Eating Tradition: Towards a Social History of Donkey Hide Gelatin (ejiao 阿膠)

  • KÖHLE, Natalie Caroline (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


Donkey hide gelatin, or ejiao 阿膠, has been part of the Chinese apothecary for over 2,000 years. In Chinese pharmacology, ejiao is a powerful tonic that restores the vigour of the sick and improves the vitality of the depleted. More recently, it has come to be hailed as a modern-day panacea. Historically, genuine ejiao was extremely scarce. Limited by the need to use skins from a particular donkey breed and water from a specific well in Shandong province, ejiao was a luxury accessible only to the gilded few. But in China’s recent age of prosperity, ejiao has experienced exponential growth in demand and production. Donkey breeds from all over the world have entered supply chains, and ejiao has become independent of geographical specificity. This has led to a severe shortage of donkeys in the Global South that threatens to extinguish the animal as a species, comparable to the effects of trafficking in pangolin scales or rhino horn. The decimation of donkeys not only threatens biodiversity but also drastically impacts on the human communities that live and work with them. Once a matter of small herds and artisanal workshops in a remote part of Shandong province, this currently unfolding story is a case study in the disruptive use of a species – a rupture that has had devastating effects on some of the world’s poorest communities. The story of donkey gelatin is also firmly interlinked with China’s rise as a global power, most recently with the infrastructure provided by the Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013. My project seeks to illuminate the historical constellation of technologies, cultures of bodily care, medical conceptions, market forces, infrastructure, global capital and neoliberal ideologies that led to the current upsurge in demand and production of ejiao, and it seeks to trace the global entanglements and social lives of ejiao as a complex commodity. It will provide a synthetic account of ejiao from a cultural history, ethnography, and science and technology studies perspective, while also addressing the larger issues of loss of biodiversity and the commodification of life that arise from the exponential increase in the production and consumption of ejiao over the past 20 years.
Effective start/end date1/01/23 → …


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