HEFEI -- Chinese vegetarians are steeling themselves to maintain their eating habits when faced with the country's deep-rooted tradition of sharing meat dishes during Spring Festival.
Chicken and fish are an indispensable part of many Chinese families' feasts because they symbolize luck and abundance. In Chinese, the words for chicken and fish sound like those for "auspicious" and "abundance," so people eat these proteins on Lunar New Year's Eve in the hope of a lucky and plentiful new year.
However, the country's growing numbers of vegetarians, who are especially concentrated among the young, are looking to skip the ritual.
Chen Yuan, a 17-year-old high school student in Hefei, the capital of east China's Anhui Province, is a strict veggie and has avoided meat of any kind for two years.
Her parents tolerate her eating preferences on ordinary days, but the Spring Festival is different.
"When having New Year's Eve dinner, I have always skipped fish, shrimp and any other meat over the past two years. This really upsets my parents. They blame me for following a silly trend and being picky," said Chen.
She decided to stop eating meat after seeing public-interest ads advocating the protection of wild life, such as sharks and bears, by refusing to eat shark fin soup and bears' paws.
"'When the buying stops, the killing can too.' This message carried by those ads really made an impression on me," she said.
Although there are no official statistics about China's vegetarian population, Public Radio International, an independent non-profit multi-media organization, reported in July that China's vegan population has reached more than 50 million, the largest in the world.
However, compared to the country's total population of 1.3 billion, they remain an absolute minority.
Chen said ditching meat for a plant-based diet is a growing trend among her peers, though their motivations vary.
Xu Zihan, her classmate, said she was inspired by vegetarian celebrities from China and overseas, including singer Faye Wong, Kung fu star Jet Li and actress Natalie Portman.
"It is cool to be a veggie. You won't get fat and, most importantly, you are compassionate," said Xu, adding that some of her friends refused meat after raising pets.
Unlike the two teenagers, Liu Haiyan represents another type of Chinese vegetarian -- those motivated by religion.
The 35-year-old Shanghai resident is a Buddhist. For her, eschewing meat and dairy allows her to follow the teachings of the Buddha, to minimize the suffering caused by killing triggered by humans' appetites.
"My eating habits often cause my family and friends inconvenience during the holiday feasts, as most of them favor meat. But on the whole, they understand me and respect my religion," said Liu.
She is optimistic about the expanding vegetarian population in China and has observed the growing popularity of vegetarian restaurants in the country.
As China faces challenges including smog and other environmental pollution, many Chinese are reconsidering their lifestyles and becoming more conscious of the environment and well-being of animals, according to Liu.
This is confirmed by the organizer of vegetarian club in Hefei. The financial advisor, who asked to be called "Su Qing," told Xinhua that most non-religiously motivated veggies she has met are young, well-educated, highly compassionate toward animals, and environmentally aware.
For Chen Yuan, although her mother has not fully accepted her "fancy" eating habits, she is determined not to budge under pressure.
"Yes, I have some troubles while tradition persists. But I will hang on together with friends," she said.