The Barefoot Doctor

A graphic novel-in-progress. Scroll through pages using the arrows on the left and right of the images.

I learned about my grandmother by reading her.

At seventy-seven years old, she is almost completely deaf. She has trouble parsing my Americanized Chinese accent, so our conversations are like two ships passing in the night: I shout at her, she (mis)interprets what I say, replies in her thick Henan dialect, on and on, so that we always talk about something other than what we really mean.

Luckily, some years ago, she committed to putting her own life to pen and paper. Recently, she finished her memoir recounting her poverty-stricken childhood and eventual career as a barefoot doctor and midwife in Communist China. Besides her personal tragedies (nearly everyone in her immediate family dies before she comes of age), she tells stories of the lives of the women whose babies she helped to deliver.

These are not pleasant stories. She tells the story of her peasant mother attempting to break and bind her feet as a toddler. Of dismembering the body of an infant inside the womb of its mother so that the woman could survive, in the absence of adequate medical facilities. Of washing the maggot-infested prolapsed uterus of a peasant woman. Of her marriage with my grandfather as an unromantic pairing of convenience.

How do I translate such pain? How is it remembered across the generations? It is almost impossible for me to deal with it in art, but art is the only way I know to encounter the future while remembering the past. In the Chinese political environment of silencing, this is difficult. Although not all my work is about my grandmother, or China, this is my root: the voices of the women in my family speak to me across the years.  I wander far and circle back.

The history of barefoot doctors in China is complex. Instigated as part of Mao Zedong’s reform plans in the 1960s, the program selected and gave basic healthcare training to young peasants from rural communes. These young people (including my grandmother), worked part-time in the fields, and part-time in dispensing public health reform, basic healthcare, and traditional healing to their communities. Some were able to further their education and become village doctors, or fully licensed doctors. Despite their contributions, former barefoot doctors (now in their 70s and 80s), complain of not receiving proper compensation and care by the state in their old age.

I make art to tell stories.

I make art to remember.

I make art to translate across barriers.

I make art to familiarize the foreign and make foreign the familiar.

I make art to talk to my grandmothers.

This is a story of identity, loss, replication, replacement. It is my story. It is my grandmother’s story. It is your story.

foot binding.jpeg