Is China ready to go vegetarian?

Despite recent food safety scares, only a foolish foreigner would underestimate the hearty attachment of the Chinese to their meat.

Share

China’s recent meat scandals are making horse burgers look like exotic treats. In cities like Shanghai, poultry markets have closed and most residents still steer well clear of not only chicken but also pork - thanks to the lingering images of 16,000 diseased pig carcasses bopping along the Huangpu river.

“I’ve been eating like a Buddhist!” exclaims Zhu Yan, a Shanghai local who has spent the last week exclusively eating vegetables within the confines of her own home, “I just don’t know what’s safe anymore.” It seems she’s not the only one; H797 bird flu has seen poultry sales drop dramatically in the last two weeks, especially in the urban areas on China’s east coast. Bird flu is currently one of the most talked about topics on Weibo (China's Twitter) and even KFC, the country’s biggest foreign fast-food chain, is reporting its sales have dropped significantly.

There are other signs that also point to a new embrace of vegetables. Following China’s ex-Premier Wen Jiaobao’s recent campaign for ‘one day vegetarian every week’, there is undoubtedly a growing awareness of the health benefits associated with eating vegetables, and young people talk enthusiastically about weight loss and increased vitamin intake. The popularity of vegetarian restaurants scattered across China’s cities is flourishing, and whereas these used to be exclusively frequented by monks, now only around 10 per cent of their customers are actually vegetarian.

Despite this, it’s important not to downplay just how highly the Chinese regard their meat. Even these vegetarian haunts are best known for their huge array of ‘fake’ meat dishes; smoked sausage cunningly moulded out of beans and konjac flour, kong pao chicken replaced with compressed tofu, and deep-fried shitake mushrooms standing in as crispy pork strips. Although these are the only Chinese eateries where you’re guaranteed 100 per cent meat-free dishes, it’s telling that the emphasis is still on recreating the impression of meat.

“I come here now and again and especially recently because I worry about the quality of meat,” says Li Yu, whose sitting with his business colleagues in Gongdelin Vegetarian Restaurant, Shanghai. “But it would be ridiculous to only eat vegetarian food. Meat cooked Chinese style is irresistible - much better than the meat you Westerners eat,” Li grins.

Whether you agree with him or not, it’s impossible to deny the immense range of meat and cooking techniques in China, with each of it’s 33 regions taking immense pride in their characteristic food styles. Texture alone has five primary categories (tender, crunchy, crisp, smooth, soft). Providing an assortment of these is crucial to the charm of any meal and tricky to achieve without meat.

The Chinese also believe that what you eat directly influences your health, and that balancing meat with vegetables is one steadfast way to harmonise your yin with your yang.

This balance has been distorted in recent years, and has taken a sharp turn around from just a few decades ago. During the Great Famine of the 1950s and 60s, meat was so scarce that cannibalism was practiced on an unprecedented scale. Now that the city-dwelling Chinese can afford to eat meat by the tonne, in general they do. It’s hard to exaggerate the immense impact this still very raw history has on social pressure to eat meat, and the consequent association it bears with wealth and health.

Beyond wanting to feed their one and only child the best array of food possible, guest culture is also crucial to maintaining face. In normal circumstances, it would be considered rather embarrassing to host a flesh-free meal.

Besides, the animal rights line that drives many Westerners to ditch the bacon is less common in China. The Chinese word for animal ‘dongwu’ literally means ‘moving thing’, which might partly explain why there just isn’t that same attachment felt for what Westerners might think of as living, breathing, feeling creatures.

Given the recent food scares, alternative meat sources are already being hunted out. Jeroen Koldenhof, CEO of China Agri Corp., points to the growing market for chilled and frozen meat, as well as imports. But overall, Koldenhof insists that “The switch from meat to vegetables is just temporary due to hiccups in the supply chain.” He also reminds us that it’s not just meat that is at risk in China; “Sooner or later you will see problems with vegetables too”. In fact, just last week American scientists reported dangerous levels of lead found in Chinese rice.

In a country where food safety is never a guarantee, an explosion of tree-hugging vegan hippies is unlikely. Hard-hitting meat scandals are making the concept of vegetarianism more digestible than before, but that doesn’t mean meat is on its way out. The desire to eat meat is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and given the struggle it’s taken to get here, they’re not about to give it up. The best we might hope for, for the sake of our health and environment, is a rebalancing of the elements, and a move to better regulated, higher quality meat - with just a touch less of excess.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms