by Xu Jia and Ren Ke
BEIJING, Feb. 10 (Xinhua) -- Chinese people are used to sumptuous meat-filled dinners on Chinese New Year's Eve, but Ouyang Huiyu's family had a vegetarian meal to celebrate the country's most important festival this year.
The meal was prepared by Ouyang, 22, a student in Beijing, as he became vegetarian four years ago, believing the meat industry causes devastation to the environment.
"This year I am extremely happy that the whole family can enjoy vegan food together at this most important moment," Ouyang said.
Traditionally, fish and meat dishes take center stage for the reunion dinner, as they represent prosperity. During the years when meat was not part of the everyday meal, families would save to buy meat on important occasions like the new year in hope of an abundant year.
However, there is a growing counter trend, and more Chinese are turning to vegetarian food for their new year celebrations.
"New year feasts are usually too oily and greasy and are high in fat and cholesterol. This year, I want to try something different, something healthy and fresh," said a diner surnamed Zhang, who took her family for dinner at Vegan Tiger, one of the largest vegetarian restaurant chains in Beijing.
Vegan Tiger offers a wide variety of vegetarian cuisine and fake meat concoctions, both tasty and aesthetically pleasing.
"Growing attention to health issues was good business for vegetarian restaurants during the week-long festive season. All three Vegan Tiger restaurants experienced a sharp increase in customers, 30 to 40 percent more than that the restaurant usually receives," said He Fen, lobby manager at a Vegan Tiger restaurant.
The number of vegetarians in China was estimated by Public Radio International, an independent non-profit multimedia organization, to exceed 50 million in 2014, whereas the number in the United States was around 30 or 40 million that year.
The growth of the vegetarian community has come to the attention of officials. Last year Chinese health officials prepared dietary guidelines for Chinese residents, directed at vegetarians.
"Special recommendations were given to clear up misunderstandings about the vegetarian diet and help vegetarians to get enough nutrients," said Sun Guiju, a professor at the School of Public Health of Southeast University.
Eating habits are cultural. In China, which consumes the most pork in the world, some choose vegetarianism food just for a short time, while others give up meat completely.
He Jun, CEO of Baiyi Shushi Company, was an early follower of the vegan trend. After being exposed to Buddhism in 2011, he discarded a life of indulgence and fostered a what he calls a "self-responsible" lifestyle.
The year 2011 was not just a turning point for his personal diet, but also a new start for his business: he transformed all three of his restaurants into vegan ones. With another 40 restaurants waiting to join the company, he is considering expanding nationwide.
"The general concept of healthy food is penetrating throughout society and people's lives are greatly improved," He said.
Successful as his restaurants are now, the decision was deemed "stupid" six years ago. He was seen to be giving up a seemingly booming business and shifting to something less popular.
The reasons for going vegetarian go beyond religious and health considerations.
According to Baidu, China's largest search engine, 30 percent of the vegetarian population is made up of young educated people aged 20 to 29. This is a generation who grew up with choking pollution in urban areas and realize that human activity can cause great damage to the environment.
Ma Yuanyuan, a student, stopped eating meat two years ago and describes herself as a young environmentalist.
"I changed my eating habits as I think there is a connection between increasing meat consumption and climate change. It is good for my health and the future of the environment," Ma said,
"I hate all forms of animal abuse and cruelty," said Zhang Xuan, a doctoral student at Tsinghua University, who stopped eating meat three years ago. Zhang's strong passion for animal rights led him to change his major from electronics to animal ethics.
Despite the growth, the trend is limited to metropolitan areas. Concerns holding back vegetarianism include worry about a lack of nutrition and a deep-rooted reliance on meat in Chinese tradition. The widespread belief is that while going vegetarian sounds good, it is not healthy for everyone.
"The debate about the right balance between meat and vegetables seems to never end. I still prefer eating a little bit of everything to keep a balanced diet," sad Woody Qian, a law major in Peking University.
However, passion for vegetarianism among the young is strong.
Inspired by the documentary "Farm to Fridge," Zhangsi became a vegetarian in 2012 while studying in New York, and set up the social media platform Vegan Planet one year later. It has become a popular online community where around 19,000 vegetarians share their experience and purchase vegetables.
Shuman, 25, is a vegetarian and studies plant-based cooking at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York.
"My goal is to present the beauty of vegetarian cooking and let people know that eating more vegetables than meat is good for the environment, for animals, and for themselves," she says. She is focused on promoting vegetarian food in China and plans to become a consultant at a vegetarian restaurant in China in the future.
"China is opening up to all kinds of lifestyle, and you will have a big enough market as long as you are good enough," she said.