Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects, and Eugenics in China
New York: Columbia University Press, 1998
Francis Galton said that the first country to undertake a dedicated program of eugenics would conquer the world. It shouldn’t be surprising that a country ruled by the most intelligent race in the world would realize that he was right. Researcher Frank Dikötter relies on the original sources to tell us about the history of eugenics in China and the cultural influences of its ideas in Imperfect Conceptions.
Early Chinese Attitudes Toward Childbirth, Sexuality
The first three fourths of the book deals with attitudes in China in the centuries before the communist takeover. Much of it is speculation. Only a minority of a minority (the coastal elites) ever wrote anything and left a record of their thoughts. The most interesting thing about some of the Chinese attitudes is how similar many of them are to European ideas.
They believed that too much masturbation or sex “wastes” semen and produces deformed offspring. Europeans for centuries didn’t like masturbation either. Is there an evolutionary reason for this? Perhaps it serves as a substitute for sex and is bad for the gene pool. Or maybe making the masses prudish is an evolutionary strategy of the elites. We also have to be open to the possibility that there is no Darwinian reason at all; when we see sperm shooting out of a penis it’s natural to think that the supply is getting depleted.
Sex was never treated as a source of pleasure. When writing on it appeared it was always to tell a morality tale or give advice on producing healthy children. Writers warned that if a man was drunk during conception the children would be dim-witted. A story is told about a young man who had homosexual relations with a neighbor, turned into a woman and ended up pregnant. In the 16th century, pediatrician Wan Quan claimed:
In ancient times, women lived in separate quarters and did not have sexual intercourse with their husbands after they became pregnant, hence they had no difficulty during delivery. Many of their children were born virtuous and suffered from few disorders. Today, people show no restrictions and indulge in their desires to their hearts’ content . . . there are children born with numerous disorders, some entirely covered with small pox pustules: all are the result of excessive sexual congress.
Dikötter points to a fascinating difference between Western and Eastern approaches to knowledge. While Western scientists aimed to stand out and gain recognition for their discoveries, Chinese intellectuals were more interested in allying with a school of thought and paying homage to their intellectual forefathers. This is consistent with a whole host of East/West differences.
By the time of the Republican era (1911–1949), Chinese intellectuals, like their Western counterparts, believed in eugenics and were enamored with the idea of “science” being mankind’s savior. In the 1930s Shaanxi province’s governor endorsed a paper titled “Draft for the Implementation of Shaanxi’s Race Reform.” It called for government regulation of marriage and the state ensuring “superior births.” Some upheld Nazi practices as worthy of emulation. It was only the Japanese invasion and then the Chinese civil war that stopped a full blown eugenics program by mid-century.
Eugenics as State Policy
Not many rational policies were implemented during the Mao era. He may have led the most impractical instance of putting egalitarian ideals into practice in all of human history. By the 1970s, nurses were promoted to doctors, and doctors were being relegated to cleaning windows. Thankfully, the much more sane Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978. The author writes:
Although the one-child family program, by which the government only in exceptional circumstances allows parents to have more than one or occasionally two children, is relatively well known, an important component of these policies has been the improvement of the quality of new-born babies. The control of the ‘quality’ of births has been regarded in China as being no less important than the control of ‘quantity’: both have regularly been heralded as the twin goals in the control of reproduction since 1978.
The first conference of the China Genetics Institute was held that year. Government officials and medical professionals supported making eugenic research a top priority. All policies dealing with reproductive health now exist within a eugenics framework. A couple isolated voices protest, but according to the author, suggesting that there’s much diversity of opinion on this issue would be misleading. Scientific journals, like those in the West, publish articles on the importance of heredity in determining intelligence. Studies are done showing that retardation also depends on genes. A detailed report in Fujian province showed that fertility trends were dysgenic. There’s no New Left lobby to block this research.
The government has waged a war on inbreeding, popular in rural areas and amongst some minorities. The author makes the compelling argument that even if much of this battle may be based on solid science, the crusade serves a symbolic purpose. Cosmopolitan elites across the world tend to see those practicing consanguineous relations as holdouts against modernity.
Legitimizing the reach of the government into families and lineages (the battle against cousin marriage) endows society with unprecedented powers of intervention and regulation into the personal lives of individuals in the name of public health.
In 1995, the famous Eugenics Law was passed, making prenatal screening mandatory and “encouraging” the unfit not to reproduce nationwide. Many provinces have their own, much stricter laws. Support for these programs reaches into the highest levels of government. Party officials who are eugenicists have centered around former Premier Li Peng (quoted as saying “Idiots breed idiots”), an outspoken advocate of good breeding. He has close ties to former Minister of Public Health Chen Minzhang, the man who introduced the Eugenics Law. In 1996 the government is alleged to have moved towards a policy of encouraging the more fit to breed. Officials are aware that this is unpopular with the “international community” (i.e., white elitist do-gooders) and not many details are available. Numbers on how many people have been sterilized are hard to come by.
Especially encouraging is the overwhelming support that these policies have among the mid-level elites. The journal Population and Eugenics ran an article called “The Population Policy in Singapore” that advocated that the Chinese follow Singapore in encouraging the higher classes to have more children. A different eugenics journal warned about the “bitter wine fermented by opposing eugenics” by showing two deformed lovers and their even more hideous offspring.
Improving the gene pool isn’t all that the Chinese government is doing to ensure more healthy births. Steps are taken to make sure that pregnant women have their medical needs met. At the level of consumer culture, claims are made that reading to a child in the womb or having the fetus listen to classical music can improve its intelligence. Similar ideas also exists in the West. People can’t do anything about their genes, so it makes sense that a market exists to improve the quality of children by environmental interventions. Like in pre-modern times, women’s thoughts and emotions are thought to determine the health of the child. Pregnant women are encouraged to read intellectually stimulating books and listen to classical music while avoiding romance novels and pop songs.
The concept of race doesn’t get much attention in China, but one author does claim that the twentieth century will see a competition between “whites” and “yellows” for world domination, with the winner being partly determined by who masters genetic engineering technology (Richard Lynn’s theory).
The idea that the collective is more important than the individual extends to other related areas of health. Mercy killing for sick newborns are “rarely seen to pose any particular ethical problem.” A biologist belonging to the Chinese Academy of Social Science points to the cost of caring for severely handicapped infants and the pain that they cause their families.
While there’s no equivalent to the Western idea of life being sacred from the moment of conception, extreme medical experiments are frowned upon. For example, it is claimed that during the Cultural Revolution a chimp was impregnated with human sperm in an attempt to create a new race for military use. The ape died three months after the start of her pregnancy. No mention is made of whether research was done on the fetus. There’s a story of the Soviets having conducted similar experiments without success.
At the end of the book the Dikötter deals with the ethical issues of eugenics and gives his own opinion on the feasibility of such programs. I wish he would’ve left this out. Up until this point he came across as a neutral researcher. Then, he starts to claim that eugenics may not work because traits like intelligence and most diseases are polygenic (determined by more than one gene). Of course that’s true, but if no traits determined by more than one gene could be selected for, then animal domestication couldn’t work. Nobody claims that intelligence in dogs is determined by a single gene, but different breeds differ and can be made smarter or stupider. He also worries about eugenics colluding with patriarchy. Hearing a man come from the race that is going extinct due to women’s liberation worrying about male dominance is laughable. “Better extinct than politically incorrect” is the rallying cry of the modern liberal.
A World Without Liberalism
A high IQ population, in which the best minds aren’t systematically destroyed by egalitarian evil, does exist out there. That should give us hope. And if there’s a silver lining to the decline of the West, it’s that our governments won’t be able to feminize the one billion Chinese the way they did the Germans and Japanese (putting them on the road to oblivion) and are seeking to do to the Muslims and Russians.
For more information on Chinese eugenics, see my review of Richard Lynn’s Eugenics.
From HBD Books, July 24, 2009