As a vegetarian, I was nervous about moving to teach English In China. I'd been living in LA for the past six years, which is pretty much a vegetarian's paradise. I had no fewer than four vegetarian restaurants within easy walking distance of my apartment. I had a feeling China might be different.
Before making the move, I did what anyone would do when making a major life decision: I consulted the internet. Unfortunately, the internet wasn't quite as helpful as I expected. Even though I found a ton of articles and blog entries on vegetarianism in China, they all disagreed. Some people said it's really easy, other people said it's next to impossible. Many people said that Chinese people don't understand vegetarianism.
I've found that the third claim is pure nonsense. There is a long history of Buddhist vegetarianism in China, and the area around Buddhist temples can be a great place to find vegetarian restaurants. When I visited the Jile Temple in Harbin, I ended up accidentally walking into a restaurant serving a vegetarian buffet for lunch. There is also an increasing number of Chinese people becoming vegetarian for other reasons. The real problem is not that Chinese people don't understand vegetarianism, it's that westerners aren't good at expressing their vegetarianism across the cultural/linguistic divide.
Chinese doesn't really have a word for vegetarian, so there is no direct translation for "Is this dish vegetarian?" The nearest translation is, "Is this a vegetable dish?" In the U.S. at least, if we say something is a vegetable soup, our understanding is that it's a vegetarian soup. If Chinese people say something is a vegetable soup, their understanding is that vegetables are the main ingredient. Of course, a vegetable soup can have ham in it!
I think this is where the whole Chinese-people-don't-understand-vegetarianism myth comes from. Truthfully, this took me a while to figure out. I would order vegetable dumplings only to find tiny slivers of shrimp in them. I ordered pumpkin noodles only to find out they were served with beef. The beef wasn't in the picture on the menu.
How do you avoid unexpected meat? Ask. Don't ask if it's vegetarian. Ask if it contains meat. Even when I first arrived in China and had very rudimentary Chinese, I was able to successfully avoid meat with the following cavewoman grunting:
This (point to the item on the menu), does it have meat or not?
Zhège (point to the item on the menu) yǒu méiyǒu ròu? (The “ou” is pronounced “oh.”)
The answer you're looking for is “méiyǒu.”
Because many Chinese dishes are primarily vegetables with slivers of meat for seasoning, you can often ask for a dish to be made without the tiny slivers of meat. If the answer to the previous question was “yǒu” (Yes, it has meat.), you can try asking them to make it without meat.
Can you not add meat?
Nǐ kěyǐ bù fàng ròu ma?
Personally, I haven't had a problem being a vegetarian in China. Sure, it's harder than it was in LA, but if you ask me, easier than it was in the southern US, the land of fried chicken. I've found it even easier now that I'm more familiar with China and Chinese.