Going vegetarian in China isn’t quite as easy as it is being veg in, say, Canada. The number of meaty dishes (or dishes with meaty traces) here seems to far outnumber the satisfying vegetarian alternatives. And if you’ve asking for something “mei-you rou” at a restaurant in Shanghai, you’ll be familiar with the bewildered look that crosses the waitron’s face. But in spite of this apparent disparity between East and West, vegetarianism in China is actually on the rise, and it isn't too difficult to find tips on how to live as a vegetarian in China.
Traditionally, meat-free diets in China were only associated with Buddhism, and any specialist restaurants were attached, (as some still are), to temples. The subsequent religious undertones of going veggie in this manner were a little off-putting to the largely atheist general population.1 But it comes down to much more than religious connotations. A key concern that historically fended vegetarianism off was health. Vegetarians in China have attested to puzzled family members and friends asking concerned questions about nutrition,2 and even being warned with foreboding tales of devout Buddhist monks whose meat-free diets resulted in them falling sick.3
Perhaps another explanation for China’s resistance to vegetarianism is the long held association between eating meat and prosperity. It is a deeply held belief that consuming meat means eating well. This is due to a long, tumultuous history of famine that over the years led to many adopting a near-vegetarian diet out of necessity, given that they couldn’t afford meat. As the amount of wealth in China has grown, meat consumption has also, having quintupled in the last few decades.4 When you consider this association, it’s understandable that some would be perplexed by those who have the money to eat meat but choose not to.
These are the reasons that, for a long time, vegetarianism has not been able to gain a foothold amongst China’s populace. But the number of vegetarians in China is rising, to the extent that there are now more vegetarians in China than in the U.S., (though it is still just 3-4% of the Chinese population, compared to something closer to 10% in the U.S.).5
Other recent evidence also suggests that the tide may be turning, that vegetarianism is becoming more and more common and might even be on its way to being normalized. More and more vegetarian restaurants have begun to pop up around the country; in the decade leading up to 2009, their number swelled from under 100 to over 300.6 In fact now, there are more than 100 vegetarian restaurants in Beijing alone.7 For a long time vegetarian restaurants have often focused on using ingenious methods to convincingly imitate meat dishes using vegetarian ingredients like tofu, which some purists feel defeats the point of giving up meat.8 This is symptomatic of the ambivalent way that vegetarianism has long been viewed, but this is also changing. In many new restaurants the food is unashamedly vegetarian and focused on the natural flavors of the ingredients, rather than dressing them up to look like meat.9
Vegetarian meat substitutes at a vegetarian Chinese restaurant
So why is it that vegetarianism in China is on the rise? It would seem that the reasons involve concern both for one’s own safety and for the safety of the world itself. Chinese prosperity, and the attendant increase in meat consumption, has put an ever greater strain on the environment.10 There is now a younger urban generation in China that has grown up with the notoriously appalling pollution in major cities and begun recognizing not only the damage to their health that is caused by it, but also the damage to the earth.
Given the huge amount of industrialized animal farming that goes on in China, it’s clear that it this is a significant contributor. This new generation has also begun to feel a greater empathy for the creatures that humans share the earth with.11 It is also worth noting that many of these younger urban Chinese haven’t seen the types of poverty that older generations experienced, and thus not have such a strong correlation between meat eating and success or wealth.
There are also less selfless, but no less understandable reasons that some in China are consciously deciding to forgo meat. If we’re talking concerns with food in China, it’s inevitable that the oft-discussed food scandals of recent years will rear their ugly head. But they are almost certainly a factor contributing to the increases in vegetarianism and veganism in China. Many of the scandals have involved animals and meat, for example the pork sold as beef after being soaked in the cleaning agent borax,12 or the infamous recent case of the thousands of slaughtered pigs found in Shanghai’s Huangpu river.
The gradual eroding of economic and religious associations with meat-free diets changes attitudes and results in the slow loss of stigma attached to them, making people more likely to adopt them. But events like the food scandals may shock some into a more sudden decision to give up meat entirely. Of course, going veggie will not necessarily protect anyone from the pesticides that have been sprayed on fruits or growth agents injected into watermelons, which is why many “new-wave” vegetarians in China go organic as well.13
As previously mentioned, some maintain health concerns where vegetarian diets are concerned. But it may actually be that vegetarian or vegan diets can be just as healthy as a ”regular” diet. And this is also something that people are gradually realizing. Some Chinese will admit that meat-free diets seem healthier,14 and studies undertaken in China seem to support this on some level.15 The well-known so-called China Study was a far-reaching, nationwide study of diet and overall health which, though hardly a flawless experiment,16 did seem to show that a vegan diet could be healthier than the typical diet indulged in by the rest of the population.
As people become more health conscious, any possible health benefits that might be inherent in meat-free diets will attract more and more people to them. But however that discussion turns out, the boom in vegetarian restaurants and the number of vegetarians and vegans in China shows that change is underway. Some things have even come full circle; while meat once indicated wealth, the high price of organic vegetarian dining has begun attracting wealthy businessmen to restaurants who provide it, looking to impress their clients.17 As the people in China become wealthier, more concerned, and more informed, it seems likely that the numbers of vegetarians and vegans will keep going up. Needless to say, this is also good news for any non-carnivorous diners who decide to make a life here too.
Fields stocks a large variety of veggie-friendly products, extending not only to high quality natural fruit and vegetables but also to items that can be effective meat substitutes. These include tofu, vegetarian burgers, and vegetarian dumplings.
Ultimately, Fields believes in providing customers with the opportunity to pursue their chosen diet in the safest, healthiest, and most sustainable way possible. That’s why when we sell meat, it comes from animals that we know were well cared for and not fed with unnatural products, and when we sell vegetarian products, they are natural and of the highest possible quality. In this way we hope that, whether vegetarian or meat-lover, you can follow the diet that you choose all the better.
Make sure to clickhereand check out our Shanghai Vegetarian Survival Guide, which contains useful phrases and words along with recommendations for the best vegetarian eating spots in Shanghai!