Redefining Madness

Flaherty Lecture brings a changing mental health landscape to light.

Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Flaherty Lecture brings a changing mental health landscape to light

Until the early 1900s, those dubbed insane in China were generally treated at home, confined to a familiar environment with family. Their madness was not deeply understood, and the scope of what traits a person had to possess to be considered insane was greatly limited. All that changed at the advent of the 20th century in Beijing, when a shift occurred and Chinese society began moving these individuals from the confines of their homes to public institutional facilities.

An examination of this change—in policy and perception—lay at the heart the recent Donald W. Flaherty Lecture in Asian Studies, delivered by Emily Baum. Baum, an assistant professor of history at UC Irvine, specializes in the study of modern China, with a particular interest in illness and social deviance. Her lecture, “Madness Restrained and Unrestricted: Police, Families and the Beijing Municipal Asylum,” brought to light myriad facets of the evolution of the understanding and treatment of Beijing’s and China’s mentally ill.

In the Stern Center Great Room, Baum detailed the role that Beijing police and local families played in helping institutions redefine what constituted madness and how the years gave way to a broadening definition of the condition under the spotlight of professional care. Through a parsing of police records from the Beijing Municipal Asylum, Baum discovered how the meanings associated with what was seen as madness underwent several subtle yet significant transformations, often influenced by routine interaction between municipal authorities and the families and neighbors of the patient.

Baum has published articles in such journals as Asian Review of World Histories and Twentieth-Century China, and her book reviews have appeared in such publications as Journal of Asian Studies, History of Psychiatry, Los Angeles Review of Books and Times Literary Supplement. Her book, The Invention of Madness: State, Society, and the Beijing Insane, 1900-1937, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press, examines the history of insanity in early 20th-century Beijing.

The Donald W. Flaherty Lecture in Asian Studies was established in 1984 by Donald W. Flaherty with the mission to bring scholars and others to campus to speak on Asian-related issues. The series is supported by a fund established in 1987 by students, colleagues and friends of Donald Flaherty, a pioneer in the development of Asian studies at Dickinson.


Published November 14, 2017