3 Questions: Historian Emma Teng on face masks as 公德心

As The Washington Post has reported, “at the heart of the dismal U.S. coronavirus response” is a “fraught relationship with masks.” With its Meaning of Masks series, which explores the myriad historic, creative, and cultural meanings of masks, the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS) aims to offer Americans more ways to appreciate and practice protective masking — a primary means for containing the Covid-19 pandemic.

Emma J. Teng is the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations at MIT and director of MIT Global Languages. A member of the History Section faculty, she teaches courses in Chinese and East Asian culture, migration, Asian American history, and women’s and gender studies. A Margaret MacVicar Faculty Fellow, Teng is the author of “Taiwan’s Imagined Geography: Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895” (Harvard, 2004) and “Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943” (University of California, 2013). SHASS Communications spoke with her in July.

Q: Humans use masks for a variety of purposes, ranging from protection to play to artistic performance. Can you provide some examples of masks and masking drawn from your discipline?

A: In East Asia, face masks are worn for a wide range of purposes. Combating urban pollution is a top reason for many, but it’s also common to wear a face mask to prevent allergies, for extra sun protection, or even because you want to run down to the corner shop anonymously and it’s too early to face your neighbors.

Masks can sometimes provide a little extra privacy in densely populated East Asian cities — on the subway or train, for example. In cold and flu season, many consider it prudent to wear a face mask and carry disposable hand wipes to fight contagion. And if you have a cold yourself, you are expected as a matter of basic etiquette to wear a face mask out in public, in the office, and at school in order to protect others from possible infection.

The earliest uses of face coverings in East Asia were likely for sun protection, especially for those working long hours in the fields, or for feminine modesty in eras when it was considered inappropriate for women (particularly elite women) to show their faces in the presence of men outside their family. The use of masks as a public health measure in East Asia seems to have arisen with the 1918 influenza pandemic, becoming commonplace first in Japan. After the SARS outbreak of 2002, face masks became even more common, as did other public health measures such as incorporating antimicrobial materials into such surfaces as escalator handrails.

Q: Many countries have adopted mask-wearing as a politically neutral health measure, but that hasn’t been universally true. Can you comment on the ways that culture impacts the wearing of masks?

A: In an era of globalization, it’s tempting to imagine that culture doesn’t matter, or is invisible. The pandemic, however, has made cultural differences highly visible, in some disturbing ways. Just months into the outbreak of Covid-19, I received an email from a reporter from The Los Angeles Times who was hoping to interview me on the seemingly strange (to many in the U.S.) Asian custom of wearing face masks. Closer to home, I heard people question why Asians in Somerville [Massachusetts] were wearing face masks “as if they aren’t the problem.”

With U.S. leaders referring to SARS-CoV-2 as the “Wuhan virus,” “China virus,” or even worse, the “kung flu,” Chinese immigrants and Asian Americans more broadly suddenly found themselves objects of suspicion, xenophobia, and hate. Face masks made them all the more visible. Not surprisingly, the face mask has become one symbol of the “I am not a virus” (#JeNeSuisPasUnVirus) movement that first emerged among Asians in France.

In general, I think too much has been made of the supposed difference between American “individualism” and Asian “collectivism.” However, when it comes to wearing face masks, certain aspects of culture have almost certainly been coming into play. At an MIT Starr Forum faculty panel on “When Culture Meets Covid-19,” Professor Yasheng Huang of the MIT Sloan School suggested that communitarian norms in East Asian countries support the ethos that “doing something for the community good is good for me also.”

This value is known as 公德心: in Mandarin, gongdexin; in Japanese, kootokushin; in Korean, kongdkshim; and in English, public-spiritedness.

Confucianism, a philosophy that has significantly influenced East Asian cultures, encourages respect for elders and care for young children. It would therefore be largely unthinkable to discuss sacrificing older people to the pandemic using a cost-benefit analysis. If wearing a face mask can help protect someone’s grandparents, that is your duty. It is also considered a social responsibility to do one’s part in controlling the pandemic to ensure that schools remain open for the younger generation.

Research that has emerged from East Asia over the past several months supports the efficacy of community mask wearing, even for the asymptomatic or presymptomatic, as a public health measure. Findings of a Hong Kong study published in The Journal of Infection (April 2020) showed that: “Community-wide mask wearing may contribute to the control of Covid-19 by reducing the amount of emission of infected saliva and respiratory droplets from individuals with subclinical or mild Covid-19.”

The authors of “Covid-19 and Public Interest in Face Mask Use,” which appeared in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in June, noted that: “In many Asian countries like China and Japan, the use of face masks in this pandemic is ubiquitous and is considered as a hygiene etiquette, whereas in many Western countries, its use in the public is less common.” Comparing rates of infection in East Asia with Western countries such as the United States, their study suggests that early public interest in using face masks “may be an independently important factor in controlling the Covid-19 epidemic on a population scale.”

As an Asian studies scholar, I see this as a valuable opportunity to learn from the approaches and successes of Asian countries — for example, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore — in controlling the pandemic. I hope we can observe how these countries look to science to guide their public health policy and responses to the pandemic, in addition to cultural factors that support community mask-wearing. This would be far more productive than blaming the emergence of this novel coronavirus on “weird” Chinese food habits — as we saw with the so-called bat soup controversy and the media attention to wet markets — or stigmatizing mask wearing as a “strange” Asian custom.

Q: Given this history, can you speculate on ways in which people today might explore the creative possibilities of masks that are needed for protection from the virus?

A: I see face masks as an outlet for creativity and self-expression. In early April, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally caught up and reversed its position on face masks, surgical masks were impossible to find. The first thing I did after sewing masks for my family was to reach out to my team to say, “Who needs a mask?!”

Owning a sewing machine and a large collection of fabrics, I thought sewing masks would be a useful and creative distraction. It was fun to choose fabrics reflecting my colleagues’ color and pattern preferences and to experiment with different mask designs. Reaching out to various members of the MIT community to see who might need a mask at that time of shortage helped me feel connected while working remotely. Crafting is also a good way to slow down and practice mindfulness.

Among the favorite masks I made are the one for Associate Provost Krystyn Van Vliet, which features floor plans, and the one I call “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (after the book by Maya Angelou) for Associate Professor of Literature Sandy Alexandre. I wanted to thank both of them for their invaluable contributions to our MIT communty during this difficult time.

Another fun, creative outlet was to team up with my friend Associate Dean of Engineering Anette “Peko” Hosoi to develop an online exploration of the science and craft of face masks. This project was a good way to bring together cross-disciplinary knowledge of fabrics, designs, and usage in a very practical way and share with others.

Wearing a face mask yourself is a good way to say “I care about your health” when out in public; using your creativity to make a personalized mask for someone else is another way to say you care.

Prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Editorial Team: Emily Hiestand and Kathryn O’Neill