The entrance to the Department of History’s office in Sidney Smith Hall

Scholars have not yet systematically probed the place of milk in China. Yet milk has a long recorded history in areas today included in the People’s Republic of China; several of the fifty-six officially designated “national minorities”—Mongols, Manchus, and Tibetans in particular—make dairy products a central part of their diets. During the roughly five centuries of the late imperial period through the turn of the twentieth century, however, milk was rare in both the daily diet of the Han majority as well as in broader epicurean culture. A large majority of the population, like their counterparts nearly everywhere else in the world aside from Northwestern Europe and North America, does not digest lactose after infancy. 

Yet, by the early twenty-first century, cow’s milk and its many products had become widespread throughout the Chinese sphere. The party-state’s top leadership clearly view the citizenry’s drinking of milk as a demonstration of the nation having “arrived” (or “returned”) to a position of global power on par with the West. This project is an examination of one phase in the saga of milk’s ascendancy in modern China: the early People’s Republic. Regarding this period from the perspective of a substance so apparently plain and everyday provides a more intimate and complex perspective on questions of grander apparent significance: how the Chinese Communist regime and individuals experienced and enacted changes in visions of the ideal world order, the political and cultural status of consumption, and the meaning of being a proper (socialist) citizen. Ultimately, to talk about milk in China’s midcentury is to talk about China’s complex, conflictual processes of modernity while recognizing the period of high Maoism as an essential part of that modernity.

Principal Investigator: Yvon Wang