The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY SUN JIAHUI (孙佳慧)

Meat is cen­tral to China's culi­nary tra­di­tions, both a lux­ury in lean times and flashy ban­quet fare to­day. Meat­less life­styles, though, are now a grow­ing trend in so­ci­ety. TWOC looks at the re­li­gious, health, and en­vi­ron­men­tal rea­sons for choos­ing veg­e­tar­i­an­ism in the world's most car­niv­o­rous coun­try

Xing Li­hong de­cided to go ve­gan af­ter spend­ing a week at the Donglin Tem­ple, Jiangxi prov­ince, in the sum­mer of 2005—but she’d been ready­ing her­self for the de­ci­sion since 2002; af­ter read­ing Bud­dhist and nu­tri­tional texts, she be­gan ab­stain­ing from meat on the first and 15th of ev­ery lu­nar month.

“At first, I felt hun­gry and craved for meat,” Xing con­fessed. “I of­ten ate a lot af­ter the two ‘vegetarian days,’ as a form of com­pen­sa­tion.” But grad­u­ally she got used to the new reg­i­men. “I’m con­vinced that ‘ev­ery­thing has a spirit,’ and it’s this be­lief that makes me stick to it.”

Xing is just one of a grow­ing num­ber of Chi­nese choos­ing to re­ject a tra­di­tional car­niv­o­rous diet in fa­vor of a meat-free life. There are now around 50 mil­lion vege­tar­i­ans in China, Xin­hua es­ti­mates—about 3.5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

“In the fu­ture, China will be­come the num­ber one vegetarian coun­try,” pre­dicts Tang Li, founder and head of the Chi­nese Vegetarian As­so­ci­a­tion. “It’s just a mat­ter of time.” The as­so­ci­a­tion, a non-profit that pro­motes the ben­e­fits of a vegetarian diet, was es­tab­lished in 2007, and is made up of or­di­nary vege­tar­i­ans, en­trepreneurs, ac­tivists, and nu­tri­tion­ists.

A ve­gan him­self for 25 years—a phi­los­o­phy that ab­jures all an­i­mal prod­ucts, from meat and dairy to leather and gelatin—tang be­lieves the in­creas­ing pop­u­lar­ity of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism is partly be­cause the “govern­ment has be­come more and more open-

minded to Bud­dhism.” Ac­cord­ing to the non-par­ti­san Pew Re­search Cen­ter, there are ap­prox­i­mately 245 mil­lion Bud­dhists in China—around 18 per­cent of the to­tal pop­u­la­tion—and an­other 21 per­cent ad­here to folk re­li­gions that in­cor­po­rate Bud­dhist be­liefs.

Tang of­fers four main rea­sons for the diet’s growth: “The first is health, as some peo­ple are for­bid­den from eat­ing meat by their doc­tors; sec­ond is wealth, as many be­come vegetarian be­cause they stepped into the vegetarian in­dus­try; the third is out of cu­rios­ity, and some peo­ple just im­i­tate vegetarian celebri­ties; lastly, be­lief—bud­dhism is pretty pop­u­lar in China, and its non-paci­fist doc­trine is lead­ing China to be­come a big vegetarian coun­try.”

In Xing’s case, re­li­gion and health were her main con­sid­er­a­tions. A ve­gan for 13 years, Xing is now more adamant than ever that her de­ci­sion was right—and even thinks it helped ward off bad luck. “It’s re­ally mag­i­cal,” she tells TWOC. “I have al­ways been hard­work­ing and ca­pa­ble, but in the past things hap­pened for no rea­son—my first com­pany shut down, then my sec­ond com­pany fired me, though they later told me that was a mis­take. I didn’t know what was wrong, so I guess my only mis­deed was eat­ing an­i­mals.”

“Un­be­liev­ably, af­ter I quit meat, my luck came back. Ev­ery­thing’s go­ing very well now.”

Re­gard­less of her claims to karma, Xing can point to her im­proved health as a tan­gi­ble ben­e­fit. “I had been weak and sickly since I was a child,” she says. Things were no bet­ter in her first two years of ve­g­an­ism, when she of­ten seemed pale and weak. But now, aged 49, Xing is in peak


con­di­tion: “I have only had two colds in the past 13 years,” she claims.

In fact, Xing says her fam­ily has a tra­di­tion of veg­e­tar­i­an­ism: Her great-great-grand­fa­ther and great­grand­fa­ther were both ap­par­ently ve­g­ans from child­hood, while her grand­mother and two of her greataunts barely touched meat their whole lives. All were blessed with longevity, with her fe­male fore­bears liv­ing up to 97, 98, and 99 years (her great­grand­fa­ther per­ished early, at 73, dur­ing the famine of 1963).

“None of them ever stayed in bed or needed medicine, nor did they have any chronic dis­ease,” boasts Xing, who is con­vinced that the se­cret lay with their diet. “They could all look af­ter them­selves in their late years. Based on this, I re­ally be­lieve that ‘Dis­eases find their way in from the mouth,’ and a meat-free diet does have a de­ci­sive in­flu­ence on health.”

Dr. Xiao Changjiang, Head of the Car­dio­vas­cu­lar Depart­ment at the Hu­nan Academy of Tra­di­tional Chi­nese Medicine (TCM) Af­fil­i­ated Hospi­tal, be­lieves that a vegetarian diet is more suited to the Han Chi­nese than a car­niv­o­rous one.“as a farm­ing peo­ple, the Chi­nese had adopted a plant-based diet since an­cient times,” Dr. Xiao tells TWOC. “We are less tol­er­ant to meat than no­madic peo­ple. Since the 1980s, the mas­sive sup­ply of meat re­sulted in peo­ple eat­ing much more of it.”

“The past three decades have seen a strik­ing in­crease in the preva­lence of chronic non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases, like coro­nary heart dis­ease and di­a­betes. It’s re­lated to the surg­ing con­sump­tion of meat.”

For decades since the PRC’S found­ing in 1949, eat­ing meat was a lux­ury for most fam­i­lies, and usu­ally re­served for spe­cial oc­ca­sions such as wed­dings or fes­ti­vals. But as the coun­try grew wealth­ier since the 1980s, meat on the ta­ble be­came a sign of pros­per­ity. In 2007, the United States Depart­ment of Agriculture es­ti­mated that China con­sumed about 74 mil­lion tons of pork, beef, and poul­try that year, con­sid­er­ably more than any other coun­try, and around twice as much as the US.

The same year, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion, China laid claim to hav­ing both the most di­a­betes pa­tients—10 per­cent of the adult pop­u­la­tion, com­pared with less than one per­cent in 1980—and the high­est num­ber of mor­tal­i­ties from the dis­ease in the world. A 2016 study, pub­lished in Bri­tish med­i­cal jour­nal The Lancet, noted that about twothirds of Chi­nese aged 40 to 59 were over­weight or obese.

In April 2017, Dr. Xiao, in co­op­er­a­tion with the non-profit


or­ga­ni­za­tion Dao­hex­i­ang, launched the Vegetarian Ward at the Hu­nan Academy of TCM Hospi­tal in Chang­sha. The project pro­moted a “One Vegetarian Meal Per Week” plan by pro­vid­ing free vegetarian dishes to both pa­tients and hospi­tal staff. “It’s an ex­pe­ri­ence-based ac­tiv­ity,” Xiao ex­plains. “We in­vite the pa­tients to try the meal and then ex­plain the ben­e­fits to them. This will make it eas­ier for them to ac­cept.” The scheme has so far served more than 7,000 peo­ple, and the feed­back has been “pretty good.”

Yet there are con­cerns, and push­back from some quar­ters. On pop­u­lar Q&A site Zhihu, the ques­tion “What are the side ef­fects of hav­ing a vegetarian diet?” has at­tracted more than 200 an­swers. “Doesn’t it cause mal­nu­tri­tion?” many won­dered.

“If one doesn’t eat veg­eta­bles prop­erly, it may cause mal­nu­tri­tion. But be­ing vegetarian it­self is com­pletely fine,” Dr. Xiao as­sures. The key is a bal­anced diet that’s “as var­ied as pos­si­ble,” which means con­sum­ing all types and parts of plants—from roots, leaves, flow­ers to seeds, fruits, starches, and stems.

“We don’t force peo­ple to be­come ve­gan di­rectly, be­cause it’s not easy and of­ten re­quires peo­ple to have some nu­tri­tional knowl­edge,” says Dr. Xiao. “We are just sug­gest­ing, es­pe­cially to those suf­fer­ing from car­dio or cere­brovas­cu­lar dis­ease, that they should in­crease the pro­por­tion of plants in their diet.” In April, the Chang­sha Hospi­tal of In­te­grated TCM and West­ern Medicine joined the Hu­nan project to of­fer vegetarian hospi­tal meals, call­ing it­self China’s first “vegetarian hospi­tal.”

Xing, who now con­sid­ers her­self a


pretty good chef, sug­gests be­gin­ners could start with vegetarian restau­rants be­fore learn­ing how to cook. “There are now more and more spe­cial­ized vegetarian restau­rants that can pro­vide de­li­cious and nu­tri­tion-bal­anced dishes,” she says.

An­other hur­dle for be­gin­ners is the po­ten­tial “anti-so­cial” as­pect of their life­style, in a cul­ture where it’s cus­tom­ary to show “face” to one’s din­ner guests with a table­ful of del­i­ca­cies, the richer the bet­ter. “When I en­ter­tain guests, I have to tell them that ‘I can’t treat you with meat.’ It some­times causes mis­un­der­stand­ings,” ad­mits Tang. “It’s in­evitable. In a fam­ily, what if the wife is vegetarian but the hus­band is not? In the work­place, what if some­one is vegetarian but not ev­ery­body else?”

Xing sees it dif­fer­ently. Be­ing vegetarian, she tells TWOC, in­tro­duced her to “a dif­fer­ent friend­ship cir­cle.” “We of­ten get to­gether, and cook vegetarian food by our­selves. Be­cause we share the same be­liefs, it’s eas­ier to com­mu­ni­cate.” As for those who can’t ac­cept her life­style, she ad­mits, “we have grad­u­ally grown apart.”

With such a rapidly grow­ing mar­ket, it’s no sur­prise that the vegetarian in­dus­try is grad­u­ally ex­pand­ing to meet their needs. Me­dia es­ti­mates put the num­ber of vegetarian restau­rants in China at over 3,000, though the menus of many are be­yond the purse of or­di­nary con­sumers. Tang agrees that some restau­rants are in­deed too ex­pen­sive. “I know some­one who runs a vegetarian restau­rant where one ta­ble of food can reach 10,000 RMB. Some [non-vegetarian] cus­tomers treat friends there in or­der gain ‘face,’” he says. “That’s just how the restau­rant makes its liv­ing: It can stay open just by sell­ing one ta­ble per day.”

Dr. Xiao doesn’t ap­pre­ci­ate some of these developments. “I think lux­ury vegetarian restau­rants are go­ing astray,” he says. “Only when vegetarian con­sump­tion is af­ford­able for or­di­nary peo­ple, can they at­tract more peo­ple to know about vegetarian di­ets and adopt a health­ier life­style. How else can these restau­rants stay in busi­ness?”

Tang, how­ever, es­ti­mates that “70 to 80 per­cent of the restau­rants in this in­dus­try are fairly priced. “Most op­er­a­tors are truly will­ing to pro­mote vegetarian cul­ture with their phil­an­thropic be­lief.” He says these char­i­ta­ble in­ten­tions can ex­tend to hand­ing out free vegetarian dishes to peo­ple in nurs­ing homes or in need.

The best-known name among Chi­nese vege­tar­i­ans is the non-profit Yuhuazhai, a loose fed­er­a­tion of char­i­ties es­tab­lished (ac­cord­ing to busi­ness leg­end) in 2011 in Jiande, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, by an el­derly restau­ra­teur who in­vested his life sav­ings to help save an­i­mal lives. Vol­un­teers soon fol­lowed and opened their own Yuhuazhai restau­rants; by 2017, there were nearly 700 kitchens called Yuhuazhai na­tion­wide.

With the help of so­cial work­ers and vol­un­teers, Yuhuazhai has given out over 580 mil­lion free meals with­out any co­or­di­na­tion, eco­nomic in­ter­est, or real af­fil­i­a­tion among all the branches—not even a reg­is­tered trade­mark. Ac­cord­ing to South­ern Weekly, the ear­li­est founders of Yuhuazhai dis­cussed the lat­ter is­sue, but de­cided that it was un­likely that a cor­po­rate in­ter­est would risk sul­ly­ing their own im­age by steal­ing a char­i­ta­ble icon.

Yuhuazhai’s suc­cess has filled Tang and his fol­low­ers with con­fi­dence, but they ac­knowl­edge it’s just the be­gin­ning. Tang en­vis­ages a fu­ture with vegetarian schools, work­places, and nurs­ing homes. He even has a phi­los­o­phy for veg­e­tar­i­an­ism, rein­ter­preted from a verse of the Bha­gavad Gita in which Kr­ishna ex­horts his fol­low­ers to nei­ther “trou­ble other peo­ple nor be trou­bled by them.”

“Do not trou­ble liv­ing things, nor be trou­bled by liv­ing things,” Tang re­cites. Or, per­haps more ap­po­sitely: “You are what you eat.”

A Shan­dong tra­di­tionalcul­tural cen­ter of­fers a free vegetarian lunch of four dishes and a soup to lo­cals; the cen­ter pro­motes the spirit of “great love” by op­pos­ing the killing of an­i­mals

The staff of Yuhuazhai pre­par­ing a vegetarian lunch

Xing’s fa­ther and un­cle, both in their 80s, share a meat-free meal

Hun­dreds of el­derly wait­ing out­side a Guang­dong Yuhuazhai restau­rant for a com­pli­men­tary vegetarian meal

This cook­ing con­test, held in Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang prov­ince, in 2016, con­sisted en­tirely of meat-free dishes

A ta­ble of vegetarian dishes, of­fered by a high-end restau­rant in Kun­ming, Yun­nan prov­ince, is priced at 160RMB, or about 25 USD

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