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Ejiao in Flux: A Modern ‘Traditional’ Chinese Medicine and the Global Trade of Donkey Hides

May 31, 2023

Ejiao in Flux: A Modern ‘Traditional’ Chinese Medicine and the Global Trade of Donkey Hides

Wei Ye

A dozen donkey skins placed on the ground for Tong to inspect in a backyard in Nairobi, Kenya. Source: Wei Ye.

I met Tong in July 2016 at a Chinese hostel in Kilimani, an affluent Nairobi neighbourhood known for its sizeable Chinese immigrant community. The hostel was primarily occupied by male employees from major Chinese construction and telecommunication firms, which made Tong, a young businesswoman on her first trip to Africa for a private venture, stand out. When discussing why she was there, she often faltered: ‘I’m here … to find donkey hides.’ Tong’s journey was driven by the surging demand and prices for this product in China, which compelled her to search for affordable sources worldwide.

As an experienced business broker, Tong organised her Nairobi trip efficiently. Shortly after arriving, she connected with a seller through an e-commerce platform and scheduled a meeting. New to Kenya, she sought a Chinese companion and found me—a researcher doing fieldwork in the country. Together, we travelled from the Chinese hostel to an office southwest of Nairobi, where Tong communicated with her Chinese buyer via WeChat and discussed the contract details with the Kenyan sellers. She also made some video calls to inspect the sample hides. However, Tong found the seller’s vague responses to her request to visit the slaughterhouse suspicious and eventually called off the deal. She later managed to purchase a shipment from a Chinese immigrant in Kenya, who had been collecting hides from villages as a side business and was keen to make a quick sale for cash.

Tong’s trip highlights the ‘donkey-hide fever’ that has gripped Africa since 2016 when China’s dwindling donkey population created a scarcity of hides in the country. Businesspeople engaged in the donkey-hide trade often remarked: ‘It was a time when selling donkey hides was more profitable than selling drugs.’ Consequently, many donkey slaughterhouses sprang up across the globe to meet China’s demand, driven by the promise of profits. The development puts the world’s donkey population at risk and disrupts the livelihoods of those involved, especially in areas with large populations of the animal, such as East Africa, Central Asia, and South America. Animal protection organisations (see, for instance, Brooke 2019; The Donkey Sanctuary 2017) and scholars (Kavesh 2023; Köhle 2017; Vaarzon-Morel 2021) have since explored the repercussions of this global trade on both donkeys and donkey-keepers.

The worldwide spike in demand for and trade in donkey hides is driven by the popularity of donkey-hide gelatine (阿胶, ejiao), a Chinese medicine made from processed donkey skins that is considered beneficial for replenishing qi (滋阴), nourishing blood (补血), and stanching bleeding (止血). This connection is the reason a mutual friend introduced me to Tong in 2016, realising my research on Chinese medicine in Kenya aligned with her trip and believing I could provide useful assistance while also learning from her business. When discussing ejiao with my other contacts at that time, including doctors of Chinese medicine in Kenya, they generally expressed reservations. Their concerns arose from the fact that ejiao is not a widely used drug in Chinese medical practices, especially not as a single-ingredient medicine (单方, danfang). The current boom in ejiao commodities on the market—including danfang ejiao, ejiao health supplements, and ejiao snacks—is largely driven by companies capitalising on China’s enthusiasm for ‘life-nurturing’ (养生) practices (Farquhar and Zhang 2012; see also Chen 2001), which contrasts with the way Chinese medicine practitioners in East Africa use Chinese formula medicines (中成药) and medicinal substances (Hsu 2022). Furthermore, they questioned the authenticity of ejiao produced outside China.

This doubt is rooted in the concept of daodi (道地), which emphasises place-based authenticity in Chinese medicine, and can be traced back to the thirteenth century (Bian 2020: 135). The importance of daodi has only increased with the modern standardisation of Chinese medicine. The Traditional Chinese Medicine Law, issued by the Chinese Government in 2016, along with related strategic plans released in 2016 and 2018, reinforced this idea by calling for the establishment of evaluation systems and support for production bases for daodi medicines. Dong’e County in Shandong Province is considered the place of origin for ejiao (the character ‘e’ in ejiao refers to Dong’e). It is therefore no surprise that Chinese medicine practitioners are sceptical about ejiao produced from African donkeys.

Ejiao comes from Dong’e, so it is called Ejiao.’ This quote from the ancient medical expert Tao Hongjing (456–536 CE) is displayed on a large screen in the museum of a major ejiao company. Source: Wei Ye.

The juxtaposition of donkey-hide fever and medical practitioners’ doubts highlights the disconnection between the industrialisation of Chinese medicine products and clinical practices. Commercial demand has reshaped pharmaceutical production, transforming the once scholarly Chinese medicine tradition into a profit-driven practice (Chee 2021; Hsu 2008, 2009). While consuming Chinese medicine is considered a sensory experience connected to a specific environment, body, and set of relationships both within China (Farquhar 1994) and abroad (Hsu 2022), the Chinese pharmaceutical industry depends on standardised, depersonalised, fixed formulas and processes to mass produce commodity-style Chinese medicines. These commodities are not created out of thin air; they are still derived from the theories and experiences of Chinese medicine.

Why has ejiao production become a global phenomenon? This question inspired my 2016 fieldwork in Kenya and reshaped my doctoral research, leading me to examine various actors involved in ejiao and the donkey-hide industry and explore the ongoing recombination of diverse interests, practices, and materials on a global level. This essay delves into one aspect of the identification, translation, and transformation of the donkey as ejiao’s core ingredient. Specifically, I outline two transformative processes: the re-establishment of ejiao as ‘donkey’-hide gelatine and the equation of donkeys with Chinese medicine in modern biological taxonomy, enabling the incorporation of donkeys from around the world as raw materials for the ejiao industry.

‘Donkey’-Made Ejiao

Ejiao was not initially made from donkey hides. In its early history, ejiao referred to gelatine made from various animal skins, primarily cowhide (Zhang et al. 1993a; Zhao et al. 2022). The primary raw material for ejiao shifted from cowhide to donkey hide between the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE) and the Song Dynasty (960–1276 CE). It was only during the Song Dynasty that ejiao came to be produced largely from donkey hides. This change could have been the result of an increased donkey population in China as cowhide supplies dwindled due to widespread military and agricultural use of cows (Zhang et al. 1993b). Since the Song Dynasty, most medical experts have agreed that donkey should be the raw material for ejiao, yet the necessity of this continues to be debated in medical theory (Zhao et al. 2022).

In the 1950s, after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a government investigation revealed that the use of fresh hide in ejiao production was declining due to high costs (Liu 1954). The limited availability of donkey hides prompted discussions about alternative raw materials, such as horse skin (Zhang 2002), cowhide (Luan et al. 1999), or pig skin (Shandong New Ejiao Scientific Research Collaboration 1976). For instance, ‘new ejiao’ (新阿胶), developed in 1976 using pig skin, was included in the Chinese Ministry of Health’s drug standards in 1998 (standard number WS3-B-3719-98) and considered a viable substitute for ejiao. Furthermore, research articles published in 1991 by several scholars from the Beijing College of Traditional Chinese Medicine concluded that the differences in chemical composition between ejiao made from donkey hide, ‘new ejiao’ made from pig skin, huang mingjiao (黄明胶) made from cowhide, and gelatine made from horse skin were minimal, suggesting interchangeability (Zhao et al. 1991; Jiang et al. 1991).

The active pursuit of alternatives to donkey hide began in the 1960s, driven by China’s economic demands and policy guidance. Chee (2021) explains that the medicalisation of Chinese fauna—initially supported by Soviet-style studies and theories—gained prominence in explorations into underutilised resources during the Great Leap Forward (1958–62), one goal of which was to surpass pharmaceutical production in the United Kingdom, which was the world leader at the time. This led to a flourishing of research into more accessible and affordable raw materials for Chinese medicine (Chee 2021). The exploration of alternative raw materials for ejiao aligned with the objectives of discovering new economic development sources during this era. Consequently, the ejiao formula, particularly the use of donkey hide, was challenged and redefined.

However, in the twenty-first century, interest in alternative materials for ejiao waned, and research into potential donkey-hide substitutes was neither continued nor implemented in production. This shift was related to China’s so-called Reform and Opening Up, which allowed animal-based Chinese medicines to transition into the market economy (Chee 2021: 139). The focus of the Chinese medicine market moved away from medical institutes and experts, becoming increasingly centred on the production and sale of commodities (Chee 2021: 143).

In this new context, the emphasis was no longer on formula innovation to exploit more resources, but rather on expanding the market for economic gain. Imitating well-established formulas, rather than innovation, has become the mainstream production approach and marketing point. For the key players in the contemporary ejiao industry, including profit-driven manufacturers and sellers, the focus shifted to faithfully replicating selected traditional formulas to invoke historical authority. The donkey once again became the unquestioned core raw material for ejiao and the most important criterion for determining its authenticity. This is also affirmed and standardised in the Pharmacopoeia of the People’s Republic of China (中华人民共和国药典), resulting in an inseparable association between ejiao and donkeys (National Pharmacopoeia Committee 2020: 205–6).

Translating and Relocating Donkey in Ejiao

Ejiao is identified with donkeys, but what exactly are donkeys? According to the Chinese Pharmacopoeia (National Pharmacopoeia Committee 2020), ejiao derives from ‘the dried or fresh skin of Equus asinus Linnaeus, a member of the horse family, after being decocted’. The donkey in ejiao is defined as equivalent to the donkey in modern taxonomy, originating from Linnaeus’s work in the 1700s. However, this equivalence is not self-evident. A common challenge in the scientific investigation of herbal medicine involves translating the records of raw materials into their modern biological classifications and nomenclature (Hsu 2009; Lei 1999). Faunal medicine faces the same issue, although the topic is discussed less frequently (Chee 2021: 40).

In medical texts, the type of donkey required for ejiao is a matter of dispute. In a review of Qing Dynasty ejiao production, medical practitioner Cao Bingzhang stated that authentic ejiao must be made from the hides of black donkeys grazing on Shi’er Mountain and drinking water from the Langxi River (Zhang et al. 1993d), both of which are in Dong’e. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, most medical practitioners agreed that black-coloured donkey skin was essential for making authentic ejiao because, according to the five elements theory (五行), black corresponds with water, which replenishes yin (Zhao et al. 2022). Some professionals, however, such as Chen Shiduo, a famous medical practitioner in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, considered the emphasis on black to be superfluous and argued that the use of skin corresponded to the lungs (Liu 2022).

This is just a glimpse into the abundant records surrounding the use of donkey in ejiao, illustrating the complexity and richness of Chinese medicine formulas and pharmacology. It also reveals that there is no single, universally agreed-on conclusion about the type of donkey used for ejiao. However, precisely because of this plurality, contemporary manufacturers can always find classical or folk references to validate their legitimacy (see Scheid 2002). The pharmacological descriptions of donkey used in ejiao have been selected and translated into practical manufacturing processes and product identification. An example of this is the industry’s ‘rediscovery’ and ‘reinvention’ of a unique black donkey breed, the so-called dark-head (乌头驴), as the primary ingredient for the highly priced Nine-Day Tribute ejiao (九朝贡胶). This is marketed as the most valuable ejiao commodity—replicating the ancient formula reserved for royal consumption. For ‘standard’ ejiao, it is no longer necessary to discuss which type of donkey is used; however, it remains essential to verify the usage of donkey, the Equus asinus L., in production. This verification is particularly evident in quality testing, when molecular biology is utilised to confirm the presence of genuine ‘donkey’ content in the gelatine, which is a decisive factor in evaluating ejiao’s authenticity.

The dark-head is a tall, black donkey breed originating from Shandong Province, which closely matches the description of black donkeys found in ancient ejiao records. Source: Wei Ye.

A 2016 news story provides a compelling example of the discussions about the ‘authenticity’ of ejiao (Beijing Youth Daily 2016; Zhang 2016). After purchasing an ejiao product, a consumer submitted a sample to a metrology and quality-testing laboratory for analysis. The subsequent report revealed that no donkey or horse DNA was detected in the sample. In response to this test result and the ensuing consumer scepticism, the ejiao manufacturer explained that ‘the donkey DNA content in ejiao products may be destroyed by prolonged heating, and the absence of detectable donkey DNA does not mean that the product lacks donkey hides’. This statement was supported by government officials (Zhang 2016). One news report also quoted Liu Xin, the vice-president of China’s biggest genomic sequencing company, BGI Genomics, who said that DNA detection was most effective for fresh meat or lightly processed meat products. Deep processing could cause DNA degradation, leading to detection failure (Beijing Youth Daily 2016). According to the reports, DNA may not be detected after high-temperature processing.

This story illustrates the intimate connection between donkeys and ejiao on a biomaterial level: consumers expect laboratories to detect the biological components of donkeys in ejiao products, manufacturers agree that they must justify any lack of detection, and media outlets reference genome companies to provide additional information for evaluating ejiao authenticity. But the scientific explanation for the absence of detectable donkey DNA is not sufficient; the primary criterion for determining ejiao authenticity, the ‘donkey’, must be rediscovered and re-established. A detection method using signature peptides has been developed to efficiently determine whether an ejiao product is made from donkey (Zhang et al. 2016), and has now been included in the Chinese Pharmacopoeia. Despite the ‘donkey’ disappearing at the DNA level, new techniques can ensure its reappearance through other biomarkers, enabling the differentiation of authentic ejiao products based on whether they contain donkey.

By adopting and refining biological testing methods, Equus asinus L. has been firmly established as synonymous with ejiao. The authenticity of ejiao resides in the biological traces of the donkey species. Equating the donkey in Chinese medicine with the donkey in biological taxonomy simplifies the complexity of Chinese faunal medicine and redefines it for effective manufacturing and identification. However, this does not eliminate concerns about the need for place-based authenticity. Throughout the history of animal-based Chinese medicine, the same species can be distinguished in terms of effectiveness and function based on different origins, such as the belief that African and Asian rhino horns have different effects. Are ejiao products made from different donkey breeds from different places all the same?

Scientific research sponsored by the ejiao industry investigated this question. In 2016, the journal Chinese Traditional Patent Medicine (天然产物研究与开发) published an article titled ‘Comparison of the Quality of Ejiao Prepared from Imported and Domestic Donkey Skins’ (Hu et al. 2016). The authors worked for a major ejiao company listed on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. Complying with the regulations of the Chinese Pharmacopoeia, they followed the same gelatine-making processes to produce ejiao using imported and domestic donkey hides and found that the chemical constituents were similar. They argued that the result justified the use of foreign donkey hides for ejiao manufacturing.

Through this research and quality tests focused on the ‘donkey-ness’ of ejiao, the industry consistently reinforces the biological universality of the ‘donkey’ as the raw material to produce this medicine. Unlike the search for alternative raw materials initiated during the Great Leap Forward, which sought to expand ejiao production to maximise the use of available economic resources, the contemporary industry’s pursuit of the donkey species aims to develop the commercial and industrial scalability of the core raw material. In this pursuit, donkeys from around the world are considered a viable raw material for the mass production of this Chinese medicine.

‘Traditional’ Chinese Medicine and the Contemporary World

What often emerges from recent reports and public discussions about the donkey-hide trade is the idea of an ancient, orientalised (Said 1978) elixir, which impacts the lives of donkeys worldwide. The analysis presented in this essay uncovers the shifts in discussions about ejiao formulas that make such associations possible. The recent commoditisation and standardisation of ejiao are having a drastic influence on the lives of donkeys and people around the world.

During the modern transformation of Chinese medicine, Chinese drugs have been identified as suitable for integration into the modern scientific system, as evident in the discussion of the disengagement of drugs from Chinese medical theories and experiences that began in the 1920s (Lei 2014) and the subsequent flourishing of ‘drug testing’ research and industry that continues today. Chinese drugs are characterised as natural raw materials in this biomedical appropriation, with the idea that the ‘real’ effective substance must be captured and described in the language of modern science (Lei 2014).

However, the (re)formulation of ejiao described in this essay deviates from this ‘scientisation’ process (see Lei 2014). Although the standardisation of its formulas has led to the redefinition of ejiao’s authenticity in scientific terms, this has not made ejiao a biochemical drug. It merely serves to replicate selected historical recipes more effectively. Science and Chinese medicine are both appropriated and limited in these processes. Historical medical records are widely cited in marketing to support ejiao’s usefulness and authenticity, while heterogeneous discussions about the formulas are ignored. Laboratory experiments are meant not to find the effectiveness of the substance at the molecular level, but to prove the presence of organic donkey material to support ejiao’s assumed ‘historically proven effectiveness’.

The driving force behind this peculiar integration is not the development of Chinese medicine or science, but the desire for economic gain and capital speculation. These changes in production, indication, and significance for commercial and marketing purposes are frequently observed in studies on the industrialisation of so-called traditional medicines (see, for instance, Blaikie 2015; Bode 2015; Pordié and Gaudillière 2013).

The consequences of the transformation of ejiao have been global. Dominant ejiao companies in Shandong continue to emphasise their place-based authenticity while expanding production processes worldwide, utilising donkeys from places like Africa as raw material. Tong’s story, with which I began, sheds light on the various lives influenced and connections forged by this modern ‘traditional’ medicine. It was not until two years after meeting Tong, in a conversation with an investor in a donkey slaughterhouse in northern Kenya, that I learned that her cautiousness in the summer of 2016 had helped her avoid a classic scam targeting Chinese businesspeople visiting Nairobi. Once the scammers receive deposits for hides, they vanish or, even worse, collude with the police (or fake police) to extort the Chinese buyers. Operating on short-term tourist visas and attempting to export animal products from Kenya, brokers like Tong are easy targets. In fact, the sheer number of these Chinese brokers who have descended on the city seeking hides has given rise to this type of scam.

While I was in Kenya, Chinese acquaintances frequently asked me for information and opinions about this business, as many newcomers wanted to join the industry. Conversely, my Kenyan interlocutors were curious about why Chinese people desired African donkey hides and why they needed so many. This essay has addressed one facet of this question, showing how the demand for donkey hides is not driven by an ancient Chinese medical recipe. Rather, the relationship between ejiao and donkeys worldwide has been gradually established through the modern industrialisation and commodification of Chinese medicine. However, revisiting the heterogeneous histories is not an illustration of the irretrievable loss of authenticity in Chinese medicine; such a linear, homogeneous history has never truly existed. Instead, as Scheid (2002: 53) has suggested, the histories that are now ignored by the ejiao industry have not disappeared and have the potential to ‘interrupt present alignments and offer different futures’.


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Wei Ye is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her dissertation researches the global making of a Chinese medicine, ejiao (donkey-hide gelatine), by tracing the Africa–China donkey-hide commodity chain. She is also the co-founder of the Chinese anthropological platform TyingKnots (结绳志).
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


Volume 2, Issue 1, 2023