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Home  /  Inside China  /  Vegetarianism in China: an encounter between Buddhism, health and social status
Vegetarianism in China: an encounter between Buddhism, health and social status print version
Is there a true local vegetarian scene in China, who are its major 'players' and what does vegetarianism symbolize for Chinese society?
 Since the new millennium has entered our lives, every once in a while the Chinese media publishes an article about the emerging trend of vegetarianism in China. Foreigners in China are also conscious of this trend (and are often catalysts of this phenomenon) and spread the word about a new veggie hangout that is opening its kitchen in Beijing's Sanlitun or in downtown Shanghai. Nevertheless, no data is supporting the notion that vegetarianism is on a steep rise nationwide. 

Classifying the Chinese veggie scene

Even if vegetarianism is not a ubiquitous phenomenon in China, we can still ask why and in which ways, other than direct foreign influence in business or diplomatic districts, vegetarianism is finding a more fertile ground than before in the Chinese public discourse. The rhetoric of new-age Chinese vegetarians and the profile of the restaurants that feed them suggest that the vegetarian scene in China can be divided to three:

  1. Buddhist restaurants: the concept of vegetarianism as a complete denial of meat is a basic principle in Mahayana Buddhism that is dominant in China. Most Buddhist monks in China do not eat meat, while on the other hand less orthodox followers of Buddha in China rarely avoid meat. Therefore, this form of vegetarianism is a religious custom and does not appear as a call to stop animal suffering in contemporary times. Buddhist vegetarianism meets modern vegetarians under the roofs of Buddhist restaurants throughout China. For many vegetarians these are the only places where they could be truly confident that no invisible pork oil or fish sauce is hiding in their dish. Most dishes on the menus of Buddhist restaurant are comprised of meat substitutes. It is a known fact that vegetarians in the world can be divided to those who like the taste of meat, and therefore like to eat 'fake' meat, and vegetarians that avoid any resemblance of meet in their plates. Buddhist restaurants are suitable only for the former type...

  2. Healthy food: Academic, medical and popular knowledge about healthy lifestyles and healthy nutrition are invading into urban China. Self-health books have become best-sellers, often incorporating foreign knowledge into the local repertoire. While the young middle class is often at the spearhead of such info, elderly Chinese are also becoming more 'self-responsible' in this aspect, particularly in light of their preoccupation with their health. Chinese health professionals and politicians are also following global trends with great attention, trying to keep China in pace with international initiatives, and therefore acknowledge the importance of healthy and organic food (youji shipin). China's Premier Wen Jiabao even suggested in 2010 that China adopts the practice of 'meatless Monday' (周一吃素) that takes place in many western locations. Although he never planned to make it a formal policy, this nonetheless shows that 'healthy' in China extends in its significance from the personal body to the body politic.

  3. Western/foreign food: Western restaurants are often linked to healthy food in the minds of many Chinese (ethnographic studies show that many Chinese even believe that American fast food chains are more hygienic than Chinese restaurants). Adding the fact that many westerners in China like to promote vegetarian food due to their abdominal resistance to some local meaty dishes, the result is even a stronger association between vegetarianism and foreign dishes. A new type of veggie restaurants relies on this idea and bases its menu on vegetable pastas, vegetable curry, quiches and fruit-shakes and other 'Western-friendly food'. Generally speaking, Western cuisine is seen in China as less dependent on meat compared to Chinese food.



                                    Tasty fake meat at Beijing's Jing Si restaurant (photo by gil hizi)

Chinese culture and vegetarianism

Several issues in the Chinese taste and eating habits allow vegetarianism to accustom quite easily to the Chinese culinary landscape, while others make meat-eating a habit that cannot be dismissed. Unlike some cultures that have always relied ultimately on meat due to geographic reasons, in most areas in China vegetables have always been an essential part of people's diet. Travelers in China might find difficulties in enjoying meat-free meals, but at the same time dishes of tofu and vegetables appear on the menus of every traditional restaurant. The fact that the average Chinese diners like a balanced meal with many dishes allows vegetarians to settle for the 'yin' dishes and still enjoy a decent variety.

On the other hand, the pursue of a 'balance' also means that meat will remain very essential in most Chinese meals. As long as the traditional eating pattern of ordering many shareable dishes in one meal doesn't change, vegetable dishes will remain insufficient.

Vegetarian restaurants in China therefore face some difficult challenges. Are they to become a true alternative for one's diet or will they remain a unique experience which meat eaters go for only in special occasions? Currently, owners of vegetarian restaurants in Beijing report that 80-90% of their customers are not vegetarians. Each restaurant will need to choose whether to hold the 'health card' or the 'animal-free card'. The first enables them to attract health-concerned meat eaters, while the second allows them to compromise health and keep the grease and salt in a 'tasty' level.

Modern fusion of food and cultural symbols

As it happens with most products in the middle class hubs of urban China, the outcome we meet is never either 'modern' or 'traditional' but a mix of modern interpretations of tradition and subconscious traditional tendencies that affect how one regards the 'modern'.

 purelotus1_602  purelotus2_568

'Pure Lotus' (净心莲) is a good example for how 'Buddhist' food meets a modern décor. This expensive Sanlitun restaurant serves its food in an extravagant manner (using dry ice to add a 'cloudy' effect) while relying on incents and Buddhist music for a taste of refined spiritual tradition  

Vegetarian restaurants in China are in fact a growing trendy phenomenon. They address the middle class and with a dining experience that is relatively expensive (for the price they charge, most working class Chinese would prefer to eat meat, as veggie food can be consumed more cheaply through simple vegetables dishes and plain fruits). While the general concept of healthy food can penetrate throughout the entire society and introduce people with meat-free options, the concept of 'vegetarian restaurants' is becoming a status symbol for certain social groups. The cosmopolitan nature of 'veggie' food, the fact that it is an 'international' trend of the recent decades and the manner it contradicts the more macho-laymen style of 'cigarettes, alcohol and meat' (it is no coincidence that most diners in Chinese veggie places are women) gives it a sociocultural meaning that applies most strongly to individuals of the Chinese middle class.

It is also worth to mention a less paramount trend of ideological vegetarianism in China, i.e. Chinese who do not wish to harm animals. As this article suggests, this group is small and is hardly a dominant force in the promotion of vegetarianism in China. Nevertheless, value changes also allow more Chinese to 'rebel' and become more concerned with animal-suffering. I have heard several stories in recent years of Chinese that were traumatized by unpleasant sites of animal pain and hence decided to close their mouth to meat indefinitely. With the growing impact of animal right movements in China, we can expect that these initiatives will become more common in years to come.

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