Stewart on Fu, 'The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China'

Jia-Chen Fu
Spencer Stewart

Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018. xi + 276 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74403-2; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-295-74404-9. 

Reviewed by Spencer Stewart (University of Chicago) Published on H-Environment (March, 2021) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version:

The final pages of Jia-chen Fu’s The Other Milk present us with a postcard from Republican China (1912-49) depicting a family of soybeans driving a dairy cow through the front gates of a museum. The image is striking in its representation of an alternative modernity where soybean milk has reduced cow’s milk to a relic of the past. In response to Western discourses on nutrition science that emphasized the value of meat and milk, Chinese scientists and nutrition activists promoted soybean milk as a modern and hygienic substitute to cow’s milk. Not everyone bought into this vision of a future dominated by soybean milk. Many saw soy as a practical and temporary alternative that should be consumed while China developed its own dairy industry. But together they recast soy products and soybean milk as a modern, scientific, and industrial good—the “Cow of China” that was vital to the nutritional edification of China as a people and a nation.

It might seem odd that soy needed reinventing in China given that it has been grown and consumed from as early as 1000 BCE. However, chapter 1 shows that soy was traditionally viewed as a famine crop, fertilizer base, and source of oil. The discovery of its larger economic and industrial value began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, soy rose in prominence due to the growth of the Manchurian soybean industry and the construction of the first soybean processing plant just outside of Paris in 1909 by soybean visionary Li Shizeng (1881-1973). Li’s venture was short-lived due to the economic depression that followed World War I. He was nevertheless instrumental in introducing a wide variety of soy products to a French audience and illustrating for his compatriots at home the industrial and even nutritional potential of soy.

Moving beyond soy’s industrial and commercial promise, Fu shows that it was the emergence of nutrition science and the construction of a “Chinese diet” that popularized soy’s hygienic and nutritional value in the following decades (chapter 2). The notion of a “Chinese diet” emerged from the exploration and at times mockery of Chinese dietary habits by Westerners and young Chinese intellectuals who viewed diet as interconnected with racial vitality. Nutrition scientists, such as MIT graduate Wu Xian (1893-1959), argued that if diet produced the characteristics of the Chinese people, then a careful study could provide a blueprint for racial and national progress. Wu and his colleagues conducted experiments and social surveys to translate the Chinese diet into the scientific language of calories, carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (chapter 3). They attributed Chinese dietary inadequacies—and by extension the source of racial weakness—to vegetarianism and the lack of animal proteins obtained from meat and dairy. Fu points out that their choice to emphasize proteins over vitamin deficiencies demonstrates Chinese agency in selectively engaging with global discourses on health. The progress of the nation and its people toward wealth and power, they argued, relied on proper protein consumption.

China’s lack of a sizable dairy industry presented an obstacle to Wu’s emphasis on the value of animal-based proteins. Such individuals as pediatric physician Ernest Tso proposed a Chinese path to the Western “gospel of milk” that relied on soy as a source of protein (chapter 4). Their research argued that soybean milk was more practical than cow’s milk given its cheaper price, greater accessibility, and comparable nutrient contents. Chapter 5 explores how soybean milk companies sought to transform traditional soybean milk (doujiang) into something modern and scientific (dounai or douru). Changes in advertisements over time reflected a larger discursive shift as children and infants became the key target of nutritional reform. While advertisements in the 1920s often drew on traditional Daoist elements of longevity and the qi-nourishing power of soybean milk that would have appealed to the elderly, advertisements in the 1930s and 1940s increasingly depicted soybean milk as key to producing happy and robust children.

Wartime China (1937-45) provided an opportunity for the promotion of soybean milk as it was used to battle malnutrition in Shanghai’s refugee camps (chapter 6). The approach of these nutrition scientists-turned-activists differed from previous dynasties, which had prioritized grain distribution during times of famine. The rise of nutritional science and the notion of malnutrition instead led scientists and activists to emphasize the importance of specific nutrients, especially proteins (grain-rich diets were viewed as insufficient). The work in Shanghai’s refugee camps laid a blueprint for greater Shanghai and even southwest China (chapter 7). After working in the Shanghai refugee camps from 1939 to 1942, the young American Chinese nutrition activist Nellie Lee attempted to promote scientific soybean milk in southwest China. These efforts, Fu argues, were ultimately unsuccessful and unsustainable as it was difficult to replicate their efforts beyond the controlled conditions of Shanghai’s refugee camps. Lee and her colleagues struggled to overcome a lack of infrastructure, a decentralized population of children, and a general lack of interest among locals. Given this lack of popular interest, it remains unclear the extent to which changing discourses on soy traveled beyond the scientists, nutrition activists, and soy enthusiasts discussed in the book. This, combined with the rise of China’s dairy industry in recent decades, suggests social, cultural, and temporal limits to the reinvention of soy that deserves further exploration.

Overall, The Other Milk provides a valuable framework for thinking about the history of science, technology, and medicine in Republican China and the impact of modern science in the Global South more broadly. In describing the history of soy and nutrition science, Fu avoids writing the sort of history that articulates science and medicine in twentieth-century China as either a Western import or a modern manifestation of traditional knowledge. The reinvention of soybean milk paints a far more complicated picture in that the arrival of nutrition science and hegemonic discourses regarding proper health and diet did not preclude significant local adaptation and innovation. Fu does an excellent job at introducing us to a variety of lesser-known figures in Chinese history while also presenting the material in a way that is accessible to a general academic audience. The Other Milk is a satisfying dive into the world of soy that will appeal to those interested in Republican China, food history, and the history of science, technology, and medicine.

Citation: Spencer Stewart. Review of Fu, Jia-Chen, The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021. URL:

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