugenic protection.’ Supported by conservative advocates as well as socialist politicians, the Eugenics Protection Law (Yusei hogoho) of 1948 gave legitimacy to eugenic sterilisation without the consent of the patients considered. The law remained the foundation for eugenic sterilisations throughout the second half of the twentieth century: involuntary operations reached over 16,500 cases by 1996, while a further 1,500 leprosy sufferers segregated in sanatoriums had been sterilized with consent by 1992. In 1996, the law was finally revised and renamed Maternal Protection Law, while the eugenic clauses on sterilization and abortion were deleted. Even after these legal changes, however, the government refused to critically examine the practice of compulsory sterilization on eugenic grounds, despite the severe criticisms from a variety of civil rights groups (Norgren 1998).

3. Conclusion

The legacy of eugenics is still highly visible today in many countries, including in the less researched parts of the world outside ‘the West.’ As the examples of China and Japan demonstrate, eugenic ideas elaborated during the first half of the twentieth century continue to carry scientific and legal credibility. While crude eugenic programs sponsored by the state may have become less frequent today, eugenic ideas are prominent in contemporary debates about new medical techniques for isolating and manipulating genes. During the heyday of eugenics, assumptions about ‘race,’ gender, and class pervaded genetic research: with the revolution in human genetics since the end of the twentieth century, social and political factors continue to exert formidable influences on scientific research. Eugenic laws have been passed at the provincial and national level in China, a country which has curbed the reproductive freedoms and civil rights of individuals on behalf of the ‘public good.’ Even in democratic countries like Japan, however, marginalized people may be treated in a discriminatory way, as social prejudice and economic interest influence the genetic information made available to families, employers, hospitals, insurance companies, or welfare systems. As much as ‘ethnicity’ is a concept which is sometimes used as a thinly disguised substitute for the outdated notion of ‘race,’ discredited eugenic ideas have thrived on rather than suffered from the revolution in human genetics in some parts of the world: East Asia is no exception.


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