Yang Chongrui was an early graduate of the medical school that preceded the famed Peking Union Medical College (PUMC), after which she studied overseas in the Public Health Department at The Johns Hopkins Medical College in Baltimore. In 1929, Yang started the first midwife training school in Beijing, located at Qilin Hutong, which was known as a gathering place for midwives in Beijing. According to a local legend, Qilin (the Chinese unicorn) delivered babies.
The first thing Yang did at the school was to train 360 operating midwives in turn. Those midwives averaged 54 years old and were almost all illiterate. They were taught to cut their nails, wash their hands with soap, and sterilize at every step to avoid infections. At the same time, the students were trained to handle emergencies.
Dr. Yang’s most well-known student and later colleague and close friend at PUMC was Dr. Lin Qiaozhi. Beginning in 1921, Lin was one of a group of students in the work - study program at the First Medical Clinic in Beijing under Dr. Yang Chongrui’s leadership. Together, teacher and students visited local families to investigate epidemic disease prevention, checked hygiene at public places like restaurants and bathing houses, provided check-ups and treatment for prostitutes, sterilized homes with contagious patients, promoted preventive health knowledge, and treated minor wounds and illnesses.
After Lin graduated from PUMC in 1929 and joined the faculty, she was invited by Yang to teach the science of childbirth at her new midwife school. The two women enjoyed a special friendship. Although Yang was ten years older than Lin, both were believers in Christ, with the same PUMC background, and equally devoted to women’s health and birth control.
Dr. Yang was also one of the early advocates for birth control in China. Both Yang and Lin realized that the percentage of obstetric diseases compared with other diseases for Chinese women was surprisingly high. Lin had seen many of her patients suffer from constant child bearing, resulting in prolapsed uteruses. Yang told Lin that according to her statistics, the majority of the women had four or five children, while some had 15. The eldest mother was 54 and the youngest 15.
Yang and Lin discussed the health problems of the women and the babies, the poor state of the national economy and people’s livelihoods, after which Dr. Yang decided to invite the world-famous population control advocate Margaret Sanger to China for a series of lectures on birth control in order to draw society’s attention to the issue. Unfortunately, the speaking tour was not well received. Wealthy Chinese men with high social status then took pride in multiple wives and concubines and a houseful of children and grandchildren. They considered birth control nonsense and ignored it completely. And the grassroots Chinese had neither the understanding nor access to hear anything about it.
In late 1957, after Mao Zedong had criticized theories and advocates of population control, Yang was labeled a political “rightist” and banned from the medical field. But her legacy was sustained. In 1958, motivated by the continuing concern for women as well as a desire to honor her friend Yang, Dr. Lin mobilized all the medical forces in Beijing to conduct an obstetric survey of nearly 800,000 women. She chose cervical cancer, the most common killer among Chinese women, as the focus of the survey. It was a huge project and the impact of the survey was highly significant. In a culture where women were treated as secondary humans or worse, the attention paid to their health was indeed a tremendous breakthrough. Soon after that, big cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou followed suit. After the survey, the ratio of cervical cancer patients dropped from 646.17 to 90.46 per each 100,000 women. Expectant mothers began to receive medical supervision and enjoy maternity leave.
Yang was exonerated in the post-Mao period and today the China Medical Foundation administers the Yang Chongrui Mother and Childcare Fund, sponsoring seminars and lectures by famous specialists and giving awards from to medical personnel who make exceptional contributions in the field.
- Guowei Wright, “Lin Qiaozhi: The Steady Pulse of a Quiet Faith,” Carol Lee Hamrin, ed., with Stacey Bieler, Salt and Light: Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China (Eugene, OR., Wipf and Stock Publishers, Pickwick Publications, 2008).
- Zhang Qinping, Lin Qiaozhi (2005; repr., Beijing: Baihua wenyi chubanshe [Baihua literature and art publishing house], 2006).