Yin-Cheng Lecture Series: Prof. Meir Shahar on the Chinese Beef Taboo

Yizhuo Li's picture
April 11, 2023
United Kingdom
Subject Fields: 
Asian History / Studies, Chinese History / Studies, Cultural History / Studies, East Asian History / Studies, Religious Studies and Theology

Yin-Cheng Distinguished Lecture Series on Buddhism at the University Cambridge 


On April 11, Prof. Meir Shahar (Tel Aviv University) will share with us insights from his ongoing research with a lecture on the Indian origins of the Chinese beef taboo. This lecture is part of the Yin-Cheng Distinguished Lecture Series on Buddhism, which is generously supported by the Tzu Chi Foundation and organised at the University of Cambridge by Dr Noga Ganany. This event is taking place only in person (a recording of the lecture will be made available at a later date). Please come and join us!  


The Indian Buddhist Origins of the Chinese Beef Taboo

Speaker: Prof. Meir Shahar (Tel Aviv University)

Discussant: Dr Gregory Scott

Host: Dr Noga Ganany

Date: 11th April (Tuesday) 2023

Time: 14:00 BST 

Venue: Room 8-9, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 9DA)



During the late-imperial period, the beef taboo was widely propagated in China. Many people (especially in South China) refrained from consuming the meat of buffaloes and oxen (both species being referred to by same term: niu). The dietary prohibition was related to the divinity of the animal. Legend had it that that the ox (and/or buffalo) was a Buddhist deity who descended from Heaven for the express purpose of pulling the plow. The animal was a god who sacrificed itself for its owner’s sake. Eating if flesh was not only thankless, it was blasphemous.

In this paper, I trace the origins of the late-imperial Chinese beef taboo to ancient India. I argue that Buddhism served as a vehicle introducing the Indian inviolability of the cattle to China. The sanctity of the Chinese ox/buffalo derived from the divinity of the Indian cow. The paper highlights the role of Buddhism in bringing Indian civilization to bear upon Chinese culture and religion. It also reveals a neglected aspect of Buddhist dietary practice. At least in certain times and places, Buddhist clerics advocated the inviolability of the cattle as distinct from other animal species. They refrained from consuming beef as distinct from other meats.  


About the Speaker

Meir Shahar is the Shoul N. Eisenberg Chair for East Asian Affairs at Tel Aviv University. He is the author of numerous books on Chinese religion, including Crazy Ji: Chinese Religion and Popular Literature (1998); Oedipal God: The Chinese Nezha and his Indian Origins (2015); and The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (2008), which has been translated into many languages. Meir Shahar is currently completing a book titled Kings of Oxen and Horses: Draft Animals, Buddhism, and Chinese Rural Religion


About the Yin-Cheng Distinguished Lecture Series

Launched in September 2021, the Yin-Cheng Distinguished Lecture Series (印證佛學傑出學術系列講座) is a collaborative, multi-university partnership between Peking University, Columbia University, Princeton University, Harvard University, University of British Columbia, University of Oxford and University of Cambridge. The Lecture Series is established in honour of Venerable Cheng-yen 證嚴, founder of Tzu Chi, and her mentor Yinshun 印順 (1906–2005), with the goal of promoting topics in Buddhist studies.