Over the past two months, Chinese concerned about the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic have turned to a wide range of products for protection, from hand sanitizer to traditional Chinese medicine. Some of these, such as the popular folk remedy Shuanghuanglian, have long histories in China; but another common prophylactic is of a much more recent vintage.
On Feb. 8, the National Health Commission suggested consuming at least 300 grams of milk products a day as one of its dietary recommendations for fending off the disease. And on Feb. 15, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, The Paper, reported that, in addition to staples like hand sanitizer and face masks, a Shanghai cab company was giving its drivers milk rations.
Milk surfacing as a go-to remedy in the country during a public health crisis shows just how far the beverage has come in the past century and a half. Nomadic groups in northern and northwestern China have consumed dairy products for thousands of years, but for the vast majority of the country, the habit was a side effect of the country’s subjugation by Western powers. Indeed, milk’s actual contents have often been overshadowed in China by geopolitical and nationalist concerns: Fortified by early 20th century theories of nutritional science, advocates promoted dairy as a means to strengthen the country’s body politic and restore its health.
Cow’s milk was first imported into coastal and central China by the Western merchants who trickled into the country after the First Opium War in the mid-19th century. In the southern port city of Guangzhou, Western merchants first tried shipping the drink from neighboring Macao, where the Portuguese had maintained a presence since the 16th century, and a few even tried raising their own cows in the city’s business district.
Ads for milk products in Shanghai media. The ads, published during the 1930s, focused on the drink’s nutritional value. From Kongfz.com
In more remote parts of the country, foreign missionaries sometimes bought local draft animals like yellow cattle or water buffalo to milk, but the low quantities of nigh-undrinkable milk they produced were of little practical use. In bigger cities, like Shanghai, water buffalo milk was diluted, filtered, and steamed before consumption, though only desperate expatriates would touch it.
The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 allowed Ayrshire cattle, originally native to the United Kingdom, to be shipped to China for the first time. The first breed of dairy cows raised in Shanghai, Aryshires were quickly followed by Montbéliarde cattle from France. In the 1870s it was possible to buy locally produced dairy for less than half the price of imported products — and for approximately one-third the cost of a pound of pork.
As the city’s dairy herds grew, milk became more common in the city’s markets. Nevertheless, demand mainly came from expatriates and remained limited until the 20th century, in part because the country lacked the technology and infrastructure needed to safely transport the beverage over long distances. As the ruling Qing dynasty (1644-1912) collapsed, however, some of the intellectuals and patriots debating the best way to restore China came to see milk as an unlikely solution to their problems.
Among the first Chinese to promote dairy consumption were advocates of Westernization, or others who had frequent commercial interactions with Western merchants and missionaries. Sheng Xuanhuai, a prominent and influential late-Qing official with close ties to expatriates, helped legitimize the practice by regularly purchasing milk from Western stores.
A high-ranking official in the Qing state, which was founded by nomadic Manchus, Sheng was accustomed to the court practice of drinking breast milk. As cow’s milk grew more popular, he began mixing the two and routinely consumed half a bottle of cow milk a day. His son, meanwhile, was known as a devoted customer of Culty Dairy Co., a British-owned business in Shanghai.
Left: A 1908 milk bill for Sheng Xuanhai’s family. Courtesy of the Shanghai Library; right: A portrait of Sheng Xuanhuai. From the Archives Bureau of Hubei province
Milk’s nationalist credentials got a boost in the late 1910s, when Western nutritionists began espousing the theory that dairy consumption helped determine a nation’s strength. The American biochemist Elmer V. McCollum argued that eating habits, especially milk consumption, roughly corresponded to a perceived developmental divide between the West and East. Categorizing milk as a “protective” food, McCollum claimed it contributed to the growth of strong nations and advanced civilizations, and his ideas circulated widely in some of China’s contemporary reformist circles.
Cow’s milk could also be liberating. Late-Qing reformers like Yan Fu and Liang Qichao believed a woman’s first duty was to raise her children for the benefit of the nation — a role that included breastfeeding them. As more women sought to leave the home and enter the workforce, cow’s milk became a popular alternative.
In 1913, the Shanghai Municipal Council published data purporting to illustrate the nutritional differences between breast milk, cow’s milk, and soy milk. While the council’s report was relatively neutral on the benefits of bovine dairy, commercial entities seized on the supposed nutritional advantages of cow’s milk as a marketing strategy.
Soon, major Chinese newspapers were filled with advertisements for dairy products and claims about the benefits of drinking milk. Powdered milk manufacturer Huimin even sponsored a serialized comic in Shanghai’s most popular newspaper, in part to reach its not wholly literate middle- and lower-class readers.
Left: A mobile billboard operated by a milk company in Shanghai, 1934. Courtesy of the Shanghai Library; Right: An ad run by a state-operated dairy factory in the 1950s. From Kongfz.com
By the late 1930s, milk was firmly established as a healthy and fashionable beverage in China — though it remained unaffordable for most Chinese. Even fashion magazines included lengthy articles on milk production and sales, and a number of Chinese actresses mimicked Hollywood beauty regimens by bathing in milk.
Given China’s particular experiences in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the actual health and nutritional benefits of milk consumption have often been outweighed by social and political considerations. Although it has lost most of these connotations today, it’s worth remembering dairy was once more than just a symbol of a modern, healthy lifestyle: It was a means of restoring the Chinese nation to health.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: An ad published by a state-operated dairy factory in the 1950s. From Kongfz.com)