Translation:Do you want to eat fish or meat?
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It's only an incorrect comparison, if you think every language works like English does. In German for example fish would not be called meat ever - fish is fish and meat is meat. Besides not even in English fish and chicken are on the same level. fish and poultry are on the same level or salmon and chicken.
Twenty years ago, the concept of vegetarian was hard to get across in China. I know, monks and ancient traditions etc, but that sort of thing was hard to find in mainland China.
So, ‘no meat’ tended to mean that you were abstaining from the luxury of meat but that it would be alright, even nice, to make the food with a meat stock, or lard etc. A bit like Lent. So, yes, sometimes they might expect fish to be acceptable.
I expect a huge amount has changed since I was there (even during that time) and maybe being vegetarian has taken off in some places where they speak 中文 and so no explanation will be necessary ... but if I were vegetarian I would not assume that people understood what I meant, especially why I was vegetarian (eg ecological or humanitarian reasons requiring 100% adherence is more common in ‘the West’ in the last two centuries) and not about being (sorry can’t find better words for it just now) humble and abstemious (more traditional in ‘the East’ this century than ‘the West’).
Recent history, in living memory, has a huge impact on how we understand concepts and the why of things. Twenty years ago a lot of people still remembered (or at very least heard from their parents about) not being able to get meat very often at all. One might not eat meat (“be vegetarian”) so that others could have a larger share. Or to save on costs. Etc. None of those reasons required that 100% of food be untouched by animal products (it makes sense not to waste any of the animal so making and using stock, lard etc in everyone’s food just happens). So sometimes it’s hard to rely on only a few words to get the idea across.
But I expect all of this is quite a bit out of date.
Everyone has their own particular story. I am not mainland Chinese, but I am Chinese. The Western concept of vegetarian is not the same concept as the one in the East. You alluded to monks in your commentary. Staunch Buddhists (of which China has a number- Shaolin temple?) practice a specific form of vegetarianism where in addition to abstaining from meat, they abstain from garlic, onions, and other "strong" flavors. There are restaurants that cater to vegetarians, and those that cater to Buddhist vegetarians.
I am not disputing what you are saying. But China is a BIG place. To say China is like X is like saying America is like X. New Yorkers are different from Georgians are different from New Englanders.
I suspect where you are coming from is that much of China has a history of severe poverty and famine. During times when crops failed, Chinese adapted by eating EVERYTHING, both plant and animal. Why else would you have cuisine like century eggs, and chicken feet? Someone had to have been desperate to eat a black, smelly egg that had lain for some time in mud and horse pee. Someone else had to have been desperate to figure out a way to eat the chicken's foot. Even pest cockroaches are eaten http://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-c1-china-cockroach-20131015-dto-htmlstory.html. The typical Chinese diet incorporates meat, because being picky about what you ate was at odds with eating what was available (and hence survival). One of my uncles used to joke that you knew someone was Chinese, because he'd eat anything that walks, swims or flies.
I was going to ask if 肉 is generally understood to include or exclude 鱼 or if, like in English, there is some significant variation of opinion.
I would like to say that ‘meat’ in English definitely includes all types (including fish, poultry, mammals, molluscs, other reptiles etc). But I have found that there are a sufficient number of people who also speak English who disagree with me that I have to be aware of the possibility they won’t mean the same thing.
NB the same issue comes up with ‘animal’ which some people take to be a synonym for ‘mammal’ (again, I disagree with them but, I have to be aware that some people will exclude birds, fish and other reptiles from the set).
I’d love to think that Mandarin and more specifically 肉 doesn’t have this at issue but maybe it does. Any native speakers?
Just Google a Chinese menu. https://wenku.baidu.com/view/0f0f6d75f705cc175427096d.html. There's 鱼肉 on the menu.
It’s been too long since I lived in China, and it’s a big place (more like a continent than a single country), so I googled and found this (which says a lot of what I would): https://www.chineasy.com/living-china-vegan-vegetarian/
She recommends 純素食者 but still suggests you get to know the dishes you order so you know what might come with a meat garnish or be cooked in pork fat etc. As she says there are a lot of dishes which are vegan in nature that everyone eats like that (for when you eat out) and I agree.
I would add that if you live somewhere you can make contacts and connections who understand, prepare some of your own food day to day, and choose a province where they prefer peanut oil for cooking (for example) etc you’ll be fine. It’s a challenge but so is everything about living somewhere new.
I’m neither vegetarian nor vegan but when I lived in China 20yrs ago I found that most of my favourite dishes were ‘peasant food’, home cooking and entirely vegetarian. I loved my time in more rural places (hard to get to as a foreigner back then) for the fresh produce and the simple but clever cooking of it. The challenge was in convincing my friends and hosts that I really did prefer them and wasn’t just being modest, polite, and self-effacing.
If I were you I’d see it as a chance to take a few risks and discover some new favourite foods. There will be face palm moments.