The Sordid, Sudsy Rise of Soap in China

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust soap back in the limelight: Of all the hypothesized solutions to viral transmission — from big data-powered contact tracing to disinfectant injections — few are as scientifically supported or as effective as simply washing your hands.

With countries around the world vowing to hedge future disruptions by reshoring health and medicine manufacturing capacity, I am reminded of the early history of China’s own modern soap industry, an unexpectedly muddy tale of economic nationalism, corporate espionage, and global commerce.