China’s new eco-conscious vegetarians
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China’s new eco-conscious vegetarians

In March I wrote about how meat and dairy consumption are rising rapidly in Asia and how the mass production of these foods is creating new and greater concerns in terms of animal welfare, human health and the environment. But while the growth of industrial farming is taking place in China, India and Southeast Asia, there is also a new counter movement of environmentally aware vegetarians and vegans.

The avoidance of meat and other animal products has a long history in Asia. Millions of strict Hindus, Jains and Sikhs eschew meat and sometimes fish and eggs, while members of several Buddhist and Daoist sects even go as far as to adhere to veganism. According to Taiwanese state sources, there are over 4,000 vegetarian restaurants on the island and 1.7 million vegetarians — around 13.5% of the population. While meat consumption has been traditionally low in the People’s Republic of China, meat eating as a practice has been widespread if not universal. Now a new breed of Chinese vegetarianism is gaining ground, with an estimated 50 million people following a vegetarian diet in the PRC. This new development may ring some bells with the adherent’s Buddhist and Daoist cultural history, but it is mainly due to a recent rise in environmental awareness among China’s young and educated.

Times have really changed. Maybe 10 years ago, when I was a vegetarian, a lot of people said, ‘why, are you Buddhist?,’ or something. But now, it’s completely different. The young generation, especially, they love to be eco-friendly, and they love to be compassionate. And they really care about the environment and the quality of life, about pollution … they really care about fellow creatures on this planet, animals and even trees.

—Chinese singer Long Kuan (via PRI)

China’s vegetarian restaurants have also branched out from traditional Buddhist fare of tofu and greens to include everything from vegan pizza to mock meat and fish dishes. And like Europe and the US’s “Meatless Mondays” movement, many Chinese, while not embracing a vegetarian or vegan diet, are becoming more conscious of how much meat they eat and where it comes from; for instance, whether it is organic or sustainably farmed. Last year former premier Wen Jiabao called on citizens to eat vegetarian one day per week. He didn’t stipulate that it should be a Monday, however.

And then there is the issue of often legitimate health scares. Scandals involving Chinese meats in recent years make the European horsemeat debacle look like horseplay. The discovery of 16,000 diseased pig carcasses in the Huangpu River and bird flu outbreaks have hurt China’s meat industry, probably creating quite a few reluctant vegetarians in the process.

A new documentary on the meat industry, called “What’s For Dinner?” by vegetarian director Jian Yi, is aimed at fuelling the new movement of environmentally conscious eating. Yi believes that in general, people are ignorant about the effects of their diet on the environment and animal welfare. 

From an interview by China Dialogue:

The vast majority aren’t aware of the effect of the meat industry on the environment. It’s important information, easily found online. So why haven’t they seen it? Humans can have a kind of selective blindness sometimes, not just in China but everywhere. And our social values still favour money, enjoyment, quick rewards. Civil society is weak, there’s little space for public debate, and many more obvious environmental issues aren’t being taken seriously either, never mind the more easily ignored impact of the meat industry.

—Jian Yi, director

Even if people become aware about the ramifications of the meat industry, Yi thinks that something as personal as diet isn’t so readily changeable. And while vegetarianism may be growing among certain crowds in China, it is still dwarfed by the massive growth in meat consumption.


A curiously named vegetarian restaurant in Shanghai. Pic: James Trosh (Flickr CC)