What’s the Story With Shark Fin Soup?

A reader named Chuck Armitage writes in with a question about which I know nothing but which I’d like to know much more.

So what do you say, readers? What do you know, and think, and what can you tell us?

Here is my question… Why is shark fin soup still popular?

Ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture and yet that is what shark fin soup represents. The more expensive it gets, the more it proves that your host honors you by serving the soup. And the more the West vilifies the barbarian finning practices of the shark fisherman, the more the Chinese seem to dig in their heels and say look at your own barbaric practices before you racially attack us. There is a huge disconnect between what are normally considered admirable traits of civilized Chinese society and what is going on with this tradition.

Are the activities of the ecology activists helping or hurting their cause? How do you change the sentiments of a seemingly positive tradition when the act is causing such an ecological disaster? Is seal clubbing or factory farming as bad as shark-finning?

It is a burning issue right now and many species of sharks will go extinct if it is not solved. No matter what we do in North America, the real issue is in Asia. Even if we ban the import of shark fin here, the growing wealth in China will end the shark as we know it in our oceans.

How can this be positioned in a way that will be championed by the Chinese populace?

I cannot vouch for Chuck’s facts or assertions but I trust his questions are at least valid — although I raised a brow at his claim that “ostentation is not a trait that is normally associated with Chinese culture,” at least when I think about modern Chinese urban culture. I asked Freakonomics researcher Bourree Lam to weigh in on the shark-fin idea:

From personal experience, shark fin was a “fancy thing” in the ’80s/’90s and very much a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” item in middle class circles. Nowadays I think good red wine (from France preferably) is much more popular with the Chinese middle class. Sotheby’s and Christie’s in Hong Kong have been making a killing on wine auctions for the past couple years, but it’s been record-breaking for the Chinese market in the past year. Gold sales are also way up. Luxury purses (LV) and shark fin seem to be something just to please Grandma at weddings these days. I’m not sure that environmental activism has anything to do with it? Bird nest is very popular too, but also fading out. I think this generation of Chinese are less obsessed with that stuff, but looks like it is getting less popular.



Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



View All Comments »
  1. Joshua says:

    I hear it’s delicious (from a friend with experience).

    He wasn’t aware of the…ethical dilemmas…at the time.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2
  2. Dave says:

    Americans and Japanese are mostly responsible for the extreme overfishing of certain species of tuna (for sushi). If we continue down our current path, we’ll drive many species of tuna extinct before sharks.

    STOP BUYING AND EATING TUNA. Only buy sustainably harvested fish.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 9 Thumb down 11
  3. Mitch says:

    How about rhino horn as an aphrodesiac? Or tiger penis for that matter.

    Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0
  4. P.Lo says:

    maybe some place along the southeast coast

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
  5. hanmeng says:

    Chinese culture is all about face, and for those with money, ostentation. (China is now one of the largest–if not the largest–markets for luxury designers.) Commenter Joshua’s friend claims shark’s fin is delicious, but to me it’s practically tasteless. As far as I’m concerned, they could replace it with cellophane (or bean thread) noodles.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
  6. YX says:

    Shark Fin is something Chinese been eating for a thousand years. It’s same thing as if people tell Americans they need stop eat stuff they been eating for… oh wait, nevermind.

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 4
    • YX says:

      That is like saying you can still keep your cattle as pet, but you must eat veggie burgers. Or you can still keep your wife as a gossip machine but you must DIY.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4
  7. David says:

    Whenever I get served shark’s fin soup, usually at Chinese weddings, I don’t give it much thought. In my experience, nobody really puts it on a pedestal like Westerners think. It comes out like any other course, and is dished out from a large vessel into smaller bowls, usually with more regard to efficiency than elegance. The taste? It’s pretty delicious but I don’t consider it a delicacy nor do I get excited about eating it the way I do foie gras or uni or truffles. When I was younger, I didn’t understand the ethical issue. Now I do and if I had to avoid it, it’d be easy. Nobody in my family or myself has ever ordered it. It’s not due to expense but lack of interest. If I never ate it again, I could not care less. I would bet that if you asked most Chinese, particularly Chinese-Americans, they would agree with me. Banning shark’s fin is an easy task because nobody will put up a fight about it. That’s my opinion.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1
    • Ross says:

      How much of the soup flavor is attributed to the shark fin and not the other ingredients and spices? The reason it is desired is due to the exotic nature and high price of the fin. I don’t think it would be easy to completely ban fining as it is so rooted in tradition.

      Try taking away turkey from North American Thanksgiving dinner tables. Iceland and Norway continue whaling even though you would think they understand the ethical issues (Iceland even hunts an endangered species). Fining is here to stay for some time, until a world wide organization finally grows a spine and enforces a ban.

      Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0