Thinking through Other Worlds: An Interview with Mei Zhan

Following up on my review of her recent ethnography Other Worldly: Making Chinese Medicine through Transnational Frames, I was able to pose a series of questions to Mei Zhan about the book and about future projects. Mei Zhan is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: The cornerstone of your argument in Other-Worldly is that of “worlding.” Can you explain what “worlding” means, and what it allows you to see that might be otherwise obscured?

Mei Zhan: This is a great question and I don’t have a short answer for it. So bear with me. I intended “worlding” as an analytic—a way of conceptualizing ethnographic and analytical possibilities. It is neither a revelation or explanation of particular cultural phenomena, nor a theory that can be easily abstracted and transplanted regardless of the ethnographic project at hand. Specifically, it is a way of thinking about the “oneness”—entanglement and simultaneity—of knowledge-making and world-making. In the case of traditional Chinese medicine, it allows me to move beyond the kind of conventional spatiotemporal narrative assuming that first there is a body of knowledge and practice of “traditional Chinese medicine” which then gets globalized and in due process is transformed. That is a bit too easy and too predictable, and obscures more complex interactions and seemingly mundane events that are at work. In insisting that knowledge-making is world-making, worlding foregrounds the fact that translocal encounters simultaneously produce dynamic forms of Chinese medicine and animate uneven visions, understandings, and practices of what makes up our worlds and our places in them.

When researching and writing the book, I was in conversation with discussions of transnationalism and globalization, while speaking from the intersection of STS (especially anthropological and feminist studies of science) and medical anthropology. Within this conversation “worlding” does a few things for me. It gets away from “globalization” which, on the one hand, tends to emphasize totality and inevitability and to rely on the metaphor of circulation; on the other, too often assumes the local and the global as spatially and conceptually distinctive (and therefore reliable) starting points for interactions and connections. Worlding thus helps reimagine the complexity, contingency, and serendipitous moments of everyday socialities, as well as the ways that anthropologist can engage them. It is an analytic that, I hope, subverts deep-seated dichotomous thinking and habitual dividing practices: local/global, traditional/modern, culture/science, text/context, ethnography/theory, knowing/being, data/analysis, epistemology/ontology. What if we think of these as provisional outcomes of shifting associations and processes: products of worlding rather than the foundations and starting points of social analyses?

Speaking of epistemology and ontology: in the book I constructed an intellectual genealogy that traced “worlding” back to Martin Heidegger through the works of postcolonial scholars and recent critiques of globalization. However, I never felt completely at ease with Heidegger as the ancestral figure in this genealogy. I am currently writing an article that discusses the influence of Daoism on Heidegger’s work. I have always noticed the Daoist connotation in “worlding” and it is perhaps no surprise given that “Daoism” (neither mere religion nor philosophy) provides some of the most important analytical concepts and strategies in traditional Chinese medicine. But it was after the completion of the book that the fact that Heidegger was influenced by Daoism became apparent to me as I read more works in philosophy on this particular topic. I am therefore exploring a different kind of intellectual association—not genealogy—which I hope will have some further bearing on the production of not “theory” but “analytic.”

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: In Chapters 3 and 4 of Other-Worldly, you write pretty extensively about acts of translation — how Traditional Chinese medical knowledge is or isn’t translatable into biomedical and Western scientific models. How are these acts of translation integral to worlding as process?

Mei Zhan: I am especially inspired by the works of Lydia Liu, Vicente Rafael, and Tom Boellstorff when it comes to the topic of translation. Translation is critical in the production of new forms of knowledges and socialities. It is not about simply bridging or eradicating differences, but making comparabilities: what can be compared with what, and on what/whose terms. For example, the translational performance by the Chinese practitioners and their foreign students in Chapter 4, which is so effective and saturates everyday discourse, draws on their familiarity with and (sometimes creative) interpretation of existing ideas of science, modernity, body, Chineseness and so forth. These clinical translations are successful not because differences among various interlocutors have been eradicated or reconciled, but in the sense that new forms of knowledge and identity emerge through these interactions. In this way translation actually rearticulates persistent terms and forms of difference and even produces new ones.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: You write in Other-Worldly and elsewhere about a turn in Traditional Chinese medicine to the preventative. How do you see this as related to popular ideas about China’s future, at home and globally?

Mei Zhan: The most recent turn to the preventive—or rather, the invention of a new kind of preventive medicine for holistic, middle-class, cosmopolitan lifestyles—takes place in both California and Shanghai (but not limited to these places). It is an anti-origin story in itself. First, this is not the first time in recent history that Chinese medicine is worlded as a preventive medicine. In the book I discuss the worlding of traditional Chinese medicine in the “proletariat world” in the 1960s and 1970s as a low-cost, low-tech preventive medicine aimed at meeting basic healthcare needs and preventing large-scale epidemics. Second, the current turn toward holistic health and preventive medicine took place in California before gaining momentum in China. As the Chinese state pursues healthcare reforms which involve marketization and privatization, institutions and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine based in China increasingly find themselves in a difficult situation having to reinvent and reinvigorate Chinese medicine in both its conceptualization and market appeals. So, even though both the government reformers and the practitioners are both trying to “get on track with the world” (one of the most popular slogans in China at the end of the 1990s), they do different things to get “there”. Some of the most entrepreneurial-minded practitioners—although not all—really see “preventive medicine” as something that is both faithful to the therapeutic goal of Chinese medicine, which emphasizes prevention, even though the object of prevention and exactly what prevention means are always open to creative interpretation and implementation. These practitioners are also often avid readers and world-trotters themselves, and understand the timeliness and attraction of the new preventive medicine for patients/clienteles who (aspire to) live the cosmopolitan, white-collar, urban life.

What does this say about China’s future? Mass media narratives—in China, but especially in the United States—tend to be a bit polarized. Extreme optimism and fear; evil communist giant or hyper capitalism; benevolent new master of the world or various renditions of the “yellow peril” … These narratives are not too wild, but rather not imaginative enough. The worlding of traditional Chinese medicine as different kinds of preventive medicine serves as a reminder of just how fraught and unpredictable “future” can be.

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: What are some of the problems you see in studies of transnationalism these days? And, on the flip side of that, what are some of the more promising approaches and projects that you are following?

Mei Zhan: There are so many brilliant recent projects on transnationalism—more than I can ever name. I myself am especially interested in works that conceptualize transnationalism as a way of thinking about all sorts of knotty connectivities rather than just a spatial scale and a space of fluidity tucked between the local and the global. I here think of, for example, Inderpal Grewal’s Transnational America (Duke University Press, 2005), Engseng Ho’s The Graves of Tarim (University of California Press, 2006), Francoise Lionnet and Shu-mei Shih’s Minor Transnationalism (Duke University Press, 2005), and Anna Tsing’s Friction (Princeton University Press, 2004)—to name just a few. Interestingly and increasingly, too, people are doing multi-sited and transnational projects without framing them explicitly or singularly as such. Take recent works in science studies for example: Stefan Helmreich’s Alien Ocean (University of California Press, 2009) and Hugh Raffles’ Insectopedia (Pantheon, 2010) come to mind. Transnationalism also poses new challenges and opportunities for collaborative research. Lisa Rofel and Sylvia Yanagisako are combining their expertise to work on a very exciting project on the new “Silk Road”: textile and fashion industries in China and Italy. I can’t wait to see their book!

Matthew Wolf-Meyer: So, what’s next for you? What have you been working on since the completion of Other-Worldly?

Mei Zhan: I’m currently working on two new ethnographic projects. The first one is centered on the explosion of scandals of various natures and at different scales as a window onto complex everyday socialities in China today. These scandals range from international food safety issues to marital problems among ordinary people. I became interested in the topic of “scandals” when I was working on my article “Civet Cats, Fried Grasshoppers, and David Beckham’s Pajamas: unruly bodies after SARS” (American Anthropologist 2005). I was intrigued at the time by the ways in which international scientific communities and mass media sensationalized Chinese people’s consumption habits—eating/consuming civet cats and other “wild” animals in this case—in their origin stories of SARS. But SARS was only one of the many scandals that saturate everyday life in China today. During my last field trip to Shanghai especially, I was struck by the ubiquity of scandals: if you turn on the TV at eight o’clock on Sunday night, regardless of which channel you watch, there is some kind of discussion or even dramatization of real-life scandals. So I am fascinated by what the exposure, discussion, and dramatization of these scandals in mass media, online communities, and everyday discourse can tell us about emergent forms of governmentality, political and social participation, and subject formation.

My second project looks at alternative ways of being human and rethinking humanism. As I mentioned earlier, it begins with an exploration of how Daoism and especially its insistence on “oneness” not only provide important analytical tools for traditional Chinese medicine, but can also serve as a useful anthropological analytic that subvert the divides between theory and ethnography. In this project I also bring together my research on how the privatization of China’s healthcare system has transformed medical doctors from socialist super heroes to greedy “subhumans” in the eyes of the ordinary Chinese; and how the boundaries of the human are contested through unfolding food safety issues and emerging animal-related legislation.

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