Accepted Paper:

Buddhist vegetarianism and the changing meanings of meat in urban China  


Jakob Klein (SOAS)

Paper short abstract:

In Kunming, Southwest China, the popularity of new Buddhist vegetarian restaurants reflected a shift in the meanings of meat from a sign of success to a site of risk. The establishments were emerging as places for displaying middle class sensibilities and exchanging ideas about the ethics of eating.

Paper long abstract:

Chinese Buddhists have long promoted vegetarian diets on the grounds of compassion for all living things. Vegetarian restaurants have existed near Buddhist temples. In recent years, Buddhists in mainland China, informed by or connected to movements in East Asia and beyond, have come to articulate Buddhist notions with discourses on dietary health, environmental protection and animal rights. In cities including Kunming in Southwest China, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants have proliferated. In Kunming, these sites both reflected and contributed to the changing meanings of meat. Meat-eating has been a marker of success in China. The rapid growth in the consumption of meat since the 1980s has been read as a sign of the country's modernization. However, the increase in meat consumption has involved the intensification of meat production. Kunmingers I interviewed in 2006-2009 complained about the perceived deterioration in the taste and safety of meat, especially pork, and some raised concerns about environmental degradation and animal welfare. Some reported switching to 'ecological' meats. Others claimed to have decreased their meat intake or to have switched from pork to beef or mutton. Among middle-class Kunmingers, meat avoidance was emerging as a 'modern' lifestyle choice. Buddhist vegetarian restaurants offered meat-free foods and perspectives on the changing food supply that were at once culturally familiar and cosmopolitan. The restaurants emerged as complex sites of alternative food consumption, where people gathered to eat healthy foods in peaceful, aesthetically pleasing surroundings; to develop and display middle class sensibilities; and to exchange ideas about the ethics of eating.

Panel P03
Biting back: eating and not eating meat in industrializing food systems