By Yasmin Radbod

This article is about my experience studying abroad in China as a vegan. I spent two semesters studying at Nanjing University 南京大学 and traveled all around China, from Shangri-La to Chengdu to Guilin, and more. I will get some basic questions out of the way first. I am guessing you might be asking yourself, "Wait, there are vegans in China?" There are! I am not the only one. During my time in China I never met another foreigner who was vegan; however, I now know many Chinese Buddhists who are vegan. Another question you might have is, "Is there a word for 'vegan' in Chinese?" There is: Chun sushi zhe 纯素食者.

So who is vegan in China, and why? Religion is the primary reason for a Chinese person to be vegan. Buddhists are sometimes vegetarian or vegan. When looking for vegetarian restaurants in China, if you find a temple in the city you are in, there's a good chance there are vegetarians there (especially monks). It is common for people who volunteer and work in the temple to be vegetarian, and they can direct you to a vegetarian restaurant or store. Also, many temples have their own vegetarian restaurants, usually filled with elderly people, and tend to be less expensive than a typical restaurant (besides the common street food and small shops). Noodles are a favorite among vegetarians in China and are served at many temples as a staple of the Chinese vegetarian diet. Rice, of course, is also a staple for all Chinese. I personally know several monks and Buddhists who consume noodles on a daily basis. When I say 'noodles' I mean a dish consisting of three primary parts: plain noodles, soy sauce broth or soup, and a vegetable or mock meat topping. At the most famous temple in Nanjing, Jimingsi Jiming Temple, 鸡鸣寺 I found a wide variety of vegan noodle dishes such as 'Noodles with Mock Chicken,' 'Noodles with Mushrooms,' 'Noodles with Mixed Vegetables,' and more.

In Nanjing, there is a brand of vegetarian products that is used widely in temples called "Whole Perfect Food." Their website is in Chinese and English. The company is headquartered in Hong Kong, but products are manufactured in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. They have a wide variety of mock meat products, such as Vegetarian Lamb Kebab, and an assortment of other 'veganized' tradional Chinese ingredients such as Vegan Oyster Sauce and Vegan Shredded Fish.

When traveling in Hangzhou, a city that is just a few hours away from Nanjing by train, I surprisingly stumbled upon a completely vegan restaurant called Xiao Gulin 孝菇林, which can be translated as 'Little Mushroom Forest.' The owner and employees are all vegan and Buddhist. This particular restaurant serves only vegan hot-pot; the customer can choose from a wide variety of vegetables and grains, as well as dumplings, and the kitchen prepares everything in a stew. They also make their own fresh mock meats daily inside the store, as well as mock fried eggs. They even make their own fresh sauces (more than 10 to choose from) and they are all delicious. Their teacher, or master, is from Taiwan. They also have their own company and distribute many vegan products. Their website is in Chinese.

Personally, I never met a vegetarian in China who was vegetarian for any other reason besides Buddhism. The concept of "going green" or being vegetarian to protect the environment is widely nonexistent. I met a few people who are vegetarian for health reasons, but they were all elderly people who are not allowed to eat meat because of their cholesterol levels. The idea of being vegetarian for the sake of animal rights is tied to Buddhist values, and does not exist outside of Buddhism for common Chinese. When I explain my reasoning for being vegan to Chinese people, most are confused that I am not Buddhist. The idea of being vegan for the environment, for my health, and for animal rights is foreign to them. People in China who are not vegetarian often asked me why I couldn't eat at least a little beef. I was often told that I should be eating at least beef, and that seafood should not be considered meat.

I have asked myself many times why there are not more vegetarians in China. To answer this question, we must look to China's history. The generation who lived through the Mao era did not have a stable life, were generally poor farmers, and having an abundance and variety of food to choose from was simply not an option. As China becomes more modernized, having Western food and a variety of food, especially animal products, is very important to the people. The ability of previous generations to provide their children and grandchildren with plenty of options and an abundance of meat is perceived as very fortunate and prosperous.

Meat has always been extremely important and highly valued in Chinese culture (outside of Chinese Buddhist monks). For example, when celebrating chun jie 春节, the Chinese New Year, it is essential to have an abundance of meat served at the family meal. Dumplings, a traditional Chinese staple, are always prepared with meat filling. Also, young Chinese people particularly like fast food restaurants such as Pizza Hut, McDonald's, and KFC. All of these chains have successfully adapted to Chinese tastes. In major cities such as Nanjing, it is easy to find these three restaurants, as well as Starbucks Coffee and other Western restaurants. Chinese restaurants are also serving Westernized foods.

From what I experienced, it seems that the green movement that exists in the West and the desire to protect the environment through changing our diet has not yet reached China. However, I predict that major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing will be more exposed to ideas regarding environmental protection and its relationship to diet and nutrition in the next 10 to 20 years.

Vegan Chinese Dictionary


Vegan: Chun sushi zhe


Vegetarian: Wo zhi chi su


Strictly Vegetables: Su cai


Everything besides vegetables, or all animal products: Hun cai


I don't eat animal products: Wo bu chi hun cai


All animal products are unacceptable: Suoyou de dongwu de peiliao bu xing de

Yasmin Radbod is a former VRG intern and wrote this article while studying abroad in China for two semesters.