Shark fin soup has long been considered a delicacy in China. Its origins date back at least a thousand years to the Song Dynasty according to the site Culture Trip, a time in Chinese history when many in the country prospered and rare dishes were a way to show off one’s wealth.
Public perception about eating shark fin soup has since changed pretty drastically. A 2020 survey of Hong Kong residents found half rated the dish “not very acceptable,” as compared to only a fifth of respondents in 2010.
That’s for good reason — globally shark finning kills between 73 million and 100 million animals per year, most thrown back in the water after their fins are removed to die a slow and painful death. Some shark species are endangered, and killing such predators tends to throw off the entire ecosystem.
“When eating at home where people have the most autonomy and no social pressures, very few citizens choose to eat shark fin,” says De Peter Li, China policy specialist at Humane Society International.
Despite this change for the better, and an overall decline in the consumption of the dish throughout China, shark fin soup is still frequently served at special occasions, especially wedding receptions. “At social events, where those pressures come into play, people can find themselves eating shark fin dishes presented to them by their hosts, less out of choice and probably more from fear of offending or making a fuss.”
The dish’s persistence reflects just how challenging dietary change can be, especially when it comes to foods of great cultural significance.
Shark Fin Soup Signals Wealth
Despite advocacy campaigns aimed at eliminating the dish, shark fin soup retains deep cultural significance. Some people feel pressured to serve the dish at lifecycle events like weddings to please older relatives who still see it as an important tradition, while others are eager to show their guests they can now afford what was once a luxury item.
‘‘If you don’t serve shark fin soup at important dinners, the host will look very cheap and that is not giving face to your guests,” said one chef based in Singapore.
In Chinese society, the role of ‘‘face’ is of great importance. According to a 2014 study, the concept of ‘‘face’’ or ‘‘guanxi’’ refers to the Chinese common strategy of cultivating a reputation of respect in everyday social life.
Shark Fin Soup an Affordable Luxury
As the Chinese middle class expanded and became more financially well-off, more and more people could afford the shark fins that were once considered a rare delicacy.
Flashing one’s wealth through expensive meals became increasingly common. A 2012 study found Chinese consumption of expensive dishes like shark fin soup was a common expression of ‘economic power’ there.
The ingredient certainly isn’t valued for its flavor. Turns out the fins are essentially tasteless. The soup’s richness in fact comes from other ingredients used in the preparation of the broth, most commonly chicken.
One Step Closer to Cultural Change
Several initiatives by environmental groups in the past couple of decades have helped to shift the cultural view around shark fin dishes in China and Hong Kong, while the Chinese government announced a ban on shark fin dishes at state banquets in 2013. There has been an estimated 50-70 percent decline in the consumption of shark fin soup overall in China since 2011.
Environmental campaigners have been successful, as public sentiment has shifted away from serving the dish. “If catering businesses stopped promoting shark fin dishes, the data suggests guests and even hosts would be unlikely to ask for it,” says Li.
Some venues have begun to respond to changing preferences, with more than a dozen hotels adopting a “shark-free policy” for their menus. The shark-free wedding campaign by Hong Kong Shark Foundation (HKSF), a Hong Kong-based charity dedicated exclusively to shark conservation, has encouraged more couples to stop serving shark fin soup at their wedding and actively promote shark conservation to their guests instead.
More Needs to Be Done
Yet longstanding traditions can be hard to change. According to the Hong Kong Shark Foundation, among the thousands of seafood restaurants in Hong Kong, only four have explicit policies to not serve shark fin soup. There are still a large number of restaurants that serve shark fin soup “upon request” as a matter of respecting customers̕ preference or to avoid “complaints.”
Li is hopeful shark fin soup will one day not be served at all. “We are already seeing that shark fin is not part of the mainstream food culture or what is cooked and eaten in private homes,” he says. “Now we need to see the same shift from the catering industry to eradicate shark fin for good.”
I am a journalist based in Isfahan, Iran. I have written pieces for Digital Privacy News on privacy issues and Ourstosave on environmental ones.