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  • The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China by Jia-Chen Fu
  • Sau-Wa Mak Veronica (bio)
Jia-Chen Fu. The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018. xi, 276. Paperback $30.00, ISBN 978-0-295-74403-2.

This significant book offers a refreshing new approach to the study of China through a discussion of soybean milk, nutrition, and nutrition scientists from the late nineteenth century to post-socialist China. Jia-Chen Fu has clearly put in a lot of effort to produce a book that covers many areas. She analyzes food and nutrition scientists in relation to the Chinese modernization project and China's relationship to global modernity and imperialism, and thus the book is about food, health, modernity, and nation-building.

The concept of "reinventing soy" runs through the book in response to the questions of how the Chinese diet was defined as "an inadequate one that imperiled the nation and how a local foodstuff was reinterpreted, rediscovered, and reassigned social and scientific meanings in an attempt to solve the [End Page 300] problem of inadequacy during the first half of the 20th century" (p. 5). The author views the history of soybean milk through the lens of local gazettes and other documentary records. The book is divided into seven chapters, preceded by an excellent introduction that sets out the historical and cultural issues.

Chapter 1 describes how the soybean, originally domesticated in China, became a modern commodity in the global market by the turn of the twentieth century, referring particularly to Li Shizeng's technological innovations in making soybean products in Paris. Fu maintains that in the emergence of the global soy trade, "soybeans had accrued a variegated cast of meanings: famine food, fertilizer, animal feed, export commodity, and a base for industrial products such as soap and paint, as well as a modern superfood whose credentials were supported by science" (p. 39). These multiple forms and functions enabled the soybean to become a hot commodity in the European and American markets. It is interesting to discover that the immediate beneficiary of the burgeoning global trade in soybeans, as a source of oil in particular, was not China but Japan, whose "improved transportation infrastructure and system of banking and credit undergirded the soybean trade from Manchuria to the rest of the world" (p. 28). It was in this context that Li's soybean experiment in Paris set the stage for the development of soybean milk in China.

Chapter 2 describes the role of modern knowledge in overcoming the cultural bias that associated dietary patterns with race and personality traits. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Anglo-American writers, including James Harrison Wilson and Arthur Smith, tended to describe the Chinese diet as "unhealthy" and lacking in "fastidiousness" and it was associated with unsophisticated characters who did "not recognize or practice the value of punctuality, accuracy, sympathy or sincerity" (p. 55). To challenge this racial stigma by making use of modern science, Chinese intellectuals conducted quantitative dietary surveys in metropolitan centers to account for individual and national vigor.

Chapter 3 describes the process of building a scientific argument for Chinese nutritional inadequacy. Fu discusses the rat-feeding experiments and dietary studies conducted by Chinese biochemists Luo Dengyi, Zheng Ji, and Wu Xian during the 1920s and 1930s. These nutrition activists argued that "what the Chinese diet lacked were 'good' proteins from protective foods" (p. 81). They were keen to represent the Chinese diet in biochemical terms so that "it could be compared with other national diets, and it could serve as a gauge by which to evaluate China's standing within an emerging capitalist world order that fetishized qualities like efficiency and productivity. But once translated into calories, carbohydrates, proteins and fats, the Chinese diet also emerged as a technical problem that the Chinese themselves were equipped to solve" (p. 87).

Chapter 4 describes how soybean milk became an essential food for children's growth and development, substituting for the cow's milk that was [End Page 301] prized as the essential protective food among the Western scientific community. The presence of cow's milk in local...


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