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Jia-Chen Fu

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SJ Zanolini


Yifan Wang


We're your hosts SJ Zanolini and Yifan Wang.


Together, we are in conversation with Dr. Jia-Chen Fu, an associate professor of Chinese at Emory University. We are discussing her 2018 monograph The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. Not only is soy milk such a ubiquitous modern staple that it deserves historicization in its own right, but Fu uses this topic as a lens into the broader development of modern biomedical nutritional understanding in China. Here is our conversation.


The following resources are additional references made in this conversation. 

Works by Jia-Chen Fu,


Other works on soy and/or milk,

  • Susan Glosser, “Milk for Health, Milk for Profit: Shanghai’s Chinese Dairy Industry under Japanese Occupation.” In Inventing Nanjing Road: Commercial Culture in Shanghai, 1900-1945, edited by Sherman Cochran, 207-233 (Cornell University East Asia Program, 1999).

  • Angela Leung on “The Becoming of Modern Chinese Soy Sauce,”


Other histories of food, diet, nutrition and agriculture in China,

  • Eugene Anderson, The Food of China (Yale University Press, 1988)

  • Francesca Bray, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 6.2: Agriculture (Cambridge University Press, 1984)

  • K.C. Chang, Food in Chinese Culture (Yale University Press, 1977)

  • Sigrid Schmalzer, Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Histories of Scientific Farming in China (University of Chicago, 2016)

  • Hilary A. Smith, Forgotten Disease: Illnesses Transformed in Chinese Medicine (Stanford University Press, 2017)


Other references,



So in prepping for this interview, Yifan and I actually reached back and looked up your dissertation, and realized that your dissertation is framed around telling this much broader story about public health and the role of nutritional advocacy within public health efforts in the Republican period. And so I was wondering, in the shift in polishing your dissertation into a book manuscript, at what point did you decide to focus on soy milk specifically?



Yeah, it's funny, because I think most people I’ve talked about, with respect to the book, haven’t gone back and looked at my dissertation, which is good and bad in some ways. On the one hand, it is true, it's actually like, they are sort of two different entities. They're connected, but they're not the same. And I think part of what had happened is, when I had been working on the dissertation, I was interested in two big things. One was changing ideas about the physical body, and how that actually happens. So if you've got pre-existing systems of knowledge and practices that help manifest the body in certain ways, then when you introduce these other sciences and techniques, like what then happens in terms of most people's reckoning? And that's not something I think that I necessarily answered in any way. But that was definitely a motivation when I began working on my dissertation. And then the other thing that I had been really interested in, which is, again, sort of related to the body, were sort of specifically medical techniques on the body in some sense. 


So when I got into my dissertation project, I was in certain ways, much more enamored, and also sort of knee deep in a particular set of theoretical discourses and bodies of scholarship, which made a lot of sense at the time for me to work through, and think through, and come to terms with in some sense. But when I finished the dissertation, I remember… [chuckles]  she's lovely, I won't actually name her because it would make her sound really terrible. But when she said this to me it was actually one of those comments, which is entirely negative when you hear it, but somehow, when you get it, you process it and start to think of productive ways to deal with it. And her point was, you spent all this time thinking about, and looking into, and trying to talk about nutrition, and in particular malnutrition, because that's what things get oriented around, and she's like, but nobody wants to read a book about malnutrition. It would be the most depressing, terrible thing to have to endure. And I was like, yeah. [laughter] Usually, if people are tackling malnutrition it is within some framework where there's usually a plus side, like there's a happy ending, and that wasn't really something I was gonna get into. But it forced me to think a little bit carefully about the question of narrative and storytelling in terms of the work that I was doing. 


I graduated, then I had this postdoc. I did a lot of reading. And I was reading adjacent to my field, and also like, completely different from my field. And I was really just trying to think through having spent all this time working on this dissertation, what exactly was the human story that I was interested in? And it struck me that what ended up happening was that there was a convergence point, and the convergence point ended up being around a particular food. And so then I had to explain, well, why were these people so interested? And what was motivating them to take soybean milk seriously in a way that they didn't necessarily have cause to do before? 


And so that's kind of what happened. In a sense, it was like, the time that I was working on the dissertation was probably more reflective of me just trying to understand lots of different fields and getting into archival material and working my way through a certain set of connections. But then when I had to think about it as an actual book it became, in certain ways, maybe more conventional. I sort of went back to thinking a little bit more carefully about what kinds of stories am I actually invested in telling? And that's not to say that people who do very theory driven whatever, that they're not also storytelling. It's just that, at least for the material that I was working with, that wasn't exactly the story that I thought would be most compelling.



That's fascinating to hear you say, because as I was reading through your book, I was thinking of famine histories, and how different it was to read the reverse; a positive take on the intervention that was applied. It gives an uplift in a way that… most famine history, there isn't uplift. It's a story of suffering.



It is true. It's funny, because I've been in conversations with Michel King and Jacob Klein, whom I'm working with on this Modern Chinese Foodways project, and in some sense, there's clearly a body of literature around famine. And for good reason, because both Imperially and into the Republican period, even if arguably state capacity changes quite dramatically, such that the Imperial state’s ability, even the Republican state’s ability, and now the PRC state's ability to really deal with famines has changed quite dramatically over time. Nevertheless, the idea of famine has clearly been a component of governance that we can sort of trace across time. And in our conversations, it really struck me that maybe part of what needs to be unpacked, like when we think about the 20th century in particular, it's not so much how does the state deal with famine, per se, but how does questions of scarcity gets rewritten into new patterns that actually emphasize excess and over abundance? 


Because even within contemporary terms, scarcity is actually a huge driver in terms of state policy now. In terms of food, in terms of population management, and in terms of allocation of resources. And for that reason, there's still more than we could do thinking through the question of scarcity, even if it doesn't have the framing of a famine anymore. But, you know, it's still nonetheless important for us to grapple with.



Yes, that's great. I think it's perfect to tack on to this idea of continuity. So in the epilogue, you write about how today's belief in this almost transhistorical centrality of tofu across China, and you write, “reaffirms the conceptual integrity of the Chinese diet.” And so one thing we were wondering is that, do you think your narrative would shift greatly, or would you be able to present a different kind of story, had you focused on tofu instead of soy milk? And what kind of stories of continuity or conceptual integrity would you be able to tell?



That's actually an interesting question. I don't know exactly what forms the stories would take. I think there are more and more indications that if we break up different soy foods, and then really use them as a kind of lens to think through changes in Chinese society, in terms of Chinese governance, or Chinese economy, that actually we would end up with really different stories to tell. 


So Angela Leung right now has been finishing up a project on soy sauce. And one of the interesting things that she pulls out is that on the one hand, when she goes out and gives talks about soy sauce, this is a canonical, even an iconic kind of foodstuff that people now very closely associate, if not with China than definitely East Asia. Like somehow there's an interlocking piece in terms of this food having a sort of cultural relevance that can stand for a very long standing continuity. Like, Chinese people have had soy sauce for thousands of years. And so oftentimes when she begins her talk, the first question that she runs up against, or the first challenge that is posed to her, is her claim that actually soy sauce, yes, there, we know that it's been around for a long time, but it doesn't really become a popular food, or a food that would be identifiable, until fairly late - really around the late Song period. And then it doesn't become a common food, like something that more than just the elite would have access to, until - this is part of her argument - until really the 18th or 19th centuries, when there are imperialist policy shifts with respect to Manchuria that allow soybeans that are being grown up there to start circulating more broadly throughout the rest of the empire. And with that she starts to build up an argument about how soy sauce - the ways in which both its production and its integration into local dietaries - the way that it moves, it starts to accrue and build up what she calls cultural power. So that it becomes resonant as a food that people can identify with as it becomes increasingly more available, and its past gets rewritten in light of this cultural relevance. And in that sense, how we define the continuity over the course of the long imperial period is actually subject to a lot of ebbs and flows. So it's a food that can be around, but it actually doesn't narrate a singular line from now into the past without problem. 


My guess is that if we shifted our optics and looked at tofu, in certain ways there would be a more interesting tension to sort of play out. Because there's so many different kinds. Tofu, in its actual physical form, and how people eat it, is really quite regionally diverse. It is both everywhere, and so you could say, because it's everywhere, everybody knows it. But on the other hand, the way in which people eat it is actually quite different. And the ways of making it is quite different. And so there's some interesting story there, I think, that one can tell about the tensions between regional, local areas and some organizing political or social or cultural entity that wants to speak for all of those places. 


And my guess is that we could certainly tell the tale like the way that they showed in “[A] Bite of China,” which is to say, you know, the integrity of the whole is made up of the fact that we have all of these regional differences. But arguably, we could probably also narrate a very different story of all the tensions that come into how those differently created, differently eaten foods ended up getting pulled into a tapestry that it may never have been necessarily wanted to be part of. That actually is mixing metaphors, I apologize. Nobody wants to eat tofu in a tapestry. But you know, there's definitely the sense that you could play with the idea of the integrity of Chinese polity through the regional differences of its food, and how that actually pulls us into different local stories that would make the center less coherent, but also all the more interesting because it becomes a fixation and preoccupation of so many people. 



That actually really nicely hits upon the next thing I had wanted to ask you, which is that there's this tension throughout between the universality of soy growth or cultivation in China, and yet the reformers advocat[ed] in your book for a standardization of knowledge around soy. The example that most strongly comes to my mind is Nellie Lee and chapter seven, who in her own words acknowledges that soy was already almost universally grown, soy milk was further considered, and I quote, “a staple food considered most essential to children's diet.” Your analysis actually layers on that her real focus was not on promoting soybeans, but on the scientific translation of the soybean. In other words, reformers were promoting a specific mode of understanding soy milk more than soy milk itself, using scientific analysis as opposed to older empirically derived or folk prevalent types of ideas. I was wondering, do you think it's possible to differentiate the impact of that knowledge campaign around soy milk’s benefits from the actual material impact of resource distribution efforts?



Oh, it's not something I did. But actually, I think you probably could. I don't know how much material has necessarily been preserved per se. But because so many local churches in their relief efforts would oftentimes use soybean milk as a very simple straightforward food that could be made and then distributed, one way to get into would be to look a little bit more carefully at how some of these more local initiatives and church related initiatives actually present it when they distributed. And for them, there may not necessarily - there's a question mark here - but they may not necessarily have been as dependent on a particular scientific rationale for why it is that people should consume soybean milk as well as why they themselves should make it and then distribute it. 


I think one of the interesting aspects of, certainly Nellie Lee and the activities that she was involved in, is that it does speak to a very popular conviction that arises in the Republican period. That a scientific rationale is in and of itself demonstrative of more than just science, but rather, literally a state of being. Like, an elevated state of being that we need to both aspire to, but also sort of help educate people and uplift them too.


I have a senior thesis student right now. She's been reading Linglong. Her thesis topic is trying to explore how this women's magazine actually represents science to its readers. And Linglong being…  you know, it's not a science journal. It's not attempting to be academic, or an elevated source of knowledge, or anything like that. But it is playing with a number of different ideas and introducing new practices and whatever. And one of the things that she struggles with is  - she's like, so many of the pieces, if they do have a kind of scientific cast, they default into using really technical language, which arguably, it's difficult to imagine that a common reader would necessarily be able to understand. 


So for example, in a piece which explains how to get rid of lots of different stains, almost every remedy that they provide involves using some kind of chemical. And they use the translated Chinese characters to indicate that this is a particular chemical. So they're not indicating some common household good that you could pull off your shelf, or go to, or whatever the case may be. So there is clearly an attempt to gesture at a scientific discourse that exists outside of, and somewhat separate from, people's everyday life. And yet, her point was, or her question is, well, if you read this, some people might recognize what this is, but probably most people would kind of read it, and it would just go away. So why would you use these words if probably most people wouldn't understand them? And we were discussing this, and I was thinking, well, I actually kind of wonder if the whole point is just to use those words. It's not actually a question of whether or not the reader fully understands, or can replicate, or reproduce, but rather just the trafficking in those words is in and of itself demonstrative of a certain kind of participation, a certain kind of entry into this modern scientific world. 


And foods are interesting for that reason. Because on the one hand, we have both that mix of very immediate, very material, and also, arguably, seemingly obvious objects, which nonetheless can also take on the cast of scientific allure. Like when we stop talking about them necessarily as food, but rather as nutrients. Or if we start talking about certain kinds of efficacy, and eating them in certain ways, or whatever. And I do wonder if sometimes it's both the exposure, and just the presence that in and of itself starts to set up this framework of science that makes it so important. So getting outside of that framework, I think is definitely possible. But it probably would require looking a little bit more carefully. I mean, almost everyone I've looked at, they were clearly invested in science. But for other people who may not necessarily have been, it would be interesting, actually, to explore, you know, do they still take on some of those at least superficial aspects? Or do they actually start to, in a sense, reinvent, or twist and turn the categories in other ways one wouldn't have expected?



That's just beautifully said, because initially I wanted to ask a question about why the scientists that you write about seem to be so actively engaged in public writing and public education in so many ways. And although the kinds of translational work that they do might be problematic, they still seem to be so motivated to convey their ideas to the public. That kind of act today we'll call public writing. But now after, especially after the case of Linglong, and this kind of use of such terminologies, I wonder, would you actually call that kind of writing public writing in the first place?



That's a good question. I mean, it could be that we need a little bit more sophistication. A little bit more nuance in terms of the ways in which, these scientists that I talked about, like Wu Xian, for example, or Hou Xiangchuan, when they're writing, how much of that we might identify as public writing? How much of it might be a certain kind of performative writing? And how much of it might be just engaging other people of their same backgrounds? And those don't have to be the only three categories. But we could just start there. 


I think that oftentimes, for someone like Hou Xiangchuan, he was based in Shanghai for a much longer period than most of, actually, any of the other scientists that I talk about. And he does do some amount of newspaper editorial writing, as well as answer questions. You know, like, you can write your questions to the newspaper, and then either the editor or some special guests will come in and answer your questions. And so he, as well as his other colleague, Bernard Read, sometimes in the newspapers they would answer housewives’ questions. So if I'm at home, and I'm working with these sorts of materials, how can I make a healthy nutritious meal, or something like that? I think in those instances, I'm not sure I would actually call those public - well, they’re public writing, but their engagement there is still a little bit different. 


If we were thinking about them as intellectuals who are sort of mapping out or trying to articulate new public spaces by which to demonstrate, and in a sense, perform their scientific credentials. Then I think when they are writing in this very specific format, like somebody's written to a newspaper, and asked a question, and they're responding, I think in that instance, they are engaging at a certain… They're engaging in a certain way, which is of course pedagogic, but that is built more on the idea of immediacy and emotional connection. And there, maybe the most important thing is actually not to communicate the hard nugget of, like, ‘you need to really think carefully about the kinds of foods that you're putting into the diet or whatever,’ but really just to kind of, like, ‘how do I mold your everyday life in a way that sort of makes sense to you.’ In contrast, when they actually write up lectures, and when they reprint lectures that they've given to special societies like women's groups, or a local lecture that they've invited the public to, I think those instances they are foregrounding their expertise in a slightly different way which isn't dependent upon the emotional connection that they create with whoever's asked the question. Like, they're acting in a way that’s sort of meant to elevate and set them up a little bit higher.


And then when they are trying to argue specific… So like, Hou Xiangchuan, when he writes about the value of, say, traditional Chinese medicine, or if he's thinking about older dietetic ideas, I think there we enter into a different kind of performative sphere where he's really trying to demarcate a line between what is appropriately sanctioned knowledge versus stuff that exists everywhere, but is really not something you should depend upon. And in that sense, I guess another way to think through what was going on is the way in which they are trying to articulate science in a variety of different mediums. To make it compelling, and make it resonant for the different people that they're interacting with. 


I guess what's interesting, at least from our contemporary vantage point, is that I'm not sure that we feel that same impetus to try and communicate it in all these different ways. Like, I think we definitely - we engage in more professional academic ways. I don't know if your universities are into this. But I know Emory has a whole initiative where they're trying to help both faculty, postdocs and graduate students to write editorial columns that will appear in the New York Times or whatever. And so there's definitely a bid to shape public opinion. But I actually don't think that the endeavor ever really goes beyond to try and establish an emotional connection with people in a more immediate sense as to like, what their everyday lives would entail. And how a little bit of science, in whatever little form, might come into it and sort of alter it. And maybe that's just because our own relationship with science is so different now than it would have been, say, in the early 20th century. But, yeah, sorry, I think I might have lost the original question. [laughter]



No, no, it's great. And it does make me think more, especially in terms of - what is our relation with science nowadays? Right? What is that difference?



I feel like the whole pandemic, that's the big question. 






Even when someone like, say, President Biden comes along and he's like, ‘we are going to rely on science’ - as opposed to whatever we were relying on before. I don't know. It's funny, because I think that when we're looking at China, the dominant sense certainly had been that much of the Republican period, or the late Imperial-Republican period, it's not that they didn't really have science. They had scientism, right? They had this sort of ardent, emotional idea, but they didn't really have science because either they were lacking the institutional setup, or they were lacking the personnel, or whatever. But I sometimes wonder if actually that's gotten us a little bit back to front. 


So, some of the work that has been done on, say, grassroots science in the early 20th-century United States. Or even more recently, with Sigrid Schmaltzer’s work on tu and yang. I think, the institutional and the epistemic ways - if we can say that science has a clearly defined epistemological approach to thinking about the world, which is arguably also a little bit hard, because different sciences do different things. But nevertheless that, at some level, the professionalization of science has actually skewed our understanding of how much more variable and intertwined it was with different sectors of life that sort of go beyond obviously academic or pedagogical situation. So people could be in a sense confronted and dealing with science in ways that don't map on to that very clear cut history of training in very specific fields, and then, through school, like the introduction through curricula, and then through training programs, and then professions, and so forth. But rather it's seeping in, in all these various strange ways, just because so long as the emotional attachment or the emotional allure is there, it's coming in a whole variety of different forms. And maybe in that sense, there's more to say, really, about the complexity and the diversity of different kinds of sciences. Certainly in the Republican period, but also around the world at this time period. 


So that I mean, in that sense, I feel like we probably haven't actually solved that problem. We're still battling with the problem that since science was never singular, it was always pluralistic, and complicated, and even contradictory to certain degrees. But because of the broader conviction that it has to be singular, or that in its singularity, that gives us some kind of essential truth, or access to truth, that has made it harder for us to then deal with all the uncertainties that actually are attendant. And actually quite productive to the ways in which we can understand and approach the world, even if it doesn't feel so good at the time.



That is a beautiful answer. And I think you touch on how this work, this exploration of the plurality of science, still reads so contemporary. So one of the things that I was thinking when I was reading is why this book reads so relevant today. I thought it was because food is still regarded as this everyday frontline of modernization, even today. And I wonder whether we're still witnessing a very similar kind of struggle over the knowledge about food, and science in general, one that especially manifests in the generational division of understandings of food. 


So the reason I'm thinking about this is that my own research locates in urban nursing homes in China, where you see young dieticians, they plan for meals based on nutritional values. And yet they explain the value of this carefully planned food in the language of popular Chinese medicine to the older residents. 



Oh, interesting interesting.



Right? So it's especially interesting that the residents there, in many ways, they are the generations of children that you write about. They grew up before the new China. So we were thinking,  if modernization is predicated upon such a scientific understanding of food, and modernization itself is such a linear trajectory, why are we still witnessing the same tension between science and traditional understanding of food today? 



It’s interesting.  I love the idea actually, that in a sense that you have all these young dieticians who are going to school and who are 



A lot of them went to school in Hong Kong and the US and … as well. 



Right. And then they're going back and, on the one hand, they're taking all that knowledge that they have accumulated, and developed, and nonetheless they're essentially working as kinds of translators between these apparent systems. 


Hilary Smith, she wrote the book on beriberi that came out a few years ago, the history of beriberi. She's been working on nutrition of late. She has a piece for this Modern Chinese Foodways project that we've been working on, and she looks at vitamins in the late Imperial - Republican period. She initially began -  when she began this project was thinking about Western ideas, or scientific nutrition, and then Chinese medicine. But also maybe not specifically Chinese medicine, but just pre-existing popular ideas about health, and nutrition, and well-being - dietetics. These two are essentially counter forces, right? So when they interact, they are necessarily antagonistic and opposed. And so you have certain individuals on one side who are like, no, it's only this way and the other individuals on the other side, who are like, no, it's only this way. 


But as she was digging into it, part of this comes from the fact that we know, even if we want to deride them as not scientific, companies, as soon as they start producing goods for people to buy - supplements, like various kinds of bupin - they are very quickly mixing languages, and techniques, all at once. So if you are getting some kind of tonic, whether it's a tonic to deal with your neurasthenia, or even cod liver oil - in the Republican period, actually, there's various companies that are producing forms of cod liver oil to sell out as pills and whatever. The dietetic registers that they are appealing to are this mix of older Chinese ideas, and then the new Western ideas that's coming in very specific forms. And as she got into it, she was digging more into the Chinese medicine side, and she's developed an argument that says, well, actually, in a weird way, part of what makes nutrition science and Chinese medicine ideas converge, rather than be in tension, is that both of them are oddly obsessed with the issue of depletion, but they define depletion somewhat differently. But because it can fall under the category of depletion, there opens up a lot of creative possibilities for how the systems can intertwine, and mix, and so forth. 


So, I guess in the case of your dieticians, I'm less clear. In some ways nutrition science over the 20th century, its paradigmatic ideas have shifted over time, right? I think in the early 20th century, depletion, or scarcity, or the lack of deficiencies is actually really, really strong. But arguably now it seems there's a lot more interest in say, the biome. Your stomach biome and thinking more ecologically about how things are related. That maybe, actually, precisely because we've moved into a kind of ecological paradigm for thinking about nutrition, maybe, that actually opens up space to connect with Chinese medicine ideas that are in certain ways more environmental. Like, more contextually holistic, and not as narrowly categorical. 


I guess in that sense, why do we have both a kind of modernization imperative which stresses that things are linear, that we can progress and develop in this particular way, and yet, find such diversity and richness of approaches? I don't know. Other than maybe at some level, at least from a state centric perspective, that modernization line that you described is… still feels… impossible to divest. It still seems like we're all struggling, even while we see the examples all around us that would suggest that 20th century modernization has a lot of problems. So it's like we can't let go of it, because it feels like such a coherent story, right? In terms of leading us out from a certain period of darkness and into a period of lightness. I guess that's probably where both being an anthropologist and being an historian is actually so much more fun, is that those big imperatives that are set up are so oftentimes… it's almost like they impose a structure that actually opens up the possibility of various forms of diversity rather than constricting it. I mean, they also do some constricting. But it does seem like actually, maybe part of what we can really contribute is by showing how some of the modernization ideals actually set up parameters that open up new possibilities, not necessarily restriction, but the possibilities that they open up for are actually not the ones that modernization itself would want. 



I think that what we're getting at here is a role where fields such as history and anthropology can actually offer some useful critique on too solidly held to modernization narratives. As a budding historian of food in China, through field papers and other work I've been trying to grapple with this question, how do we even define Chinese food? Or what is a typical Chinese diet, right? [laughter] 


If you read the historiography of this field, very clearly from the 1970s with K.C. Chang's Food in China volume forward, we have all of the contributors in that volume, Anderson, now Miranda Brown, Michelle King, and yourself, with the Modern Chinese Foodways project, arguing no, we should think about Chinese diets in the plural. Obviously, there's topographical distinctions that we need to really carefully root in. Not just the north-south, wheat-rice kind of traditional binary that we find in Bray’s agriculture volume in Science and Civilisation in China, but region, season, all of these variables need to be carefully factored in. And so it was really interesting to me reading the 1920s nutrition scientists doing field surveys and arguing, ‘no, no, we can definitely extrapolate the diet of people living in Zhili province (around Beijing). Yeah, that's basically what everyone in China was eating. And it doesn't matter that we did our field surveys only in winter, like, that's going to be applicable throughout the year.’ So basically I was wondering, did you encounter any historical actors who were trying to problematize a singular, unitary notion of Chinese diet? Were there discussions where they emphasize seasonality or any of these other factors? Or is that purely historical analytic where we're looking back and able to identify, oh, this is something we should pay attention to?



Well, I mean, I think in fairness, even someone like Wu Xian, he would have a caveat. It was a small caveat, but he would have a caveat saying that, yes, of course, we do know that there are some differences. And of course, there's lots of popular ideas that continue through to today. In terms of people living in different parts of China, and how they eat, and how that influences their disposition and their personality, and how in certain senses some people just could never not eat whatever they eat. So like, you can't take someone from Guangdong, and - well, you can take someone from Guangdong, but even if you put them someplace else, they will still insist on eating the way that they eat in Guangdong. And that kind of coherency, and that insistence, is meaningful. Therefore, you can't really generalize that all Chinese people are… But I guess for the period that I was looking at, and the people that I was focusing on, they could recognize that there was quite a bit of diversity and difference, but they couldn't accept that as necessarily a positive when I think the sense that being a modern Chinese nation required some through-line. Some coherent and identifiable set of practices, and personalities, and activities, and institutions - that imperative was felt much more strongly. 


So arguably there is a kind of post-facto analytical application of being like, well, actually, it just was fundamentally much more diverse. And there was nothing wrong with that, per se. But the emotional sense, at least that I got from most of the people that I was following, was that that was something that you had to work past. It wasn't… In the same way that Sun Yat-sen can talk about the Chinese people as being like grains of sand, yeah, it's ironic that we talk about Chinese as like “the yellow hordes” or “all assimilable,” or whatever. Because it seems like if anything, most Chinese public figures and intellectuals of - certainly the early 20th century - their biggest concern is that Chinese people are not integratable enough. There's too many differences, so many things that separate people, and pull them apart, and make them want to stay in their own area, and not be part of this new national fabric, that actually all important activities are about how to pull them in, and make them see each other as of the same. 


And, so in that sense, that food actually ends up being - the line that you mentioned earlier, Yifan, the “everyday frontline of modernization,” it's a well put line, because at some level, it's almost like because of the diversity of things that Chinese people eat across this large geographical expanse, this is a problem. If we could distill this down into something a little bit more coherent, a little bit more consistent, not only would this make governance a little bit easier, it would make the economy run a little bit better. And it would solve some of these refugee-related relief issues in certain ways. Somehow,  it's all about taking that diversity, and making it at least simplified enough to make it coherent, right? So that you could really stamp on the Chinese end of it. 


But I think that's actually the funny thing, because in our contemporary moment, we can on the one hand, both recognize that there is something that is identifiable as Chinese. Whether we're talking about Chinese food, or Chinese people, I guess, or maybe Chinese culture. And yet, even while we say that, we also want to highlight that actually that term is always kind of fractious, and contentious, and riven with all sorts of other possibilities that are competing for attention, but get stamped down in certain ways. And so in that sense, it's all the more interesting when contemporary political shifts, when they start to foreground, in a certain sense, make Chinese coherent, because it's sort of grappling with this question of diversity.



Linking back to the topic of geographic diversity. Your archival sites span multiple continents, and there's so much quality, thick archival research present in this book. Was it difficult to gain access to so many archival spaces and sites? What was that process like for you?



Actually, when I was working it was a pretty good time actually to be visiting archives. Particularly when we're talking about Chinese archives. I was working just at this transition moment before many of the archives - local, municipal, provincial, and then of course, the national ones - before they undertook this huge digitization project. So in many instances I was coming in before they had started closing off sections, being like, ‘oh, you can't look at this because we're digitizing it.’ Or where ‘you can't come at all because we're digitizing it.’ And that has produced some interesting questions. I don't have answers to them, but they are questions. 


So for example, I had been working on a new project involving Chinese psychologists during the wartime period, and a series of studies that they had done on emotion and children. And I had transcribed several of the reports that I had found at the Number Two. And I had a dissertation student who was back in Nanjing in around 2015, 2016, and she was doing work on the Jinling college, and so I asked her if she had time when she was at the Number Two to sort of help me look up those old files. But of course, she actually couldn't find many of them. One, because they have re-assigned the categorization numbers. And then two, the one that she did find, she couldn't then find the other associated reports. And I don't know if that's because - she didn't have that much time. You know, and it's also not her project, so it's not like it's her responsibility to answer all these questions. So I don't know if it's a question of, they're there, but they've been recategorized, and so you have to find alternate - you have to look elsewhere to find them. Or if part of the digitization process, which we do know, was a kind of culling process as well, there was material, which they, for whatever reason, they felt it was maybe not worth keeping or not worth reproducing in some fashion. Whatever that calculation may have been. 


And so in that sense, I feel like when I look back on my own research period, it was pure luck, in a sense, that I happened to be working in a moment where some of the big procedural processes that were in place hadn't quite happened yet, so that I could still access a lot of different materials. And they were still also a little bit more open. I'm sure as you guys know, the archivists can be quite, for lack of a better word, dictatorial about what is permissible, and what is not permissible. And sometimes you have to do a lot of handwriting before they'll allow you to do other things. But they still seemed to be fairly reasonable. I mean, I think, actually, based on some of the more recent reports I've read, even just pre- pandemic, the rules for how much you can reproduce and how much you can even copy has also become much more restricted. So when I was working, I was just very lucky that most places I went to, they were very accommodating, they let me see most everything. I didn't run into too many difficulties, but I don't know how that would work now.



Um, so we do need to wrap up. So one thing that I've noticed is that many monographs published recently have an epilogue discussing the contemporary relevance of history that you write about. So I don't know if this is a fair observation, but as a student of anthropology, I love it. But I do wonder, though, if you can say a bit more about the kinds of risk that you need to manage in making that historical connection to the contemporary? 



Yeah. So I think on the one hand, your observation is entirely on point, because I think it's partly a publishing shift that has taken place. I mean, that is to say, if you look at history monographs that were published, even like 15 years ago, or you don't necessarily have that epilogue. Some do, but not necessarily. And I think part of the need for the epilogue is actually coming from the sort of internal dynamics of academic publishing, and the need to be able to appeal to - I mean, I don't think anyone's pretending that, like, my book is going to be at the airport bookstore. But the idea that you have to appeal more than just to China historians, like also to other historians, and anthropologists, and other fields, and so forth. So I think that the epilogue is, in some sense, a device that has come forth partly as a consequence of this publishing shift. But then also, I think it's also a reflection of maybe the state of history, and our need to speak - in a sense sort of to justify - why it is that we're doing what we're doing. And of course, I think you're right, there are definite risks that come with that. 


In my case, the interesting thing about writing that epilogue was that it was a way for me to, in certain ways, tackle a question that had been posed to me when I was a postdoc, actually. Professor Ye, Ye Wenxin, she had asked me this - because it was a totally legitimate question to ask. Because at that point, I decided, I was like, I think it's going to be oriented around soybean milk, and, and I haven't quite figured out all the details, but it's like, it was already clear that it was moving in that direction. And she said something like, ‘You know, as interesting as what you're telling me is, why aren't you doing dairy? Because the fact that Chinese people sort of don't drink milk, or didn't really drink milk, and then do drink milk - isn't that actually the more important phenomenon to explain?’ And maybe it is.  I mean, in a funny sense, like, nobody has done that. There have been people who've done bits and pieces, but it's still not, like, fully, fully done. And then Susan Glossar has that piece, but it’s only just like, one chapter. And I had no response. I mean, of course, it's a little bit of an unfair question to ask somebody who's like, ‘I'm gonna work on soybean milk’ and they're like, ‘but you should be working on dairy!’ [laughs] Because, of course, you know, to work on dairy requires going back, and really rethinking, and sort of redoing all that research. So that was not going to happen. But working on the epilogue, it was a way for me to sort of try and tackle that question. 


And, in a sense, the answer that I came to which, for good or bad, was that - that arguably soybean milk is actually interesting because in certain ways it forces us to sort of think a little bit carefully about stories of failure. And what stories of failure mean to how we build a historical understanding, or sort of a broader historical narrative, of a particular place, right? Because in certain ways, the story of milk is, oddly enough, a kind of celebratory story. Even though it's also not, now, if we think about it environmentally. But it does kind of move us along a track that kind of reaffirms certain modernist ideas, certain goals of progress, and modernization. And so then, you know, that opens up space for us to sort of think a little bit carefully about, well, what about all those other things that people try, but don't actually succeed? 


And so for me, the soybean milk story is, in some ways, a way to sort of think about that. Because in a sense the modernist aspirations that were applied to soybean milk in the early 20th century, they don't really make sense to us now, but on the other hand that doesn't mean that there wasn't value to their experimentation, or to their attempts. Or the ways in which, actually, the fact that it didn't even work doesn't still tell us something really interesting about how people lived, and thought, and sort of confronted the challenges of that moment. 


It's all the more interesting, because in certain ways, it gives us another vantage point, then, to also reconsider how - like in our contemporary moment - soybean milk, and all sorts of other things, they actually kind of go through, or get seized upon, and turned into another process of heritage-ization. And sort of another way to think through China's many paths, but sort of foregrounded, and re-packaged, and re-adapted to our contemporary needs. For me that felt like a way to sort of answer in a sense, that question that Professor Ye had asked me. But I do think that the risk is that I'm moving quite far, in some sense, from the original material that I was working with, right? 


Like I did some amount of research to be able to write that epilogue. But there's whole other projects that can come from just studying, like, what happens to soy after World War Two, and how does it continue and not continue to be a component of people's lives, and dietaries, and national planning, and so forth? From, you know, up through even like 2008? Right, when it actually is very deliberately dropped off the list of grains that the PRC, the Chinese government, has identified as the ones that they are going to maintain self sufficiency. 


So, so there is still more to be said. And in a sense, maybe actually, my preoccupation with failure is actually not the best way to sort of think about that post-World War Two history. So I don't know. I mean, I guess it'll be interesting to the epilogue, in and of itself doesn't become the most dated part of the book, because it's an attempt on my part to sort of think through that moment and my own relationship to the work. But I don't think it necessarily speaks to the the topic itself in terms of all its possible manifestations, and trajectories of development, and so forth.



That is fascinating. It's really great. Thank you.



It also forms an interesting connection to other Republican-era histories of technology that do center fail failures, or failure narratives. Like Tom Mullaney’s book on the Chinese typewriter. It can be so productive to examine the disjuncture of why something did or didn't work. At any rate. Thank you so much for your time, and your wonderful engagement with our humble questions today.



No, no, no, this is really fun. Thank you.


Hosted by SJ Zanolini and Yifan Wang

Assistant Produced by Jason Lee and Lauren Ginn

Produced by Lan A. Li

Music by Paolo Pavan

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