Killing Contagion: Suicide from Japan to Guangzhou in 1929

By Peter J. Carroll
2 Feb 2017 | Johann Jacobs Museum

This talk on occasion of the exhibition Moonlight falls into my Study examines societal anxieties sparked by the 1929 group suicide of four female student nurses in the city of Guangzhou. For many in Guangzhou and beyond, the deaths of these children of the Republican Revolution (1911) belied a general national crisis of suicide and a fatal weakness of youth, who were unable to weather the vicissitudes of modern competition and progress.

Vital statistics regarding suicide and other forms of morbidity provided a means of comparing the overall health and human capital l of different countries. In Guangzhou, many felt that their city’s suicide epidemic was a contagion originating in Japan, which was infamous for leading the world in suicide. The four women’s deaths thus sparked troubling reflections on the relative strengths of the Chinese and Japanese populations and the viability of modern progress in both nations.


Peter J. Carroll (Ph.D., Yale, 1998) specializes in the social and cultural history of 19th and 20th century China. His research interests include urban history, Chinese modernism, popular and material culture, gender/sexuality, and nationalism.
His 2006 book, Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou, 1895-1937 (Stanford University Press), was a co-winner of the 2007 Urban History Association Best Book (Non-North American) Award, and is recently out in Chinese translation. He is currently working on a book project on suicide and ideas of modern society in China during the first half of the 20th century.