The Other Milk: A Q&A with Historian Jia-Chen Fu

In the 1980s, American children were subject to a deluge of advertising punctuated by the tagline “Milk: It Does a Body Good.” The campaign, funded by the dairy industry, encouraged kids to drink milk by emphasizing its contributions to physical development—the calcium and protein contained in the beverage, the ads stated, would help youths grow into big, strong, healthy adults.

This ad campaign could have just as easily been dreamed up by nutritional activists in 1920s China, though they would have put a patriotic twist on the slogan: “Milk: It Does a National Body Good.” As Emory University historian Jia-Chen Fu shows in her new book, The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China (University of Washington Press, 2018), Chinese nutritional scientists and child welfare advocates held a fervent belief in the power of milk. Worried that the country’s children lagged behind those of the United States and Europe in respect to physical growth and strength, nutrition scientists pointed to lower milk consumption as one significant way in which the Chinese diet differed from those in the West. Getting youngsters to drink more milk, packed with proteins and vitamins, was how they hoped to help Chinese children—and, in turn, the Chinese nation as a whole—thrive.

Promoting cow’s milk in China, however, was not realistic: raising dairy cows took too much land and resources, and there were difficulties with safely transporting fresh milk to places beyond major coastal cities. Tinned milk and imported milk powder were far too expensive to be within reach for the vast majority of Chinese citizens. Instead, nutritional activists turned to soybean milk as an economical and readily available alternative.

In The Other Milk, Fu recounts how Republican-era reformers, scientists, and commercial milk producers all spread the gospel of soy. Through advertisements, articles, and milk-distribution campaigns, they taught parents that soy milk was the modern, scientific beverage of choice to give their children. When war broke out with Japan in 1937, resulting in large numbers of refugees around the country, nutritional aid committees distributed soy milk to displaced children, an act that Fu describes as “alimentary defense in the face of national crisis.”

I interviewed Jia-Chen Fu, who received an AAS First-Book Subvention Award for The Other Milk, via email.

MEC: To begin, why did concern about the Chinese diet emerge in the late 19th century, and what did scientists and nutritionists think was wrong with it?

JCF: One of the things I find fascinating about the process of doing historical research is how one’s assumptions going in shift and transform over time. That was the case with the Chinese diet. What I had thought of initially as coherent and self-evident, i.e., “the Chinese diet,” became increasingly amorphous, pliable, depending on who was concerned and when. What makes a diet Chinese? And what counts (or does not count) in a Chinese diet? In the late 19th century, concern about the Chinese diet arose as part of a broader intellectual attempt to understand the composition of everyday life in China. Chinese scientists such as the biochemist Wu Xian used the notion of a “Chinese diet” as a kind of framing device to understand and talk about the deficiencies they saw as rife in the foods that Chinese people ate (and didn’t eat), the ways in which they ate them, and how such foods were produced.

This sounds simple enough, and by the 1920s when Wu Xian was lecturing and researching, it had become increasingly common to encounter talk in newspapers, and popular and scientific journals about the Chinese diet with some regularity. But what would the Chinese diet have been in practice across all regions and among the vast variety of different communities knitting together the geopolitical body of China? Chinese scientists needed the Chinese diet to be both a practicable concept and an analytical framework. It had to be something that was accountable, quantifiable, and comparable, because those were the preconditions of modern legibility. And although it may sound a bit childish, they needed the Chinese diet, because every other modern nation seemed to have one.

Of course, once they had a Chinese diet in this sense, they became very vexed by all the various deficiencies that seemed to characterize the Chinese diet: its over-reliance on grains, its paucity of meat and dairy, its failure to promote growth, its inability to protect against illness and disease, etc., etc. The lack or inadequate amount of protein was especially worrisome, because Chinese nutrition scientists, intellectuals, and social reformers were convinced that a lack of protein had caused Chinese people to be small, weak, and uncompetitive.

MEC: As you signal in the book’s subtitle, the work of Republican-era nutritional activists involved reinventing soy milk in the mind of the Chinese public, since the beverage had been consumed in China for centuries. What was the old image of soybean milk, and how did the scientific and commercial sectors seek to rebrand it in the 20th century?

JCF: Republican-era nutritional activists reinvented soy milk by making it meaningful in new and perhaps unexpected ways to the dictates of modern life. They reinvented it by making it do social and cultural work it hadn’t been obligated to perform. I don’t want to suggest there was a sharp divide between old and new images of soybean milk, wherein the new supplanted the old entirely, but what emerges in the early twentieth century is this idea that soybean milk, because it is high in protein, can solve various nutritional problems plaguing the country’s young. What we see is a redirection and assignment of new importance. Soybean milk as a tonifying drink best served during the winter to nourish ailing, aging bodies became an integral food of childhood consumption, one that might orient a modern bourgeois family as well as strengthen growing bodies. For example, by the late 1920s, we start seeing Chinese physicians and nutrition scientists talking about soybean milk as an infant food or an especially important food that children and adolescents should have. 

MEC: How were government actors involved in promoting the consumption of soy milk, especially among children?

JCF: By the 1930s, we see various local municipal programs in Beiping, Nanjing, and Shanghai promoting soybean milk as infant food, food for the poor, food to combating malnutrition, but in contrast to, say, rice, government involvement in promoting soybeans and soybean milk drinking was less systematic and far from comprehensive. Having said that, the Nationalist government looked to and relied upon the participation of elite scientific personnel who maintained both public- and private-sector identities and connections with the international scientific and philanthropic communities. Doing so allowed the Nationalist government to attach itself to nonstate activism without necessarily having to pay for it.

MEC: You detail the work of the Refugee Children’s Nutritional Aid Committee, which successfully distributed soy milk and soybean cakes to displaced children in Shanghai during the winter of 1937-38. When the committee expanded its work to Southwest China in 1939, however, it ran into difficulties not encountered in Shanghai. What were some of these impediments, and why did activists have trouble raising soy consciousness across the country?

JCF: There were several impediments. In Shanghai, their work was more contained. Refugee camps were discrete sites with a clearly identified population. The Refugee Children’s Nutritional Aid Committee had to figure out how to make and distribute their soybean milk and biscuits to the various campus located throughout the International and French Concessions, but they did not worry about how to identify their intended targets, how to get them to drink or eat, or how to get them to come back.

In contrast, once the committee expanded its work to Southwest China they had all these questions and more. They had to think seriously about what kind of intervention they were seeking to make to people’s everyday lives and habits. Was it enough to get some children in some place to drink soybean milk once, or were they hoping to create a more lasting effect? Was this effect one of routine, i.e., every morning have a bowl of soybean milk before classes begin, for example; one of consciousness, i.e., every morning have a bowl of soybean milk before classes begin, because soybean milk is high in protein and other nutrients; or perhaps one of economy? Did they want children to be the primary targets? If so, how would one reach and appeal to them? Did they want their soybean production and distribution programs to be self-sustaining? How much should they charge per bowl? Should they make accommodations for those without resources to pay?

These are all very practical problems, but they are also social, cultural, linguistic problems that speak to the complexity of institutionalizing new ideas and practices. It was not enough for activists to see themselves and the communities within which they worked as “Chinese”; nor was it enough to assume that science speaks for itself—identity, sympathy, and common cause had to be knitted together bit by bit, and in many instances, certainly with respect to soy consciousness, attempts to shape how people think and act were endeavors fraught with misunderstanding and dissatisfaction.

MEC: In recent decades, the Chinese government has taken up the promotion of milk and framed it as a nation-building project—but instead of soy milk, it’s encouraging citizens to drink cow’s milk (with potentially dire environmental consequences). How does the current campaign represent both continuity and change from what you describe in your book?

JCF: I think we see continuity in a certain line of nutritional thinking. The idea that children must have dairy to grow tall, strong, and fit has not just persisted, it’s become conventional wisdom. This idea was powerful, and continues to be powerful, because of the ways in which nutrition science folds together “scientific” questions with moral judgments about what foods are good and good for you to eat. What we see in the early twentieth century was an attempt to produce a counter-narrative in which soybean milk was as good and moral as cow’s milk. It didn’t work, but that doesn’t make the attempt any less worthwhile or fascinating for what it suggests about our different moments in time.

MEC: Finally, what are you spending your time on now that The Other Milk is completed?

JCF: I did not set out to write food history, as my original interests were tied with histories of medicine and nutrition, but working on The Other Milk has gotten me into food history and questions about how should we think about the field of Chinese food history. It’s been more than forty years since K. C. Chang published Food in Chinese Culture: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, and the research that has come out since then is incredible. I, Michelle King (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Jakob Klein (SOAS) are organizing a conference that will revisit Food in Chinese Culture with the goal of mapping out a companion volume whose focus will be on modern Chinese food and foodways. To prepare, I’ve been rereading Food in Chinese Culture, which I never read cover to cover before, and its construction and organization has got me thinking a lot about what makes certain texts durable and long lasting.

I have also begun working on a project about wartime (1937-1949) Chinese psychology, children, and the history of emotions. The beginnings of a project are always so exciting, but diving headlong into a new project now is quite different from when I was a graduate student. I’m learning how to do research with children, more family responsibilities, greater teaching and professional demands, and it’s challenging. It probably sounds trite, but much of my day is spent trying to navigate and organize these different parts of my life.