Without Words: My Chinese Doctor Doll Has Come A Long Way, Baby

I had been in China for six days and had not caved once. I was looking for what I felt was the perfect memento for my trip. After drinking espresso with my colleagues at the base of the Great Wall, I wandered into the back of the store…then through a corridor, and into a room I didn’t know existed. It was crammed with Chinese antiques from the floor to the ceiling.

There wasn’t a soul in sight so I had the quiet luxury of taking a moment from my traveling group to wander the aisles. Armor, pottery, furniture, weapons…as I slowly stepped through the history of China and its artifacts I began to think, “Perhaps this is where I’ll find my memento.”

And I did. On my second trip around the room, my eyes rose to the glass encased artifacts behind the counter and I drew in my breath. “Stop, Kelly. They’re going to be too expensive.” I was already talking myself down from the purchase and didn’t even know their cost, much less their value.

As I peered closer, I knew which one I wanted. There were three doctor dolls behind the case, of various materials and sizes. And, of various levels of detail. But the one I wanted was ivory and so delicately carved that I could see the twists of hair in her bun.

It took almost an hour to buy her. I had not bargained so zealously for anything on this trip. Twice I walked out of the store. But in the end, I had both a turn of the century Chinese doctor doll, a certificate of authenticity and confirmation from the government regarding its validity, and a smile on my face.

I had found my memento and she had found me.

Why was she so important, you might wonder? Well, the reason was contextual. I was traveling with a group of marriage and family therapists and we were working with hospital and university training programs for the brand new and emerging field of family therapy in China. And…a theme kept emerging from these meetings.

“Our students want me to teach human sexuality classes to help them with their patients, but we don’t have those classes in China. And, I don’t want to teach them.”

“Most marital problems in China are written off as sexual problems, and because of that, couples simply get a divorce. You can’t really help sexual problems.”

“It is still difficult for females to have discussions about sexual issues with their doctors, let alone their therapists. We normally don’t talk much about such things.”

I first became familiar with Chinese doctor dolls when I watched the 1989 dark comedy, “The War of the Roses.” I’ll never forget that film. We had taken a friend who was going through a divorce. The movie was about a horrible divorce. I’ll let you guess about the success of our evening out.

In the opening scene, Barbara shows up at a Nantucket antique auction and outbids Oliver for a Chinese doctor doll. The conversation over that piece brought them together, and it was the last meaningful shred of their marriage that was shattered into a million pieces right before they killed each other in a long, drawn-out and tragic divorce.

There isn’t a great deal written about these doctor dolls readily available on the internet. However, I can tell you that for years they were used and even passed down through generations as a diagnostic tool for women. It seems that doctors weren’t allowed to touch women in ways that would help them normally diagnoses OB/GYN issues, so women used the dolls to point out where they were having difficulties.

In other words, the dolls communicated for the women…and for the doctors.

We’ve come a long way, Baby Doctor Doll. But there is such a long way to go. Around the world in countries spanning every section of the globe, women’s health, sexuality, practices and even the laws that govern such practices are emerging. In some places, they’re non-existent. In other places, they’re horrifically twisted by ill-founded beliefs or practices.

I’m sure some women in a few countries I’m considering right now would be happy to have a doctor doll. It would mean they were AT a doctor’s office having discussions about gynecological related issues or women’s health.

Indeed, because of the current political campaign, a newly energized discussion about Sharia law, Islamic practices and their constitutionality within the U.S. is hotly debated. As globalization increases, the emerging of laws will continue to be questions in our courts…and we’ll see issues of human sexuality played out on this stage for quite some time.

I, for one, am looking forward to the day when no level of required female circumcision exists in the world. When Chinese universities teach human sexuality courses as part of their family therapy curriculum. When AIDS is gone. And, when my little Chinese doctor doll is more of a relic than a reality needed for so many women in the world.

A few days ago, I was driving to the massage therapist. I was so sore I couldn’t move because I have recently started lifting weights again. I hesitated when I thought about asking her to work on the top sides of my pectoral muscles, under my arms and around my triceps area. Was that ethical or did it cross a boundary for where licensed massage therapists could or could not approach?

I thought of my doctor doll. And right there in the car driving toward the massage clinic, I became emboldened. “All I have to do is just ask her,” I thought. I can do that.

I’m so grateful for the ability to have open and frank discussions with my own OB/GYN. I’m terribly grateful for the opportunity to teach human sexuality at the university level where my students and I can learn together while normalizing the topic for them and their future families.

And, I’m grateful for my little doctor doll. She’s come a long way from China…and we’ve come a long way in our ability to communicate with our health care providers. And, the journey isn’t over yet.

This poem is reprinted with permission from the author, Sandra Linville-Thomas. You can reach her through SimplyWriting.Com  

Translated Body

by Sandra Linville-Thomas




Transparent rhino tusk


The Chinese woman unwrapped the small, impenetrable figure

and pointed to

the head

the neck

the arms

the breasts

the stomach


Shielded in her raiment

she cradled the doll.

It translated her body,

defended from probing hands

and showed the doctor the location

of her affliction


At times, a servant conveyed

the figure to the doctor

and tapped the place of the pain for her.


When the mother died, she passed the figure

to her daughter who presented her own pain

expecting the doctor’s answers to her ache.

A mystery, he said.


Away from the doctor,

the daughter caressed the surrogate mother

and pointed out her pain to herself,

honoring the legacy

in the transparent rhino tusk.


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Best, Red Dirt Kelly



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