Material Culture between Italy and China: Food, Fashion, and Architecture

Completed 2020. This research was financially supported by the Institute for European Studies.

Project Name:

“Material Culture between Italy and China: Food, Fashion, and Architecture”


Gaoheng Zhang, (Assistant Professor of Italian Studies, FHIS) (PI)

Research Assistant: Han Fei, (PhD candidate in French Studies, FHIS)


$2,000 IES Research Support


This project will be the base of four chapters in a larger book project that Dr. Zhang has undertaken, tentatively titled “Migration and Culture: Mobility Between Contemporary China and Italy via USA.” In these chapters, Dr. Zhang will examine three case studies of material culture that circulate between Italy and China, which represent significant examples of how migration interacts with culture. These examples will then provide the basis to refine current theoretical and methodological approaches of studying migration and culture more generally.

While Chinese food in Italy was brought by migrants and became the country’s first widely-available non-Italian cuisine, Italian food was the first non-Asian food that gained a distinctive identity in China, first through Italian American chain restaurants and, later on, Italian migrant-managed restaurants. The Chinese migrant-managed garment sector in Prato has been Italy’s and Europe’s foremost manufacturing site for fast fashion, and it has provoked acute social anxiety and politically-driven media debates. Since the 2000s, China has been the largest buyer of higher-end “Made in Italy” fashion outside of the West, the advertising of which at times evokes a quasi-colonial and Orientalist fantasy that asserts superior Italian fashion taste over “Made in China” garments.

For architecture and urban planning, the project focuses on two cases of Italian components transported to Chinese milieus. First, it examines the construction and promotion of the Italian concession in Tianjin in the 1930s, as well as its 2000s transformation into an Italian culture and entertainment hub led by both Italian and Chinese architects. Second, it analyzes Chinese imitations of Venice and compares them with similar constructions in the United States. Dr. Zhang hopes to show the symbolic competition between China and the US through consumption of Italian culture.

The analysis of cuisine, fashion, and architecture required, considers a wide range of primary materials (from archives to visual materials) and several types of migration (e.g., human migration and migration of architectural motifs and significances; mass-scale Chinese migrations and elite Italian migrations), laying grounds for further theorizing of the two key words. The Institute for European Studies’ Summer Research Grant supported this research and facilitated the hiring of a graduate research assistant.

The GRA assisted Dr. Zhang in two main tasks throughout July and August 2020. Han built three bibliographies of primary and secondary materials corresponding to cuisine, clothing, and architecture/urban planning. Each of these bibliographies contains around 50 articles/books and other materials (such as websites). They worked under time restraint because Dr. Zhang needed the references in a relatively short time period so that he was able to write right away. She researched mostly in English and in Chinese, but they also capitalized on her French ability to find materials that would constitute a comparative angle to Italian exports in China in all three areas. Most of the RA hours were spent on researching this.

Han was also responsible for re-designing the website:, which is ongoing. Dr. Zhang have been working with three persons on this project, the other two being the writers of the sections.  Han has already begun re-organizing the sections on the website, as they wait for the drafts of the writings to be finalized in November 2020.