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Who wears a mask? The global pandemic and a brief history of masks in Republican China

Published 20 June 2020 - Zhu Jing

Amidst the current Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of wearing masks has become a topic of international public concern. During the early stages of this global pandemic, wearing masks was mostly associated with certain regional identities in Asia. Yet, as Zhu Jing shows in this latest contribution to the GHCC pandemic mini-series, wearing masks as a public health precaution has a very long and global history. Perhaps surprisingly, the introduction of masks in Republican China in the first half of the twentieth century was a direct outflow of interactions with, and influences from, the West.

Satire à la 1930s

A man wearing a mask sits on an armchair, smoking a cigarette. An elegantly dressed lady, also smoking, perches on the edge of the chair, asking: ‘Dearest, why are you wearing a mask today? Are you preventing an epidemic?’ He replies: ‘No! I’m just worried that you keep kissing me!’

Figure 1, “Cartoon of wearing a mask,” Manhuajie漫画界(World of Cartoon), 5 (1936): 25.

This satirical illustration of mask-wearing practice illustrates that wearing masks has a very long history. More recently, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the issue of wearing a mask has become a topic of public concern. Whether wearing masks is useful and whether it should be compulsory in public even became globally debated topics. During the early stages of this global pandemic, wearing masks was mostly associated with certain regional identities in Asia by some Europeans. It seems that some Europeans had quite strong responses towards wearing a mask.

Spending the lock-down in Coventry

During the lockdown, I stayed in the staff flats on the campus of the University of Warwick, and I only went out for a walk or sometimes for buying essentials in the campus grocery store and in the Cannon Park Tesco’s. I encountered some unpleasant moments during the shopping experience while wearing a mask.

One time, when I took my stuff to the till for checking out, a member of the supermarket staff at the check-out desk asked me to step back one metre, and to wait to be called until she finished scanning all my items; by contrast I found she did not ask other people who did not wear a mask to step back. It is hard for me to know what exactly was in the person’s mind. I could only guess what had happened. Was it because I was wearing a mask? Shouldn’t she feel more secure with customers wearing masks? It seems people from different geographical and cultural backgrounds hold different opinions on and react differently to wearing masks.

Western origins of masks in China?

I wondered whether Asian people had always been more inclined to wear masks during a pandemic, and when and how this had come about. As a historian of China, I decided to do some preliminary researches on the history of wearing masks in Republican China (1912-1949). I typed the keyword ‘口罩(mask)’ in the database of Minguo qikan shuju ku (Periodicals of Republican China), and quite a few papers pertaining to masks were listed.

During the Republican period, Chinese doctors, educators, officials, policemen, and artists published their reflections, opinions, and suggestions on wearing masks in a variety of periodicals for citizens, women, and students. Due to several wars from the 1920s to the 1940s in China, including the second Sino-Japanese war, and the Civil war, people suffered from polluted and even poisonous gases. Wearing ‘masks for the prevention of poisoning’ (防毒口罩) was promoted. At a time with limited supplies, several papers taught people how to make a simplified mask: by dipping the gauzein a liquid substance containing urotropine, sodium acetate, sodium carbonate and glycerine.[1] These guidelines for making masks with this chemical mixture suggests that the practice of making masks was influenced by the West, rather than a traditional practice of China.

World War I masks as models

In another translated paper, the masks used during the war in the UK, France and US were introduced to Chinese readers. For example, in Figure 2, we see an example of a mask initially used in the UK, and in Figure 3, we can see more complicated English facial masks used during the war. These examples demonstrate the Western influence in the uses of masks during the interwar era in China.

Figure 2,“English mask” in “化学战争之防御the Prevention of Chemical War,”Fangkong Yuekan防空月刊(Monthly Periodical of Air Defence), 5 (1937): 73.

Figure 3, “English facial masks” in as above, p. 75.

Mask for preventing an epidemic

Masks for preventing an epidemic (防疫口罩) were another genre in Republican China. Tang Yunzhong, a doctor from Shanghai, wrote an article with his opinions on wearing masks in Shanghai. During the epidemic outbreak of meningitis and scarlatina in Shanghai around 1930, people started to wear masks:

As people started to panic (lit. ‘turned pale at the mention of a tiger’), a lot of people started to wear black masks to cover their mouth and nose in the streets and lanes, so as to prevent an epidemic.[2] 


The author also wondered who invented this practice of wearing masks to fight against the epidemic. Wearing a mask was said to imitate the practice in European and American countries, although he remained suspicious as he did not see it when he travelled abroad. He concluded his piece by casting doubt on the efficacy of wearing a mask. Clearly, in the past, too, the efficacy of wearing a mask was called into question. Wearing a mask was a practice that emerged locally out of the fear of infection during the epidemic. However, the promotion of masks used during the interwar period provides the foundations for wearing masks during the current pandemic.


Several artists satirized the social distancing caused by wearing masks. For example, in Figure 4, the cartoon was entitled “the usage of mask”. A lady with a mask covering her nose and mouth and a man in suit sit together on the sofa, and the man asked ‘there isn’t any smell in the room, why are you wearing a mask?”, then the lady replied “That’s how I prepared to have a kiss with you.” The artist seemed to satirize the contradictions and embarrassment caused by wearing masks.

Figure 4, Peng Di朋弟, “The Usage of Mask,” Liyan Huakan立言画刊(Pictorial Periodical of Making a Speech), 183 (1942): 16.

The uses of masks in China cannot be separated from the influence of the wars in the 1930s and 1940s. We see the global circulation on the methodology and practice of making and wearing masks. The fear of infection among citizens in big cities like Shanghai played an important role in the practice of wearing masks during the outbreak of infectious disease. Although the idea of wearing masks to prevent a pandemic emerged from within local communities, the introduction of Western masks for preventing poisonous gases during the war paved the way for the use of masks during epidemics in Republican China.

Clearly, not only do practices like wearing masks to prevent infection and social distancing have long histories, so do discussions about their origins and doubts over their efficacy. But, perhaps even more interesting: these practices and discussions do not originate in a single place: they are historical and contemporary practices that emerged not from one single region, but out of early twentieth-century global interactions.

Zhu Jing is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of History, University of Warwick, sponsored by the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation from July 2018 to July 2020. She is the author of Visualising Ethnicity in the Southwest Borderlands: Gender and Representation in Late Imperial and Republican China (Brill, 2020).

[1] “The Methodology of Making a Mask of Preventing Poisonous Air 防毒口罩之制法,” Zhonghua Zhoukan 中华周刊 (Weekly Periodical of China), 591 (1937 ): 4-5; “The Methodology of Making a Simplified Mask of Preventing Poisonous Air 简易防毒口罩制法,” Yaoyou 药友 (Friends of Drug), 8 (1937): 10-11.

[2] Tang Yunzhong 唐芸中, “谈谈防疫口罩 (Talking of Masks of Preventing Pandemic),” Shanghai Yiba 上海医报 (Medical Newspaper in Shanghai), 19 (1930): 181-182.