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'We Dont Know What To Eat Anymore' Mei Zhan, UC Irvine

A Deptartment of Anthropology Culture, Power and Social Change Colloquium

Thursday, November 15, 2007
4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
352 Haines Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095

This paper discusses issues of food safety in urban China, with a focus on intersecting, transnational discourses of consumption, accountability, and expert knowledge.  In spring 2003, China was taken by surprise by the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), its biggest epidemic in decades, which also reached the global scale within weeks and months. As scientists pointed to the civet cat, a delicacy in southern China, as the probable animal host of the SARS virus, much of the international response dwelled heavily on China’s failure in becoming a responsible member of the international community --the Chinese consumers were blamed for insatiable appetites for wild animals, and the Chinese government for its slow response and lack of transparency.  The SARS outbreak marked the beginning of intense debates over individual, corporate and governmental accountability, as well as expert knowledge, over food safety in China, especially among the emerging urban middle-class consumers.  In 2006, reports of dangerous food such as carcinogen-contaminated turbot and parasite-ridden shellfish dominated everyday conversation, prompting an outcry from consumers: “We don’t know what to eat anymore!”  In investigating SARS and recent cases of food contamination, I suggest that although debates over food safety are overshadowed by a sense of immanent crisis in consumption, responsibility, and even morality, they have also become a productive site where a self-conscious and transnational-minded urban middle-class re-fashions itself as responsible and knowledgeable consumers.

Mei Zhan conducts research in the areas of medical anthropology, cultural and social studies of science, globalization and transnationalism, and China studies. She is currently finishing a book manuscript on the "worlding" of traditional Chinese medicine. In this ethnography, she highlights that what we have come to call "traditional Chinese medicine" is made through-rather than prior to-various translocal encounters and from discrepant locations. The fieldwork for this book was done in Shanghai and the San Francisco Bay Area. The book is multi-sited, however, also in its focus on the processes of interaction, rupture, and displacement in the translocal formation of knowledges, identities, and communities. She writes about how dynamic forms of traditional Chinese medicine emerge through specific kinds of encounters, as these encounters also produce uneven and shifting visions, understandings, and practices of what makes up the world and our places in it.  Professor Zhan is working on a new ethnographic project centered around the shifts in health education and everyday preventive practice after the SARS epidemic in China in spring 2003, with a focus on emerging middle-class lifestyles and subjectivities produced through the varied relations and boundaries between humans, and non-humans as food, remedies, pollutants, and pets.


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