This piece was written for inclusion in the book China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, forthcoming from Rowman & Littlefield.
A few years ago a televised singing competition sponsored by Mengniu, the country’s largest dairy producer, became one of the most popular events in China, setting off an intense cultural craze. The American Idol-like Mengniu Yoghurt Supergirl Contest drew, in the final show of the second series, a staggering 400 million viewers. During the show’s third series, “voters” sent millions of text messages prompting cultural critics to laud Supergirls as China’s biggest-ever experiment in grassroots democracy. In a country where branding is still in its infancy, the show was an unprecedented marketing coup and helped secure Mengniu’s position at the cutting edge of advertising.
This might seem a surprising role for a dairy company. In China, however, milk has become inextricably linked to modernity.
Chinese cuisine is notoriously wide-ranging. “We eat everything with four legs that isn’t a table,” goes the familiar saying, and “anything that flies that isn’t a plane.” Yet, while it has succeeded in incorporating all manner of bugs and beasts, there are still no cheese fillings or cream sauces in Chinese food.
Traditionally, this disdain for dairy has been a source of cultural pride since the tea-drinking Han sought to distinguish themselves from the milk-drinking barbarians. Foreigners, it was believed, could be easily identified by their buttery, cheesy or milky smell.
As China’s doors were opened to the outside, however, and the country began to wonder why it was weak when so many others were strong, the wisdom of the nondairy diet came under fire. The argument was increasingly heard: if China was to match the vitality of the imperial powers, it was essential that its people start drinking milk. Despite this new cultural imperative, for decades consumption was curtailed by poverty. During the Mao era milk was heavily rationed, a luxury that few could afford. Once the country began its policies of openness and reform, however, the milk-drinking campaign exploded.
Since many Chinese adults are lactose-intolerant, the dairy industry focused predominantly on children, since they were not only the prime consumers of milk but also had yet to build up intolerance. The goal was to encourage an early shift in diet that would, ultimately, alter the biology of the population. In China it is widely believed that the Japanese are taller and stronger because they drink more milk. Strengthen the child, and you will strengthen the nation.
The dairy companies, whose origins typically lay in the grasslands of Mongolia, emphasized this ancestry in order to reinforce the same association. Their ads and packaging sought to contrast the rugged health of life on the steppes with the decadent softness of the industrialized urban core (where most of their customers, of course, reside).
The widespread receptivity to this cultural message is evident in the astonishing popularity of Wolf Totem, a novel that contrasts the weakness of the Han with the vigor of the Mongolian nomads. Wolf Totem is said to have been China’s second most widely read book ever, beaten only by Mao’s Little Red Book.