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Venereal Disease Prevention, Moral Welfare and Civilized Image: The Shanghai Moral Welfare Committee and the Anti-Prostitution Campaign in the Shanghai International Settlement, 191824

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This paper focuses on the Shanghai Moral Welfare Committee (renamed the Shanghai Moral Welfare League in 1920), which was founded on May 16, 1918, following a decision made by seventeen foreign religious and secular charities of the Shanghai International Settlement. In 1919–24, the Municipal Council of the Shanghai International Settlement declared a five-year timeframe for gradually shutting down all the brothels under its administration. The few previous studies of this topic by European and American scholars mainly concentrated on the aspect of venereal disease prevention and the prohibition of prostitution, as well as the construction of gender, but they paid little attention to the Moral Welfare Committee as a primary advocate of this reform. As such, this event has been misrepresented as yet another story about the modernization and spiritual salvation of Chinese society by Western municipal authorities and moral reformers. However, the Committee, created by foreign moral reformers in Shanghai, was primarily focused on white males with venereal diseases and white prostitutes, in order to reestablish an image of the Western Christian countries as civilized in Chinese eyes. Underlying this effort was a strong sense—among foreign communities in China at that time—of superiority over Chinese society in both civilization and morality. However, this arrogance was rife with insecurities; foreign reformers lacked necessary confidence in their civilized image and in their capacity to set themselves up as a model for the moral discipline and salvation of the Chinese people.


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