Manufacturing “Korea” in China: The Coproduction of Commodity Value and Nationalist Imaginaries in the Chinese Kimchi Industry (2021, The University of Chicago)
Dissertation Committee: Julie Chu (chair), Judith Farquhar, Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Eleana Kim
This dissertation explores the material, semiotic, and logistical making of “Koreanness” in kimchi from the perspectives of kimchi manufacturers and distributors in China, who reflect on and respond to the changing economic and political conditions across China and South Korea. Kimchi is a fermented vegetable dish widely produced and consumed in Korean communities, which has been manufactured on a massive scale in China for export since the early 2000s. Kimchi manufacturers in China, who started their manufacturing business targeting South Korean kimchi markets, gradually turn their attention to the Chinese markets where they see a rapidly increasing demand for exotic foreign food products such as “Korean” kimchi. Throughout the transition, they employ various business strategies to materialize, present, and promote the Koreanness of their kimchi, which can be translated into economic value in the Chinese markets. In their efforts, kimchi manufacturers and distributors in China are challenged to reflect on how their consumers in China imagine the differences and distance between “Korea” and “China.”
In this dissertation, I view the making of “Koreanness” as speculative efforts to produce commodity value, which conditions and is conditioned by the reconfiguration of nationalist imaginaries across South Korea and China. Nations function as foundational units in constructing imaginaries of the worlds, not only as communities with which people feel solidarity but also as the framework through which people make sense of their standing in the world through comparison. Consumers in China shape their imaginaries on economic and geopolitical orders of worlds as they navigate their consumer choices, comparing and evaluating products from various parts of the world. Entrepreneurs in the Chinese kimchi industry mobilize product design, marketing, and logistical strategies to make “Korea” accessible to consumers while reminding them of the distance and difference between “Korea” and “China.”
Based on 13 months of fieldwork at a kimchi company in Qingdao, China, what I call Tiantian Food, the dissertation engages with different scales in which the mobilities of commodities, people, and capital are coordinated for overcoming and performing the distance between “Korea” and “China.” Each chapter engages with different scales in which the commodity value and nationalist imaginaries are formulated, focusing on various tensions, problems, and challenges faced and narrated by people in the Chinese kimchi industry. The first two chapters situate imaginaries of “Korea” within historical and geopolitical dynamics in Northeast Asia. And the following two chapters examine how the imaginaries condition and are conditioned by the production and circulation of kimchi products. The first part engages with media representations of macro-scale events in China and South Korea. The second part focuses on the decision-making processes and business operation of Tiantian Food and its sales representatives.
The first chapter, Reimagining “Korea”: The Topography of “Korea” in Korean Kimchi, Korean-Chinese, and Qingdao Koreatowns, explores the genealogies of nationalist imaginaries of “Korea” through navigating the histories of Korean kimchi, Korean-Chinese, and Qingdao Koreatowns. In this chapter, I trace the historical, economic, and political conditions in which the Korean identities of kimchi, people, and places are articulated, challenged, and diversified. I juxtapose hegemonic imaginaries of “Korea” in South Korea with alternative claims to Korean identities by Korean diasporas and expatriates, who play important roles in the production and circulation of Korean kimchi in China. The second chapter, Boycotting “Korea”: Extraordinary Boycotts and the Ordinary Imaginaries of Bordered Worlds, examines how nationalist imaginaries condition the production and circulation of Korean kimchi in China through the extraordinary situations of 2017. This chapter analyzes how diplomatic tension between South Korea and China developed into the nationwide boycotts of “Korean” products and how the boycotts affected Korean-Chinese (chaoxianzu) businesses, including Tiantian Food and its partners. I discuss how the postnational aspirations of Korean-Chinese entrepreneurs, who want to reach both “Korean” and “Chinese” markets, are challenged by the territorial nationalist imaginaries of geopolitics, which were historically shaped by the Cold War and amplified through South Korean and Chinese media.
The third chapter, Designing Kimchi: Semiotic, Aesthetic, and Logistical Making of “Koreanness,” navigates the mechanisms in which Korean qualities are semiotically, aesthetically, and logistically configured to add value to kimchi products. By exploring how various design practices are intended as an intervention in commodity supply chains, I discuss how the perspective of design—analytical attention to conceptual labors of reflection, speculation, and intervention in the making of commodity supply chains—contributes to understanding the formulation of commodity value. The last chapter, Reordering Orders: The Politics of Disjunctures in Logistics and Communication, attunes to the structure of communication and commands (“ordering”) that facilitate the manufacture and transportation of kimchi. By interrogating how the collaborative efforts to produce and promote “Korean” qualities reinforce ethnic, linguistic, and cultural hierarchies among participants of the commodity chains, I analyze the patterns of discrimination and stereotyping in economic relationships. Examining the conflicts, tensions, and problems within and beyond the kimchi company, I interrogate the nature of labor and power relationship conditioned by the capitalist endeavors to produce “Korean” qualities and value. In the conclusion, “Envisioning Futures and Nations’ Times,” I summarize the central argument in the dissertation as I attempt to expand its conceptual and methodological frameworks for further research. Describing a few changes in Tiantian Food, I discuss how the experiences in the Chinese kimchi industry shape people’s visions of the future, especially the future of “China.”
The dissertation contributes to anthropological studies of market economies by analyzing the semiotic, material, and logistical formulation of commodity value. Methodologically, the dissertation explores the modes of imagination and mediation in which local(ized) encounters and practices are interconnected with macro-scale political economic dynamics. The dissertation also engages with current scholarship on Northeast Asia, contributing to understanding the economic, social, and political implications of “China’s rise” and the nature of nationalism in contemporary Northeast Asia.