Before the establishment of the People’s Republic [of China], medical services were almost nonexistent here, as in most agricultural areas throughout China. Malnutrition and epidemics were widespread. In 1949, China had only 20,000 doctors. Today, there are nearly 200,000, and many are working in the countryside.
But the main force of the rural healthcare system is the barefoot doctor, a paramedic like Xiao Xu who provides health and medical services on the farms. The vast improvement in rural health conditions rely greatly on modern medicine, but an innovative usage of traditional resources was China’s principle strategy against the age-old problems of disease.
[…] In 1965, in what has become his famous June 26th directive, Chairman Mao insisted that in health and medical work, the stress should be on the rural areas. China needed doctors, not only in the cities, but on the farms, where 80% of the population lived. But how could China, relatively poor in resources and medical man power, provide adequate resources for the over 600 million people in the vast countryside?
As a result of Mao’s directive, 20% of China’s medical personnel were transferred from urban to rural areas to provide health services, but their main task was to train locally based paramedics, the barefoot doctors.
The name barefoot doctor is a literal translation of the Chinese term chijiao yisheng (赤脚医生). It was originally a nickname for rural medical workers, who like other farmers, sometimes worked without shoes. Its main purpose is to symbolize the kinship between the peasants and the paramedics.