The Wikipedia page on tofu states that this food was first produced in Han dynasty China. However, the source cited seems to me quite doubtful:

The oldest evidence of tofu production is a Chinese mural incised on a stone slab. It shows a kitchen scene that proves that soymilk and tofu were being made in China during the period A.D. 25-220.

Source: History of Tofu

Endymion Wilkinson’s Chinese History: A Manual (rev. edition 2000) is a more reputable source. Here is what he states about the origins of tofu:

Bean curd (doufu) is first mentioned in the early Song [10-11th centuries AD]. It was imported into Japan and first appears there in a source of 1183. It was used as a substitute for meat and fish in the Buddhist vegetarian cooking. [pp. 642-3]

Elsewhere Wilkinson mentions that soybeans are indigenous to China and have been cultivated since the Zhou dynasty (so more than 2000 years ago.) The soy products from this earlier date are soy sauce and related fermented foods that have a strong, tangy taste, very different from the blandness of tofu.

My questions:

  1. Can anyone provide more convincing evidence about when and where tofu was invented?
  2. The Wilkinson passage implies but does not state directly that tofu originated as a food specifically for vegetarians. Is there any evidence that this is the case?

Finally, a related question: Soy milk is now commonly consumed at breakfast along with fried doughnuts in China. When did this practice come about?

  • 1
    "tofu originated as a food specifically for vegetarians" I think it is more correct to say that is was for all vegetarians: the ones by choice and the ones by opportunity. Meat as a protein source was not always available (this is why so popular eg in Japan).
    – Greg
    Commented Jan 4, 2019 at 4:21

1 Answer 1


Tofu's origins are not conclusively known. The leading theory, however, is that it was invented during the Western Han Dynasty by Liu An, the king of Huai Nan. The earliest known reference to this is made in the Shiyi (a type of history book that is sort of an unofficial addendum to the official histories) written by a Liang Dynasty official, Xie Chuo (502-557).

《梁‧謝綽‧拾遺》 豆腐之術,三代前後未聞,此物至漢淮南王始傳其術於世。

Tofu creation is unheard of during the Three Dynasties (Hsia / Xia, Shang, Chou / Zhou). The making of this foodstuff became known to the world from the time of Han's Huai Nan King.

This is the most popular view in historical Chinese literature, including the authoritative Compendium of Materia Medica by Li Shih-Chen, (1518-1593)


The recipe for tofu began with the Han Huai Nan King Liu An. Black beans, soy beans, white beans, peanuts, snow peas, green beans and the like can be used. (...)

The evidence cited by wikipedia is a stone wall mural discovered in a Han dynasty tomb, which purportedly depicts the manufacturing process of tofu.

enter image description here

There is no true evidence of why or how tofu was invented. However a common tale is that the inventor's parents were old and unable to chew on soy beans properly. The inventor thus milled the beans into liquid, adding some medicine (plaster) into the mix, and inadvertently created a soft solid.

Another theory is that Liu An's monks came up with the idea, which if true would make it specifically invented for vegetarianism. There's no real evidence for this however.

The Wilkinson passage is probably sourced from the mention of Tofu in Qing Yi Lu, a miscellaneous book by Tao Ku (A.D. 903-970). While more accurately dating to the Five Dynasties (907-979), it is conventionally assigned to the corpus of Song Dynasty (960-1279) literature.

《宋‧陶穀‧清異錄‧官志門》 時戢為青陽丞,潔己勤民。肉味不給,日市豆腐數箇。邑人呼豆腐為小宰羊。

When Ji was the county official, he was honest and hardworking. He didn't eat meat, but bought several blocks of tofu each day. The city folks called tofu "the official's lamb".

Tofu was definitely known as an alternative to meat. Whether it was invented for vegetarianism is a lot more doubtful though. Meat was somewhat of a modest luxury anyway, so having a meat alternative doesn't necessarily say anything about being a vegetarian.

  • 4
    Great answer, nice to have the sources in the original language.
    – neubau
    Commented Oct 2, 2014 at 1:42

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