The production of dairy products was an important industry that was transmitted from China to Japan as early as the seventh century. This industry is often overlooked in discussions of historical Sino-Japanese relations. It highlights the need for us to be more aware of the deeper historical connections, including the transfer of material culture, between China and Japan.

Dairy products in medieval China included milk ( 乳), yogurt (lào 酪), and butter ( 酥/蘇), but also an item called tíhú 醍醐, which originally referred to a fermented milk beverage consumed by the nomadic peoples beyond the northwestern frontier during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE – 220 CE), but later was used to refer to refined ghee particularly when translating Indian texts. These items appear in the pharmacopeia from the early medieval period (sixth century CE onward) and it seems that dairy was in large part considered medicinal. This view is reflected in some Daoist texts. Buddhists, however, had a different view towards dairy.

Buddhists in China—having inherited traditions from India where dairy was often a staple—sought to emulate the Indian uses of dairy in three particular ways. First, the vinaya (monastic codes) of India, which had been translated into Chinese since the fifth century, called for the consumption of dairy as part of a seven-day dietary regimen when a monk fell ill.

Second, dairy was a prescribed offering in some formal rituals described in Indian Buddhist texts. Yogurt and rice, for example, would be served to an image of the Buddha. Finally, butter in particular was an ingredient in magical suffumigations that were performed alongside the recitation of mantras, largely in order to achieve worldly aims such as the acquisition of wealth and resources. These uses in religion and medicine would indicate that there was, in fact, a substantial dairy industry in China, particularly during the Tang period (618–907).

The various forms of dairy products in different stages of refinement also came to symbolise the different canons of Buddhism, which became a standard trope. For instance, the Sūtra of the Purport of the Māhāyana and Six Perfections (Dàshèng lǐqù liùbōluómìduō jīng 大乘理趣六波羅蜜多經) states the following:

These five canons of the Dharma are like milk, yogurt, fresh butter, aged butter, and fine ghee. The sūtras are like milk, the vinaya (monastic codes) is like yogurt, the teachings of Abhidharma (exegesis) are like fresh butter, the prajña (wisdom) of the Mahāyāna is like aged butter, and the practice of dhāraṇī (incantations) is like ghee. The flavor of ghee is finest among milk, yogurt and butter. It removes illness and makes sentient beings at ease in body and mind.

The Chinese dairy industry and all the associated culture in relation to medicine and Buddhism were also transmitted to Japan. Historians generally mark the mid-seventh century as the beginning of the dairy industry in Japan, when Zenna 善那 offered Emperor Kōtoku 孝徳天皇 (reigned 645–654) milk as tribute. Zenna’s father, Chisō 智聰, had hailed from Wú 吳, which refers to China. Dairy products were increasingly produced from this point on. Wooden tablets (Jp. mokkan 木簡) unearthed from the Heijō Palace in Nara mention milk having been offered.

The consumption of dairy appears to have increased during the early Heian period (794–1185). The Procedures of the Engi Era (Engi shiki 延喜式) from the year 927, which is an account of legal and religious procedures of the Japanese state, lists a title of “Overseer of Milk” who operated within the Bureau of Medicine, a point that highlights the association between dairy and medicine that carried over to Japan from China. Regional centers were expected to send jars of butter to the capital on a routine basis. The connection between the consumption of dairy and preservation of health, which is mentioned in both Chinese pharmacopeia as well as some Chinese Buddhist works, was likely the primary motivating factor for aristocratic interest in dairy products.

However, the collapse of aristocratic power toward the end of the Heian period ended economic demand for the dairy industry, which led to its collapse. It was not until after World War II that the Japanese significantly revised their domestic dairy industry and resumed regular consumption of milk and cheese. In the present day, interestingly, Japan exports their dairy products abroad, including to China, which is a reversal of the relationship during the medieval period.

The transfer of material culture, in this case, the dairy industry, was culturally significant, but this and other exchanges are generally overshadowed by modern narratives and political concerns between China and Japan. We ought to be aware of deeper historical links between the two countries.