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Chinese Vegetarianism


Being a vegetarian in Asia is a very different experience than in the west. Attitudes vary from the vegetarian’s nemesis of Japan to the Buddhist paradise of Taiwan.

When asking for vegetarian food on my first trip to Taiwan, the waiter/owner would often ask if I wanted onions and garlic. At first, I presumed it was just another typical case of ask the foreigner a random question, but after being asked a few more times, I decided to do some research (google it!). Sure enough, in certain types of Buddhism, there are dietary restrictions that would make a western vegan’s eyes dry up.

Nomenclature can be quite complicated. In MSM (Modern Standard Mandarin), the basic word for vegetarianism is 素食主義 (sùshízhǔyì), and so a vegetarian is a 素食者 (sùshízhě). These two terms are formal and a much more common way to say ‘I am a vegetarian’ is ‘我吃素’ (wǒ chīsù).

What type of vegetarian are you? The two common categories of vegetarian in the west are: vegan and ovo-lacto vegetarian (still eats eggs and dairy). These are quite logically rendered in Chinese as 全素 (quánsù) and 蛋奶素 (dànnǎisù) respectively.

That is looking from a western perspective. If we look from a Chinese perspective, we must begin with the concept of 齋 (zhāi; vegetarian) and 葷 (hūn; non-vegetarian). These two terms are used mostly in Buddhism, but are also common in everyday life (e.g. 這道菜是葷的,你不能吃: zhè dào cài shì hūnde, nĭ bù néng chī ). This is where things get complicated; a lot of Buddhist sects, especially in Taiwan, also prohibit eating 五幸 (wǔxìng). These five 幸 (the Buddhist concept of smelling like medicine or spices, Sanskrit: parivyaya) are deemed to be too strong in odour and have the potential to influence ones temperament. Sources differ as to what constitutes 幸, but usually included in the ‘fuzzy five’ are garlic, leek and any member of the onion family. Abstaining from these earthly pleasures can be described as 純素 (chúnsù).

In Taiwan*, there are also a couple of other categories of vegetarian. There is the concept of 鍋邊素 (guōbiānsù) or 肉邊菜 (ròubiāncài): a person is a vegetarian, but will still eat vegetables that have been cooked with meat or are served with meat. Another category is 方便素 (fāngbiànsù) and as the name suggests it places emphasis on convenience. A typical example would be somebody who is perhaps generally vegan, but is not too strict and might be tempted by some sponge cake when celebrating a friend’s birthday.

Another thing to note is the homophonic nature of 素食 and 速食 (sùshí). I once asked for vegetarian food and received beef hamburger and fries. Also, the term 蔬食 (shūshí) can refer to a vegetarian diet and is often used in the names of dishes and restaurants.

Cantonese is the opposite of MSM and uses the term 食齋 (sik6 zaai1) colloquially to refer to vegetarianism. For example 我食齋嘅 (ngo5 sik6 zaai1 ge3).

Taiwanese on the other hand is similar to MSM and 我食素 (guá tsiah8 sòo) is a common way of describing oneself as a vegetarian, however, 我食菜 (guá tsiah8 tshài) is probably the most common saying.

*I am not sure if these phrases are commonly used on the mainland. Comments are always welcome.

One Comment

    Post in Taiwanese about the Taiwanese term for vegetarian.

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