Current Research Project

The World(s) of Barefoot Doctors: Worldmaking and Global Health in the PRC

Emily Graf investigates changes in the concept of world health in the PRC. She focuses on the time period starting during the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s until the Reform and Opening Period in the early 1980s. During this time a new term and concept was shaped in China: the so-called barefoot doctor (chijiao yisheng 赤腳醫生), a term that was used from 1968-1985 and thereafter was removed from public discourses on health in China. The barefoot doctor was a local health worker with only rudimentary medical training, promoting primary healthcare and hygiene. Like the term hygiene (weisheng 衛生) (Hu 2017), the term barefoot doctor greatly changed medical knowledge in China, embodying (in theory more than in practice) a combination of “Chinese” and “Western” medical practices (Fang 2012). Their function to improve health care and hygiene in the countryside came to change what health meant not only China, but shaped health policies globally, culminating in the WHO Alma Ata Declaration on Primary Health Care in 1978. Not only the term but also the image of the barefoot doctor was used to create a concept of global health, as for example in propaganda posters in which the solidarity of the “Third World” was embodied by the barefoot doctor supporting African communities, for example. China’s medical aid to Africa did have its beginnings in 1963 in Algeria, the dispatched medical teams, however, did not consist primarily of barefoot doctors, as such posters might imply. However, the concept of the barefoot doctor did circulate around the world (Zhou 2020). The research question which leads Graf through her investigation is: How did the term, the image, the collective memory and the concept of the barefoot doctor shape the notion of “world health” in and beyond China?


Fang, Xiaoping. 2012. Barefoot Doctors and Western Medicine in China. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
Hu, Bo. 2017. “Travel and Transformation: A Diachronic Study of the Changing Concept of Weisheng in Chinese Journals, 1880–1930.” Contributions to the History of Concepts 12 (1): 1–21.
Zhou, Xun. 2020. The People’s Health: Health Intervention and Delivery in Mao’s China, 1949-1983. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020.