Barefoot Doctor: A Novel

Xue, Can

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction
Secondary Category: Literature /

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony
  • Date of entry: Sep-06-2022
  • Last revised: Sep-06-2022


Yun Village, China is a remote town near the mountains. Its 2,438 inhabitants are mostly poor but remarkably optimistic and stoic. Ancestors from the spirit realm visit the hamlet and roam the mountainside. The living and the dead appear to communicate with relative ease. Mrs. Yi (Chunxiu), more than fifty years old, is the village's vibrant "barefoot doctor" - an essentially self-taught healthcare provider with only six months of formal medical training under her belt. Yi's husband is quite supportive of her work. Their only child died at age two.

Yi is revered for her knowledge, patience, and compassion. Most afflictions she treats are chronic diseases, but Yi also delivers babies, cares for children with measles, and counsels a woman who attempted suicide. The therapeutic benefit of attentive, concerned listening along with reassurance are evident in her interactions with patients.

Traditional Chinese herbs, acupuncture, and Western medicine are all in the healer's armamentarium. Yi cultivates herbs and also forages on the mountain for other useful plants. She supposes, "Sickness and herbs are lovers" (p244). As Yi grows older, the need for a successor - a devoted, younger barefoot doctor - is always on her mind. She successfully identifies candidates, then inspires and mentors them.


With a dream-like setting and spiritual tone that includes psychics and deceased ancestors, this affectionate story explores the joy and duty of being a healer. The barefoot doctor's connection to the community is loving and durable. Her link to the land is passionate and philosophical. The relationship between plants and people is unique - something both medicinal and mystical.

The influence of the dead on the living, power of placebo, essence of empathy, and importance of dying with dignity are addressed by the author who, when younger, worked for awhile as a barefoot doctor.


The novel was first published as Yizhong kuaiyao xiaoshide zhiye (An Almost Vanishing Profession) in 2018.
Translated by Karen Gernont and Chen Zeping.
Can Xue is the pen name of Deng Xiaohua.

Primary Source

Barefoot Doctor: A Novel


Yale University Press

Place Published

New Haven & London



Page Count


Secondary Source