Veg*nism in the Sino-Cultural Sphere

An interview with graduate researcher Gina Song Lopez

Feature image credit: Vernon Raineil Cenzon 


The voluntary abstention from animal-derived food products, or veganism, is said to have both a long- and short-history. The concept of animal-product abstention has a deep and prevailing cultural history throughout the Middle East and Asian countries as well as being central to many religious philosophies including ancient Jainism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

However, it was only in 1944 that the term ‘vegan’ was coined by Donald Watson and his wife Dorothy, to describe a then new sub-group of vegetarians who additionally abstained from the consumption of dairy and eggs for the purpose of animal welfare.

Despite its rich cultural history, much of what we know about the progression of the vegan or vegetarian (veg*nism) movement today comes from research and perspectives which utilise so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) samples.

To expand our historical and cultural understanding of veg*nism, we sat down with Gina Song Lopez, a graduate researcher studying the expansion of veg*nism in the Sino-Cultural Sphere (specifically: China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong). Here is what she had to say.


Gina, could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hi! My name is Gina Song Lopez (宋芝蘭 Sòng zhīlán/Song Chih Lan in Mandarin Chinese). I did my BA at the University of Queensland, Australia, where I majored in Political Science and International Relations. After graduation I moved to Taiwan where I completed my MA in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University. Now I am a second-year doctoral student at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University in Sweden. My research interests are largely focused on environmental politics and sociology in Asia, sustainability studies, Sci-Tech, and critical animal studies. Outside of research I really enjoy watching anime, drinking boba tea, and training Brazilian jiujitsu (I am not skilled at all though).

You recently started your doctoral research looking at the expansion of vegan and vegetarianism in the Sino-Cultural Sphere. What inspired you to take on this research?

This is a bit of a story. For my Master thesis I wanted to focus on Taiwan’s environmental movements at first. There is a bit of an established academic space for researching environmentalism in Taiwan, especially in the context of social movements and environmental politics and policy. However, around the time I was to start writing my proposal two things happened. First, I realized that beyond aspects of conservation and wildlife protection, animals themselves and concepts such as animal rights or animal welfare were largely absent or marginal in the literature. Second, veganism, as known in the West, started to gain traction in Taiwan with a few groups of very passionate and hardworking activists who I came to know. So, I realized that something important was happening and I needed to research it. After completing my MA thesis on the topic of the Animal Protection Movement in Taiwan, I knew that I wanted to take this to the next level and pursue a PhD. Then in 2019, with the publication of the EAT-Lancet report, I decided that I wanted to specifically explore the cultural and regional nuances of promoting plant-based diets in East Asia, starting with veg*nism and animal advocacy movements.

Can you give a brief overview of the history and the current state of the vegan and vegetarian movement in the Sino-cultural sphere?

When it comes to talking about the history of veg*nism in the region there is an important distinction and acknowledgement that needs to be made. To begin with, veganism and vegetarianism in the sense of ‘meat abstinence’ in East Asia has existed over millennia due certain religious practices (Buddhism, Daoism, etc). Also due to religion, meat avoidance has also often been coupled with concepts such as ‘mercy for animals’ or ‘respect for life’. However, while there are certain and significant overlaps, vegan and vegetarian practices are now in flux in the region.

The newer generation of vegans and vegetarians are more concerned with the environment, health, and of course, animal ethics. As for modern history, before the popularization of veg*nism this past decade, there was a ‘secular’ vegetarian project during the early 1900s where a group of intellectuals promoted plant-based nutrition for self and national development (see the work of Angela Ki Che Leung and Jia-Chen Fu). In the more immediate record, there are also some contextual and timeline differences.

PETA nominated Taipei Asia’s most vegan-friendly city in 2016. Photo credit: Tom Ritson

In Taiwan, where I am most familiar with and have been researching the longest, the Life Conservationist Association (LCA) began promoting animal rights first in the 1990s. They produced the first Chinese Mandarin translation of Singer’s ‘Animal Liberation’ and led the charge for the passing of the Animal Protection Act in 1998. There are now several other prominent NGOs like the Environment and Animal Society of Taiwan (EAST), the Taiwan SPCA, Kindness to Animals (KITA), and Taiwan Animal Equality Association (TAEA). There are also university clubs and societies for animal protection and animal ethics discussions. As well as more international connections, you can find some Anonymous for the Voiceless chapters around Taiwan now. Taipei even joined the Official Animal Rights March organized with Surge Activism in 2019. Due to the COVID19 pandemic, many things were on hold for a while. As soon as things began opening up, the Taiwan Vegan Frenzy and the No Meat Market, the two main periodic vegan fairs on the island, resumed their events.

In China, vegetarian university clubs have also been quite active, as well as other social meet-ups and vegan advocacy groups like Vegans of Shanghai. To my knowledge, the Good Food Fund (GFF) has been a key driver in the movement in the past few years. Jian-Yi, the founder of GFF, was also involved in the establishment of the China Vegan Society which was launched this year along with the Meatless Monday campaign. The CVS just held a three-day VegFest in Beijing with reportedly over 10,000 participants in October. Hong Kong is certainly smaller in size and population compared to the previous two. Yet they also have an AV chapter with a monthly Cube of Truth and a HK Pig Save group connected to the Save Movement.

Much of what we know about the progression of vegan and vegetarianism has largely come from research which utilises so-called “WEIRD” (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) samples. With your insights into the Sino-cultural sphere, do you feel that this has produced a biased view of the movement?

Yes and no. To be fair, the emergent field of vegan studies was a project that began in a WEIRD setting. It’s where concepts such as animal rights and animal ethics entered academic discussions and began drawing attention. Anyone researching veg*nism knows of the Oxford Vegetarians. The West is also where veganism as we know it–from Straight Edge counterculture to vegan celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Joaquin Phoenix–have been operating. Now, with the globalizing power of the internet and people like me going back and forth between continents working and studying abroad, veganism and vegetarianism is spreading around the world. Many people are learning about veganism and animal rights and adapting it to their own cultural and political contexts and thus diversifying what veg*nism looks like. In the case of China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, I argue that local advocates are in fact ‘translating’ veg*nism. Re-interpreting the meaning of meatless diets and human-animal relations against the backdrop of prevalent cultural and religious practices. I think what is important is to begin taking notice of these local movements, expanding accounts of veg*nism to other geographies and cultures as its adapted, and see what can be learned from each other.

I argue that local advocates are in fact ‘translating’ veg*nism. Re-interpreting the meaning of meatless diets and human-animal relations against the backdrop of prevalent cultural and religious practices.

What are some common misconceptions about the state of the movement within the Sino-Cultural sphere?

One thing you hear a lot when talking veg*nism or animal advocacy both inside or outside of Asia is that it is easy to promote such concepts because of the cultural-religious context. As mentioned above, there are overlaps for sure and in fact there is a sense of shared goals with some veg*n Buddhist groups. So, this is somewhat true, but their dynamic is actually more complex. This is perhaps better illustrated by the fact that there is a conceptual gap when translating ‘vegetarian’ or ‘vegan’ to Chinese. Recently I was having a conversation with an informant about the word ‘vegan’ in Chinese and she mentioned that it has been a source of debate. This is interesting because there are about five broad categories of meatless diets in Chinese (‘full/pure vegan’ [全素 quán sù/純素 chún sù]; ‘ovo-vegetarian’ [蛋素 qàn sù]; ‘lacto-vegetarian’ [奶素 nǎi sù]; ‘lacto-ovo vegetarian’ [奶蛋素 nǎi dàn sù]; ‘plant-based allium/allium vegetarian’ [植物五辛素 zhíwù wǔ xīn sù]) and only one sort of fits the word ‘vegan’, which is usually translated as ‘full/complete vegetarian’ (全素 quán sù) or ‘pure vegetarian’ (純素 chún sù). So, they have had to be creative and come up with variations for ‘plant-based’. For example, 蔬食(shūshí, ‘shū’ means vegetable and ‘shí’ means food), or  植物基 (zhíwù jī, which literally means ‘plant-based’). 

For the launch of Meatless Monday in China, GFF and CVS founder Jian-Yi also mentioned that they had to think about what type of wording/characters they would use in Chinese to make sure people understood what it was about. They went with 蔬适周一 (shū shì zhōu yī). Which is a wordplay that sounds like 素食 (sùshí, ‘veg*n’) but is also a homonym with “舒适” (shūshì) which means ‘comfortable’ or ‘cosy’ (no relation to the delicious vinegared rice wrapped in seaweed you might crave for lunch, which is spelled 壽司 [‘shòusī’] in Mandarin Chinese). They did this, in part, because the term 素食 (sùshí), the most common translation for ‘veg*n food’, is generally infused with religious connotations. ‘Sù’ may mean ‘veg*n’, but it can also mean ‘plain’, ‘essence’, or ‘element’.

Religious veg*ns in China may avoid alliums (e.g., onions), but consume eggs or milk leading to a proliferation of product labels. Photo credit: Townsend Walton 

Another issue is that religious veg*ns do not consume alliums (garlic, onions, chives, etc). So, a dish might appear perfectly vegan for someone in the West and local non-religious veg*ns, but then exclude most of the local veg*n population. To address this issue, products may be labelled 五辛素 (wǔxīn sù, ‘allium veg*n’). However, 五辛素 (wǔxīn) products may contain eggs or milk. So, you see how complicated things can get.

Other than that, perceptions about the state of the movement really depend on who you ask and what their advocacy priorities are. For example, veganism and plant-based diets are certainly gaining prominence. Awareness about animal welfare is also more widespread now but ideas about animal rights are still quite novel. So, mobilizing people around animal liberation motives, like many other places, is not always possible.

What unique facilitators and barriers does the Sino-cultural sphere face in terms of the progression of vegan and vegetarianism?

As elaborated above, the context of veg*n religious practice is perhaps both, the most unique facilitator and barrier. There are certainly other socio-political and cultural aspects. In his research on social movements, sociologist Michael Hsiao from Academia Sinica once said that Taiwan has ‘a demanding civil society’. This certainly rings true with the work of vegan and animal advocates and the demonstrations, lobbying, and petitions they are involved with. In China, according to a 2019 consumer study, food neophobia is not much of a barrier. People are more willing to try new plant-based and cultivated meat products. So, it is not surprising that significant changes are also coming from industry, supermarket shelves, restaurants and coffee shop menus.

Commensality is particularly important in Sino cultures and can be a barrier to meat reduction. Image credit: Debbie Tea

As for barriers, commensality aspects and health concerns are top of the list. In terms of commensality, especially at home or eating out with friends, communal eating is important. Sharing cài (菜) (meat and/or vegetable dishes) that complement the fàn (飯) (rice or other starch and grains) plays a role in family and social relations. Many people who go veg*n and live with family often must navigate this and eat ‘side or edge’ vegetarian food (鍋邊素). Meaning that they only pick the vegetables and plant-protein contained in a dish and avoid the meat part.

In terms of health, while the American Dietetic Association (now, ‘Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’) might have established its position on the nutritional adequacy of appropriately planned veg*n diets, in the Sino-cultural context there is also the influence of Traditional Chinese Medicine. I am less versed on this aspect and have only recently began exploring it. However, people in East Asia do often talk about having to avoid/eat certain foods for their properties in TCM. Therefore, promoting veg*nism in the region from a health perspective definitely needs to engage more with TCM in order to reach and address local understanding of meatless diets and nutrition-based challenges. Unlike the word ‘vegan’, the phrase “what about protein?” (蛋白質怎麼樣?Dànbáizhí zěnme yang?) translates very easily into Chinese.

In the western world, the rise of veganism has been met with a rise in anti-vegan attitudes, does the movement in the Sino-cultural sphere come up against the same sort of resistance? If so, what does vegan resistance look like in the Sino-cultural sphere?

Fortunately, this degree of resistance and anti-veg*nism has not really happened so far. People might be surprised and curious to find out that someone would go meatless for non-spiritual reasons, but most often just assume it is because of religious reasons. Plant-based products like ‘faux meat’ and tofu have been conspicuous in Chinese vegetarian cooking alongside the existence of vegetarian Buddhism. Thus, veg*ns and plant-based food have usually had their own space and have not had to deal with such anti-veg*n reactions other than navigating family and social meals. The movement is also still small comparatively to the West. Many people still have never heard the word ‘vegan’. The only instance I am aware of in terms of public backlash was of a news piece from China a couple of months ago where a kindergarten in Chengdu was providing vegetarian meals to children. There was a social media post that led to public concerns about the children’s nutrition. The kindergarten was ordered to change its menu to adhere to national regulations.

What does the future of vegan and vegetarianism look like in the Sino-cultural sphere?

It’s looking promising! Being away from Taiwan for a bit over a year and now back for fieldwork I can notice a difference. Vegan advocacy is diversifying, not only with street activism and fairs. Hardworking and passionate advocates are trying to find the most effective ways to pass their message and engage with policy. Now there is also even more plant-based options around. I came back to find local brands of oat and almond milk at the neighbourhood supermarket. The establishment of the China Vegan Society this year is also a big step forward and I am excited to see what happens next.


Would you like our readers to be able to get in touch with you, and if so, how can they do so (e.g., Twitter, email, etc.)?

Sure! Readers can contact me via email (chih-lan.song@ace.lu.se) or follow me on Twitter and IG @veggyacademic.


Authors: Rebecca Gregson & Jared Piazza

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