Chinese medicine vendor catching some zzz

Deer pizzle ethnography (Part 1)

Yes, it’s a two-parter. Here’s the main course.

I’d heard of nose-to-tail eating, but apparently there are parts of certain animals which do more than provide nourishment…

Yep. I’m talking about Pizzle. (Deer dick – ick!)

One of the great benefits of operating from New Zealand comes in the shape of exposure to the diverse range of niche products we export.

So when a large-scale deer farmer and venison exporter came knocking, I jumped…

…but this time higher than usual.

Higher, because they wanted to learn about what drove Chinese consumers of deer products for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine – parts of the deer revered for their aphrodisiac and performance-enhancing benefits, amongst others.

Being a design researcher based in New Zealand means helping producers understand far-flung customers, visiting them individually, in-market, usually with the client.

This time it’s a market of sticky-up and dangly bits, raw and processed. Yes, a world of medicinal qualities, but – most enticing to me – people and their beliefs around the product as much as (or perhaps more than) how they choose and use it.

Typical TCM store, vendor checking his Wechat feed.

Typical TCM vendor checking his Wechat feed between weigh-ups.

We’ve arrived in a day early – To acclimatise and peruse the sprawling Quinpingdong Drug Market. Block after city block of traders’ stalls peddling raw materials in sacks or stacks, sometimes in packs. All of it belonged to something that once walked, swam or grew.

Tomorrow we hook up with a local crew of researcher, guide and translator for a week of retailer, doctor and consumer visits across two cities.

No project comes close to the amount of pun and innuendo this one has generated, and the same goes for the amount of planning.

Long a follower of Jan Chipchase’s far-flung ethno-adventures and having quizzed colleagues who’ve worked in these regions, it’s taken actually arriving in-market to fully appreciate the methodological tradeoffs, logistical challenges and rich layers of cultural nuance we’d struggle to navigate without local support.

I’ve always used a local recruiter for projects in USA, UK and Europe, but this is a whole new level.

Jan and others recommend using ‘fixers’, well connected and resourceful locals who can make shit happen, while remaining discreet about your project. Another key tenet of making the most of this work is staying in the area to ‘unpack’ which makes total sense. A long haul flight can undo a lot of context.

But the real learning is just beginning on this project and I don’t want to think about unpacking of any kind just yet.

In the mean time, I’m taking every opportunity to roll with the lingo. One more time – Pizzle!

Here’s some in the raw:


If you shop around, you’ll find a vendor where each pizzle comes with a ‘matching pair’.

And here’s Pizzle Part 2, where I wear two hairnets and slurp a hearty broth. 

This project was supported by New Zealand Trade & Enterprise.
Gotta love a country who helps it’s exporters get Better by Design (Research).

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