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China & Vegetarianism

a personal view by Ting Jen, Indonesia

chinaAncient China

The China, Cung Kuo or Zhong Guo (Zhong means Center and Guo means Country), The Center Country, has a long vegetarian history since beginning. Unfortunately, there is no book to prove it. It is all about the legend. Ancient Chinese lived in the land surrounded by Long River and Yellow River and surrounded by many tribes. (That is why it is called the Center Country). They had Prophets as Kings.

The first Prophet-King was Fu Xi. He was vegetarian. He taught people to settle down and plant seeds. The next Prophets taught people to make medicines from herbs, clothes from cotton, earthenware, house, cart, ship, etc. It was the history of Chinese civilization.

Ancient Chinese lived in peace and welfare and they respected The Prophet King so deeply. They called their Prophet-King as Son of God (Thien Ce or Tian Zi). The succession was from the Prophet to his best student. Ancient Chinese were very religious and vegetarian. They made and ate tofu, the best vegetarian food ever known. They called their spiritual Way of Life as Tao. Tao is based on inner-spiritualism, naturalism, pacifism, compassionism, and vegetarianism.


As centuries went on, The Way of King and The Way of Prophet were separated and people were in chaos. The King was not the Prophet anymore but a strong ambitious man. The succession was from father to his son. This worldly King or Emperor forced people to call him the Son of God and people must obey him as a Prophet. The rest was the history of Dynasties.

Chow Dynasty

The Way of Prophet had its own way: teaching of universal love and vegetarianism. The Way of King taught only violence, for example excellent war strategy and delicious foods from dead animal. This is the main cause of generalization that Chinese is an expert in business and cooking.

The famous Prophets during Dynasties era were Laocius (born 604 BC) and Confucius (551-479 BC) while Chow (or Zhou) Dynasty (1050 BC-221 BC) was weak and ruled by many Kings. This era was known as Spring and Autumn period (770-475 BC), the era of many mainstreams of philosophy in China. But there were only two famous philosophers that influenced people more than two thousand years: Laocius and Confucius.

Laocius re-introduced Tao to Chinese people. Confucius got Tao, The Way of Prophet, from Laocius. Confucius became vegetarian after he received The Way of Prophet. Laocius went to Bharat (=India) and some believe that Buddha got Tao through secret way to continue and save the Tao.

Chin Dynasty

The Way of Prophet in China had been vanished between 221 BC until 520. It was because of the Emperor Chin (or Qin). He was the winner of Warring States period (475-221 BC). In order to survive his dynasty, he killed Confucian and Tao leaders and burned Confucian and Tao scriptures. He made the Great Walls (completely finished in Ming Dynasty); it was full with tears and blood. The terminology of "China" and "Chinese" were derived from "Chin". Actually, western scholars used "Chin" as blasphemous word.

Han Dynasty

Chin Dynasty was very short (221 BC -206 BC). A general killed the emperor and the other general built Han Dynasty replaced Chin Dynasty. During Han Dynasty (206 BC until 221), vegetarianism was back. It was because the Buddhism Missionaries started to come to China from India (68).

The Chinese show their pride by calling themselves the Han people. During Han Dynasty, the Chinese distinguished themselves in making scientific discoveries, many of which were not known to Westerners until centuries later. Philosophies that began in the Chow Dynasty reached maturity under the Han Dynasty. Han Dynasty was very special for religions, because there were three big religions -- Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism -- that grew together and influenced each other.

Sui Dynasty

In 221, Han Dynasty was over, and China was in a long chaos for more than three centuries (221-581). There were Three Kingdoms (221-280), Tsin Dynasty (280-386) and first foreign dynasties (386-581) when Mongolian tribes took control of North China (only South China was free from foreign domination).

In 520, Boddhidharma, the 28th Master after Buddha, came from India and gave back The Way of Prophet. He taught Chan (or Zen in Japanese). Zen is the Real Teaching of Buddha, the Lost Teaching of Tao. Boddhidharma not only taught vegetarianism but also taught Zen monks the martial arts in Shao Lin temple for defense.

A general unified China and established Sui Dynasty (581-618). It was the era of the construction of the Grand Canal, which linked up the Yellow River and Long River, connected north and south China. Sui Dynasty based on Confucianism Vegetarianism was not popular issue although started to grow fast.

Tang Dynasty

The ambitious Sui emperor led to disastrous wars against Korea and the Chinese army was defeated. In 618, a general assassinated the Sui Emperor and established Tang Dynasty (618-906). Chan or Zen reached its glory in Tang Dynasty but in the contrary, Buddhism in India started to dwindle fast. Some say that Boddhidharma, like Laocius, knew that he must deliver the Tao; especially the compassion and vegetarianism; to other people from other nation. The Zen monks were vegans and they made vegetarianism reached its tremendous glory in China. Many people, not only monks, were vegetarian.

Song Dynasty

In 906 AD, China was again in chaos. There are five short dynasties during 906-960. Then a general unified China and built Song Dynasty (960-1279). In Song Dynasty, the trend away from Buddhism and back to Confucianism, which had begun in the late Tang, continued. Neo-Confucianism (synthesized Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism) was born and vegetarianism started to be weak because Zen followers dwindled fast. In the end era of Song Dynasty, there were many rebellions and foreign invasions (for example: Manchurians in North China 1115-1234). Mongolians started to expand and threatened China.

Yen Dynasty

Mongolians came from Northwest and attacked Song Dynasty. Mongolians built Yen or Yuan (means "beginning" or "source") Dynasty and colonized Chinese for almost one age (1279-1368). The Mongolians became the most hated of the barbarian rulers because they did not allow the Chinese to govern. Instead, they gave the task of governing to foreigners (one of them was Marco Polo). Distrusting the Chinese, the Mongolian rulers placed the southern Chinese at the lowest level of the four classes they created. Violence was everywhere, and of course Chinese people forgot universal love and vegetarianism, and they only thought about killing and defeating Mongolians.

Ming Dynasty

A revolution killed the Mongolians and established Ming (means "bright" or "brilliant") Dynasty (1368-1644). After almost a century of foreign domination, the Ming Dynasty was a period of restoration and reorganization rather than a time of new discovery. Confucian examination system selected government officials. Vegetarianism was a rare thing.

Islam started to grow fast in the Ming Dynasty that made people in the West China especially Xinjiang (or Xin Qiang) became Moslem. Between 1405 and 1433, maritime expeditions were launched under the leadership of a Moslem and helped the spreading of Islam in the South East Asia.

Early in the 16th century Portuguese traders arrived and leased the island of Macao as their trading post. In 1582, Italian Jesuit missionary arrived in Macao. The 16th-century China-Western relationship was culturally oriented and mutually respectful. Jesuit made Christianity started to grow among Chinese.

In the ending era of Ming Dynasty, China was threatened from all directions. Mongolians seized Beijing in 1550, and their control of Turkestan and Tibet in the West China was recognized in a peace treaty of 1570. The Japanese pirates preyed on the East Coast and penetrated far into mainland.

Ching Dynasty

Invasions and rebellions weakened Ming Dynasty. Manchurians were invited into China by Ming Dynasty to eliminate a rebellion and then Manchurians stayed and established Ching or Qing (means "clean" or "pure") Dynasty (1644-1911) but Manchurians did not gain control of the whole of China until 1683. China was again under foreign colonization.

The Manchurians made their rule more acceptable to the Chinese. By recruiting the well-educated Chinese Confucian in government and promoting Confucian scholarship, Manchurian rulers had a big territory, including Mongolia in the North, Xinjiang in the Northwest, and Tibet in the Southwest. It was really the glory of Confucianism and China was in stable era for more than one century (1683-1796). An increase in the population from 100 million at the end of the17th century to 300 million at the end of the 18th century made a shortage of land, moreover meat diet was more popular than vegetarian diet. Famine and poverty arose and triggered rebellions against rich Manchurians.

In the ending era of Ching Dynasty (1796-1911) China was in great chaos. There were many rebellions and many foreign invasions. It was like the era of Yen Dynasty when people wanted to be free from foreign domination. Or it was like the ending era of Chow Dynasty; there were many mainstreams (based on Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity) and there were many rulers (European, American, Japanese, and Manchurian) and they fought each other. For example: 1) White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804), 2) Opium War (1839-1842) against Britain and then Britain won and got Hongkong, 3) Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) commanded by a Chinese Christian, 4) Moslem rebellion (ended in 1873), 5) Chinese-French War (1884-1885) and French won and got Southeast China, 6) Chinese-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Japan won and got Taiwan.

In 1899, The United States of America proposed an "open door" policy in China, whereby all foreign countries would have equal duties and privileges in all treaty ports. In 1900, the Righteousness and Harmony Boxers or Yi He Quan (supported indirectly by Ching Dynasty) attacked Westerners and Chinese Christians, then an allied foreign forces, made up of Russian, British, German, French, American, and Japanese defeated the Boxers and weakened the Ching Dynasty.

Modern China

In 1911, Nationalist Party established Republic of China. The national language of Modern China is Manchurian dialect and the national territory is ex-Ching Dynasty so there is part of Mongolian's land and even Tibet become the territory of China. Republic of China joined the Allies in the World War I but then the Nationalist China felt betrayed so they collaborated with Communist Russia. Communist Party started to grow in China. In 1931 Japanese attacked Republic of China and in the same year Communist Party proclaimed the establishment of the Chinese Soviet Republic. The Nationalist chose to fight with the Communist first: "internal unity before external danger". The civil war between Nationalist against Communist was ceased in 1936 because the Japanese more threatened. Rapid Japanese occupation of major cities in the East China lasted between 1937 until 1939. Japanese was defeated in 1945. The Nationalist occupied many major cities, but the countryside stayed with the Communist. The next civil war began in 1945 and the Communist won in 1949 and established People's Republic of China. The Nationalist moved to Taiwan.

The Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) suppressed religions and traditions and created poverty even until now. Then China started to accept capitalism and today China becomes the great economic power. Capitalism creates big towns and new rich people with their meat diet and these make the increasing demand of meat in China. Now, most people in China, especially who live in undeveloped villages, eat more vegetarian food than meat, not because of religious or traditional reasons but because they are too poor to buy meat. But economic growth and meat diet will change this condition soon. If most people in China eat more meat and leave the vegetarian diet, there will be a great environmental disaster.

The following article appeare in The Vegetarian (London), November 9, 1889 (Eighteen Eighty Nine):

China and the Mongols

I have been a Vegetarian for between two and three years, in China and Mongolia. My reason for becoming a Vegetarian was that a great number of Chinese, and some Mongols, in my district, were Vegetarians from religious conviction, and I found that my not being so had the effect of lessening my influence with them. Becoming "all things to all men to gain some," I adapted myself to their stle of eating, which excludes eggs, onions, and some other vegetables even. I have given the thing a fair trial, and I think I am safe in saying that a man can live well on grains, oils, etc., and be in no danger of practising any self-denial or asceticism. I think too, to say the least, a man can endure quite a hard work on Vegetarian food as on any other. The men who accompanied me in my work, were not Vegetarians ; but though I put myself absolutely on the same level with them as to lodging and exertion, and often had longer hours of work than they had, and in some few cases had to go without any Vegetarian equivalent of their "kitchen" as we call it in Scotland - notwithsatnding all this, I found I could always hold out as long as they could, when there was any occasion for extra strain.

[the article continued with comments about vegetarian restaurants in Glasgo and London, and the inadequate food that writer considered they offered]

In China there is a capital and ever-handy equivalent for butcher's meat in cooking - bean curd [ie Tofu]. It is made of beans ground to a consistency like milk, with a sea-produced (?) chemical added to make it curdle. It is then piured into a frame lined with cloth ; and when the whey all runs off, a substance is left, soft and tasteless, which is cut up into cakes and sold for a fraction of the prce of meat. When properly cooked, it makes (in my opinion, and that of the natives) good food. Perhaps you say that comes in the last analysis to the middle course of "haricot beans." Perhaps it does ; but what I mean is, that a good middle course could surely be made, of which that would be a part, and only a part. [the writer seems to be unaware of the significance of soya beans as opposed to any other beans in this process...]

[further comments about London restaurants]

People often complain that vegetarianism is expensive. It need not be. In China it is not. I am sure it not be so here. It is because it is economical I would like to see it adopted more generally. Be sure you have my very best wishes for your success in making Vegetarianism popular, cheap, and delicious in England.