There is no word for ‘vegan’ in the Mandarin language. Even the proclamation that you are vegetarian is met with a puzzled look and the following questions:
“So, do you eat beef?”
If you happen to be having this conversation with a restaurant server, there is the inevitable offer of an egg dish. And when you refuse that, all hell breaks loose.
Well, not quite. But it’s true that veganism is somewhat of an alien concept here in China. When I asked some of my Chinese friends for their opinions on the matter, many of them would instead refer to vegetarianism in their answers. When I emphasised that dairy is also excluded from the diet, some then took to calling it ‘extreme vegetarianism’. With the strong food culture that pervades here, it’s no surprise that some expressed disbelief at the idea of restricting yourself to a plant-based diet. They would wonder why you would do this, when surrounded by so much “delicious” animal-based food. Ho Yin, 24, who works in real estate, said:
“Eating is an art and a kind of enjoyment- I should eat a variety of food, instead of being a vegetarian and setting limitations.”
I wanted to know whether the concept of a plant-based diet is growing in China, and thought who better to ask about trends than college students! There was a clear divide in their answers. Some supposed that more and more people were giving up animal products, while others referred to the extreme rations imposed on Chinese people during the Cultural Revolution and cited that meat was being consumed at a higher and higher rate because it had become a symbol of prosperity. Wang, 36, an assistant dean at a college, went into more detail:
“Before, people couldn’t afford so much meat. In the 1970s […] everyone was allowed to have one kilo of meat for a whole month, which was unbelievable. Chinese people- they have a better life than before- of course are trying to eat more meat because they think it’s a symbol of a good life.”
In our western world it seems that the typical ‘vegan’ stereotype is a tree hugger who owns a pig sanctuary. When I asked 18 Chinese people, “Why do you think people go vegan?”, religion was decisively the most common answer, with health (specifically, weight-loss) coming second, animal welfare third and the environment last.
That’s not to say that over here animal welfare isn’t considered a subject of importance or at least consideration. I asked Lei, 19, a German Language major, for his thoughts on the subject. He had this to say:
“Actually, I really support veganism because in the past, I have watched some documentaries about killing animals because humans want to sell the meat and earn money. I really think that it is inhumane. So, a few years ago, I was hardly eating meat. Pork, mutton and beef- I refused to eat them. But it is not enough to get nutrition from some vegetables and other foods that aren’t meat, so I started to eat a little bit of meat, but not a lot. […] In some ways, people are able to benefit from being vegan [..] compared to being a meat eater; it is significant for our environment to be vegan. I remember there was a survey, in the case that a cyclist who often ate meat will do harm to the environment much more compared with a driver who doesn’t eat meat. Seeing this issue from another perspective, it is good for the people who live in a developed country, but I think in some developing countries, meat and dairy products are what those people really need.”
Lei’s answer is a more detailed version of what many of the students implied in their answers: that it’s a shame to kill animals, but we need the nutrition from meat.
“I tried to be vegetarian […] but I found out that there were some nutrients in the meat that people needed, so I gave up.” (Ziqi, 18, English major)
“I think vegans are healthy and kind, because they don’t want to hurt other animals. The Chinese may think that meat means more nutrition, so it is not popular in China.” (Li, 18, Business major)
“I think people who are vegetarian want to save the animal’s life […] I reckon I need meat to satisfy my nutrition, and I can’t find anything to substitute meat.” (Yahao, 22, Japanese major)
“My mother told me in my early age, ‘You have to eat more meat and rice so that you can grow faster.’ And another reason, my mother said, ‘Eating more meat will make your body strong.’” (Liu, 18, English major)
It’s difficult to compare eastern and western cultures, and I loathe to do so, because as people we are all so vastly different and unique. But in terms of the strength of meat-eating culture, it seems that east and west are in fact not so far apart.
All that said, I’m currently living in the third biggest city in China, and I refused to believe that there was nothing for vegans here. I consulted trusty HappyCow and found just one all-vegan buffet. There was, however, a fair selection of vegetarian places (mostly Buddhist temples9 where meat was eschewed for religious reasons. Upon further research, I found a tiny, mostly-vegan restaurant that served raw vegan cheesecake. You’d best believe I bought myself the biggest slice I could see.
From this we can assume that the concept of veganism is slowly making its way to China. My most recent discovery has been an online grocery store that has an entire vegan section! Their website is all in English, so it’s clearly marketed towards foreigners. The only drawbacks are that it is pretty expensive and I have to double check the ingredients when it comes to dubious items like cereals. But it’s been a lifesaver. A month without decent peanut butter is a month too long.