This study, which traces the history of the introduction of Western obstetrical medicine in Vietnam, is a timely contribution to the field of colonial gender studies. The work’s main contention is that, contrary to the assumption that colonial medicine was a one-way exchange whereby the colonized passively submitted themselves to Western medical practices, childbirth medicalization in Vietnam entailed a process of intense negotiation between the two sides. This negotiation plays out most vividly in what the author refers to as ‘a plural system of maternity services’ (p. 1), involving both French and indigenous models. The chief illustration of medical pluralism discussed at great length in the book is the evolving role of the native midwives known as bà-mu in the modernization of childbirth in Vietnam. Prompted by the need to combat high indigenous infant mortality brought on by the unhygienic ‘traditional’ and ‘primitive’ methods of the bà-mu, the colonial government initially sought to replace them with Western-trained indigenous midwives. To this end, maternity hospitals were established in cities with the dual objective of relocating birthing in a clinical setting and providing modern midwifery training to Vietnamese young women (see Chapters 2, 3, and 4). However, the Western-trained midwives who managed to gain a foothold in urban centres met with strong resistance among women in rural areas, who preferred the more culturally congenial service of the bà-mu over the imported alien birthing methods. This failure led the French medical establishment to work out a compromise in which the bà-mu were given a short training in obstetrics so that they could provide their clients with a mixed form of care that combined Western basic hygiene and indigenous rituals. In addition to modernizing birthing practices, the colonial government also propagated scientific childcare to Vietnamese women, whose traditional mothering methods were deemed harmful to children. Chapter 5 examines the introduction of puériculture in Vietnam, which taught native mothers a regular breastfeeding schedule, infant cleanliness, and the monitoring of infants’ weight and height. This modern knowledge of child-rearing was also made part of the curriculum of girls’ schools to introduce female students to basic notions of infant hygiene, infant feeding, and the prevention of infant diseases. The last chapter discusses the initiatives taken by both the government and religious groups to improve native working-class children’s welfare through the setting up of crèches, day-care nurseries, and kindergartens during the Depression era. The strength of the book lies in its use of both French and Vietnamese sources to illustrate the cultural differences between colonizers and colonized over childbirth, mothering, and infant care. If the study has indeed achieved the goal of challenging the assumed passivity of the Vietnamese in their reception of Western knowledge, another related assumption that likewise needs deconstructing is the view of native ‘traditions’ (often reduced to rituals and superstitions) as inherently incompatible with (read inferior to) modern (read Western) knowledge, as seen in many of the French sources quoted in the study. The questioning of this assumption could further strengthen the argument of medical pluralism. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
French Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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