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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
China's growing band of veggies
Chinese chefs
Interest in vegetarian restaurants is growing

China has become the world's biggest producer of meat over the last decade.

Economic reforms and growing affluence have given more people the chance to eat once-scarce foods like beef and chicken, and Western fast food chains have helped to spread the fashion.

Chinese boy eating fast food
The fast food generation could face future problems
But with the country also experiencing a sharp rise in health problems common in developed countries - from heart disease to obesity - some people are now calling for a change.

In addition to all the meat-eaters, China also has a new generation of lifestyle vegetarians.

In the student canteen at Shanghai's Fudan University, Huang Yangxing casts his eye over a counter full of glistening, greasy dishes and tries to choose his lunch. For the 21-year-old history student it is a challenge.

He recently converted to vegetarianism, and finding something both meat-free and appetising is no easy task.

"The canteen staff think I'm strange because I don't eat meat," he says, as he sits down to a tray of fried pumpkin and bean curd with carrot.

'Western' illnesses

In fact China has one of the world's oldest vegetarian traditions, inspired by Buddhism. But its influence faded after the Communist revolution, and now people can afford to eat more meat.

Huang Yangxing, who grew up in the countryside, was once no exception.

Market trader selling cabbages
Vegetables have always been part of Chinese life
"I used to think if you didn't have any meat with a meal that would be terrible. In the countryside eating meat was seen as a sign of wealth," he says.

"As the economy develops people spend more, so China's meat consumption is developing fastest in the world - but now we're seeing all these new illnesses too."

Inspired in part by Western vegetarian ideas he found on the internet, Huang Yangxing set up a vegetarian society in his university, one of only two of its kind in China. He wants to spread information about protecting animals and the environment, and about healthy diet.

And in a society where heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are all on the increase, and where 40% of the population in some cities is overweight, he is finding unexpected support among his fellow members of China's fast food generation.

"My younger brother and sister, they often go to McDonalds and Kentucky," says another student, Dai Xiaoying. "When I was their age I also like fried chicken potatoes. But now like my room mates we think junk food isn't good for us."

She became a vegetarian after her mother experienced health problems. Her father thinks she is mad.

Her friend, 19-year-old medical student Hu Zijun, has met similar criticism. When she told her father she was a vegetarian he said she was "crazy".

"He said if I don't eat any meat I'll lack nutrition and be sick or have some disease," Miss Hu says.

Lifestyle changes

But help may be at hand.

Gloria Tseng and her husband Song Yuanbo recently opened two clean modern restaurants called "Vegetarian Lifestyle" in Shanghai. The couple come from Taiwan where the Buddhist vegetarian tradition remains strong.

Meat stall
Meat-eating has become affordable
And though Mr Song's favourite food used to be pigs' feet - until they became vegetarians after his mother fell ill with cancer. Now they are on a mission to spread the message in the mainland.

"We hope to encourage people not to make the same mistakes as in the West," says Mrs Tseng. "These illnesses can have such an impact on families.

"In such a big country if everyone eats a lot of meat it could be very dangerous. China has a limited amount of land; breeding livestock uses up the land and wastes crops."

Mrs Tseng says some people walk out of their restaurants when they hear there is no meat. But she says recent food safety scares and weariness with the lavish banquets and huge meals which are such a part of doing business in China, are making the young urban elite think harder about what they eat.

Her restaurants also sell produce from Shanghai's first organic farm and offer free training to anyone thinking of setting up their own vegetarian restaurant. Mrs Tseng says Shanghai will have four more by the end of the year, and there has been interest from several other Chinese cities

But to cure the Chinese of their love of meat is a huge challenge.

In one of Shanghai's ubiquitous dim sum cafes, artist Li Zhen tucks into a plate of snails and a bowl of pork dumplings. Like many in this food-obsessed city, she still cannot imagine life without meat.

"Only meat can give me more energy - if I only eat vegetables, after two hours I have to have another meal," she says.

"I think the Chinese body needs meat. If you don't eat meat in any meal it's like you eat nothing.

"Beef, pork, chicken, duck, snake, snail - they are all very delicious, and healthy."

See also:

06 Jun 02 | Health
28 May 02 | Health
16 Feb 02 | Health
28 Jun 01 | Health
27 Mar 01 | South Asia
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