From Hippie To Mainstream: The History Of World Vegan Day

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Happy World Vegan Day! An annual celebration on November 1st originally created by The Vegan Society to promote the benefits of a plant-based diet and lifestyle, World Vegan Day has become a worldwide phenomenon. With the Economist naming 2019 the “Year of the Vegan” and the plant-based movement becoming a mainstream lifestyle, we thought it was worth exploring the origins of this meat-free day, how eating animal-free came to be and how the term “veganism” came about. 

This year is the Vegan Society’s 75th anniversary and the celebrations are taking over the entire month of November! Here at Green Queen we are also making it a month-long extravaganza on our Instagram feed, join us.

The first ever World Vegan Day occurred in 1994, as a way of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the United Kingdom Vegan Society, which was established in 1944, and to commemorate the term “vegan”. The Vegan Society formed as a break-off organisation from the long-standing group Vegetarian Society, to differentiate diets and lifestyles that avoided all animal meat and by-products such as eggs, dairy and honey. 

Before the term “veganism” was officially coined in 1944, when The Vegan Society was created, vegetarianism was a widely known concept with a long ancient history. To understand the evolution of the term, we can trace back to some of the earliest practitioners of meat-free diets. Among some of the first who practiced eating plant-based were followers of Pythagoras of Samos around 500 BCE. Believing that Pythagoras’ strict dietary regimen (which was motivated by his principle that we should be kind to all living species) aided his health and longevity, his followers or “Pythagoreans” marked one of the first publicly branded population who didn’t consume meat products.

Later in 1847, the term “vegetarian” replaced “Pythagoreans” when the first vegetarian society was established in Ramsgate, England. This occurred as abstinence from eating animals became more widespread during the classical period, in connection with ethical reasons derived from the Christian faith.

When these ideas were transported to European colonies such as those in Africa, vegetarianism ended up taking root in the continent and has lasted throughout the years. To date, Ethiopian diets, for instance, have remained mostly plant-based, featuring ingredients such as legumes, vegetables and teff (which makes delicious injera) by virtue of the country’s longstanding Christian roots.

READ: 10 Traditional Chinese Cuisine Dishes That Are Naturally 100% Vegan  

But of course, vegetarianism wasn’t just recorded in European history but has perhaps an even richer history right here in Asia. Many followers of Asian religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism are committed to vegetarian diets, mainly for animal welfare and ethical reasons: they believe that humans should keep the welfare of all sentient beings in mind, and should not inflict harm onto them.

Buddhism and Taoism in China, in particular, traditionally requires monks and nuns to eat an egg-free and allium-free vegetarian diet. In practice, such a diet was essentially a vegan diet since dairy was not a part of Chinese diets until modern times thanks to the influence of Western food cultures. Up to this day, many monks and nuns continue to practice a technically vegan diet (this can be seen in Japanese and Korean temple cuisine), with many Chinese Buddhism and Taoism followers also adopting these restrictions periodically depending on the month or year. It is through these rich cultural-religious histories of vegetarianism in China, which also spread throughout East Asia, that the advent of of veggie-friendly staples such as mock meats came about. Most Asians are very familiar with meat alternatives such as seitan, tofu, soybean tofu skin, fermented legumes, tempeh, seaweed and vegetable starch meat alternatives.

Vegetarianism is also engrained in religions originating from the Indian subcontinent, such as Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. Underpinned by the concept of ahimsa or non-violence, all three religions contain schools of thought that weaves vegetarianism into the practicing of these faiths to different degrees. Jainism, in particular, requires all adherents to follow a meat, fish and egg-free diet – which again, like many strict Chinese Taoists and Buddhists, is essentially 100% plant-based (though some Jains do consume dairy products).

READ: Opinion – Why Hong Kong Needs A Meat Tax

While the concept of vegetarianism enjoys a long historical ancestry all over the globe, the specific use of the term “veganism” to differentiate those who abstain from eating/using all animal by-products didn’t come about until much more recently. The term was coined by Donald Watson, a former leader of a branch of the Vegetarian Society and animal rights activist, who alongside several friends felt the need to distinguish between simply meat-free and those who ditched all animal derived products. After releasing the first edition of The Vegan News and attracting several high-profile names to join the movement, including Irish playwright and political activist George Bernard Shaw, the brand new society held its first meeting at High Holborn, London.

Throughout the years, there has even been continued confusion around the term veganism. While many understood it as simply ditching animal meat, the term “veganism” in the 1980s remained reserved for “hardcore”. In the United States, for example, a strong vegan streak permeated hard core punk rock culture, underpinned by the community’s focus on animal welfare and ethical reasons.

Later, veganism became more widespread as scientists began to reveal the negative health impacts associated with excess consumption of meat and dairy products, leading The Vegan Society to increase its membership across the globe. In 1994, half a century after its inception, the society decided to launch the World Vegan Day on the 1st November to commemorate its origins. The society has also earmarked November as a wholly Vegan Month each year in order to celebrate as well as promote the advantages of living a plant-based lifestyle.

So whether you are a seasoned committed vegan or simply dipping your toes into veganism this month, you’re now prepared to answer any questions your friends might have on the history of your vegan adventure. Happy World Vegan Day & Month, everyone!

Lead image courtesy of Shutterstock.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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