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The status of medicinal substances at the interface between pharmacy and medicine as contemporary commodities is a field of contestation, concerning business and rich cultural histories in China. Chinese medical products today constitute branches of pharma-industries at various levels of scale. Circulation of such products involves several actors as the substances themselves cross multiple boundaries and thereby turn into something else. This encompasses more than the transfer of commodities across territorial boundaries, such as from the countryside to the city, or from the national to the global level. Chinese medicines also move from the domains of agriculture or the ‘wild’ life collecting of raw materials into small-scale and global pharma-markets, until they are finally prescribed by physicians of Chinese medicine.

This talk ‘follows’ some of the migrating objects in this field that originate from Sichuan province in southwest China. Not unlike “Szechuan cuisine”, medicinal substances from this part of China are well known across China and East Asia. They play roles in Europe, too, as they are imported, researched and prescribed by pharma-businesses, research institutions and clinicians in different contexts of practice. Among the various actors involved in the circulation and processing of Chinese pharma-products, the role of pharma-workers (药工 or 药师) tends to be overlooked because they work beyond the demarcated academic disciplines of medicine, embodied by physicians, and pharmacy, institutionalised as a modern academic-technical-industrial discipline. Physicians of Chinese medicine in mainland China tend to prescribe medicines by modifying an archive of shared formulae. The pharma-workers who carry out much of the daily work of circulating and processing the migrating objects remain much closer to commonly held conceptions of artisans or skilled craftsmen. This nuanced division of work between providers and prescribers has many advantages but also is the product of histories of struggle about modernisation in China.

Dr Springer’s fieldwork provides access to the role of collectors, small-scale traders, and other highly-skilled pharma-workers whose role in the making of contemporary Chinese medicine easily gets overlooked simply because they do not possess the status and cultural histories necessary to gain a foothold in the professional institution-building in modern China.

Lena Springer is a research fellow at EASTmedicine research centre, University of Westminster. She is engaged in a multi-sited ethnography of medicinal substances at the interface between pharmacy and medicine.