Misunderstanding and even hostility are daily realities for China’s vegetarians, but advocate Zhang Si hopes to bring meat-free living out from the fringe and into mainstream discourse as a modern topic of personal choice and social activism.

Zhang, born in central China’s Hubei province and now living in Beijing, had flirted with vegetarianism for years, but became committed in 2012 after watching a video called “Farm to Fridge,” which brought home the cruelty of industrial slaughterhouses. After studying in the U.S., Zhang returned to her home country — where vegetarianism stretches back centuries but enjoys little prominence in modern society — and became committed to increasing awareness about her newfound cause. Now 30, she is the founder and CEO of Veg Planet, an online platform providing resources, articles, and a space for discussion to around 300,000 readers, most of whom are among China’s rising number of vegans, vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians.

“It is right to say that to be a vegetarian is a personal choice,” Zhang says. “But when our diet relates directly to the lives of animals, the utilization of resources, and environmental protection, being vegetarian is not a private affair.”

There are signs that more and more people are coming to share Zhang’s view. Long associated exclusively with orthodox Buddhist practices, vegetarianism has gathered momentum in recent years as a nominally healthy lifestyle. By the end of 2015, more than 50 million people reported being vegetarian in China. In 2016, the Chinese Dietary Guidelines — endorsed by the National Health and Family Planning Commission — for the first time included information on following a vegetarian diet.

Zhang spoke to Sixth Tone about the obstacles to growing China’s vegetarian community, her hopes for its future prospects, and her thoughts on the country’s violent animal rights activists. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

 Zhang Si poses for a photo while volunteering at the annual Walk for Farm Animals in New York, Oct. 18, 2014. Courtesy of Zhang Si
Image: Zhang Si

Sixth Tone: Why does it matter whether people understand vegetarians?

Zhang Si: In China, farming is increasingly industrialized, and more and more animals live in intensive farming settings. Apart from farming, animals are used in performance, and animal experimentation also exists. There aren’t any animal welfare-related laws in China, so there is no animal welfare in this country. Animals are just a commodity to the Chinese, who find it impossible to think about welfare for animals when it would raise costs. Because of a lack of legislation, there is also a dark industry chain whereby pets — especially dogs — are stolen and sent to slaughterhouses. Yet in society, not many people pay attention to it.

"If everyone stood up to strive for their rights, the advancement of vegetarianism would be faster."

Sixth Tone: How does vegetarianism compare between the U.S. and China?

Zhang Si: When I became a vegetarian in 2012, I found it inconvenient because there were no choices for vegetarians in most restaurants, and vegetable dishes would often be cooked in animal fat.

A few months later, I went to study abroad in the U.S., and I was surprised by how popular vegetarian diets were. It was easy to get vegetarian products in supermarkets and vegetarian dishes in restaurants. It was also easy to get information about the vegetarian lifestyle, and it was possible to buy vegan-friendly cosmetics, clothes, and daily necessities. But in China, there are few vegan-friendly goods, even today.

Sixth Tone: How do people in China generally respond when they learn you’re a vegetarian?

Zhang Si: When you mention the vegetarian diet in China, people think the diet is unhealthy. We’re traditionally taught that hunsu dapei — a balance of meat and vegetables — is best for us. Or people think you’re vegetarian because of religion.

But actually, people who decide to be vegetarian have different reasons. Animal welfare is one of them. In recent years, more people have decided to try a vegetarian diet. In fact, the total number of vegetarians is higher than in the U.S. — but the proportion is lower. The population is rising, and the number of those with fixed vegetarian diets is also rising. It’s getting normal to see vegetarian cafes and restaurants now.

Sixth Tone: What impact has your vegetarian advocacy had thus far?

Zhang Si: In early 2013, WeChat launched its public account feature, and I created an account called Veg Planet, hoping to inspire people to change their stereotyped impressions of vegans. I translated a lot of vegan-related English articles, recipes, and information about environmental impact and animal welfare. The platform equipped vegans who face resistance from their family or colleagues with this information, and also provided products to meet their needs.

The platform attracts more people to consider a vegetarian diet and then begin to enjoy it. At the very beginning, 80 percent of our followers were vegetarians, and now 30 percent of our 300,000 readers are non-vegetarians who are considering giving it a try.

"Some people think vegetarianism is an extremist suppression of sensual passion. That is an obstacle."

Sixth Tone: What problems have you faced along the way?

Zhang Si: There is a deep-rooted bias against vegetarians in China. Some people think vegetarianism is an extremist suppression of sensual passion. That is an obstacle. Some have traditional ideas about what a healthy diet is — that people must eat meat.

On the other hand, the mindsets of vegetarians are changing with time. Initially, many vegetarians feel angry — they are angry about animals’ suffering. At some point, some of the angry vegetarians decide for other people that eating meat is objectively wrong. As a result, people are disgusted by these “angry” vegetarians, and then they become averse to vegetarianism in general. This is also a kind of obstacle to promoting vegetarianism.

After the angry phase, these vegetarians turn inward, afraid of continued discrimination. They eat side dishes of vegetables accompanying a meat-based meal because they’re afraid of inconveniencing others, and of being excluded next time. If every vegetarian grins and bears it, not speaking up for their right to a vegetarian diet and related services, they cannot receive acknowledgement or respect. If everyone stood up to strive for their rights, the advancement of vegetarianism would be faster.

Sixth Tone: As in other places around the world, some of China’s advocates for vegetarianism turn to more extreme forms of protest in, as you said, striving for their rights. How do you view that strain of activism?

Zhang Si: Some vegetarians protest during the Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, and this tends to dominate online discussion and media reports. But in the end, both sides are expressing negative emotions. That is not an effective way. So I prefer to deliver more information and more diverse means of communication through our platform, as a way to encourage people to reflect.

Sixth Tone: And where do you expect that reflection to lead?

Zhang Si: I hope, at least, that vegetarians in different fields can utilize their professions — whether they’re chefs, designers, or biologists — to promote vegetarianism. People in China can develop vegan products. Then vegetarianism can become a viable mainstream lifestyle for the future.