“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

A Christmas Day Tale – Shark’s Fins and Ancient Eggs – A Christmas with Buddhist Monks, Chinese Vegetarians and Carl Crow

Posted: December 25th, 2012 | No Comments »

It has become something of a tradition of China Rhyming to post a longer and perhaps somewhat lost Christmas related tale on Christmas Day. Last year I posted Erroll Flynn’s memoirs of the Christmas he spent cold and shivering with the Hong Kong Volunteers in Shanghai in the 1920s. Also previously we’ve had a great tale from Anthony Abbott on the Conscience of the Converted General, a tale of a most strange Christmas with a warlord.

This year we’re sticking with an old favourite of mine and China Rhyming’s – Carl Crow. This excerpt from his book Four Hundred Million Customers is from the chapter on food – Shark’s Fins and Ancient Eggs – where Carl recalls a Christmas (I think it must be around the mid-1930s) when, with his wife, he spent Christmas at a Buddhist Monastery (as ever with Crow, he puts you in your place just in case you thought you were a China specialist who did cool stuff!!).

As always with the great Ka-Loh (Carl Crow) he appears remarkably contemporary despite writing in the late 1930s about the two decades previously – food fads, emerging vegetarianism among China’s middle classes, the charming oddities of Chinese food enjoyed and, of course, the whole one upmanship joy of finding places no other foreigner has ever been or would be welcome except you!! Some things never change…and Carl Crow did the whole ex-pat China thing better than anyone now or since!!

A very merry Christmas from China Rhyming and Ka-Loh



Long before the Christian era the Chinese, in their search for food, were experimenting with everything they could chew and swallow. They had no inherited prejudices and no religious prohibitions. Buddhism forbids the killing of animals and, as a corollary, the eating of flesh, but Buddhism was brought to China from India long after the Chinese had perfected the art of cooking and had established their food habits. The Buddhist prohibitions, which affected a very large part of the population, gave the Chinese cooks a difficult problem to solve, to provide a people accustomed to meat with a purely vegetarian diet which would be acceptable to them.

I really believe that if the Chinese cooks had not solved this problem so successfully we would not now see the magnificent Buddhist temples and monasteries which are to be found in all parts of the country as testimonials to the strength of the following of the gentle Mahatma. The Chinese cooks made the vegetarian diet so palatable that it was no hard- ship to adopt it, and what might have been a perpetual Lent became a perpetual feast.

Dr. Wu Ting Fang was a vegetarian, not because of Buddhist faith but because some lady food faddist in Washington convinced him that a vegetarian diet would prolong his life. I ate my first vegetarian Chinese meals in his home and they were very good. But I never realised how skilfully vegetarian dishes could be given the taste and appearance of meat until my wife and I were entertained at a rather sumptuous dinner by the abbot of a Buddhist monastery where we were spending our Christmas holidays. If I had not known that nothing but vegetables can be brought into a monastery kitchen and that the pious old abbot would rather commit suicide than serve so much as a spoonful of chicken liver gravy at his table, I would have thought that this was just an especially good Chinese dinner. The various dishes had not only the appearance and the taste of meat but even the texture. Since the eating of meat is so evil I wondered why it was not sinful to give this Buddhist banquet such an evil appearance, but the abbot didn’t know what I was talking about when I brought this question up, because there is nothing in the Buddhist doctrine which says anything about the avoidance of evil appearances. There are a few Protestant Christian sects which have made vegetarianism an article of faith, but shamelessly serve false replicas of pork chops and other food of sinful and evil appearance. I would like to ask them how they justify this in the light of the Biblical injunction. I know in advance that the answer will be a good one and will probably show me up in the light of a sinner who has asked a foolish question, but I am willing to take the chance because I would really like to know what the answer is. Christian theologians are notoriously skilful at exegesis and the Buddhists are not far behind them. The abbot was explaining to me the Buddhist doctrine which forbids the taking of life and, in order to make the matter understandable to me, abandoned metaphysics and confined himself to describing the harmlessness of various creatures and the benefits they bestow on man, even without providing food for him. He made out a fine case for the ox and the horse, which was easy, and gave rats and mice good reputations they did not deserve, so I asked him about mosquitoes.

‘Man should be very grateful to mosquitoes,’ he said, ‘for they save a great many lives. In the summer when it is hot the workmen in the fields get very tired and they lie down in the shade to rest. Sometimes they go to sleep, and if they sleep a long time they will get chilled and become sick. But they do not sleep long because a mosquito, on an errand of mercy, stings them and wakes them.’

During our fortnight in this Buddhist monastery, we didn’t have to exist on vegetarian food, for we had brought our provisions with us and they included all the solids and liquids which enliven the Christmas holidays. A wing of the monastery had been turned over to us and in one of the many rooms our cook set up a very serviceable kitchen. When we were about ready to return to Shanghai, and I could bring the matter up without fear of raising a dangerous issue, I asked the abbot why he had been so lenient and allowed us to bring meat, to say nothing of gin, into the monastery. His explanation was just as pleasing as his exposition of the virtues of the mosquito had been. He recalled that two years before I had come to the monastery more or less as a refugee, for I had been on a houseboat trip on the Ningpo Lakes when a typhoon struck and I had abandoned the boat and headed for the monastery as the only shelter in sight. He said he knew at the time that among the supplies my servants dragged in there was very probably some sinful meat and that he should have refused to allow them to bring it in, but I was a stranger and sick and he was afraid that if he deprived me of my regular food it might be injurious to my health. So he had said nothing about the meat and there were no dire results. On the contrary, the monastery had enjoyed an unusual prosperity. In the five hundred year history of the monastery, I was the first foreigner who had ever spent a night under its roof and they had come to the conclusion that a part of this good fortune had been due to their hospitality to me. Also, I had not behaved as they had been led to believe foreigners would behave, had been respectful at the ceremonies and had contributed liberally toward the rebuilding of the temple. He said they looked on me as a kind of lay brother, albeit a sinful one, and that I was always welcome, even with my roast turkey and boiled ham and Scotch whisky, but he warned me not to encourage any other foreigners to come to the place.



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