Update 1: First Stop, Boston

It is my first time to go on a research trip and to visit various archival collections in person. It is quite a challenge for me since I have to arrange for a lot of different things, such as the availability of different archives, transportation, and housing. I’m now about to start working at the second stop on my archival trip. During the past two weeks and a half, I was working in archives in Boston. I visited Houghton Library at Harvard University, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Countway Library for Medicine and Congregational Library at Boston. I mainly looked at Foochow Mission of  American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). It is really nice to go back to Boston to look at the archives. I was working a little bit in the Houghton Library archives at the end of the fall semester and this preliminary work helps me to locate a greater amount of materials fairly easy this time.

the view outside of Houghton Library

the view outside of Houghton Library

During my research in Boston, I’ve encountered a lot of very interesting materials. I read through the hospital reports, medical missionaries correspondence, board publications, scattered pamphlets, and memoranda of individual missionaries. These materials presented a fascinating world with diverse experiences in it. It was a lot of fun to read about various different medical cases, some minor some grave, and female medical missionaries’ comments on these cases, even though some pictures of the patients would give a shiver when I turned the pages unprepared for them. They sometimes expressed great sympathy about Foochow women’s experiences while sometimes assumed a rather culturally superior view of local practices. They used these cases to address social critiques on some of the cultural norms among the Foochow people and employed their medical profession to “cure the body and the soul,” attempting to spread evangelical thoughts among the locals. On the local side, people sometimes rejected or compromised Western medical treatment while sometimes, recovering after the Western treatment, showed great gratitude by sending tablets with inscriptions of praises on them. It always makes me laugh when female medical missionaries misunderstood Chinese medical conceptualizations which people in Foochow today still have. It also makes me sorrowful when I saw Kate C. Woodhull, the first ABCFM female physician to China, described the horrors of the Boxer Rebellion and the death of her fellow missionaries due to the riots.

reading room of Congregational Library

reading room of Congregational Library

I also encountered some difficulties. I still have not a substantial amount of materials that addressed female medical missionaries view about professionalism. Some of my current materials support my premises while others contradict them. Moreover, the description of the medical cases was fairly general; very few passages presented details of how female medical missionaries treated the patients, which made it hard for me to analyze how the gender norms played out in medical encounters. I hope my further search in the ABCFM and Methodist Episcopal Mission archives may reveal more information concerning these two aspects. Meanwhile, I would also try to better arrange my time to do more secondary reading along the way — eight to nine hours of work in the reading room six days a week just makes it hard for me to do extra readings in the evening!

For this coming week, I will be doing research in the Special Collections at Smith College. I will be reading a medical missionary’s diary and I am excited to see what she was going to say about her work.

Harvard Medical School where Countway Library is located

Harvard Medical School where Countway Library is located


  1. Katie Wang says:

    Hi Yutong,

    It seems so wonderful to see archival collections in person. You had a pleasant summer.

    Those medical cases related to Foochow that you mentioned made me think about the importance of religion and spirits regarding to the ‘physical’ therapy. As for the Chinese traditional medical care, how did those people think about it ? What do you think is the reason behind? It is such an interesting topic.

    Best wishes to your research! ——Katie Wang

  2. Yutong Zhan says:

    Hi Aaron,

    Thank you so much for your thoughts! I hope that your research is going well and you are enjoying Belfast. The tablet inscriptions were usually a phrase consisted of four Chinese characters. The inscriptions I’ve seen mostly praised the medical skills of the female missionaries by comparing them with the legendary doctors in ancient Chinese history. The tablets, which were meant to be hung on the buildings — usually at the entrance of the house, expressed the patients’ gratitude and served also as a means of showing other local people of the legitimacy and efficacy of Western medical practices. The tablets themselves were also a marker of the social status because most of the time, it was the wealthy family that would send forth a tablet. So the tablets did have more meanings than just an act of gratitude. For the sources’ location, that’s a very inspirational question! The locations of the sources I’ve seen so far makes sense to me as ABCFM’s home board was located in Boston and the reports, publications, personal memoranda and the incoming correspondence of missionaries should mostly end up in Boston. But your question really inspires me to look at the sources’ background! I will definitely pay more attention to the archives’ background to see whether there is any anomaly.

    Thanks again for your comments! I would love to see more about how your research develop along the way. Good Luck!


  3. achiggins says:

    Hi Yutong,

    I commend you for your hard work, though I do hope you take some more time to space it all out–both for your own well-being, and to help new ideas percolate in your head!

    This is such a fascinating topic. I am a tad bit curious about the relational dynamics between former patients of the medical missionaries, and the missionaries themselves. Specifically, are the tablet inscriptions simply messages of gratitude? And at least in Foochow, do tablets like that have a special meaning outside of one’s giving thanks to another? I certainly couldn’t handle delving into graphic patient journals, but your research must be oh so fascinating.

    Seeing the different places you’ve traveled and will be traveling to begs the question as to why the documents are where they are. That’s not a direct question, per se, I’m just always interested in the lives of archival documents–especially since the movement of documents can be very political!

    Keep up the good work, and best wishes going ahead! — Aaron Higgins