We love hearing what’s going on in the world of veganism and animal rights around the world, and this week we catch up with Gina Song Lopez, who is conducting research on the vegan and animal rights movement in Taiwan and China.
ABOUT OUR GUEST
Gina Song Lopez is a PhD candidate at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies and a member of the Lund University Critical Animal Studies Network at Lund University in Sweden. Her research focuses on the Veg*n/plant-based movement in Taiwan and China. Meatless diets in East Asia have been traditionally associated with religious practice. However, in recent years there has been a noticeable expansion of motivations to adopt veganism and vegetarianism. The new generation of vegans and vegetarians are concerned about issues of animal protection, climate change, health, and self-cultivation. This shift brings attention to changing narratives around veg*n food and identity. As such, her project is also concerned with how ‘new’ veganism is translated into the regional cultural (and political) contexts and the actors involved in this translation.
Mariann Sullivan: Welcome to Our Hen House, Gina.
Gina Song Lopez: Thank you for having me.
Mariann Sullivan: I'm thrilled to have you. One of the reasons is because I think everybody understands that China and Taiwan and Hong Kong, which are the three areas that you study, are so important. And it's so important to understand what are the similarities amongst them and what are the similarities to advocacy in the West and to veganism in the West.
And we don't understand enough about it, and that's exactly what you've been studying. And before we get into your research and those topics... you are from Taiwan, I understand, and I'd just like to hear a little bit about the current animal protection movement in Taiwan.
Gina Song Lopez: Yes, I am from Taiwan. Well, my dad is from Taiwan; my mom is from Chile. So I actually didn't grow up there, but I moved there. I did my master's. That's how kind of I got involved into studying the animal protection movement there. So the animal protection movement in Taiwan started around the 1990s.
And since then, they've had a pretty quick formation, they kind of took off from there. But mostly they have been focusing on, like, animal welfare, mostly. The concept of animal rights is still not so popular,
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. Within veganism, within the section of the movement that is interested in progressive change for all animals, is there a strong recognition between veganism and animals, or is it more focused on environmental and health concerns? Is it all three?
Gina Song Lopez: It's a little bit of everything, all three, and also, a big part of it is just also connected to the religious practice, because the original vegans in Taiwan and China and Hong Kong, were probably Buddhists. Most of the Buddhists might be vegetarian, but the more strict ones will be vegan, actually.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. And dairy isn't really a strong traditional food. I mean, I guess it's a very popular food now, but not a strong traditional food in that part of the world. For anyone interested in veganism or anyone who eats vegan, China and Taiwan, they represent these very interesting stories because of that history.
I mean, not just because they're huge, but also, we don't have any history in the West of not eating meat. It just doesn't really exist or only relatively recent, the past couple of centuries, maybe, except for a few outliers, a few extraordinary people, but no real cultural tradition.
So can you tell us a little bit about that history?
Gina Song Lopez: Buddhist vegetarianism started around 500 B. C. before the Common Era. So basically, this emperor, Wu of Liang, he was a devout Buddhist, and he mandated that Buddhists nuns and priests should be vegetarian. (*** correction from Gina → Emperor Wu of Liang reigned around 500 CE/AC, not BCE.) Before that, vegetarianism was already practiced and it was already associated with a certain kind of virtuous lifestyle, but it was from his reign that actually it became consolidated, this association between Buddhism and vegetarianism. And from that, this whole vegetarian cuisine developed and until today it's quite thriving. Actually like all these like meat substitutes that for a lot of people is new, like vegan meat, for Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, this kind of substitute already have existed for centuries.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. And that was specifically, I mean, I assume since it's from Buddhism, that it was primarily linked to caring about animals, the health and environmental reasons really had not arisen yet so much. It was really rooted in recognizing the value of animals, right?
Gina Song Lopez: Yes, there was a strong element of mercy for life, and definitely, yeah, caring for animals, but it depends on who you ask . There's also like an element of like self cultivation, it's because eating meat is considered impure. Yeah, so it's a little bit of layered.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, of course we see the same thing in vegetarianism and veganism in the, in the West as well. That kind of personal purity as opposed to sort of a political attitude towards animals. But it's still a history. And, you know, we still have those restaurants today.
If you live in any big city in the U. S. certainly, you can usually find one vegetarian Chinese restaurant that has all those fabulous meat substitutes. So I think people are pretty familiar with it. Is there any difference between China and Taiwan on that? Or does that history go back far enough so that it's really similar?
Gina Song Lopez: Ooh, that is a complex question.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, we don't want to get too far into the weeds of Chinese history, so, uh...
Gina Song Lopez: I mean, up to a point, it was like very shared, right? And then obviously, there was like historical political context that things diverged. And then for a long time, I guess Buddhism thrived in Taiwan, while in China, the political context didn't allow religion to continue to develop for a while. So I think now...also like the size of both places, right?
Like Taiwan is small, and... Buddhism is about, I think something like 13 to 15 of the population practices vegetarianism of some sort, while in China there's no official figures but some have put it at 50 million or something like that, yeah,
Mariann Sullivan: Right, it's a lot of vegetarians, there sure is. You know, I've talked to other people about this, and obviously the fact that there's this historical tradition of both caring about animals and having it affect people's consumption and the development of this whole cuisine seems like this amazing, positive thing for the future.
But I've also people tell me that there are drawbacks as well, particularly in China, regarding the association of veganism with kind of something very old fashioned and out of date and not the new thing anymore, which actually ends up being a problem. Have you also found that to be the case?
Gina Song Lopez: Yes, this is definitely something that when you say, I'm vegetarian, most people will assume that it's because of religion and also it has a certain old fashioned element, but that's why, like, the new generation of vegans, they have been more in touch with, like, with Western ideas of animal ethics, animal rights, and they're actually, like, kind of trying to infuse now the vegetarian culture with this like with this new blood and new ideas.
So that's why like they're they're doing like amazing things. So in Taiwan, for example, the vegan fairs have become super popular in recent years and it's all these new advocates that are trying to like change the meaning of meatless diets.
Mariann Sullivan: And do people still hold on to the whole cuisine that has been developed? Because it would be really a shame to get rid of that and just start eating Impossible Burgers because it's really good food.
Gina Song Lopez: Yeah, its' a little bit of a mixed bag, I think. So, obviously, in everyday vegetarian or vegan eating, you'll still go to the local Buddhist buffet. And mostly for going out to eat with friends, maybe they will find a more western oriented kind of restaurant that serves Beyond Meat, or Omnipork is like this brand from Hong Kong that is like very popular over there.
And some restaurant owners are advocating themselves too. There's one in Taipei that is, she actually, like, incorporates all of these new meat substitutes and also, like, the traditional meat substitute into, like, traditional cuisine. So, she's one of those persons that have done a lot to, kind of change the meaning of eating this kind of food in Taipei.
Mariann Sullivan: Oh, I love that. That, I love to see them kind of blending. Getting back to the animal protection movement, we kind of talked about Taiwan, but not so much about China. What are the similarities and differences, would you say, between, it's growing in Taiwan, is it growing in China as well, and, in what directions?
Gina Song Lopez: In China, it's definitely more people are also becoming aware of animal welfare issues. Animal rights is a very limited topic, and I would say it can be a little bit sensitive to talk about. So, even though more people are aware of it, I don't think there is anyone that could be considered an animal rights activist, because that would be a little bit... Problematic, yeah.
Mariann Sullivan: How problematic, that it would be seen as very radical, or just not fitting into the society?
Gina Song Lopez: It's just a very foreign idea, I think, and, yeah, in the context right now, maybe it's just not the time for this kind of discussion. I mean, there's definitely people talking about animal ethics and animal welfare and doing what they can within the scope of what is allowed, right?
So, for example, like, consumption advocacy, or, like, you know, lifestyle kind of changes, and especially in terms of, like, sustainable consumption is acceptable, but maybe talking about animal rights not so much.
Mariann Sullivan: Too foreign? Is it identified with the West, in that way, or is it just too new, or? I wish everybody in the West cared about animal rights, but, uh...
Is that part of it, that it seems like a foreign idea?
Gina Song Lopez: Yeah, it's a little bit maybe too foreign, and it's just at this stage in the social and economic development because for a long time, you know, China, um, for example, meat consumption, even though now everyone is looking at China for meat consumption, which is true, they're consuming more meat. Chinese cuisine in general, it has been more plant forward.
So, like, this concept of plant forward is quite accepted. And also because of health, because, eating more meat is leading to more health problems. So because of that, people are more open to this kind of discussion. But, if you tell people that just recently have become affluent and can finally, like, start eating everything they want, or this kind of thing, they would, why are you telling me that I cannot do this while the West have been consuming meat all this time?
This kind of discussion.
Mariann Sullivan: Animal rights is not exactly a mainstream philosophy anywhere, but sometimes it's really important to note the differences in why or the differences in why people think that it's not something we want to talk about. What about in universities? Are there animal studies or do people focus on issues regarding animals or is that also seen as a little too far out?
Gina Song Lopez: I know that there has been some places where there's discussion of animal ethics, but it's not very mainstream. And maybe some people might have some interest in doing some kind of research related to animals, but in general, it's seen with maybe some skepticism, or maybe if you want to advance your career in academia, people ask, why are you researching this?
Mariann Sullivan: It's kind of the same here. I mean, maybe just not quite as much. But, it's not really all that different. Well, it's, it's becoming different. I mean, it is becoming more legitimized. I read an interview with you and you were talking about the weird focus in animal protection theory, that's probably a common term in academia, but it's not one I was familiar with.
I really loved it. And how that relates to animal protection in, you call it the Sino cultural sphere. And I'll use that because, you know, there's sensitivities about what we call Taiwan, what we call China, and what we call Hong Kong. So the Sino cultural sphere, even though it's a mouthful, seems like a good compromise to cover the group of all three of them.
So can you talk a little bit about what weird is for those who are, like me, unfamiliar with the term, and how it's affected the relationship to animal protection in the Sino cultural sphere.
Gina Song Lopez: Yeah, so WEIRD is Western Educated Industrialized, Rich and Developed. So it just kind of usually refers to, you know, as the acronym states, it's mostly about people that are, you know, in the West, that are educated and rich and developed.
I think most of the conversation around veganism, it's definitely like the contemporary veganism started mostly in the West, right? And so many people in the Sino cultural sphere, like students, exchange students, or people that have traveled, they have come and become more acquainted with ideas of animal rights or animal welfare, and then they have taken back these concepts and maybe started their own advocacy projects, especially like in the case of Taiwan.
I know that a lot of people that began doing advocacy is because they actually can speak English, read English, and they have started translating all of these ideas into Chinese. And actually, one of the main organizations in Taiwan, the Life Conservationist Association, they translated Peter Singer's Animal Liberation in 1996 to traditional Chinese and actually, because of this translation, a lot of people got to learn about the concept of animal welfare and animal ethics. So, for example, one of the main people in one of Taiwan's current main vegan animal rights organizations called Kindness to Animals. Actually, he started thinking about these concepts because he read this book when he was in college. Yeah.
Mariann Sullivan: So it does feel very imported. And I think I liked what little I read about your research. I'm not that familiar with it. I'd like you to tell us a little bit more about it. Is that... and this isn't just for the Sinocultural sphere. This is for anywhere in the world as veganism and animal protection and animal rights are becoming international movements.
You talked about them being translated, can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that?
Because it seems like unbelievably important that that happened.
Gina Song Lopez: Yes, so basic... I kind of started getting obsessed with this concept of translation because I heard a couple of activists talking about this. Basically how ideas such as veganism become localized.
Someone actually wrote about the concept of vernacularization. So basically, the concept of translation I kind of mostly ended up borrowing from Sally Engelmeri and Peggy Leavitt, who talked about vernacularization. So they talk about how ideas such as women's rights are taken by local advocates and then translated to the local context, because obviously every place have their own sociopolitical context, and so certain ideas might... not only the language barrier, but certain ideas just culturally might not mesh well in the beginning, but then if you think about your own cultural practices, you can actually find ways to connect the ideas that might seem foreign into something that is relatively familiar.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah It makes total sense because animal rights is kind of it's a new concept everywhere. I mean even though people may have learned about it reading Peter Singer's book. It's not like when Peter Singer wrote that book everybody in the West was like Oh, yeah, we get that like it's it's a new concept everywhere, but that it would have to be... translated, I think, is a great word.
Not through language, I'm not using it through language, but through cultural ideas and the way people think about things. You know, one example you gave, which I thought was so telling, and this is a very small example, and it has to do with eating habits, and it had to do with shared dishes. And this is true in the States as well.
I mean, when you go into a non Asian restaurant, everybody orders their own food and eats it, and when you go into a Chinese restaurant, you order dishes, and then everybody shares them, and that would make it very particularly wearing to be vegan, wouldn't it?
Gina Song Lopez: Yes, yes.
Mariann Sullivan: In a family that is not vegan.
Gina Song Lopez: Yeah, I recently actually, I know someone that is also doing some research on Chinese veganism, and they were actually kind of talking about the experience of eating the Chinese New Year meal, basically like Christmas, you share a table and you share dishes, and how this is a space of negotiation about veganism, and because you get so much pressure from your family to eat meat that you end up having to practice what we call, like side vegetarian or something like convenience vegetarian, you just like eat the dish and take kind of like take out the vegetables and avoid the meat.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, I guess the same thing happens here as I'm thinking of it, like in a holiday meal, that would happen, you know, a big meal in your house with your relatives and stuff, that would happen. There would be shared dishes. But it seems to be much, much more standard in Chinese culture that dishes are ordered and shared.
And, on the other hand, for Chinese culture, there's tofu.
Gina Song Lopez: Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Like the most miraculous food in the world, like, and tofu's a fairly, I mean, that's not one of these, you know, Buddhist foods, right? Tofu's a fairly accepted food.
Gina Song Lopez: Yeah, yeah, it's a mainstream ingredient. And actually it's also interesting because I feel like in the West, when you order the vegetarian or vegan replacement, it comes with tofu. But in the Sino cultural sphere, a lot of the time you actually have to maybe ask specifically for it. And then, because tofu is an ingredient in cuisine, and maybe people think of it just as an ingredient and not as a substitute.
So actually this new wave of veganism actually is also helping change how people think about tofu.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, I hope in a positive way, because it's just the best food on the planet.
Gina Song Lopez: Yeah.
Mariann Sullivan: That is interesting, like, tofu is almost classified with meat, as the things that you don't want in your meal. And, and, you want just the vegetables, but that has to shift. I'm a little nervous about bringing this topic up, not because it's controversial, just because we could get totally lost in the weeds and I don't want to do that.
There were also language complications in discussing veganism and vegetarianism in Chinese that just blew my mind. Like it was so complicated, which I... well, I'm probably never going to China or Taiwan, but it's not easy to figure out what means what. Can you talk a little bit about that and why it's so complicated?
Gina Song Lopez: Oh, yeah, so, uh, in Mandarin Chinese, 素食 means vegetarian or vegan. It's like a blanket term for meatless diet, but usually it also has the connotation of being a Buddhist vegetarian or vegan. In Taiwan, at least since 2009, there, there has been a food labeling law for vegetarian food, and there are five categories of vegetarian, so, Lacto vegetarian, ovo vegetarian, ovo lacto vegetarian, and then you have vegan.
But the vegan in Chinese does not exactly equal vegan in the West mostly because of the allium. So for example, in China and Taiwan, if you eat garlic or onions or leeks, that's not considered vegetarian or vegan because of the religious connotation. Yeah. Yeah.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, no, that's very different and I certainly wouldn't want to be ordering food that didn't have garlic or onions in it, because they're among my favorites. Let's talk a little bit about you. How did this all happen for you? How did you get involved in studying this particular issue?
Did it start with caring about animals?
Gina Song Lopez: Yes, so I was vegetarian since I was 15 years old, and for a long time I didn't really think it could be a research topic until I moved to Taiwan. I did my master's there and originally, I was thinking in researching the environmental movement, but around that time, the vegan advocacy started taking off, and I realized no one is talking about veganism, or animal protection in general.
So that's kind of how I ended up shifting towards, because it was already, like, in my circle, and something I care about, and it was just a great opportunity.
Mariann Sullivan: And so you think of animal protection kind of in a very international way. How would you describe, this might be an unfair question, but I'm gonna ask it anyway, your personal theory of change? Like thinking about what you want to happen in the world, and your work, all of your research is focused on these changes and how they're occurring.
So, how do you think about how we can get from where we are, which is completely disastrous, to where you would like to be?
Gina Song Lopez: Oh, I think maybe we live in a time right now that a lot of people feel maybe very pessimistic, and then even though they care about something, they're feeling what is the point after reading the news, but I think you need to, very cliche, you need to be the change you want to see in the world.
So even though it might seem hopeless, if you're doing something, at least you know that you're part of the solution, right? Even though it might, in the end the results might not be what you want, but at least you know that you're doing your best.
Mariann Sullivan: What is the China Vegan Society? You mentioned that in this article that I wrote, I mean, that I read.
Gina Song Lopez: Oh yeah, so the China Vegan Society is, as the name says, this Chinese vegan group, they're promoting veganism, largely in relation to the sustainable living lifestyle kind of agenda, but they also have held some talks in terms of animal welfare, and they're trying to Provide support to local vegans, and also they recently came up with a food labeling, like the vegan label for China, because before they don't have such a thing.
So recently they came up with this food label that businesses can apply to, and then people can like safely buy these products and know that it's vegan.
Mariann Sullivan: And would you say that it's having an influence? I mean, you said before there were 50 million vegans and vegetarians in China, which, I mean, that's a huge, huge number, but is it enough to make a real difference in a country that has so many more than 50 million people?
Gina Song Lopez: I mean the numbers are not official. No, no one exactly knows how many there are, but...
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, I understand it's a guess. Yeah.
Gina Song Lopez: I think at least for the people that are already in there with China vegan, it's definitely making a difference for them. And also that the new generation, like younger generation, like Gen Z, there has recently been some studies about how they're actually more flexitarian.
So they're more food conscious and more like ethically conscious. So I think we need to observe more closely what the younger generation will be consuming.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah. No, I think that's exactly the same here. I mean, that's my impression anyway. Those are the attitudes towards veganism. What about the attitudes towards animals? Do you also see a shift there that people are more, well, you know, both that people are more conscious or that more people are conscious that animals matter and also whether that translates into behavior change.
Gina Song Lopez: Ooh, It's complicated, but I think that as people, especially as people are now starting to have pets, the kind of human animal relations are changing, and pets are becoming part of the family, and they're becoming more aware of, like, this is a sentient being, right?
So there's definitely like a shift in views on certain kind of animals, but then again, farm animals are like out of sight, out of mind. Just people don't think about them. So, there's like, obviously some change in some aspects in terms of views of animals. And then, there's other parts that are not, that are quite disheartening, so...
Mariann Sullivan: Is there awareness of the growing factory farming, and the harms that that might cause are people as blind to it as they are here?
Gina Song Lopez: I think that there is more awareness of issues around factory farming, but more in terms of food safety. I mean, animal welfare when it's equated to better quality of meat or like safer meat, it's like there's such a kind of awareness, but not so much in terms of the actual ethical, don't eat lives kind of awareness.
Mariann Sullivan: Right. I think one of the saddest developments of, really, relatively recently, I would say the past 20 years, is the huge growth of dairy in the Sinocultural sphere. Can you talk a little bit about that and how prominent it's become? In countries where there are a large number of lactose intolerant people, it's just so crazy.
Gina Song Lopez: Definitely. There's like milk or consuming milk is seen as, you know, healthy and helping people grow, becoming taller. So yeah, there's definitely a strong push towards consuming more dairy. Well, actually it's such an interesting development because like in the past, dairy was associated with one kind of the frontier. Like the borderlands and what they thought as the not so civilized groups.
And then, and also with foreigners, when like with colonization like foreigners brought like this meat and milk consumption, and then suddenly there was a shift around, maybe a hundred years ago, or a little bit more than that, that consuming milk is good and healthy. Uh, yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Yeah, so that's really interesting. I hadn't thought of that, but it was originally associated like maybe with Mongolia or those parts of the world and seen as like not appropriately Chinese? Looked down upon?
Gina Song Lopez: Yes. Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Interesting. That's so interesting and really sad. I mean, it's nice that people don't look down on Mongolia anymore, it's really a shame they started drinking all this milk.
It's just a tragedy. So, tell us about the next steps in your own research. Your own research is so interesting. I don't know whether I asked you enough about it. We did touch on it, but tell us a little bit about what you're trying to establish in your research and where it's headed right now.
Gina Song Lopez: So, my research is about the plant based food slash vegan advocacy in Taiwan and China. And basically what I'm trying to do is kind of give an account of veganism from our perspective and like how these concepts of animal ethics and Sustainable Living is actually being translated into local practices, like how the people that are advocates or promoters or part of businesses are taking these concepts and trying to move forward towards a more, let's say, plant forward future, a more vegan friendly future, that is also good for animals.
Mariann Sullivan: Though your research is in that part of the world, this is really important to be done everywhere, isn't it? That we can't just impose Western veganism on the world, I mean, not only should we not, but it's obviously impossible. It has to be, as you say, translated.
Gina Song Lopez: We definitely need to pay more attention to work of local advocates and translators. Yes.
Mariann Sullivan: Well, it's really important work and I'm really glad you're doing it and thank you so much for sharing it with us today. I think people'll find this really interesting and can you just remind people where they can find you on social media?
Gina Song Lopez: Oh, yes. I am on Twitter. You can look at Veggie Academic or also Instagram.
Mariann Sullivan: Great. Thank you so much, Gina.
Gina Song Lopez: Thank you for having me.
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