The Introduction of Chocolate to China: A Complex Interplay of Trade, Exchange and Ideas

From a Western-centric voice and orientalist perspective[i], Lawrence Allen describes the challenges and complexities of the chocolate market in China beginning in the 1980’s.[ii]  The infrastructure was not developed for the logistics of storing chocolate, it was expensive and viewed as a foreign luxury product, and there was growing viable local competition.[ii]  As the 2015 graph shows, the consumption of chocolate in China is still relatively minute at only 200 grams per capita.

Source: Mintel. “Per Capita Consumption of Chocolate Confectionery Worldwide in 2015, by Key Markets (in Kilograms).” Statista – The Statistics Portal, Statista,, Accessed 9 Mar 2018

But the story of chocolate in China began much earlier, with some of the same East versus West duality themes, and its unsuccessful introduction dates back to the Kangxi Emperor who ruled from 1661 to 1722 during the Qing dynasty.  Quickly glossed over in the history of chocolate – Coe and Coe, for example, simply state that chocolate never took on in the Far East (173)[iii] – the actual story is much more nuanced.  At times mysterious, the tale of chocolate’s entry into China reveals the complexities and politics of trade and knowledge exchange during the last imperial dynasty.

An instance captured on a tapestry, part of a series known as “The Story of the Emperor of China” commissioned by the Duc du Maine, son of Louis XIV, sheds light on the intricacies of the moments when chocolate was first introduced.  La Collation shows the Kangxi Emperor “proudly holding a chalice full of chocolate”[iv], perhaps identified by what appears to be a chocolate pot on a side table at the edge of the tapestry.  The Emperor sits across the table from his wife who is being served tea[iv], a juxtaposition that shows the already established tea drinking culture in China, which, in addition to the possibly difficult or overly exotic flavor of chocolate, may be a reason that it was never adopted – chocolate simply could not compete with or supplant an already beloved stimulant drink.[v]  The tapestry is a fanciful depiction as the Emperor did not like the chocolate drink according to Qing records[iv], but, on the other hand, it also illustrates how chocolate became the “cultural bond” and “material link” for the exchange of religious, cultural and scientific ideas.[vi]

After cartoons by Guy-Louis Vernansal (French, 1648 – 1729), and Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (French, 1636 – 1699), and Jean-Baptiste Belin de Fontenay (French, 1653 – 1715), et al
Tapestry: La Collation, from L’Histoire de l’empereur de la Chine Series, about 1697–1705, Wool and silk
309.9 × 422.9 cm (122 × 166 1/2 in.)
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Jesuit missions to China between the 16th and 17th centuries were important pre-modern exchanges of knowledge and culture between China and the Western world.[vii]  The Kangxi Emperor, as he was interested in a diversity of medicinal knowledge, provided patronage for the Jesuit missionaries who had personal access to the imperial court, thus allowing for the transmission of medicinal knowledge between China and Europe.[viii]  The story goes that the group of Jesuit missionaries who arrived in 1639 at the Kangxi court claimed to have cured malaria, which greatly interested the Emperor in Western medicine; some of the missionaries also proclaimed their love of drinking chocolate.[ix]  The Emperor was interested in trying some, so they prepared a chocolate drink in the European style, adding additional ingredients such as cinnamon, chilis and sugar which could be found in China, as well as other foreign ingredients, into boiling water in a silver or copper pot, then mixing it with a wooden tool.[ix]  The Jesuits tried to convince him that in America, chocolate is consumed like tea and it works well as an anti-diarrheal, but it was not to the Emperor’s liking as in Chinese conceptions of medicine, chocolate would be classified as “hot” or excessive “yang” energy, which can cause diarrhea![ix]

Chocolate continued to appear in China but many of the details and how it was used by Chinese people are not well understood.  In 1719, Pope Clement XI sent many gifts to the Kangxi Emperor and the imperial court that he knew would be well received, including “two hundred pounds of chocolate” (69)![x]  It is unclear what happened to the chocolate since the Emperor did not care for it, but my own speculation is that maybe other elite officials, some of whom had been baptized and converted to Christianity, developed a taste for the drink.  Here chocolate was embroiled in a long-lasting controversy over whether Chinese ancestor rites and Confucian rituals were contrary to Christian morals that eventually caused the expulsion of the Catholic missions from China. [x]  Meant to sway the Emperor to accept papal decree that Chinese rites could not be accommodated, the gifts eventually had no effect on the Emperor’s disfavor.[x]

The Franciscan missionaries who came after the Jesuits, did often partake of chocolate and treated it as a pharmaceutical; Bertram Gordon mentions many documentations of requests for chocolate from Franciscans missions in southern China or thanks for chocolate sent from 1678 to 1730.[xi]  In one example, Fr. Buenaventura Ibañez wrote on March 5, 1678 from Macao to his Minister Provincial that “he had requested a cargo of cacao to be sent from New Spain with all the accoutrement necessary to make chocolate as a present for the ‘king of Canton’” (595).[xi]  The consistent chocolate deliveries during this time delineate the extended trade routes from the Spanish colonies in Latin America to Europe, where chocolate was becoming more accessible and not only for the most elite,[v] to the ports of southern China.  The Franciscans would distribute the chocolate amongst themselves, and there is little information or research currently about whether it was given to local Chinese (besides the court)[xi] and their reactions to this new drink, though one can imagine that some Chinese who were brought into the Catholic Church and perhaps worked with the Franciscans may have tried it.

An important development from the introduction of chocolate, and a strong indication that there was awareness of chocolate throughout China, is the ceramic ware made for export to New Spain[xi] and to Europe where there was an “obsession” with Chinese porcelain.[v]  Some of the earliest mentions of chocolate pots from China are from export ware inventories in the late 1600’s, including one belonging to Captain Nicholas Dumaresq “who had been active in the Spanish trade network” (597).[xi]  The most exquisite of these wares would have been made at Jingdezhen, which to this day is still famous for and produces lustrous, fine porcelain.  The kilns at Jingdezhen were newly revived in the 1690’s and, coming full circle, a chocolate cup dating to the Kangxi period, around 1710, was found at an excavation.[xi]

D2015-JBC-0707-0001Yonge Beaker, view 1
A reconstruction of a beaker made at Jingdezhen which was most likely used for drinking chocolate in the early 18th century. Yonge Beakers. Jingdezhen, China, ca. 1720, hard-paste porcelain with underglaze blue. Drayton Hall, National Trust for Historic Preservation., Accessed 9 March 2018

Thus, even though drinking or eating chocolate never became an integral part of Chinese culture like in Europe, it still played an important role in the exchange of ideas, burgeoning global trade routes, and the development of industries that connected China to Europe and the Americas in pre-modern times.

[i] Martin, Carla.  “The Rise of Big Chocolate and Race for the Global Market.”  Harvard University, 7 March 2018, Cambridge, MA.  Lecture.

[ii] Allen, Lawrence L. Chocolate Fortunes: The Battle for the Hearts, Minds, and Wallets of China’s Consumers.  AMACOM, 2010.

[iii] Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe.  The True History of Chocolate.  3rd ed., Thames & Hudson, 2013.

[iv] Puente-Ballesteros, Beatriz.  “Tasting Chocolate at the Kangxi Court: Medicine, Politics, and Global Trade Flows in the 17th Century” talk summary.  Harvard University,  Accessed 9 March 2018.

[v] Martin, Carla.  “Chocolate Expansion.”  Harvard University, 7 February 2018, Cambridge, MA.  Lecture.

[vi] Grejda, Jennifer.  “Interwoven Histories: Chocolate and Jesuits in The Collation Tapestry from the Court of Louis XIV” abstract.  University of Maryland,  Accessed 9 March 2018.

[vii] “Jesuit China missions.”  New World Encyclopedia,  Last revised 8 May 2014.  Accessed 9 Mar 2018.

[viii] Puente-Ballesteros, Beatriz.  “Jesuit Medicine in the Kangxi Court (1662-1722): Imperial Networks and Patronage.”  East Asian Science, Technology, and Medicine, no. 34, special issue, 2011, pp. 86-162.

[ix] 黄昉苨(Huang Fangni).  “巧克力入宫 (The Entry of Chocolate).” 课外阅读 (Teenagers), no. 20, 2016, pp. 34-35.

[x] Johns, Christopher M. S.  China and the Church: Chinoiserie in Global Context.  University of California Press, 2016.

[xi] Gordon, Bertram M.  “Chinese Chocolate: Ambergris, Emperors, and Export Ware.”  Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage.  Eds. Louis Evan Grivetti and Howard-Yana Shapiro.  Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.  595-601.  Print.

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