Anxiety of Food Nationalism: Dilemmas of Bordering in the Vietnam-Taiwan Tea Trade

Author:  Po-Yi Hung (Geography , NTU) & Yu-Hsiu Lien (Geography , NTU)

Publisher: The Geographical Journal, 186(2): 186-197.


In Taiwan, bentu (or bendi ) is a term emphasizing local food and agriculture, similar to “localness” in the concept of local food systems (LFS ). The term also demonstrates the complex, inseparable relationship between local food movements and food nationalism in Taiwan. This paper examines the politics of bentu in Taiwan’s food movements in order to reconsider the relationship between the relocalization of agri‐food systems and the politics of bordering regarding food nationalism. This approach chimes with recent scholarship concerned with relocating border studies, in political geography in particular, and provides a way of critically understanding the borderwork that takes place beyond the national borders. We use the case of the tea trade between Vietnam and Taiwan to illustrate how borders around bentu food products can be simultaneously porous and fixed. During the 1990s Taiwanese entrepreneurs and tea merchants established tea plantations and factories in Vietnam to meet increasing Taiwanese market demand. However, Vietnamese tea has been stigmatized as inferior due to concerns about pesticide residue and quality control. Yet while bentu protectionists of Taiwanese tea have drawn and re‐drawn the symbolic and spatial borders to constrain the mobility of Vietnamese tea, tea producers in Vietnam have practised a variety of strategies to re‐mobilize their tea to cross spatial and symbolic borders into Taiwan. Thus, we argue, the “movement” of bentu food encompasses two dimensions: a social movement to fix the boundaries of local tea for food nationalism, and movement as the discrepant patterns of mobility of both humans and non‐humans – tea producers and tea trees in our case – that can challenge attempts to shore up a purified vision of the bentu . As such, bentu has been a mechanism for the construction of a symbolically distinct but spatially blurred space for Taiwanese tea.

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