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Antimicrobial resistance is widely recognised as a global threat to human health. This paper explores the mobilisation of biomedical concepts and technologies within local semantic registers and addresses the implications of translation and knowledge complexity for attempts to mitigate the problem of antibiotic resistance. In China, antibiotics are frequently prescribed for common complaints and are widely available without prescription. Drawing on field research in three rural counties of one province, we show that current patterns of antibiotic use are the result of sociocultural, economic and systems drivers within a medical context that draws on precepts from both biomedicine and Chinese medical knowledge. Comparative analysis with European settings suggests that pathogenicity, the set of explanatory frameworks regarding the production of disease, varies socio-temporally in the causal mechanisms that are prioritised. Incorporated within diagnostic strategies that direct treatment towards the bodily response to infection rather than to the infecting pathogen, ‘anti-inflammatory medicine’ as the popular term for antibiotics in parts of Asia foregrounds physiological process over microbial invasion. We examine the articulation of biomedical knowledge paradigms within a non-Pasteurian milieu in relation to socio-historical process, including hybridisation between ontologically distinct medical traditions and the heterogeneity of scientific knowledge claims that underpin contemporary practices of antibiotic prescribing. We conclude that the concept of inflammation functions as a boundary object which effectively mediates the interfaces between popular knowledges, biomedical sciences and local medical practices. Our analysis may have wide relevance because popular and scientific understandings of inflammation alike draw on metaphors grounded in universal sensory experience that provides a common basis for culturally diverse conceptual elaboration. Situated understandings of inflammation and associated treatment preferences constitute a contextually coherent response to available medical technologies in community health care. Our analysis also calls into question simplistic interpretations of antibiotic use for non-bacterial conditions as deriving from lack of education or public awareness and suggests a need to reconsider current public health knowledge translation strategies.