How the Commodity Form Mattered: Quality and Quantity in the Chinese Ginseng Trade

Stacie Kent, Boston College

Explorations into natural objects and their “value” were long part of commercially-oriented discourses circulating through travelogues, guides, dictionaries, and government reports. A closer look at one of these natural objects circulating in and out of treaty ports in China reveals intersections in meaning-making projects that muddle, rather authorize any single claim to what a “thing” was. The object of interest — ginseng— was the site of varied social, political and economic engagements including, Chinese medicinal consumption, trans-Pacific trade, global science, and local revenue collection. This paper looks at operations that identified, named, consistently named, and ultimately quantified ginseng. The instability of ginseng across these projects invites us to consider more closely processes of abstraction and interactions with nature that contribute in key ways to the epistemological and normative horizons of capitalism and state practices shaped by it.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 259. What is Critical History