My understanding is that 荤菜 means "meat dish" in Chinese. But I don't understand why.

I read there is a saying "荤素搭配", which draws similarities to Yin and Yang.

If someone knows and can further explain the origin of the 荤 character it would be much appreciated. Thanks.

6 Answers 6


why isn't it called 肉菜?

This isn't the right way to think about it. Rather, there is a word 「葷菜」 which can take on the meaning of meat dishes in some contexts, if you need to translate it into English. In other contexts, 「葷菜」 may just mean dishes which have a potent smell or flavour, which is probably its original meaning.

「葷」 (Baxter-Sagart OC: /*qʰu[n]/, strong-smelling vegetable > strong-smelling dishes) is a standard semanto-phonetic character, comprised of semantic 「艸」 (vegetation) and phonetic 「軍」 (/*[k]ʷər/).

Note that /*qʰu[n]/ is also the reconstruction of 「熏」 (smoke). This indicates that 「葷」 and 「熏」 are cognate, and the original meaning of 「葷」 was something to do with a strong smell. See the Proto-Sino-Tibetan reconstructions for other cognates and modern descendants.

「葷菜」 sometimes taking on the meaning of meat dishes is just a semantic extension, likely a deliberate contrast to lighter-flavoured or blander dishes, of which vegetarian dishes (「素食」) are commonly associated with.

  • When I looked up the etymology it said 荤 was originally garlic. Is that right?
    – Pedroski
    Jun 25, 2023 at 21:41

In the earliest times, 荤菜 means 5 kinds of vegetables with a pungent flavor: garlic, leeks..., Buddhism prohibits eating them.

Later, Buddhism in China forbids eating meat. 荤菜 beginning to include meat.

Now, 荤菜 refers to meat.





  • 点菜时,所谓“肉类”大家往往默认指猪牛羊和鸡鸭等的肉。鱼虾贝等水产品或猪肝等动物内脏一般不会算作“肉类”。但他们属于荤菜。
  • 有时候“肉”这个字特指“猪肉”。例如“鱼香肉丝”正常情况下是猪肉,如果是鸡肉一般餐厅会将其写作“鱼香鸡丝”。(仅限不是回教的餐厅)
  • 有些售卖快餐盒饭的店铺,荤菜指与素菜相对的所有菜。店家会根据几个荤菜几个素菜来计算价格。在这种场合下,一般根据原材料的成本,素菜指没有动物制品的餐食,当然很多时候鸡蛋或者血豆腐也算作素菜。有些店铺甚至会将“肉末豆腐”这类肉含量较少的菜也按素菜计算价格。
  • 对于一些佛教信众,大蒜(或者其他一些葱亚科下的植物)属于荤,是宗教忌口的。
  • 无论你对素的定义是佛教素还是蛋奶素,都不影响荤是与素对应的概念,即所有不是素菜的菜人们统称荤菜。但肉和素没有这种对应关系。




Visual etymology

(T.: ) is a phonosemantic character composed of two components:

  • , which is an abbreviation form of component 艸, is a depiction of two grass plants meaning "grass". Here, (grass) is used as a meaning component.

  • (or in traditional) was originally composed of sound component 匀 yún (here abbreviated to 冖 in the modern form) and meaning component 车 "chariot", originally meaning "military unit". Here, 军/軍 (jūn) is used a sound component.

The original meaning of this character is "strong-smelling vegetable" which later the meaning extended to "non-vegetarian food" and "meat diet".

I hope this explanation helped you out on the etymology for 荤. :)

Sources used:

  • ccamc.org (古今文字集成)
  • Dong Chinese
  • Outlier Dictionary of Chinese Characters
  • 漢語多功能字庫
  • 說文解字

Other than meat, 荤 includes some vegetables that have a strong stinky/acrid smell such as onion, ginger, leek...etc.

  • 荤,臭菜也。——《说文》

  • 荤,辛菜也。——《苍颉篇》

  • 膳荤。——《仪礼·士相见礼》。注:“辛物,葱韭之属。”

素菜 - All vegetable dishes except those having the characteristics of 荤菜.


  • Quote:- "...vegetables that have a strong stinky/acrid smell such as onion, ginger, leek...etc." Yes, strictly speaking, when cooking "Chinese Vegetarian dishes, (素菜), no garlic should be used as vegetarianism means not only abstinence from meat, but "strong, potent" flavors as well because it is believed that these flavors, (especially "animalistic" odor and flavor of meat), when ingested into the human body would somehow imbue it with the same animalistic characteristics, with a tendency to quick anger. Years ago I went vegetarian for a while, and I felt nauseous from the odor of meat. Jun 25, 2023 at 5:27
  • Also, as far as possible, to eat vegetables that are white in color, or have a lot of white. Actually the word 素 also means "white" So, it seems that the color white being a color representative of "purity, sinlessness, innocence" is universally applicable. Jun 25, 2023 at 5:45

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