Munchies

Meet China’s '100 Percent Self-Sustainable Man'

He wears secondhand socks and brings his own organic vegetables to restaurants in a country where environmental consciousness is still a rare thing.

by Jamie Fullerton; photos by Aurélien Foucault
Jun 29 2017, 4:00pm

"Stop… don't chew!" yelped an aghast Yao Jizhong, but it was too late. I'd already chomped down on the flypaper-sticky brown nugget he had given me when I entered his headquarters in Xingshou Town, a 20-kilometer drive from the end of the metro lines in north Beijing. I slowly prised my teeth apart; thankfully the gluey stodge threatening to cement them together just about left my gnashers lodged in my gums.

"You're supposed to just suck it," said Yao, laughing as I used my tongue to search for blood.

After I'd confirmed that I hadn't lost any teeth, I began to enjoy the subtle-sweet tang of what Yao named "candy of happiness": a malt sugar-based treat that he had stacked in jars throughout the room, further decorated with crudely-rendered paintings of farming scenes. "All these paintings are rescued, picked up from people who didn't want them," said Yao.

Yao Jizhong.

That statement—along with the "Save the trees and they will save us" slogan adorning the back of Yao's mildly bedraggled T-shirt—helped to reaffirm the tag "China's 100-percent self-sustainable man," given to the 37-year-old by That's Beijing magazine last year.

Born into a farming family in Anhui province, Yao read an article in the late 1990s about worsening desertification in China: the process of land becoming arid and losing its plant and animal life, affected by climate change and human exploitation of soil. Examining the subject flipped a switch in his head, and in 2001 he visited Mongolia to do volunteer work aimed at addressing the issue.

He returned to Anhui a changed man. "I 'got' the concept of environmental protection. I decided I wouldn't use any chemicals, fertilisers, pesticides, or products that would harm the environment."

Yao's "candy of happiness," made from Anhui sugar.

In 2008 Yao moved to Beijing, working on an organic farm and making a greater effort to reduce his consumption levels of all kinds of products to as close to zero as possible. He didn't drive a car. He wore cast-off clothes, darning discarded worn-out socks. He shunned processed food, to the point of taking his own organic produce to restaurants to eat while friends enjoyed bought dishes. And by working on the farm, he buttressed cooking skills he'd learned in Anhui.

"Food has always been my passion," he said. "I always wanted to learn how to cook different types—sometimes I'd join a conversation on a train simply because someone was talking about local food."

Yao left the farm and branched off alone, setting up a modest kitchen and living area in Xingshou Town: a pleasant, greenery-strewn area dotted with pick-your-own strawberry fields. There, he funneled his penchant for sustainability into making food and drink products that he sells at markets and through WeChat, China's ubiquitous messaging app.

After a shot of doughy alcohol-free rice wine Yao offers me a wonderfully dense cake featuring a blend of almond, black sesame, yellow rice and the "candy of happiness" that clogged up my mouth earlier. It tastes pretty great. A green pea version of the cake is just as delicious—it's a strong-seller, Yao said.

Yao sells cakes made of almond, black sesame, and yellow rice.

But what makes his food "self-sustainable"? To be fair, it's not a tag Yao has ever promoted himself; his aim is to create great food that has as little negative impact on the environment as possible. "I mainly buy ingredients from organic and eco-friendly farms," he said. "I never use detergents or chemical products in the process of cooking, preparation, or washing up. The only part that damages the environment is using delivery motorbikes to post it to customers."

Yao said that he prepares and cooks "99 percent" of his own meals, with his sensitive digestion system as much a factor in his decision to do so as his desire to keep down consumption levels. "Outside food makes me sick," he said. "I once had an 'organic' pizza in town and got food poisoning, toothache, and a headache for a week. I went back to the restaurant and said, 'How dare you call yourself organic!'" He also hosts cooking classes, spreading his message of lowering consumption further.

It's all very virtuous and clearly makes Yao happy—he doesn't stop grinning all day. But does he not agree that the onus for protecting the environment in China, where rampant economic growth has led to an explosion in the amount of polluting businesses and services operating in the country, is on industry? The Chinese government recently toughened up environmental laws and implementation with this mindset, rather than focusing on the public's consumption behaviour.

A shot of alcohol-free rice wine.

"But it's our consumption that determines production!" Yao exclaimed. "Our cash is our vote, and our lifestyles decide our living environment. We must support products that come from environmentally friendly manufacturers."

Yao might take things further than most sustainability-wise, but he's not alone in his mindset. "It used to be hard to find other people with this mentality, but now more and more young people are getting involved," he said. "Civil power has woken up. There are several mothers in a nearby village campaigning to reduce the use of plastic, save water, and recycle."

Yao melts sugar for another batch of the "candy of happiness."

He's right—Chinese schools have been making increased efforts to educate children about environmental issues, and President Xi Jinping has made repeated awareness-raising declarations about the importance of being green. There are hopes that China's reputation as a smog-belching heavy polluter might slowly be fading. "Yes, China has started to pay attention," said Yao. "But it takes time for the government to implement these ideas."

In the meantime, Yao is happy to keep subtly spreading his anti-consumption message, one cake at a time. I left him as he melted an enormous slab of Anhui-sourced sugar in a frying pan, ready to make more "candy of happiness." There's one man who won't have any personal guilt when the last ice cap melts and we're all nose-deep in seawater.

"Our cash is our vote, and our lifestyles decide our living environment," said Yao. "We must support products that come from environmentally friendly manufacturers."

To add Yao as a contact on WeChat use the ID yaojizhong8003 .

Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jamiefullerton