Why wasn’t there cheese in the Chinese diet?
Recorded on 31 January 2023
Speaker: Miranda Brown (University of Michigan)
Chinese cuisine is renowned around the world for many dishes, but it is not famous for its dairy products. In fact, the combination of ‘Chinese’ and ‘cheese’ sounds very much like an oxymoron. And in 1980, China had one of the lowest per capita consumption rates of dairy. Why?
This paper argues that this absence has been misconstrued for decades. Scholars have pointed to genetic, gastronomical, and cultural factors to explain the absence of dairy products in the traditional Chinese diet. This paper, however, makes a case for reframing the problem. The premodern Chinese, in fact, did have a tradition of dairy consumption – as food and as medicine. Taking the case of Jiangnan (coastal China) as my point of departure, I propose that dairy products faded from the elite Chinese diet in the eighteenth century for a combination of economic and ecological reasons.
Miranda Brown is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. She is a cultural historian of China, whose primary interests lie in culinary and medical recipes of all kinds. She is the author of The Politics of Mourning in Early China (SUNY Press, 2007), The Art of Medicine in Early China: The Ancient and Medieval Origins of a Modern Archive (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and, with the late Conrad Schirokauer, the co-author of A Brief History of Chinese Civilization (Cengage, 2012).
IHR Seminar Series: London Group of Historical Geographers