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Scholar Returns to China to
Study History of Childhood Home
October 25, 1999

Guanhua Wang paints the picture masterfully. So masterfully, in fact, one can almost feel the warmth of the sun, hear the gurgling of the river flowing through Changshu County, his boyhood home, about 100 miles west of Shanghai, the commercial and industrial capital of China.

In the picture, Wang is fishing, while the peasants around him are splashing through the knee-deep water, working in the rice paddies. And dying. Slowly, but inexorably - their skin first turning a sickly yellowish-green, their stomachs becoming distended, their ability to work is compromised, then ended, by a microorganism infecting the rice fields that leads to the contraction of schistosomiasis.

Wang, an assistant professor of history at UConn, is among the first group of Chinese from Changshu County to escape the terror of schistosomiasis, which killed thousands of Chinese during the mid-20th century. He and others were saved by government leaders of the People's Republic of China who worked to find a cure for the disease, which also was prevalent in Latin America and other places where people worked in rice fields. But, Wang wonders, cured at what cost?

For 20 years, Wang says, he has watched as the ecology of his homeland, his river, die a terrible death. Today, he says, the people of Changshu County not only cannot fish in nor drink the water, they can't swim or bathe in it. Most residents now rely on wells but, aquifers being what they are, even that is tenuous.

Next month Wang will return to the region, to pore over records and further document the history of Jiangsu Province and Changshu County, and to study the history of rural health care in China. He hopes to pull together enough data to seek a grant for further study.

"The government eradicated the disease (schistosomiasis), but did the peasants' overall health improve? Were they able to work longer, harder, but catch other diseases through fertilizer or insecticides?" he wonders. Wang says it was not unusual in China for the government, especially the Communists, to help workers facing disease and other problems, but only until the workers had recovered enough to increase their production.

"The Communists were effective. They worked to clean the reeds and grass that grow in the rice fields. They gave the people medicine," he says. But, once the scourge ended, the government pulled back, leaving behind a decaying environment. And, although schistosomiasis has been eradicated, Wang says there is a higher incidence of cancer in the region than before.

Wang joined the UConn faculty in 1995, after earning his doctoral degree in East Asian history from Michigan State University. He also was a teaching assistant there and, later, an instructor, and taught at Capitol University.

"Guanhua was a great catch for our department," says Altina Waller, head of the history department. "He also brings to our department a solid connection to Asia, especially East Asia.

"Guanhua not only gives us somebody who can teach students about Asian and, especially, Chinese history, but a professor who lived that history and has the skills to bring it to life," Waller says.

Wang's specialty is the late Imperial period of China, under the Qing dynasty, and the 1905 boycott of American goods, which came several decades after passage of the first Chinese Exclusion Act - a policy that kept far fewer immigrants coming to the United States from China than from other countries.

That policy soon changed and, today, Wang says, there are so many Chinese and Chinese- Americans in the country that, he believes, the Chinese and American governments will be forced to "work out their problems," he says.

Many Chinese people come to the United States to study and work, he says, and some become American citizens. E-mail also keeps people from the two countries in close contact.

"There are some really difficult issues, conflicting interests," between the two superpowers, Wang says. But, he adds, there are many similarities too, including a shared interest in the continued security of South and Southeast Asia, finding ways to avert food and water shortages, and fighting against terrorism.

Wang is not only hopeful about the future of relations between the two countries; he is also optimistic that, eventually, something can be done to help Changshu County once again become the bucolic land he remembers as a teenager. One with jumping fish and frogs, and plenty of drinking water. But, also, one where the residents live happy, healthy and long lives.

Richard Veilleux