Why Refrigerators Were So Slow to Catch On in China

The technology was once considered superfluous, until contemporary capitalism made it a necessity. An Object Lesson.

Refrigerators at a home-appliance market in Shandong, China in 2008. (Reuters)

“Have you thought about buying a refrigerator?” I asked my aunt one day over lunch.

I was living in a smallish rural town in Shandong province, China, called Jiaxiang, conducting fieldwork. “Aunt” in this case was actually the mother of a friend, and she regularly asked me over to their home for lunch. I’d noticed that their family, despite being able to afford it, did not own a refrigerator. In fact, most households in the area didn’t have refrigerators, and it had begun to strike me as a little odd. Granted, this was not a wealthy area, and living standards were well behind those in cities like Beijing or Shanghai. But even so, familiar appliances like televisions and washing machines were common enough. Refrigerators, somehow, apparently hadn’t caught on.

“I thought about it,” Aunt replied. “But then I looked at my sisters, and they don't really use the refrigerators they bought. My oldest sister unplugged hers.”

Refrigerators are not an absolute necessity; most people in history have obviously gotten by without them. Still, the question isn’t really how so many people in Jiaxiang made do without them, but why. Consider this: According to census data, in the United States, the humble, utilitarian refrigerator is found in over 99 percent of households, making it the number-one appliance, more prevalent than cellphones, computers, washing machines, or even televisions. Some households in urban areas might manage without cars or washing machines, essentially outsourcing the functions of those things to public transportation or laundromats, but refrigerators seem to be so obviously convenient that people would be sure to buy them if they were available. Why would Aunt and so many others in Jiaxiang not bother to buy or use them, even if they had the means?

Over the following months as I watched how Aunt cooked and managed her kitchen, the answer became clear. The usefulness and necessity of the refrigerator depends on a number of factors that are not obviously related to the thing itself, from food packaging to the layout of communities to the length of school lunch breaks.

The first, and simplest thing is what I saw Aunt cook at home. Chinese cuisine is more varied than it is usually given credit for, and the food in Jiaxiang falls under the heading of Shandong regional cuisine, which is typically saltier and more savory than the Chinese fare that has been assimilated in the West. It includes dishes like stir-fried julienned potato with green pepper; tofu and bean sprouts in sauce; deep-fried fritters of grated daikon; thick soups of millet, often with large chunks of one type of gourd or another, boiled soft. Garlic, ginger, and leeks serve as the local equivalent of a mirepoix, and are used in most dishes, while the main starch is not rice, but mantou, or steamed bread buns.

All of this matters inasmuch as the primary purpose of refrigerators is food preservation, and most of the traditional foodstuffs used in Jiaxiang could generally keep for days or even weeks at room temperature. Produce like bok choy, carrots, and leeks might dry out a little, but will not spoil very quickly. The various sauces and oils used in local cooking keep at room temperature for months easily. Even eggs, contrary to what many Americans might believe, do not need refrigeration to stay fresh.

Still, even in the local cuisine, some Shangdong foods are still relatively perishable, and cooked foods especially so. It’s here that a number of other factors come into play in making refrigeration less relevant in Jiaxiang.

Take milk, for example. Traditionally, dairy products are not a part of the Chinese diet. But within the last several decades, many Chinese have begun to acquire a taste for milk and yogurt. When I did my fieldwork in Jiaxiang, milk and yogurt were available, but the large jugs of milk that are universal in American supermarkets were nowhere to be found, and for good reason. At that time, milk in Jiaxiang was only sold in soft plastic bags or small boxes of about 200 milliliters each, roughly the size of the palm of one’s hand. Such milk is UHT-treated—sterilized at higher temperatures than are used for regular pasteurization—and can be stored at room temperature for several months without spoiling, so long as it remains sealed. The small size of the packaging is purposeful, as once a bag is opened, it can be drunk in a single serving, obviating any need for cold storage. In this instance, technologies of food processing and packaging implicitly accommodated the general lack of refrigeration in the community.

Fresh meat and tofu were the only foods common to the local diet that could not be kept at room temperature for long periods. Which meant that any time my aunt wanted to cook a dish with meat, fish, or tofu, then those items had to be purchased the same day.

As is common outside North America, plenty of opportunities for daily shopping were available. Near Aunt’s house was a street lined with several dozen vendors: farmers selling produce and small shops that specialized in making and selling one particular sort of foodstuff or another. There were butchers who sold only chicken, or pork and lamb, or donkey (beef was virtually unavailable). In many cases, the animals were slaughtered on site and the meat sold the day of. My aunt and many other people in Jiaxiang therefore made almost daily trips to whichever market area was closest to them, often in the morning or on their way home at midday, picking up whatever meat and produce they might need.

The seasons played their part as well. Homes in Jiaxiang did not have indoor heating at that time (it was only introduced into the town the year after I left), which meant that in wintertime natural refrigeration became possible. Aunt would casually leave things like the raw pork filling used for making dumplings out on the kitchen counter all day, knowing it was cold enough to prevent any spoilage. Many people set vegetables out on metal railings that surrounded their kitchen windows. Summer required a slight change in habits, and greater care was taken to ensure that things were not left over at the end of the day, lest they go to waste.

Unless one had dinner out for a social occasion, the main meal of the day was lunch, with dinner consisting mostly of leftovers from midday. That meant the time when food had to be left out was kept to a minimum. But if lunch is to be the main meal of the day, someone has to be home in the middle of the day to make it.

Aunt worked as a nurse in the local hospital, and as traditionally is the case with state-owned institutions in China, there was an apartment complex specially built for the hospital workers right across the street, which saved her from having to make much of a commute. On most days—so long as she had not worked the night shift—she would go to work in the morning and come back a little before noon, when she would have enough time to prepare lunch. This schedule was more or less the norm in Jiaxiang. Adults had long breaks off work in the middle of the day. And high-school students, who might be in school till 8 or 9 p.m., were given enough time at midday to go home for lunch. The daily schedule of working adults and students thus accommodated schedules that allowed lunch to be cooked and eaten at home, and that, in turn, meant that most food eaten at home would be finished off the same day it was prepared.

But even in 2010, things were changing. Aunt now lives with her son in Shanghai, where he and his wife both work, and she spends her days looking after her young granddaughter. But in her son’s newly purchased apartment there is a refrigerator, and this one enjoys thorough use. In keeping with the more cosmopolitan tastes that Aunt’s son and daughter-in-law have acquired from their years in the city, their refrigerator is stocked with both mantou and jam, butter and hard-boiled quail eggs, yogurt, and Chinese chili sauce. The freezer contains prepackaged beef steaks bought from the local Metro supermarket (a German chain) as well as Aunt’s own homemade dumplings.

Aunt continues to do most of the cooking, but her son’s and daughter-in-law’s work schedules mean they are not often home for lunch, which now means that dinner is the main meal she cooks for, and any leftovers often have to be refrigerated if they are not to go to waste by the next day. There are a few small food and produce vendors nearby, but nothing like the market areas back in Jiaxiang. The supermarket is not too far from their house, but it is not so close as to make running out to buy groceries a five-minute errand.

Refrigerators are already the norm in most urban Chinese households, and they are increasingly common in places like Jiaxiang, too. But their adoption, complete as it might be in the end, hasn’t been so quick or automatic as other imports of Western middle-class life. A device like a refrigerator has to fit within a web of habits, conditions, and behaviors. But then again, maybe it fits best when it changes those habits, transforming them into new ones. Refrigerators allow their owners to buy groceries less often, to change up cooking habits and eating schedules and not worry about leftovers, to keep on-hand foods that are more perishable. These aren’t old habits, after all, but the peculiar habits of modern living. And those habits make refrigerators all but obligatory.

This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.