Why Hasn’t Chocolate Taken Off in China?

This video is a Chinese advertisement of Dove chocolates, focusing on the smooth and sweet taste of chocolate.  Among the Big Five, Dove has been one of the leading chocolate products in China. Since the 1980s, the Big Five have invested massive resources into trying to sell chocolate, with hopes of a lucrative return as China’s consumer class grows. Although some companies such as Ferrero and Mars have had some success, the dream of reaching all Chinese consumers has yet to be fully realized. Why these companies have struggled to successfully penetrate the Chinese market is a question worthy of exploration. Although some literature sources address this puzzle, none of them offer fully convincing arguments for why this might be. Building on Mintz’s consideration of how “sweetness” fits into the cuisine of different cultures, I argue that we must understand how people understand flavors and food in China to fully understand why chocolate may not be as popular.

The Big Five have made concerted efforts to market chocolate to Chinese people, using different concepts to attract the attention of consumers. For example, some have focused on the cultural practice of “gift-giving”–finding that more people may choose to give chocolate rather than buy it for the sake of self-indulgence. To some extent, these efforts seem to be working. This next video is a news report that reports how chocolate in China is becoming more popular. However, as the video points out, the consumption of chocolate in China remains extremely low, and a person in China only eats about 100 grams of chocolate annually.

Interestingly, one of the points made in this video and other news reports also comment on the short history of chocolate in China. Many point to China’s recent industrialization as the start of the country’s interaction with chocolate. As Allen writes in the opening paragraph of his book “Chocolate Fortunes : The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers,”

Until twenty-five years ago, almost none of them had ever eaten a piece of chocolate. They were, to coin a phrase, ‘‘chocolate virgins,’’ their taste for chocolate ready to be shaped by whichever chocolate company came roaring into the country with a winning combination of quality, marketing savvy, and manufacturing and distribution acumen.

Here, Allen’s analyzes China through a highly orientalist and capitalist lens, describing Chinese people as “chocolate virgins” to be “conquered in a war” between chocolate corporations. Allen’s description is highly problematic in the way that it views Chinese people as simply “consumers” who can fulfill the wild dreams of one of the big five chocolate companies. By saying that before 25 years ago, “none of them had ever eaten a piece of chocolate” is a gross exaggeration, and would suggest that chocolate has had a very recent entry into China.  On the contrary, there is evidence that shows chocolate has long been in China, and some sources say its presence dates as far back as the 1600s (Grivetti and Shapiro 2011; Gordon, 2011).  These scholars point to several opportunities in which chocolate could have been introduced into China, including its close proximity to European countries (like Turkey) where chocolate and coffee were extremely popular; England’s colonization of Hong Kong in the mid 1800s, and the outsourcing of Chinese laborers to the Philippines where both cane sugar and chocolate were popular (Clarence-Smith 2003; Grivetti and Shapiro 2011). In searching through a database of Chinese trade and business documents, I also found a journal entry from 1883 where missionaries documented their consumption of chocolate, suggesting that it was not a foreign substance or food to the Chinese (See Picture 1 & 2).

Given that the data suggests chocolate has had a much longer history in China, this makes the puzzle of why chocolate has not been fully taken off even more interesting. Allen posits that many of the challenges that explain why chocolate has not taken off in China are logistical barriers that have gotten in the way. For example, he cites the difficulty in finding places that can keep chocolate at an appropriate temperature to avoid melting. Additionally, Allen even talks about how China is not as developed as the west, therefore their stores simply do not fully expose consumers to chocolate. Although Allen talks briefly about the importance of understanding how food is understood in China (citing the yin and yang concept), he ultimately criticizes China for being too close-minded to chocolate. He writes,

Ironically, in spite of such a wide variety of tastes and textures, chocolate was so foreign to the Chinese palate that the only culinary gateway into the diets of Chinese consumers was as a foreign and exotic curiosity. Therefore, to make their chocolates appealing to Chinese consumers, the Big Five’s marketing approaches and products had to be consistent with this prevailing view.

Despite acknowledging China’s diverse and rich culinary culture, Allen still believes that through thoughtful marketing, the Big Five can make chocolate popular in China. I argue that this is a problematic and limiting understanding of chocolate in the Chinese context. Even if companies face no logistical supply-chain barriers or have perfect marketing campaigns, there are cultural factors to account for that explain why chocolate has not, in its history, been fully accepted into Chinese culture.  In order to understand this, I believe we need to take a more nuanced look at the food system in China. Although there are certain regions, such as eastern China, that may prefer sweet foods, most of the country is not accustomed to eating solely sweets; there is a cultural system in China that dictates what what foods are better than others dependent on the season, weather, or condition of one’s body. To indulge in a sweet confectionary, or many pounds of it, is fundamentally oppositional to the balance of foods that one should consume.

In discussing the minimal role of sugar in French cuisine, Mintz’ cultural explanation provides a compelling framework that can help us understand why something sweet like chocolate may not be as popular in places like China. He writes,  

Sweetness does not seem to ever have been enshrined as a taste to be contrasted with all others in the French taste spectrum–bitter, sour, salt, hot–as it has in England and America.  Though dessert has a firm place in french meals, the position of cheese is even sturdier, often as if it were a spice. This is rather like the Chinese usage, where sweetness occurs somewhat unexpectedly, and also not always as the climax to the meal.

As Mintz points out, both French and Chinese cuisine are different from American and English cuisines in that they do not necessarily treat sweetness as a main or core component of dishes.  Given sweetness’ smaller role in the cuisine of China, confections such as chocolates may therefore not be as attractive to consumers. Acknowledging the way that food is understood culturally is essential to understanding why chocolate companies may find resistance in China; if the Big Five truly want to take a stab at China, then they need to understand that the cuisine and cultural food systems are more important than consumers’ purchasing power or logistical barriers.

Works Cited

Allen, Lawrence. 2010. Chocolate Fortunes: the Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and

Wallets of China’s Consumers. pp. 1-39, 201-224

Clarence-Smith, William Gervase. 2003. Cocoa and Chocolate.

Gordon, Bertram M. 2011. Chapter 44: Chinese Chocolate in the book Chocolate: history, culture, and heritage edited by Grivetti and Shapiro.

Mintz, Sidney. 1986[1985]. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern

History. New York: Penguin Books

Multimedia Sources:

Picture 1&2:

The Chinese Recorder: Missionary Journal. 1883. Volume 14, Issue 1. China: Trade, Politics & Culture.

Video 1: Dove Chocolate Advertisement. Extracted from Youtube.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhwYbH5n15c

Video 2: Chinese news report on chocolate. Extracted from Youtube.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9qRl9Lj818

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