300 (And Growing) Free Vegan Cafes in China

Starting about a year ago, here and there, I start to hear mentions of a blossoming vegetarian restaurant network in China, called Rain Flower Hut (Yu Hua Zhai 雨花斋). I heard it was started by an old Buddhist monk (now called the Rain Flower elder by many), who gave his whole life's savings of 50,000 Yuan (about USD 8,000) to create a free, all-volunteer-run, vegetarian cafe for the elderly and (financially) poor members of the community. And the model spread across the entire country like wildfire -- or more appropriately, like rain and flower!

Having been a volunteer at Karma Kitchen, a pay-it-forward restaurant in Berkeley, I am eager to experience firsthand the sister endeavor in my homeland :)

Surprise discovery

On my recent trip back to China, I went to visit family in our hometown Baotou, Inner Mongolia, a small (by Chinese standard) industrial city of 2.6 million people near the Mongolian border. I asked my grandparents if they've heard of Rain Flower Hut in the news, thinking that it's probably unlikely that a far-away place like Baotou would actually have its own RFH.

To my great surprise, there's a recently opened Rain Flower Hut right across the street from where my grandparents lived. And my aunt has been there twice. She said, "It's pretty good." :) So my parents and I went the next day, to the a-few-month-old Rain Flower Hut across the street. And we were blown away.

In-person experience

It was a modest storefront on a neighborhood street. The volunteers greeted everyone at the door, bowing 90-degree, and welcomed "family members to come home and eat vegetarian meals." The volunteers were full of joy and energy, as if having a big feast for the village.

The small operation was sparkling clean, warm, and simply elegant. All guests were guided by volunteers to sit around group tables, next to people they may or may not know. There were words of inspiration and gratitude on the table and on the walls. We all waited in silence, as the seats filled. In the main room, the picture of Confucius hang on the wall. Quotes from Chinese classics and traditional values were sprinkled across the halls. In every room, there were free bookshelves, filled with Buddhist texts and other classics promoting ethical and harmonious living.

The host then shared the context of Rain Flower Hut, the value of generosity, compassion, and the benefits of not eating animals, including physical, spiritual, social, environmental aspects. She led all guests in reading out loud the following gratitude offering.


We give thanks to heaven and earth for nourishing all things;
We give thanks to our ancestors for their compassion and wisdom;
We give thanks to our nation for her protection;
We give thanks to our parents for nurturing us;
We give thanks to our teachers for their diligent guidance;
We give thanks to our companions for their help and care;
We give thanks to the farmers for their hard work;
We give thanks to vegetarian meals for nourishing our bodies;
We give thanks to the public for their trust and support;
We give thanks to all who serve.
--- Rain Flower Hut "Gratitude Offering"

The guests were then invited to receive our food, lining up by descending order in age, with the oldest guests dining first. The volunteer at the food station smiled and bowed 90-degree as they handed us our food tray.

The whole meal was enjoyed in silence. Chanting and devotional music played quietly in the background. Volunteers walked through the rooms, holding signs reminded us to keep silence, and not waste food. We can have as much as food we'd like, but cannot take food out. We were asked to finish all the food we take. If we leave any food on our tray, the volunteers would eat it to reduce waste (and lovingly discourage future food waste). After we finished the food in the bowl, we were guided to pour some "Appreciate Fortune Water" from a jug on the table into our bowl, to rinse off the bowl and drink the water, like the monastics do in the temples.

Most of the guests are elderly people who live alone. An old grandma sat across from me. She was apparently there for the first time. She teared up as she eat the delicious, simple vegetarian meal, with tofu, veggies, mushrooms, steamed buns, rice, and soup. As I witnessed all of this, I, too, had tears in my eyes.

After the meal, there is no bill, no call for donation -- not even indirect suggestion for financial contribution. Guests simply returns the dishes, and depart silently.

My parents and I were seated in separate rooms, and we both spontaneously felt moved to donate some money, given that we can't contribute labor or raw materials because we were leaving town soon. We ran into each other in the back office, after asking the volunteers where we could donate. (There was no public donation box.) My parents donated on behalf of our family, so I decided to donate on behalf of Karma Kitchen. The RFH volunteers were so delighted and moved to learn about the kindred-spirited efforts on the other side of the Pacific :) The head of the restaurant wrote each of us a receipt, and profusely thanked us for our donation. She told us that she must write receipt for each donation, and all receipts will be gathered regularly for blessings at a temple.

My parents and I walked away from the restaurant with a warm heart, full belly, and were quite speechless -- and then couldn't stop talking about the experience for the next few days.


After I returned, I found out more about RFH online. (8-minute intro video and 35-minute mini documentary in Mandarin.) The old monk who founded the Rain Flower Hut was an abbot at a Buddhist monastery in southern China. He saw that there's so much commercialism, materialism, killing (of animals for their meat) in today's China, mirrored by a decline in traditional values and in care for the old and the poor in communities. So, he donated his life savings to create the first RFH, one year before his passing at the age 84.

Rain Flower Hut has the motto: no killing, no transaction, only gratitude. It promotes a vegetarian diet, healthy and low-carbon lifestyle, volunteerism and service, practice of traditional values, and cultivation of virtues. It's entirely volunteer run, and sustained by unsolicited donations from ordinary people. People spontaneously bring supplies, vegetables, and even contribute houses and spaces to open up new RFHs. When there's surplus funds in one restaurant, the money is used to open another one.

The RFH model is "open-source": anyone can open a RFH in the same spirit. No intellectual property protection, or franchising fees. The first Rain Flower Hut (RFH) opened in southern China in 2011. Through organic growth, the wholesome rain and flower has spread all across China within the past four years, having opened over 300 restaurants as of October 2015 - none of them have "gone out of business" due to lack of resources. Not even McDonald's early success could compare with the organic growth of RFH.

Today, the 300+ RFHs are open daily at noon, serving over 50,000 people (70% of whom are the elderly), supported by nearly 5,000 people volunteer - cooking, washing dishes, serving food, etc. Together, the whole network has served millions of vegetarian meals in its first four year of existence.

Deeper intentions

I brought home a volunteer's training brochure to learn more. As I dove deeper into the design and philosophy of RFH, I am even more moved by the depth of intention and cultivation behind each small restaurant.

The RFH model is deeply rooted in Buddhist and Confucian teachings, and traditional values, such as honoring the elderly, respecting all lives, service, gratitude, and so on. It is well informed by modern research on livestock farming's impact on the environment and climate. The volunteers carry the mentality that "every guest is my parent; I welcome them home to eat vegetarian meals." Gratitude is at the center of everything.

The RFHs have created a living classroom, laboratory, and demo sites, while solving very real social issues (meat eating, neglect of elderly care, lack of healthy food, etc). It is a platform to allow the seeds of goodness in everyone to blossom. It provides a convenient opportunity for people from all walks of life to plug into the bigger effort and practice values in a very concrete way.


The fact that RFH has sprouted all over China almost overnight, has shown me the innate, dormant, and unquenchable thirst for compassion, community, and service of ordinary Chinese. It confirms a wider pattern that makes me believe: the clock has struck; the society is at the verge of a spiritual and ecological awakening.

Reading the news, and driving through the streets, I am often discouraged from what I see of today's China - rushing toward the cliff of capitalism, consumerism, materialism, ready to fall into the abyss of greed, hatred, and delusion. But as I look closer, and go behind the news headlines, I see a very different picture. I see ordinary people waking up, doing small things, helping each other out, and coming together to serve and transform. I see the ancient spiritual wisdom and traditional values alive and well, even though buried deep inside people's heart, waiting to be called back into life.

I am also moved by the diversity and inclusiveness of the volunteers - everyone seems to have found their place in this big family. My parents and I were greeted by a young woman volunteer who were clearly developmentally challenged/disabled. She would perhaps not be employable - or even respected - anywhere else, but at RFH, she has found her place, gladly welcoming and guiding guests, and reminding us to return the books we picked up (from the free bookshelf) after we finish reading, so that others could read them.

We met another grandma volunteer. She said she first came to this RFH a few month ago, because she didn't believe such a thing existed. After coming for a few days, she was so moved that she wanted to contribute. Having very little money, she decided to volunteer every day. Living by herself, she used to cook one meal, and heat up left over many times. Now, she cooks and eats fresh meal every day at RFH.

I also witnessed many elderly guests eating bowl after bowl of food, perhaps combining three meals into one at RFH. My heart aches as I think about what life condition back home has led them to overload their stomach here.

Lastly, to operate in China as a non-governmental, non-profit endeavor, and to grow at the speed RFH has, it requires a high degree of political sophistication to avoid government meddling. Although RFH is founded by a Buddhist abbot, and is largely rooted in Buddhist worldview (reincarnation of all life forms, etc) and teachings (generate merit, cultivate Parami, etc), the operation has steered clear of becoming a religious organization (which would attract much more government scrutiny than a community-service nonprofit).

RFH also puts the image of Confucius front and center in the dining hall, echoing the Chinese leadership's promotion of the saint and the traditional ethics. Among the gratitude offered before the meal, "gratitude to our country" is also included. All of these thoughtful designs signal to me the political maturity/sensibility of the team behind the RFH effort. I can feel their volition of minimizing the unnecessary frictions, so that the real work could blossom.


I give thanks to Rain Flower Hut for giving me renewed hope and faith;
I give thanks to the Rain Flower elder for seeding what has blossomed;
I give thanks to all the volunteers for their volition and service;
I give thanks to the society's self-awareness, self-correction, self-healing;
I give thanks to Karma Kitchen for giving me eyes that seek out the RFHs of our world;
I give thanks to the truths that continue to shine
and guide us across boundaries and millennia.

In a deep (90-degree) bow :)

(Blog post with pictures here.)