Hailing from the West Coast, where hipster eateries, food trends, and health crazes run amok, it seems like every person is vegan or vegetarian.
There is a lot of confusion over the difference between vegans and vegetarians, so allow me to clarify: vegans consume absolutely no animal products—no meat, eggs, milk, or honey—while vegetarians consume no meat, but can consume eggs and dairy products.
When I traveled to China last summer, I noticed a stark difference in perspective from my own West Coast upbringing. There, the concepts of veganism and vegetarianism are remarkably uncommon.
Although there are plenty of dishes comprised mostly of vegetables, the main attraction of the meal is almost always a large plate of meat, whether it is roasted duck, red-braised pork, or another protein.
Even the vegetables are usually stewed in a meat-based broth or stir-fried with slivers of meat for flavor, so they cannot be classified as entirely vegan or vegetarian.
At the same time, my relatives constantly urged me to eat meat, saying it would nourish me and make me strong. Whenever my Yeye, my grandfather, thought that I wasn’t eating enough meat, he would quickly place some slices of beef or pork in my bowl himself.
Every meal seemed to contain abundant, almost excessive portions of meat.
Looking back on that trip, I have come to a few conclusions on why I believe vegans and vegetarians are so rare in China, and why the Chinese heavily value meat as a commodity. Many are cultural, but these reasons also have developed as reactions to China’s unique history.
1 Newfound Wealth and the Availability of Meat
In the Mao Years, the most basic food items were scarce and the people were incredibly poor. There were monthly rations for rice, grain, flour, oil, and other staple foods, and these were often barely enough to feed each family. Eating meat was a luxury, and families could only afford the product two or three times a month. Within the last few decades however, China has undergone rapid economic development and urbanization, creating a new and wealthy consumer class ready to jump on the luxuries they couldn’t afford in the past. Chinese meat consumption has increased sevenfold within the last three and a half decades since the Cultural Revolution, and, as a result, China is now the largest consumer of meat in the world--double that of the United States. In a country where the older generations still remember the pain and poverty of their youth, having meat at every meal is a point of pride.
2 Foodie Culture
There are few cultures as food oriented as Chinese culture. Food has long been used in China as an indicator of social status, as festival rites, to gather people together, and even as medicine. Chinese people take eating very seriously, and will often transform mealtime into an entire experience. China’s youngest generation is well known for its obsession with food, and many even consider eating to be a hobby. While American foodie culture also exists, the unique ingredients and techniques associated with making animal replacements in vegan and vegetarian foods allow them to be incorporated into high-class foodie culture. With meat now a signifier of abundance and luxury in Chinese cuisine, it is easy to see why Chinese “foodies” don’t want to give it up.
3 Cultural Concepts of Nutrition
When I was young, I remember my mom used to force me to down three large glasses of milk everyday—one at breakfast, one at lunch, and one at dinner. She said that it would make me “stronger and taller like the American boys.” Instead, it gave me bad acne and horrible stomach pains. Still, the Chinese widely believe that consuming animal products—specifically beef and milk—are necessary for health and nutrition. This is partially because of Chinese views on the West, where the international success of American athletes corresponds with high national meat and milk consumption. In a survey by the Good Food Academy, many Chinese people see beef as a healthy food option, and in another poll over 500,000 Chinese citizens said beef was a necessary food for good nutrition. Even as over 90% of Chinese people are lactose intolerant , American culture is shown to be a more influential force than human genetics in Chinese nutrition.
4 Lack of Environmental Awareness
One reason that many people in the West become vegan or vegetarian is that eating meat—especially beef—is horrible for the environment. The process of raising cows emits huge amounts of gaseous carbon, with agriculture being responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases released, and requires nearly 1800 gallons of water per pound of beef produced. The Chinese however, are largely ignorant of the disastrous environmental effects of beef. While the government has enacted educational programs to curb meat eating, even issuing a report from the Chinese Nutrition Society that advocates for eating less animal protein, the country’s immediate desire for meat seems to outweigh its knowledge of its harmful effects. All around, the Chinese are not particularly known for their care for the environment, with their eating habits wreaking havoc on animal populations as far as donkeys in Africa.
5 Showcasing Prosperity
The Chinese generally associate the United States with wealth and prosperity, and as America is one of the largest consumers of meat in the world per capita, the Chinese seek to emulate the eating habits of Americans. As meat was once a heavily-sought after commodity only available to the rich, present-day Chinese are now ordering vast arrays of exotic meats, often in elaborate banquet halls, to impress their friends and flaunt their wealth.