Scientising Relief: Nutritional Activism from Shanghai to the Southwest, 1937–1945

In: European Journal of East Asian Studies
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  • 1 Case Western Reserve University

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The Shanghai Refugee Children Nutritional Aid Committee, formed in 1937, sought to improve refugee children’s nutritional health by making and distributing a scientifically tested soybean milk and soybean cakes. By 1942, the Committee had adopted a national platform and changed its moniker to the Chinese Nutritional Aid Council, with plans to open offices and nutrition clinics in Chongqing, Chengdu, Guiyang and Kunming. This paper argues that in linking biomedical understandings of nutrition with social change, this group of Western-trained physicians and young female social workers enacted a new kind of social activism, one which seized upon the food-as-fuel idea and staked the welfare of the nation upon the nutritional health of its citizenry. In contrast to earlier social relief projects promoted by the imperial state and the local philanthropic initiatives of gentry elites, the Chinese Nutritional Aid Committee articulated an image of professional and specialised expertise in the science of nutrition and care. Theirs was a project of modern refashioning in which science played a key and foundational role in crafting their understanding of both relief and the children they aimed to save.

  • 2

    Marcia R. Ristaino, The Jacquinot Safe Zone: Wartime Refugees in Shanghai (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 2. Ristaino draws the figure of 500,000 from a 5 September 1937 Shenbao account. Wen-hsin Yeh suggests a figure upwards of 700,000; see Wen-hsin Yeh, Shanghai Splendor: A Cultural History, 1843–1945 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008), p. 154. Feng Yi, ‘Elites locales et solidarité: L’aide aux réfugiés å Shanghai (1937–1940)’, Etudes chinoises, Vol. 15, Nos 1–2 (1996), pp. 71–106, provides more detailed figures for the number of refuge camps and camp residents in the International Settlement and the French Concession for August 1937 to December 1940. Yi’s research, supplemented by Christian Henriot, sets the number of camps in the International Settlement during the height of the refugee crisis at 158 camps housing 95,336 refugees and, in the French Concession, 47 camps with as many as 27,000 refugees. Based on this detailed analysis, Henriot pushes the total number of refugees to a million; Christian Henriot, ‘Shanghai and the experience of war: the fate of refugees’, European Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2006), pp. 223–224, 231–234.

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  • 10

    Hou Xiangchuan, Meeting of Members of the Commission and Other Nutrition Experts: Note on Chinese Dietary Standards and Some Dietary Problems among War Refugees (Geneva: League of Nations, Health Organisation, 1939), p. 5.

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  • 27

    Ka-che Yip, Health and National Reconstruction in Nationalist China: The Development of Modern Health Services, 1928–1937 (Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 1995). The bao health worker served at the community level. The Guomindang government revived the baojia system in 1932 to coordinate its on-the-ground local health efforts. The bao level consisted of 100 households (ten households comprised one jia; ten jia formed one bao).

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  • 41

    Lillian M. Li, Fighting Famine in North China: State, Market, and Environmental Decline, 1690s–1990s (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), p. 2.

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  • 49

    James Vernon, Hunger: A Modern History (Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2007), pp. 5, 8. For a detailed examination into how the concept of the calorie has reshaped foreign policy during the twentieth century, see Nick Cullather, ‘The foreign policy of the calorie’, American Historical Review, Vol. 112, No. 2 (April 2007), pp. 337–364.

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