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Many roads from pasture to plate: a commodity chain approach to China’s beef trade, 1732–1931

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2019

Thomas David DuBois
1258 Coan St, Burns Harbor, IN 46304, USA
E-mail address:


The advent of refrigerated transport made fresh beef a global commodity, linking South American and Australian producers to hungry consumers in Europe and North America. With vast supplies of cattle, and growing markets in Japan, Russia, and beyond, China was the last great frontier of this global transformation. Rather than a single export trade, China’s beef industry was a complex and multidirectional network of producers, processors, and consumers, its many production chains each facing distinct commercial, logistic, and political challenges. This article examines three such chains, the Qing-era caravan trade that drove live sheep and cattle to Beijing, the Harbin meat-packing industry that grew up around the Russian China Eastern Railway, and Japanese-dominated export of beef from Qingdao. A cross-section of these issues shows how the industry as a whole adapted to the new pressures and opportunities of globalization, as well as those presented by technology, foreign investment, imperialism, and war.

© Cambridge University Press 2019 

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This research was supported by the Historical Anthropology of Chinese Society project at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and presented at the University of Oxford China Centre and the ‘Commodity Trading Companies in the First Global Economy’ workshop at Erasmus University, Rotterdam. I am grateful to Laura Kenney, Rotem Kowner, Maria Myutel, Stephen Smith, Luman Wang, Lan Wu, and especially this Journal’s editors and readers for commenting on earlier drafts. Guan Yuxia, Zhang Wei, and Ao Dun introduced me to Hulunbuir and to numerous producers, who could provide quick but detailed answers to my many technical questions about the region’s cattle and beef industries. Misako Suzuki gave me a home, which I must say was rather wonderful of her.


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19 Estimates of the eastern Mongolia export trade are in JACAR, A06033518600, ‘Cong Chifeng jing Dolun Dushikou zhi Huailai yandao diaocha baogao (Report on the road from Chifeng to Dolun, Dushikou and Huailai)’, Manmō keizai jijō (Economic Conditions of Manchuria-Mongolia), 10, 1917, p. 29. In 1920, a skilled labourer in northern China earned about 1.5–2 yuan per day.

20 Academia Sinica, Archives of the Institute for Modern History (henceforth AS), 17-27-195-04, ‘Xumu tuzai liang diaocha (Investigation of slaughterhouse output)’, [1933–35].

21 Kuo Chung-hao, ‘Pigs, pork and ham: the practice of pig-farming and the consumption of pork in Ming–Qing China’, PhD thesis, New York University, 2013, pp. 202–62.

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25 Sirr, Henry Charles, China and the Chinese: their religion, character, customs and manufactures: the evils arising from the opium trade: with a glance at our religious, moral, political and commercial intercourse with the country, London: W.S. Orr, 1849, p. 83 Google Scholar .

26 Such notices were published in the Shanghai newspaper Shenbao.

27 Liu E, ‘Qingdai “zaisha maniu”’, p. 72; Levine, Carl Oscar, Butchering and curing meats in China, Canton: Canton Christian College, 1921, p. 3 Google Scholar .

28 Beijing Niujie zhi shu ‘Gang zhi’ (Gazetteer of the Beijing Cow Street ‘Gang zhi’), Beijing: Xinhua, 1991, p. 34.

29 On the geography of sheep rearing versus cattle raising, see Manmō chōsa fumeishō (Appended materials to investigation of Manchuria-Mongolia), 18, 1916, pp. 34–6. On consumption, see ‘Manmō sengyō chōsa narabini hōjin hatten jōkyō shisatsu hōkoku (Report on investigation of national competition and development of trades in Manchuria-Mongolia)’, Manmō keizai jijō, 9, 1917, pp. 89–91; JACAR, A06033520000, ‘Kokūryōkō engen Haborofusuke Kokka aida shisatsu hōkoku (Investigation of cross-Amur trade between Khabarovsk and Heihe)’, Manmō keizai jijō, 24, 1920, pp. 29–30.

30 On the transition from driving to rail in the American industry, see Revzan, David A., Livestock production and marketing: selected readings, Chicago, IL: Institute of Meat Packing, 1935, pp. 18 Google Scholar .

31 AS, 01-17-024-03, ‘Heijie nianzhong huizou an (Collected year-end memorials from the Heilongjiang border)’, 1886.

32 JACAR, B11091050500, ‘Kokūryōkōshō ni okeru bokuchikugyō narabi ni bokugyō kōshi setsuritsu keikaku ni kanshi hōkoku no ken (Report on pastoral industries and plans to establish pastoral companies in Heilongjiang)’, 1914.

33 AS, 03-19-093-06 ‘E’shang yun niu chu Zhangjiakou shou banshui an (Payment of conveyance tax by Russian horse and cattle exports from Zhangjiakou)’, 1914; N. E. Edinarkhova, ‘K istorii Russkikh Mongolii (On the history of Russians in Mongolia)’, (consulted 11 November 2016).

34 Endicott, Elizabeth, trans., Pages from the past: the 1910 Moscow trade expedition to Mongolia, Eastbridge, CT: Norwalk, 2007, pp. 8788 Google Scholar .

35 Lishtovannyi, E. I., Mongoliya v istorii vostochnoi Sibiri (XVII–XX v.) (Mongolia in the history of eastern Siberia (seventeenth century–early twentieth century)), Irkutsk: Irkutsk State University, 2001, p. 4 Google Scholar .

36 JACAR, A06033010900, ‘Mōkō bokugyō jyōkyō chōsa (Investigation of pastoral industries in Manchuria and Mongolia)’ Chōsa shiryō (Survey materials), 26, 1937, pp. 203–5. JACAR, B11091049300, Consulate of Japan in Harbin, ‘Kairaru oyobi sono fukin Mōko chihō ni okeru kachiku narabi ni dō fukusanhin bōeki jōkyō ni kan suru ken (Stock raising and secondary industries in Hailar and surrounding Mongol areas)’, [1915], pp. 168–72.

37 JACAR, B11092082700, ‘Chō, torui (Intestines and stomachs)’, 0434; JACAR, B11091049300, ‘Kairaru oyobi sore fukin (Hailar and its vicinity’, 1922, p. 172.

38 Hulunbeier meng zhi, pp. 160, 813.

39 Yoshiro, Sakatani, Manchuria, a survey of its economic development, New York: Garland Publishing, 1980 Google Scholar (first published 1930), p. 180; JACAR, A06033517400, Manmō keizai yōran (Overview of economy in Manchuria and Mongolia), 1916, pp. 553–61.

40 China Eastern Railway, North Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway, Harbin: CER Printing Office, 1924, pp. 141144 Google Scholar .

41 JACAR, A06033517500, Manmō keizai yōran (Overview of economy in Manchuria and Mongolia), 1917, pp. 117, 553–61.

42 DuBois, Thomas David, ‘China’s dairy century: making, drinking and dreaming of milk’, in Rotem Kowner, Guy Bar-Oz, Michal Biran, Meir Shahar, and Gideon Shelach, eds., Animals and human society in Asia: historical and ethical perspectives, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2019 Google Scholar .

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45 CER, North Manchuria, p. 136; DuBois, Thomas David, ‘Public health and private charity in northeast China, 1905–1945’, Frontiers of History in China, 9, 4, 2014, pp. 506533 Google Scholar . On the cultural meanings of the industrial slaughterhouse more generally, see Lee, Paula Young, Meat, modernity, and the rise of the slaughterhouse, Durham, NH: University Press of New England, 2008 Google Scholar .

46 Blackwood, W. J., ‘Meat and milk inspection in Shanghai’, in US Department of Agriculture, ed., Fifteenth annual report of the Bureau of Animal Industry for the year 1898, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1899, pp. 205212 Google Scholar .

47 Haerbin shizhi, Riyong gongyepin shangye, fushipin shangye, yinshi fuwuye (Gazetteer of Harbin, consumer goods, food industry and food trade), vol. 15, Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin, 1996, pp. 445, 451, 456, 469, 471.

48 Haerbin shizhi, pp. 474, 480.

49 China Maritime Customs, Returns of trade, 1915, vol. 3, Shanghai: Statistical Department of the Inspectorate of Exports, 1916, p. 569; Returns of trade, 1919, vol. 1, p. 536.

50 JACAR, B11092063800, Consulate of Japan in Harbin, ‘Kita Manshū Tōyō tetsudō sōsyakuchi ni okeru shokuniku jūyō jōkyō hōkoku no ken (Situation regarding meat requirements in leased zone along China Eastern Railway in northern Manchuria)’, [1909].

51 CER, North Manchuria, pp. 141–4.

52 Haerbin shizhi, p. 479; Suihua diqu zhi (Gazetteer of Suihua district), Harbin: Heilongjiang renmin, 1995, pp. 400–2.

53 CER, North Manchuria, pp. 144–5; JACAR, B12083628300, Consulate of Japan in Manzhouli, ‘Kanjōru shi (Ganjuur market)’ [1924], p. 439. Registration documents of Produce Export are held in the Public Records Office of Hong Kong, HKRS111-4-176. For more views on the Vesteys, see Yarrington, ‘Vestey cattle enterprise’; Phimster, ‘Meat and monopolies’; Wilcox, ‘Ranching modernization’.

54 Haerbin shizhi, p. 469.

55 A. W. Pearse, The world’s meat future, London: Constable and Company, 1920, p. 294.

56 Critchell and Raymond, History of the frozen meat trade, pp. 239–40.

57 CER, North Manchuria, pp. 135, 142, 150; JACAR, B11090352400, ‘Urajō ni okeru bukka ni kan shi hōkoku no ken (Report on prices in Vladivostok)’, 1914.

58 Haerbin shizhi, p. 474.

59 JACAR, B11092081800, ‘Shokuryōhin kankei zakken, nikurui (Items related to foodstuffs, meat)’, 1922, pp. 81–2; JACAR, B12083628300, Consulate of Japan in Manzhouli, ‘Kanjōru shi ji Taishō 12 nen 11 gatsu (Report on investigation of the Ganjuur market in November of the 12th Taishō year)’, 1923, pp. 422–6.

60 CER, North Manchuria, p. 144; JACAR, B10074047500, Consulate of Japan in Manzhouli, ‘Eikoku shokuhin yushutsu kaisha (British Produce Export Company)’, 1925.

61 JACAR, B12083628300, ‘Kanjōru shi’, p. 439.

62 AS, 02-22-008-07, ‘Jinfan gengniu chukou (Prohibition of draft cattle exports)’, [1905]; AS, 02-13-042-03-002, ‘Meishang niyu Beiyang tongshang kouan chuangshe dongniurou chang guizhengfu yijian ruohe xiangxi shengfu you (Request for information for detailed government opinion by American merchants seeking to build frozen beef plant in Beiyang treaty port)’, [1910]. Guangdong quanye bao (Guangdong Enterprise Bulletin), 80, 1909. The tael was a standard measure of silver bullion used especially in official and large-scale transfers. In 1909, 1 Haikwan (Customs) tael was valued at approximately US$0.63 or 2s.d. in British Currency. China Maritime Customs, Returns of trade and trade reports, 1918, Shanghai: Inspectorate General of Customs, 1919, p. 1.

63 Qingdao shi zhi: duiwai jingji maoyi zhi (Gazetteer of Qingdao: foreign trade), Beijing: Wuzhou chuanbo, 2001, pp. 1, 21, 92.

64 JACAR, B06050487000, ‘Kita Shi ni okeru sakusan shigen kankei (Husbandry resources in northern China)’, 1931.

65 Chikusan Shinkō Jigyōdan, Gyūniku no rekishi (History of beef), Tōkyō: Chikusan Shinkō Jigyōdan, 1978, pp. 7–17; Trans-Pacific, 4, January–June 1921, p. 63; Japan–Manchoukuo year-book: cyclopedia of general information and statistics on the empire of Japan and Manchoukuo, Tokyo: Japan-Manchoukuo Year-Book Co., 1934, p. 372. I am grateful to Rotem Kowner for leading me to this information.

66 JACAR, B07091158200, ‘Nisshin seneki no sai gunjuhin kyōkyūhō gaikokujiin yori mōside zakken (Foreign sourcing of military provisions during the Sino-Japanese War)’, 1894.

67 Seitō jitsugyō kyōkai geppō (Monthly Bulletin of the Qingdao Chamber of Commerce) (henceforth COC), September 1918.

68 COC, October 1918; R. C. Forsyth, Shantung: the sacred province of China in some of its aspects, Shanghai: Christian Literature Society, 1912, pp. 114, 119. This source mistakes total production figures for beef.

69 JACAR, B06050487000, ‘Seitō shi ni okeru shiryō shigen chōsa ni okeru hōkokushō (Report on investigation of feed resources in Qingdao)’; Harro Maat, ‘Commodities and anti-commodities: rice on Sumatra 1915–1925’, in Francesca Bray, Peter A. Coclanis, Edda L. Fields-Black, and Dagmar Schäfer, eds., Rice global networks and new histories, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, pp. 335–54.

70 COC, December 1918. T’ien-p’ei Meng and Sidney D. Gamble, Prices, wages and the standard of living in Peking, 1900–1924, Beijing: Peking Express Press, 1926, p. 36.

71 ‘Shantung beef’, [US] Daily Consular and Trade Reports, 3, 1914, p. 94.

72 JACAR, C03024532300, ‘Reisōzen “Hanametto” gō Seitō deiri no ken (Concerning the entry and exit of the cold storage ship Hammamet from Qingdao)’, 1915.

73 Doeppers, Daniel F., Feeding Manila in peace and war, 1850–1945, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016, pp. 233250 Google Scholar .

74 Critchell and Raymond, History of the frozen meat trade, pp. 239–40.

75 Doeppers, Feeding Manila, pp. 245–6; COC, July–October 1918, August 1919, April 1921; Straits Times, 13 January 1913; Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 21 November 1913. On the repurposing of American transport capacity, see Malaya Tribune, 29 August and 4 September 1914.

76 China Maritime Customs, Returns of trade, 1915, vol. 3, p. 781; Returns of trade, 1919, vol. 1, p. 801. Putnam, George E., Supplying Britain’s meat, London: George G. Harrap, 1923, p. 157 Google Scholar .

77 Jiangsu gongbao (Jiangsu Political Bulletin), 1915, pp. 487, 971; Tielu xiehui huibao (Railroad association bulletin), 99, 1, 1920; Tielu xiehui huibao, 116, 1922; COC, May 1918 and December 1918; Shiye gongbao (Enterprise Bulletin), 35, 1931.

78 ‘Shanghai suoshi zhi Danyang niurou (Danyang beef eaten in Shanghai)’, Xinghua (Rising China), 24, 16, 1927.

79 Doeppers, Feeding Manila, pp. 245–6; Yuzuru, Ninomiya, Bei-Hi kan jiyū tsūshō bōeki mondai to Hirippin Guntō kokusai bōeki no sūsei ni tsuite (Problem of US–Philippines free trade and the direction of commerce in the Philippine archipelago), Yokohama: Yokohama Specie Bank, 1932, p. 52 Google Scholar .

80 China Maritime Customs, Decennial reports, 1922–1931, vol. 1, Northern and Yangtse Ports, Shanghai: Statistical Department of the Inspectorate of Exports, 1933, pp. 443–4.

81 JACAR, B09041331200, ‘Seitō gyū yusyutsugyōsha yo funekaisha to no kakushitsu kankei (Antagonism between Qingdao cattle exporters and shippers)’, 1924, pp. 138–45; JACAR, B11092081800, ‘Shokuryōhin kankei’, pp. 81–2, 164–6; Trans-Pacific, 4, February 1921, pp. 93–5.

82 JACAR, B11090356700, ‘Nichijō seikatsuhin kakaku chōsa ichi ken (Investigation into the price of daily use items)’, 1920.

83 COC, June 1924.

84 ‘Shandong niurou chukou qingkuang (State of Shandong beef exports)’, Yinhang yuebao (Banking Monthly), 3, 2, 1923; Jingshi shuiwu yuebao (Capital Taxation Monthly), 2, 1923, pp. 712–3. The 1928 figure comes from ‘Feilubin zhengfu de weisheng gonggao (Sanitary pronouncements of the Philippine government)’, Jianyan yuebao (Inspection Monthly), 20, 1931, pp. 65, 66 (on complaints against operating businesses).

85 COC, December 1923.

86 JACAR, B13081541500, ‘Seitō gyūniku tsumitori mondai (Problem of beef acquisition in Qingdao)’, 1929.

87 Shiye gongbao, 4, 25, 1931; Shiye gongbao, 1, 22, 1931; Shiye gongbao, 40, 1931.

88 Nongye zhoubao (Agriculture weekly), 1, 22, 1931, p. 687.

89 JACAR, A08072530100, ‘Manshūkoku shuyo yushutsuhin (yūzeihin) kunibetsu yushutsu gakuhyō narabini koreni tai suru yushutsu zeiritsu gairanhyō (Important exports of Manchukuo chart of (taxable) exports by nation and export tax)’; Japan-Manchoukuo year-book, 1934, pp. 500, 529.

90 Jones, ‘Argentine refrigerated meat industry’, p. 116. The author’s current research aims to produce estimates of production and consumption in Republican China.

91 Sturgeon, Timothy J., ‘From commodity chains to value chains: interdisciplinary theory building in an age of globalization’, in Jennifer Bair, ed., Frontiers of commodity chains research, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009, pp. 110135 Google Scholar .

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