B. Fanlin’s ‘Soy Juice’ makes strong mention of racism.

The progressive discourse menu regularly offers two items about China: a) criticism of the totalitarian government of the People’s Republic; b) denouncement of racism and colonialism by embracing Chinese culture.

         For years, I have relished these items on the menu. Criticising the bamboo curtain? Sure. I can speak firsthand of its all-encompassing reign. Celebrating the culture? Certainly. I have it in abundance. I eat culture for breakfast, literally.

Nowadays, I use a machine to make my own soy milk (soak the beans the night before, dump in the machine with fresh water, turn it on, bzzzz, serve hot with sugar in a ceramic bowl), but it never tastes the same as the drink from my childhood. Back then, street soy milk came in a cylindrical plastic bag that, when filled with the warm liquid, flopped in my hand like an overgrown white caterpillar. 

         I remember the shopkeeper would ask if I wanted sweetened or plain—sweetened, always—and grab a plastic bag from a hook dangling from the ceiling, nip it open with fingertips moistened with saliva, and phffff ! They’d blow into the bag to fill it with air, not to mention germs and more saliva, before putting it underneath the tap of a big dispenser pot.

         I loved the soy milk from those breakfast booths in the street. Holding the top of the flimsy bag (the opening would be tied in a knot), I’d use a straw to jab firmly and vertically down into it and suck the creamy, nutty liquid. Jabbing was a delicate job because a wrong aim could destroy the bag and spill every drop. There’s nothing like hot soy milk on a cold, damp morning in the Yangtze River Delta where the temperature hovers around zero and the humidity around 70 per cent. I loved holding the bag as well. The soft plastic, probably not food-safe or heat proof, enveloped my fingers like a warm bath. 

For years, I tried to convince myself that culture was separate from politics, and at the centre of my logic was food. Chinese totalitarianism was so offensive and indefensible, I thought, but surely Chinese culture, a prominent part of which was food, could never be offensive. Criticising politics was activism; criticising culture was racism. 

         It’s an astonishingly crude argument. I’m ashamed to say I clung to it for so long. I think I was trying to draw a line, one that granted me the right to say something was not OK. 

         Since the line was reserved for culture, I told myself that biased, incomplete, and downright stupid political statements didn’t cross it because they were political. I was entitled to feel uncomfortable only when people attacked my culture, not Beijing’s politics.

I imagine the cheap cylindrical bags—piping hot, containing a good amount of saliva and germs—in a street booth on a wet winter morning.

         Miserable rain bounces off the sheet of rusty metal acting as a roof. Someone hands out the bags to the crowd, who’d be squatting, slouching, sneezing, and intermittently spitting on the filthy ground, and tells them that Americans and other foreigners will think this stuff is fashionable in ten years’ time! And they’ll drink it cold! The crowd would grunt in disbelief, their faces obscured by the mist from an enormous dumpling steamer in the booth.

         Nevertheless, I think the success of soy milk in the West demonstrates the power of food to bring people together across their differences, even if it comes with appropriation and romanticisation.

My attempt at drawing a line between politics and culture had its roots in my upbringing. In my community, there used to be a popular saying, ‘I don’t care about politics.’ A few years ago, when people asked me about my experience living outside of China, they didn’t want to hear about opinions on Taiwan’s sovereignty or human rights issues, instead, they wanted foreign praises for soup dumplings and love declarations to roast duck (both dishes considered more presentable than street soy milk). People around me, I think, knew there was something about Chinese politics that didn’t impress the world, whereas a plate of crispy potstickers could win over anyone. ‘I don’t care about politics,’ they’d say, ‘ask them to like our culture.’

         In Australia, it was a similar story. With China dominating the world section of every outlet, endless (mostly negative) coverage pushed Beijing’s politics further up the list of things associated with the word ‘Chinese’, prompting even my most apolitical Chinese Australian friends to start reading the news. It’s unsurprising that Australia’s large Chinese community, many of whom had little to do with the Communist Party crowd, distanced themselves from ugly politics by tying their identity closer to the culture they practised. Gavin Yuan Gao’s brilliant poem, ‘Covid’, published in a previous issue of this magazine, sought refuge and pride in culture in the face of racism and aggression, with lines like ‘in fine strokes of hieroglyphs and the swaying / bamboo stalks talk in pentatonic / scales of flute & zither’.

         At both ends of my world, I drifted along, trying to think of culture as beautiful and somehow pure, like an endangered animal that needed to be protected from the hideous ideological battle between the Communist Party and the West.

As China’s relationship with the West deteriorated, uncomfortable political questions inevitably came up more often, like nasty sea creatures floating to the surface at both ends of my world. 

         One student asked me after an English class I taught in China, ‘Do they [Westerners] still like us after hearing all the crazy human rights rumours?’ 

         In the Australian suburbs, one Chinese Australian friend said, ‘Honestly, can’t they [China] stop trying to dominate the world?’ He was tired of the political shadow cast upon his identity.

In a polarised and increasingly hateful environment, I heard still more arguments for the politics/culture split. People kind-heartedly told me that only ignorant racists would confuse the two; Beijing no longer had power over those who had left; it’s OK to be proud of the culture, not the politics.

I wanted to agree with them. 

         I set out to find culture that had not been tainted by politics.

‘I think Aussies would be shocked by real soy milk.’ I said to a friend, ‘It tastes so different to Vitasoy.’

         ‘The soy milk in China, doujiang, should be called soy juice in English,’ she smiled and said, ‘since it’s made directly from soybeans with no additives or processing. Like orange juice is made from oranges.’

         ‘Yeah, but “juice” implies it’s served cold. Doujiang is always served hot.’

         ‘Do you remember Chinese KFC’s hot orange juice?’

         I laughed so hard at that, slapping my leg. That warm, orange-flavoured, neon-coloured concoction had been a childhood treat.

         ‘Maybe “hot soy drink”, then?’

         ‘Sounds unappetising. Like boiled soy sauce. Yuck.’

         ‘I didn’t realise fresh soy was such a Chinese thing.’

         ‘Neither did I. It’s such a distinctive piece of culture.’

My quest for untainted culture was met with utter failure in mainland China. Contemporary art forms from poetry to music all had development curves that aligned perfectly with political manoeuvres. It’s impossible to appreciate Bei Dao and his fellow ‘misty poets’ without examining the Cultural Revolution; nor was it feasible to jam to Beijing rock’n’roll while turning a blind eye to artist Cui Jian’s cry for freedom in the tumultuous 1980s. 

         And I don’t mean ‘taint’ in a solely negative way. Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto, the masterpiece of Chinese orchestral music, took inspiration from folk storytelling and musical traditions under the socialist leadership of the 1950s. Co-composer He Zhanhao called it ‘a crystallisation of collective wisdom’. Yu Hua, the first Chinese writer to win the James Joyce Award, began his writing career in the wave of creative output made possible by Deng Xiaoping’s ‘reform and opening-up’ policy.

         What about the culture that existed before 1949? The traditional practices that had been purged under Mao but were now deemed useful by Xi Jinping for his ‘cultural confidence’? Many publications on culture, e.g., Inherit by CCTV, dedicated themselves to Xi’s ideological call; bakeries revived traditional desserts in the name of nationalism; even the cardinal cultural event, the Lunar New Year, saw the CCTV New Year’s Gala present Song Dynasty dances and the Communist Party’s centenary celebratory notes on the same stage. When a piece of traditional culture is delivered to serve Xi’s ambition, which I suppose is better than being purged, I struggle to label it as non-political.

         Eating noodle soup in my friend’s kitchen in Sydney, I was surrounded by the story of his grandfather fleeing forced conscription in the Republic of China and settling down in Malaysia. His Chinese identity carried the politics of another age, but politics, nonetheless.

         Even the soy juice, with its relentless practicality and innocence, played a role in the emerging political thought of modern China. 

         In the early twentieth century, a young man named Li Yuying presented ‘the Chinese practice of producing “milk” from a plant’ and said milk’s nutritional benefits to a European audience at the French Society of Agriculture. His passion for this ancient, versatile crop sparked curiosity in Europe, but more importantly, inspired fellow Chinese intellectuals to rethink the prosaic soybean as a unique contribution from China to the global diet and economy.

         I imagine the young minds in those times, exposed to the merciless contrast between foreign technological prowess and Chinese backwardness, reading that, for once, an indigenous crop held the potential for a healthy and strengthened future. And suddenly, the creamy drink in my bowl becomes much more. I can taste sweet yearning and bitter jealousy, mingled with the chalky, acidic eagerness to impress on the world stage. Steam rises from my bowl and transforms into human figures, all those who have farmed, cooked, and loved soy before. Their culture and politics, their lives, linger like the distinctive soy flavour on my tongue.

My quest was doomed from the beginning. Politics have always shaped our culture as culture has shaped Beijing’s politics (and all the capital cities’ politics before 1949). As Lin Yutang puts it bluntly in his seminal 1936 book My Country and My People: ‘We submit to tyranny and extortion as small fish swim into the mouth of a big fish… This capacity for putting up with insults has been ennobled by the name of patience, and deliberately inculcated as a cardinal virtue by Confucian ethics.’ 

         Lin believes culture has not only shaped governance; it has ruined it.

         There is no isolating art from politics, culture from history, or indeed, people from government. Chinese people living in each age make choices and create culture, reflecting the politics of that age. There is no ‘untainted’ culture for ‘them’ or anyone to like. There is only China, hauling a colossal past with all its pride and shame.

In our age, Beijing’s politics are inevitably connected to the Chinese identity. This connection can be close or distant, cringe- or pride-worthy.

There should be the same level of civility in political and cultural discourse. Disrespectful political statements disrespect culture, too. If criticism is the intent, remember that nuanced, thoughtful criticism is possible. Conversely, placing culture on an apolitical pedestal detaches it from the real experiences from which it emerged. 

         I don’t mean denunciation of the Chinese Communist Party should be labelled as racist, or personal attacks on cultural practices should be accepted. I mean I can only take political criticism seriously if it demonstrates attentive learning and cultural awareness. 

         Learning is the only way to understand an identity, both for those who claim it and those who wish to comment on it. The word ‘Chinese’ means too many things. Commentators should be specific in their remarks and mindful of the word’s deep connection to much of the world. If one identifies with ‘Chinese’, one must reconcile with all the baggage that comes with the word one way or another.

Works cited:
CCTV. (2017). Inherit. Jiangxi Fine Arts Publishing House.
CCTV. (2022). New Year’s Gala: Year of Tiger. [Video]. CCTV.
Fu, Jia-Chen. (2018). The Other Milk: Reinventing Soy in Republican China. University of Washington Press.
Gao, Gavin Yuan. (2021). ‘Covid’ in The Suburban Review #24: UGLY.
He, Zhanhao & Chen, Gang. (1959). Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. [Music]. Premiered in Shanghai: 1959.
He, Zhanhao. (2007). ‘Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto: A Crystallization of Collective Wisdom’ in Music Lovers. No.195 (11). pp: 7-15. (何占豪,集体智慧的结晶——小提琴协奏曲《梁山伯与祝英台》,《音乐爱好者》)
Lin, Yutang. (1942). My Country and My People. William Heinemann. First published: 1936.
Yu, Hua. (2011). China in Ten Words. Duckworth Overlook.