Abstract: China has a long history of dairy production and consumption. Milk was appreciated for its culinary and medicinal uses, with successive dynasties expanding production and acquisition of pastoral animals. Now China is one of the world’s great dairy nations. Dairy was first commercially available in cities, but advances in packing and shipping have made milk products a common sight in less-accessible areas.

Citation: Cheung (2021). Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

DOI: 10.47462/1265857611

Keywords: Chinese recipes; recipe collections; food history; milk; dairy; culinary history; dietary history; dietetics; Daoist recipes

Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

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Milk and Dairy Products

Năi yǐjí năizhìpǐn 奶以及奶製品

Robban Toleno, Columbia University

Dairy production and consumption developed in China between five and seven thousand years ago alongside the domestication of grass-eating animals—cattle, water buffalo, horses, and sheep. These animals were common in agriculture, transport, and war, making their milk readily available. The first technological hurdle of developing ways to store and preserve fresh milk appears to have been conquered fairly early. Earliest historical references are not about liquid milk, but about these processed milk products. The Chinese Book of Rites (Lǐjì 礼记), which was composed sometime during the first century bce, mentions the skill of preserving dairy into something called lǐlào (醴酪), alongside brewing, building, and cooking food, as one of the basic skills that marks the coming of civilization.

Like other arts of animal husbandry, Chinese traditions of dairy production and processing borrowed heavily from the practices of non-Chinese pastoralists that lived along the northern and northwestern frontiers. Sources from this period describe preparations such as lào (酪; fermented yoghurt), (酥; skimmed cream), and tíhú (醍醐; clarified butter), that are also mentioned in Buddhist texts, suggesting their Central Asian origin. These were most commonly made from cow and sheep milk, but other animal milk was also used, such as the mare’s milk that was fermented into a sour alcoholic drink. Sources from around the Tang dynasty (618–705 ce) describe a number of recipes based on dairy. These included the “mountain of cream” (sū shān 酥山) that was originally made by palace women; a winter street food called “milk tea” (năi chá 奶茶) that was in fact milk stewed with sweetened fruits instead of actual tea leaves; and a variety of breads, vegetable, and noodle dishes with milk as an ingredient.

In addition to culinary uses, dairy was known for its medical qualities. Medical texts such as the sixteenth-century Compendium of Materia Medica (Bĕncǎo gāngmù (本草纲目) integrated dairy of different animals into detailed formulas, such as the mixture of warmed wine and tihu prescribed to cure weakness and damp. Milk was especially valued for its strengthening abilities. Echoing earlier texts, one Qing-era book of culinary medica described cow’s milk as “sweet and settling [terms from Chinese medicine], like human milk…It benefits those with dryness of the blood and blockage of the bowels, stomach reflux and difficulty swallowing, and is appropriate for old people with rising heat. Water buffalo milk is beneficial. Children who require breastfeeding can substitute cow or goat milk.”

Dairy continued to develop during the later imperial period (after the year 1000), as successive dynasties expanded their production and acquisition of pastoral animals. In addition to military and work animals, these dynasties also kept reserves of dairy animals that would be brought to the capital as tribute. The Ming dynasty (1368–1644) demanded certain northern areas deliver an annual tribute of horses, of which a specified number were to be milking mares. Outside of the city of Zhangjiakou (about 200 km northwest of Beijing), the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) had a labor force of over 1,600 pastoral families tasked to care for 10,000 sheep and 2,400 cattle, and deliver roughly 8,000 kg of various milk products to the capital each year. The palace itself had its own dairy herd, with a certain number of animals reserved for each member of the imperial household. Among the delicacies they enjoyed were a yoghurt that was fermented with rice wine, and an elaborate confectionary made of delicate milk skin, sesame and candied cinnamon sticks.

At the same time, milk was a feature of Beijing’s street food. Describing lao, a late Qing guide to Beijing street food says that “milk and sugar are mixed in a bowl and condense into lao, which is eaten cold. Vendors place the bowl in a wooden vat, and carry it to the streets on shoulder poles. The taste is lovely.” Another even gives the price in the last line of the vendor’s rhyming cry as “one wen of cash, buys a bowl of lao,” making the dish well within the range of all but the poorest urbanites. The method for making su is described somewhat differently: “repeatedly boil pan of milk, stirring back and forth with a ladle, pour it into another container to cool. Remove the skin that forms on the top to make su.” This preparation would include the milk solids as well as the cream, and is identical to that used in making “milk skin” (奶皮子 năi pízi) in Mongolian areas today. Vendors in Beijing rolled layers of this su with sugared, dried fruits, which they cut into one inch strips and sold as “su rolls” (酥卷 sūjuăn).

Other regions had their own characteristic dairy preparations. Shunde in Guangdong produced a fresh cheese made out of the milk of the region’s water buffalo. This same region also became known for a panna cotta-style custard known as “double skin milk” (雙皮奶 shuāngpi năi), that is made by cooking and cooling sweetened water buffalo milk, which has a higher fat content than cow’s milk, and thus sets without the aid of any thickening agent (although egg white or starch are now used). Milk recipes were especially diverse in non-Han areas. From the southwestern province of Yunnan came a dish called “milk fans” (乳扇 rŭ shàn), which is made by heating milk with leaves of the Chinese lantern plant (Physalis alkekengi; sūan jiāng酸漿) to separate out the proteins (similar to the use of citric acid in making ricotta), which are then worked by hand and wound around pairs of bamboo poles to dry in the sun. The resulting sheets of dried cheese are fired or warmed over a charcoal fire before serving. Cities in the northwest serve confections of heated milk that is mixed with egg, sugar, fermented rice, green raisins, and sesame, producing a rich mix of flavors that suggests a Central Asian origin.

Western Innovations

Despite this long history, dairy was not universally accepted in China. In many places, dairy consumption was indeed so rare that long-time residents never encountered it. Writing in 1882, John Nevius, an American missionary who spent much of his adult life in China, described in fairly absolute terms a revulsion for dairy: “Milk is hardly used at all in the eighteen provinces; and in many places our practice of drinking it and using it in cooking is regarded with the utmost disgust.” The claim that Han Chinese traditionally avoided dairy either because of its cultural association with pastoral Central Asia, or because of an innate disposition to lactose intolerance, is still heard today, and bolsters the assumption that dairy only arrived with Western influence.

Newly arriving Westerners did not invent dairy production, but they did greatly expand it by bringing in dairy cattle, breeds such as Simmental, Ayrshire, and the iconic black and white Holstein. Starting in the late nineteenth century, new dairy ventures in the coastal cities of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Qingdao began importing dairy cows from Australia. These breeds required special care and feed, and were expensive to purchase and maintain, but were worth it because they produce significantly more milk, and remain in milk for longer in the year. According to tests conducted in the early twentieth century, these breeds were four times more productive than native Yellow cows, and six times more than the Baikal breed that was common in Mongolia.

Coastal cities developed small but productive dairy industries, but were eclipsed by the development of the northeast, the region that is still China’s dairy center. Driven both by opportunity and by hardship, Russian farmers began settling in northern Heilongjiang during the late nineteenth century, becoming a wave of refugees after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Many of these new arrivals brought entire dairy herds in tow, and settled the fertile farms and grasslands along the newly constructed China Eastern Railway. Morning trains would stop at towns along the line, collecting milk for the thriving city of Harbin. While the dairies in Shanghai and Tianjin produced liquid milk for urban consumers, the Harbin industry primarily produced butter, cheese, and the industrial protein casein. Some of the milk was consumed fresh by consumers in Harbin, but the more stable processed product was shipped by rail to major Chinese cities, or to foreign markets like Osaka or Vladivostok.

By the 1930s, dairy in various forms had become a fairly common sight in major cities. Production of liquid milk often remained within the city itself, and most cities had iconic local industries: Culty (可的) Dairy in Shanghai, Meidi (美的) Ice Cream in Wuhan, and Dairy Farm in Hong Kong. In addition to liquid milk, which was delivered by truck or bicycle in branded bottles, consumers had locally produced butter, cheese, and ice cream. They also had imports. Invented in the mid-nineteenth century, tinned condensed milk quickly became a global commodity. By the 1920s, China was third-largest market for American producers such as Borden, with other brands such as Anglo-Swiss (progenitor of the global giant Nestlé, which incorporated a subsidiary in Shanghai in 1936) and Rose following close behind. Colorful advertisements sold condensed milk as a food for the elderly and infants. In some areas (especially near Southeast Asia), sweet condensed milk was mixed into strong coffee, or used as a spread on toast.

At the time of the Japanese invasion, the Chinese milk industry was booming, with most urban businesses preparing major expansions. During the war, Japan occupied most of the major dairy producing areas, and looted dairy assets such as cows. In the period immediately after the Japanese surrender, producers sued for the return of these assets, and made plans for major investments, but were thwarted both by the ongoing civil war, and by the postwar resurgence of global trade, which introduced cheap imports of milk powder from the United States.

Milk for the Masses

The milk industry was greatly transformed under the People’s Republic. Economic planners prioritized dairy as a source of protein. Milk required less feed input than meat, and was produced by grazing, rather than by grain-consuming animals. The new government expanded production of milk in two ways. The first was to grow the national dairy herd. Soon after coming to power, the new government nationalized the dairy herds of foreign and Chinese investors, keeping some cows in the major cities, but moving many out to smaller inland cities, in order to make dairy available to schools, cadres, and especially to military bases throughout the country. It also embarked on intensive cattle breeding programs in order to increase the size and productivity of the cattle herd nationwide.

The second was by expanding dairy processing, to overcome the constraints of shipping liquid milk. Even after urban assets had been spread throughout the country, the dairy herd was still overwhelmingly located in the north and northwest, much of which was pastoral and sparsely populated. During the 1950s, this region became home to iconic state projects like the Hailar and Gansu dairies, which processed the surplus of fresh milk into tinned and powdered form, as well as butter for foreign export. Along with hides and meat processing, these dairy industries were intended to be the vanguard of modern industrialization of the grassland.

Like much else during the Cold War, milk in China also developed a symbolic political value. China aspired to copy the dairy industry in the Soviet Union, which at the time consumed twice as much milk per capita as the United States. Chinese delegations visited the massive dairy processing plants in places like Ukraine, and newspaper accounts described glowingly how the unique genius of socialism had made this basic human necessity accessible to all, in contrast to the United States, where the industry was hobbled by capitalist greed. Propagandists especially relished the image of farmers dumping milk when the price got too low. One satirical poem from 1960 used milk as a heavy-handed symbol of social justice by presenting US President John F. Kennedy as a tool of capitalist dairy interests, rhetorically asking “Without money, how will the people get milk? Did you think you would drink your milk for free?”

Yet China’s new milk production was not intended for everyone. For decades, dairy was officially restricted as a “special needs item” (tèxū pĭn特需品), meaning that it could only be purchased with ration coupons. Cities were favored, with a priority given to urban families who had very young or very old members, yet even these families received only a small amount. Over the next two decades, China’s dairy industry remained stagnant, as political chaos disrupted the complex supply chains behind the production and distribution of milk, and machines once supplied by China’s former Soviet ally broke down for lack of parts and maintenance.

Expansion and Transformation

The reforms of the Deng Xiaoping era encouraged dairy by relaxing restrictions, returning herds to private ownership, raising the state purchase price, and eventually allowing the private sale of milk. Although production did indeed expand, popular demand rose even faster. During the early 1980s, a number of cities faced milk shortages, forcing urbanites to line up well before dawn to ensure scarce supplies. By the end of the decade, production had largely caught up to demand, but the thriving market had created the new problem of production shortcuts and safety scandals that would plague the industry to the present day.

During the 1990s, dairy became increasingly common, and began to appear in new and different forms. In 1990, Nestlé began producing the Coffee-Mate creamer that was sold paired with bottles of Nescafé instant coffee and made their way to millions of homes nationwide. Milk powder became widely available in a variety of brands and tastes, and was added as a taste and nutrient supplement to products including baked goods, tofu, and instant drinks. During the early decade, joint ventures by Dean Foods, Walls, and Bud’s among others began producing ice cream in Beijing and Shanghai. Dairy-based infant formula, which promised unique nutritive and developmental benefits for the nation’s new generation of only children, became especially popular.

The introduction of UHT (ultrahigh temperature) packaging in the mid-1990s truly transformed the industry, making it possible to cheaply ship and store unrefrigerated milk to the whole country, and tripling national consumption. The new century transformed China’s dairy yet again. China joined the WTO in 2001, opening its market to foreign milk products, especially milk powder, which was cheaper, and perceived to be safer than the domestic product. To face this new competition, the Chinese government encouraged consolidation of smaller dairies into ever larger “dragon head” companies. The two largest of these, Yili 伊利 and its offshoot and main competitor Mengniu 蒙牛, are both based in the Inner Mongolian city of Hohhot, which became known as China’s “dairy city” (rŭpǐn chéng 乳品城). Other companies included Shanghai-based Guangming 光明 Dairy (known in English as “Bright Dairy”), a former state enterprise that evolved decades earlier out of the seized assets of the British Culty Dairy, and the Hebei-based Sanlu三鹿. Well-capitalized (including significant foreign investment) and enjoying both economies of scale and government cooperation, these large companies captured the majority of China’s rapidly growing dairy market: Yili and Mengniu alone accounted for about half.

Since 2000, China’s dairy industry has remained a high government priority. One reason was the repeated emergence of safety scandals. Since the 1980s, Chinese newspapers reported numerous instances of farmers or dairies producing in unsanitary conditions, or cutting costs by adding water to milk. These practices could have deadly effects. In a case from 2004, makers of milk powder were caught removing (for resale) nutrients from milk that was then made into infant formula, producing serious developmental problems in dozens of children. The defining moment was the crisis of 2008, when it was revealed that processed milk had been adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine, which mimics protein in laboratory tests. Although the poisoning was laid at the feet of Sanlu, there is a wide consensus that the practice of adding melamine was endemic through the industry. The damage was felt nationwide, with at least 300,000 infants sickened, of whom eight died of renal failure.

The melamine crisis was a turning point in China’s relationship with dairy. Although officially cleared of wrongdoing, the two largest dairies lost 80 percent of sales in the first weeks after the crisis. The government responded with new safety regulations, new investments in animal feed, and new regulations across the entire production chain. One direct consequence has been the concentration of cattle in ever-larger farms.

Despite its many scandals, the industry continues to grow at a phenomenal rate. While Sanlu itself was driven into bankruptcy, the other companies emerged from 2008 stronger than before, many recovering their losses within a matter of months. Yili and Mengniu in particular have continued to attract outside investment, and to expand production, not only the amount of dairy sold, but also the ever-changing forms and flavors. Chinese supermarkets and small shops will frequently stock a dizzying array of dairy products—fresh and UHT packed liquid milk, yoghurt, kefir, ice cream, butter, and occasionally cheese, as well as dry goods: milk powder, milk tablets, and of course milk candy, including the iconic chewy White Rabbit Milk Candy (大白兔奶糖), and its many imitators. Popular fast food outlets like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken do a brisk business in soft-serve ice cream. Fast food retailers have recently been joined by the proliferation of franchises selling bubble milk tea. Meanwhile, many home cooks have taken to preparing milk-based coffee, steamed milk puddings, milk-based cakes, and butter-filled pastry. Dairy shows all signs of becoming an ever greater part of the Chinese diet.

Further Reading 

  • Brown, Miranda. (2019). “Mr. Song’s Cheese, Southern China, 1368-1644.” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies vol.19, no.2: 29-42.
  • DuBois, Thomas David. (2019). “Milk From the Butterfly Spring: State and Enterprise in the Yunnan Dairy Industry,” Rural China 17 (1): 87-110. https://doi.org/10.1163/22136746-01701005
  • DuBois, Thomas David. (2019). “Borden and Nestlé in East Asia, 1870-1929: Branding and retail strategy in the condensed milk trade” Business History. https://doi.org/10.1080/00076791.2019.1688302
  • DuBois, Thomas David. (2019). “China’s dairy century – making, drinking and dreaming of milk” in Rotem Kowner, Guy Bar-Oz, Michal Biran, Meir Shahar, Gideon Shelach, eds., Animals and Human Society in Asia: Historical and Ethical Perspectives (Palgrave Macmillan): 179-211
  • Glosser, Susan. (1999). “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. Ithaca, NY: East Asia Program, Cornell University.
  • Lu, Shuying. 2018. Muru yu niunai: jindai Zhongguo muqin juese de chongsu (1895–1937) [Mother’s milk and cow milk: Reconstructing the mother’s role in modern China, 1895–1937]. Hong Kong: Zhonghua shuju.
  • “Yan du xiao shipin za yong” [Ode to the Street Foods of Beijing]. (1937). In Beiping fengsu lei zheng [Categorized Customs of Beiping]. Taibei: Zhongyang yanjiu yuan lishi yuyan yanjiu suo.
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