The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust soap back in the limelight: Of all the hypothesized solutions to viral transmission — from big data-powered contact tracing to disinfectant injections — few are as scientifically supported or as effective as simply washing your hands.
But in making soap a near life-or-death necessity, the coronavirus has also highlighted the real value of access to and control over this oft-underappreciated household product. With countries around the world vowing to hedge future disruptions by reshoring health and medicine manufacturing capacity, I am reminded of the early history of China’s own modern soap industry, an unexpectedly muddy tale of economic nationalism, corporate espionage, and global commerce.
The Chinese word for soap predates the country’s first modern soaps by almost a millennium. Traditionally, residents of North China used the buds of the Chinese honey locust, known as zaojia, to freshen up. However, after the fall of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127), refugees who had fled south to the country’s new capital in the eastern city of Hangzhou were cut off from their supply. Instead, they found locals using a type of fruit pod called “fatty beads,” or fei zhuzi. Since the bead pod flesh was fattier and thicker than their more familiar Chinese honey locusts, northerners took to calling them feizao: “fatty Chinese honey locusts.”
Neither product would meet modern standards for what constitutes “soap.” In truth, they had more in common with ointments. Sellers often fashioned them into pills and added various Chinese herbs meant to treat skin conditions or whiten the skin. Over the ensuing centuries, similar products made of jasmine flowers and “sweet-scented osmanthus pig pancreas balls” gradually grew in popularity.
An ad for Sunlight Soap, a Lever Brothers product, published in Eastern Miscellany. From Kongfz.com
Western-style animal fat-based soaps would not become a commodity in China until the forced opening of its ports to international trade in the 19th century. At first, Westerners brought the bars to China for their own use, but after soap was included on a list of duty-free imports in 1859, foreign merchants began selling them, too. Their primary customers were foreigners living in China, though a few Chinese merchants and liberal thinkers also bought them as a fashionable gift for their friends.
By 1870, shoppers could find soap on sale even at street stalls, yet it remained foreign to the average Chinese. Even in 1888, Western travelers in China remarked on finding bars of soap for sale that had been cut into 32 pieces by the vendor — seemingly to satisfy ordinary people’s curiosity toward the new product.
The interior of China Soap Company's workshop. Courtesy of Shanghai Library
That same year, British merchants opened the country’s first soap factory in Shanghai. Their brand, Gossages’ Soap, would dominate the domestic market for the next four decades, despite gradually tougher competition from other foreign-owned manufacturers.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese merchants and bureaucrats were displeased with this state of affairs, but they struggled to do anything about it. As early as the late 19th century, Chinese entrepreneurs made efforts to form their own factories. In 1889, Xu Huafeng, son of the famous late Qing dynasty (1644-1912) mathematician Xu Shou, started selling a soap under the “Xiangqi” brand, but the factory soon failed.
Xu was just the first of many. As the decaying Qing government introduced reforms meant to modernize the economy, Chinese merchants became increasingly enthusiastic about running their own soap factories. In the first decade of the 20th century, more than 80 modern soap and candle enterprises opened in eastern China alone. The majority were small in scale, however, and most soon went out of business due to mismanagement.
China’s soap industry would be without a “national champion” until 1921, when Xiang Songmao, a merchant from the eastern city of Ningbo took over the Koo Pun Soap Works. Originally a German-funded enterprise, Koo Pun first opened in Shanghai’s Xujiahui area in 1908. When China sided with the Allies during World War I, German businessmen had to entrust the company to Chinese agents before they were repatriated.
After undergoing several management transitions, the company in 1921 transferred ownership to Xiang, a successful businessman and general manager of the Shanghai Wuzhou Pharmacy. Xiang rebranded Koo Pun as the “Shanghai Wuzhou Koo Pun Soap Factory.” But he faced a conundrum which many later Chinese entrepreneurs could likely recognize: Foreign-owned companies all had patented soap manufacturing processes, which Xiang lacked. In order to produce a homegrown Chinese soap, Xiang personally travelled to Japan to study the process — and sent staff to work undercover at the British-run China Soap Company’s factory to acquire their secrets.
Xiang also had a flair for marketing. Gossages’ continued to dominate China’s market, so he organized a high-profile in-store comparison test, placing a bar of each brand — Gossages’ and his updated Koo Pun formula — in a separate bowl of clear water. The Gossages’ soap dissolved, while the bar of Koo Pun remained intact.
A Wuzhou Koo Pun Soap ad. Courtesy of Shanghai Library
The gambit helped spread Koo Pun’s reputation as having high-quality and durable soap. As nationalist sentiment soared in the wake of World War I, Koo Pun further benefitted from boycotts of foreign goods in the 1920s and seized the Chinese market.
But the real beneficiaries of this competition were ordinary Chinese. The war for market shares corresponded with a seismic shift in Chinese concepts of cleanliness, as well as their cleaning habits. Manufacturers touted the efficacy of soap and its contributions to “cleanliness,” “hygiene,” and “skin care,” while catchy slogans subtly changed public attitudes.
As a result, the interwar period saw soap become a necessity for many Chinese households. This was also when notions that soap can disinfect and protect against disease took root in the public consciousness — a lesson that’s still paying off today.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A Gossages’ Soap ad. From Kongfz.com)