Forget about the Western-Style Chinese food you're used to! In China you can find authentic Asian cuisine with fresh vegetables and locally grown herbs.
The Chinese food that has popularized itself in the Western world is a cheap -and oily - imitation of it's origins from across the Pacific. The typical Chinese food found in North America is packed full of an unrealistic amount of meat, usually deep-fried, and is lacking vegetables. Contrary to what you might think, the Chinese don't actually consume meat products in high quantity, and vegetable dishes are widespread and easy to find.
China is known around the world for it's cuisine - from dumplings to chow mein, rice noodles to spring rolls. In other parts of the globe it may be tough to find a dish that is anywhere close to being vegan, but in China you will find a plethora of fragrant dishes that are perfect for the hungry, plant-based traveller. Many dishes in China revolve around a few staple food items: rice, tofu, vegetables and meat. The meat found in dishes is in much smaller amounts then we are used to seeing here in the Western world. You won't find any big slabs of steak or breasts of chicken on your plate, but rather small chunks of meat, used simply to add flavour and texture to the dishes.
Dairy intolerance is widespread across much of the Asian continent, impacting up to 95% of Asians (Read more about lactose intolerance in China on Wikipedia and this study from the US National Library of Medicine). With such a high portion of the population unable to digest dairy products, most restaurants and food markets will be free from dairy. In recent years, Western-style restaurants have opened up and have begun offering items containing dairy. There seems to be a growing appetite for dairy in China, despite the intolerance.
When travelling to China, plan to stay in accommodations that offer use of a kitchen. By doing this you will ensure that you have an adequate place to prepare food instead of dining out. Visit a grocery store or market and pick up some fresh grub. Make a pot of rice or noodles, sauté some of your favourite greens and enjoy.
The grocery stores carry a lot of food items that you will be able to find back home. So stocking up on snacks such as fresh fruit and trail mix is an easy and cheap way to ensure that you'll never go hungry. If you're interested in learning more about budget travel through China, checkout this post!
At restaurants, vegan and vegetarian items are easy to identify, although you may encounter times that the food served to you doesn't look at all like the picture. Be careful when eating because you may discover tiny pieces of meat hidden in a plate of steamed greens.
You may find out (hopefully not the hard way) that broths in soups and noodle dishes may be made from beef or chicken. So this is where you will need to be a little bit more careful. Most servers will not speak english at all so communicating with them that you can't eat meat - including meat-based broths - will be incredibly difficult.
You can avoid a headache by writing down and remembering the following phrases:
I am vegan – 我吃纯素 (wo chi chun su )
I don’t eat ______. (eggs) (meat) (fish) (dairy)
我不吃 _____. (鸡蛋) （肉） （鱼） （牛奶）
wo bu chi _____. (ji dan) (rou) (yu) (niu nai)
Another thing to note, make sure that you can pronounce some of the above phrases, many servers may not be literate in Mandarin and you'll run into even more communication mishaps.
There are a lot of buddhists in China, and buddhists are vegan! This means that there are a lot of vegans in China - if you catch my drift! The best places to find vegan meals will be where the buddhists are! Ask your hostel or hotel host where the closest temple is. Check out the restaurants around the sacred grounds and you will be sure to find plenty of food, sans meat.
It's good to know that some dishes are safer to order than others. Some common dishes you will find that are (almost) always vegan are: vegetable spring rolls, cucumber salad, tofu salad (liangban gan si), sesame noodles with vegetables (zhima miantaio), shredded potato salad (qingjiao tudou si). Don't forget to try the sticky rice balls (nuomi ci), sweet potato buns and crispy fried tofu.
Soy milk is commonly found across the country so buying cartons of it and carrying that around in your bag will be beneficial to have on hand for tea times, and just extra calories. When you head to cafes and restaurants you can order doujiang or dounai which are two types of hot soy milk.
If you've been vegan for any amount of time I'm sure that you've stumbled across sietan. This protein packed meat substitute is found all over China and in most restaurants. You will be able to order it as a side dish, or you might even find it in pastas and soups. Dishes featuring sietan are also a pretty safe bet.
Stuffed buns are a very common to-go snack. You will be able to find both sweet and savoury flavours. Since dairy and eggs are not a very common ingredient in China, you can make a safe assumption that most of these buns will be free of animal products. Baozi is a commonly found bun which is stuffed with yam, sesame, mushrooms and carrot. This little bun packs a whole lot of healthy carbs and is quite nutrient dense.
If you get the chance to speak to a local who understands english - or even better, and english speaking buddhist- be sure to ask them if they have any more food suggestions for you to try. The locals know a lot more about this stuff than tourists will!