Saving Lives in Wartime China

How Medical Reformers Built Modern Healthcare Systems Amid War and Epidemics, 1928-1945


In the 1920s and 1930s most Chinese people suffered from overwhelming health problems. Epidemic diseases killed tens of millions, drought, flood and famine killed many more, and unhygienic birthing led to serious maternal and child mortality. The Civil War between Nationalist and Communist forces, and the nationwide War of Resistance against Japan (1937-1945), imposed a further tide of misery.

Troubled by this extensive trauma, a small number of healthcare reformers were able to save tens of thousands of lives, promote hygiene and sanitation, and begin to bring battlefield casualties, communicable diseases, and maternal child mortality under control. This study shows how biomedical physicians and public health practitioners were major contributors to the rise of modern China.

E-Book List price

EUR €152.00USD $188.00

Biographical Note

John Watt (Ph.D. 1967, Columbia University), is vice president of the American Bureau of Medical Advancement in China Foundation and former executive director of ABMAC. He authored The District Magistrate in Late Imperial China and edited Health Care and National Development in Taiwan, 1950-2000.

Review Quotes

"John Watt, an accomplished historian of China and former medical foundation executive shows how medical and public health practitioners saved lives and created a public health system during the turbulent decades from 1930-1945."
Ezra Vogel, Emeritus Professor, Harvard University

"John Watt offers readers a wide-ranging and intimate view of health care in 20th-century wartime China. [...] Scholars interested in public health and 20th-century Chinese history will find this book invaluable."
Tina Phillips Johnson, Assistant Professor of History and Director of Chinese Studies at St. Vincent College, The China Quarterly, 218, June 2014, pp. 582-583.

"Capturing the drama – people, disease, poverty and Japanese war – of two crucial decades of health and social transformation in China, Watt’s history covers a major lacunae in understanding China past and future."
Lincoln Chen, President of the China Medical Board

"John Watt has lived close to the rich social and medical history of twentieth century China. His book details wartime crises from 1928 to 1945, showing how the developing sciences of biomedicine and public health mitigated chaos and death and began rural China’s transformation into the modern world."
Richard N. Pierson, Jr., M.D., Professor of Clinical Medicine, Columbia University, and Chair of the Board, ABMAC Foundation

"[John Watt's] book certainly deserves Ezra Vogel's praise as the work of an accomplished historian of China and even more that of Lincoln Chen for 'capturing the drama' of the transformation of health care in China...[Watt] also gives us a new perspective on the genius of Mao who overcame the superstitions of peasants who earlier fled medical aid by making them see 'the white-coated warriors' as saviors of the revolution, and saviors of their sons and daughters unlike the Nationalists who simply felt they could conscript more bodies[...]I hope Saving Lives in Wartime China receives the wide notice it deserves."
Gerald Grant, Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education (retired), Syracuse University

"This very informative book includes dozens of photographs, maps, tables, and graphs, making
this a data-rich and thoroughly researched study that will be valuable for anyone interested in the history of public
health in general, and its delivery in modern China in particular."
J. W. Dauben, CUNY Herbert H. Lehman College, Choice September 2014

Saving Lives in Wartime China presents an impressive amount of research based on a vast number of primary sources from archives in and outside China. It’s an invaluable contribution to a small body of literature on medical science and modernity which focus the often overlooked republican era.”
Hongling Liang, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, International Political Anthropology Vol. 6 (2013) No. 2, 141-144

"[This book] provides by far the richest empirical evidence on “saving lives in wartime China” and the most persuasive arguments to date about why this mattered not just epidemiologically and demographically but also ethically. Historians of public health in East Asia, global public health, and public health policy as well as researchers and teachers of twentieth century Chinese history will appreciate both the forceful arguments and the historical specifics synthesized in Watt’s magnum opus."
Marta E. Hanson, John Hopkins University, The China Journal No. 77, 150-152

Table of contents

Introduction: Saving Lives in the Context of Disease, Poverty and War

1. Epidemics, Wars and Public Healthcare Advocacy in Nationalist China

2. Advances and Setbacks in Nationalist China's Public Health

3. Red Army Health Services in Jiangxi and on the Long March, 1927-1936

4. Japanese Invasion, Army Medicine, and the Chinese Red Cross Medical Relief Corps, 1937-1942

5. How Rigidity, Disease and Hunger Undermined the Best Efforts of Nationalist China’s Military Medical Reformers

6. Public Health Work amid the Turmoil of War, 1938-49

7. Yan’an’s Health Services under Mao Zedong’s Leadership, 1937-1945

8. Saving Lives in Wartime China: Why It Mattered


All those interested in modern medical and public health history, modern Chinese history and war, revolution and social change.

Index Card

Collection Information