What Soy Sauce Can Tell Us About History, Politics—and Chinese Identity

A conversation with Angela Leung, University of Hong Kong


This year’s three Reischauer lectures—the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies’ signature academic talks—were about, of all things, soy sauce. Angela Leung, Chair Professor of History, Joseph Needham-Philip Mao Professor in Chinese History, Science and Civilization, University of Hong Kong, presented her deep research on how the history of the everyday condiment connects to nation-building, and how it became such an important symbol of Chinese culture. Leung recently sat down with Dorinda Elliott, the Fairbank Center’s Executive Director, to talk about why soy sauce matters.

Professor Leung presented on soy sauce, history, politics, and Chinese modernity in her three-part 2023 Reischauer lecture series at the Fairbank Center.

Why soy sauce?

My approach to history has always been different. People might consider soy sauce to be an ordinary condiment, with no story. But it’s not that simple. There is the unique aspect of fermentation, the scientific aspect, and how soy sauce became an object of state research in the 1920s and 1930s when Chinese scientists were trying to modernize the process. Soy sauce became a big issue connected to the nation’s modernization. Soy sauce offers specific lessons to understand questions of modernization. Today, heritage soy sauce plays a crucial role in post-industrial state building in all parts of East Asia. The condiment has become a representative identity food made with ingredients and methods that are considered to embody the unique cultural essence of the place of its production and consumption.    

What were the scientists trying to do back in the early 20th century?

It was all about soy sauce as a food representing  Chinese civilization and having an important economic value at the time. The scientists were frantically trying to modernize soy sauce production as a competitive commodity. The Japanese soy sauces were dominating the world market and Chinese producers were suffering from all kinds of restrictions including insufficient modern biochemical knowledge and high salt taxes. The Chinese experts began by adopting and studying the biochemically developed  Japanese starter (tanekoji) which accelerated and stabilized the fermentation process. While the Japanese recognized that soy sauce originated in China, their excellence in the biochemical research on food fermentation and domination of the global soy sauce market made the scientific modernization of Chinese soy sauce making one of the most urgent and patriotic tasks for early Republican scientists. Soy sauce is a very strong identity food; it connects people to memories of their past. 

How did you develop your approach to history?

I was trained in France in the 1970s and 80s where the Annales School, which emphasizes the importance of everyday life, was the main trend in historical study. The details of everyday life allow you to understand the connections of all kinds of facts, systems, or values, be them economic, political, cultural,  or social.  Masters like Fernand Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie, and Jacques le Goff, Philippe Ariès were all teachers at the School where I studied. My supervisor Lucien Bianco himself was an expert studying Chinese peasants and their life.. So I have always been influenced by that approach to history.

I was never interested in the patriarchal ‘great man’ version of history. I wrote about the history of philanthropic institutions in imperial China. And through that, you can understand many things about poverty, about widowhood, abandoned children, and other social matters.  And in my work on leprosy in China, I learned about the stigma imposed on those disempowered people. 

Professor Leung looks on as Professor Michael Szonyi, Frank Wen-Hsiung Wu Memorial Professor of Chinese History and former Faculty Director of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, addresses the audience in the second installment of the 2023 Reischauer Lecture series.

What are the key takeaways of your three soy sauce lectures?

Lecture one shows how it is not just by accident that everyday things occur. In the case of soy sauce, politics played a big role in its development. It’s a very political story. Soy sauce became an every food in East Asia only after Manchuria became an integral part of the Chinese empire in the Qing. The vast region massively produced soy beans cultivated by Chinese peasants now allowed to immigrate there in successive waves. It was unprecedented in Chinese history. You can’t separate the export of soy beans from Manchuria to China from the political, social, economic, and historical contexts from the late 17th century onward. Without that amount of supply of soy bean, the empire-wide commodification of soy sauce would not have been possible in the 18th century.

Talk two is about the soft side of the soy sauce story, about how soy sauce became an everyday food, and how it acquired power as a connector. How it went from being a home-made condiment for the well-off class to being a super connector, connecting lineages, people from the same native place, progressively creating the imagination of the larger community, which is the modern Chinese nation.

Talk three is about how soy sauce went on to acquire economic and political value. The industrialization of soy sauce became a state project involving the efforts of a number of patriotic food scientists—there was so much at stake for a China struggling to survive, economically, politically and culturally

By looking at soy sauce, we can tell the story of China.


To see Professor Leung’s series of three talks, please see below:

Becoming an everyday food: Soy sauce in the High Qing period

The power of a malleable everyday food: Soy sauce in modern China

Soy sauce in crisis: China’s first engagement with technoscience