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Global Pharma in the Land of Snows: Tibetan Medicines, SARS, and Identity Politics Across Nations

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image of Asian Medicine

This article takes as its starting point the outbreak of the SARS epidemic in 2002–2003 in the People's Republic of China (PRC) to ask pertinent questions about the politics of identity in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), and to connect these issues to the circulation of, as well as the social and economic value placed on, Tibetan medicines within China and abroad. We aim to connect the global pharmaceutical industry—including the ways it shapes science, disseminates knowledge, increases market demand, and influences clinical and social practice—to the production of Tibetan identities. We discuss dramatic increases in the production and sale of Tibetan medicinal products, specifically protective amulets, 'precious pills', and incense, during a particularly traumatic and widely publicised public health crisis in the PRC. These products clearly demand that we rethink the category 'medicine'. The popularity of these products during the SARS epidemic also points to the complicated positions of Tibetans and Tibetan cultural forms within contemporary China. What was it about these products that gave rise to the perception among Chinese and Tibetans alike they could 'save' or 'protect' people from contracting SARS. In more general terms, we ask if this exponential growth of the Tibetan medical industry in China—heightened during the SARS epidemic, but continuing apace since then—is allowing for cultural expression that highlights Tibetan uniqueness difference within otherwise contested social and political arenas. Or, is the global pharmaceutical industry in China in the process of encompassing and reformulating Tibetan medicine? Finally, we explore connections and distinctions between the rise in highly marketed Tibetan medicinals in China and their availability and appeal in the West.


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