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205 Her Milk Is Inferior: Breastfeeding, Risk, and Imagining Maternal Identities in Chinese Cyberspace Zhuo Ban I n May 2008, an anonymous entry on Tianya-BBS, a popular online discussion forum in China, struck anger and anxiety among many parents around the country.1 Detailing what the World Health Organization (WHO) called “one of the largest food safety events the UN health agency has had to deal with in recent years,” the post revealed that the well-known milk product brand Sanlu had been selling baby formula containing dangerous levels of melamine, a toxic industrial compound.2 This news arrived after a raft of publicity detailing numerous food safety violations in China. But even among China’s plentiful food scandals, the Sanlu case seemed especially shocking, because the contaminated food was targeted at one of the most vulnerable groups of consumers: infants. Although the original post soon disappeared from the forum, news of the tainted product triggered an avalanche of on- and offline discussions about infant formula safety.3 These virtual discussions about infant health risks prompted parents in China to find alternative sources of nutrition 206 Zhuo Ban for their children; in fact, according to the China Ministry of Agriculture , milk formula imports increased by more than 100 percent in the first two months of 2009.4 As this example demonstrates, the Chinese “public screen” has become a vital part of how Chinese citizens make everyday decisions about risk, safety, health, and identity.5 Here, even a disappeared online post significantly amplified the already-frenetic tone of Chinese public discourse around risks to infant and child health, a vestige of China’s controversial one-child policy, to include the risks inherent to breast milk (and formula-fed) diets. In China, as in other countries, the decision to breastfeed occurs within a complex matrix of individual preferences, personal and familial experiences, and structural factors like employment expectations, available free time, parenting strategies, and more.6 In addition, the changing sociological landscape around childbirth and childrearing in China in light of the one-child policy has rendered infant nutrition decisions more salient and therefore has positioned breastfeeding as a topic of significant concern in the Chinese public sphere.7 Within this context, discussions about breastfeeding reveal emerging—and conflicting—imaginaries about both individual maternal identities and the relationships between these new mothers and larger issues about national health, cultural norms, and global networks of food production and consumption. To support this claim, I examine the rhetorical construction of breastfeeding as a risky practice for infant health and address how such rhetoric affords new social imaginaries around motherhood in China. I locate the formation of these maternal identities through the articulation of three “risks”—pathological and toxicological, nutritional, and developmental —prevalent in the discourse around breastfeeding on the TianyaBBS . While these articulations of risk are themselves rich and detailed, I argue that they are further complicated by their relationship to certain national imaginaries that shape the contours of what are “acceptable” and “unacceptable” maternal formations. In a nutshell, the practice of breastfeeding among certain segments of the population in China is both yoked to the problematics of the Chinese nation-state and also construed in opposition to the benefits of (American) formula-based diets. These conflicting rhetorical gestures extend the particular, localized practice of Breastfeeding, Risk, and Maternal Identities 207 breast- or bottle-feeding into the realm of the national imaginary.8 I thus argue that the everyday discourses around infant health serve, synecdochically , to represent emerging social imaginaries about the health of China as a nation. To use a different metaphor, if national identities are constituted through the warp and weft of intersecting narrative threads, then public discourse around breastfeeding represents a particular knot in the fabric—a moment in the national Chinese social imaginary that I believe is worthy of reflection. To make my case, I draw from Michel Foucault and Deborah Lupton to argue that the construction of breastfeeding as “risk” exemplifies and extends the self-surveillance of the childbearing (female) body as a form of “governmentality,” or a series of power relations between the self and state that are based on disciplining the conduct of the self.9 Before making this argument, and in order to provide a context for this chapter, I begin with a review of existing research on breastfeeding in China. I then discuss risk discourses and the self-regulation of the pregnant body. Ultimately, I excavate the discursive and embodied interrelationships between the state...


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