On dogs in China: friend or foe?
“你干嘛！Ni ganma What the hell are you doing?” I’ve just accidentally walked into a small herd of preened poodles, all wearing matching slippers and cute t-shirts. It was entirely my fault; my glasses were on my head, I was distracted by my phone and the owner, shamelessly wearing what seems to be the same matching slippers and a cute t-shirt, is now shouting and swearing at me in an inaudible Chinese dialect.
I’m utterly confused; I might have expected this in Shanghai, but here in Guilin? Guilin sits at the heart of Guangxi 广西 province, which boasts a population just over 48 million and is one of China’s poorest autonomous regions, with a GDP per capita of 41,489.000 RMB, the equivalent of 4,741GBP (figure from December 2018). The incident, however, occurred just outside Guilin’s 5-star Shangri-La Hotel – a classic example of China’s (growing) extreme wealth divergence.
Guangxi is famous for its dog consumption. The Yulin Dog Meat Festival (this year to be held from June 21 – 30 in Yulin 玉林市), is almost 400km exactly from where I am in Guilin 桂林. I desperately want to ask this woman out for a coffee to quiz her on her meat preferences, but one of her poodles is now defecating in the middle of the pavement and she looks like she’s tempted to smack me, so I apologize profusely in Chinese Mandarin, shrug and walk off unphased.
During my time working in Shanghai, whilst flying between prosperous neighborhoods such as 新天地 XinTianDi and 静安 JingAn, tutoring some of the wealthiest children in Shanghai, it became a pastime of mine to find the most extravagantly preened dogs in China. I even joined a WeChat group that a friend of mine set up, fondly named “dogspotters of Shanghai” – the images below are courtesy of some of its members.
One of the most common stereotypes associated with China is its dog-eating culture. Whilst it is estimated 10 million dogs (and 4 million cats) are slaughtered each year for consumption here in the mainland, a 2017 survey by Beijing’s Capital Animal Welfare Association and the Vshine Animal Protection Association found 72% of Yulin residents do not regularly eat dog meat. Bear in mind this is the Chinese province renowned for its dog meat consumption, so it is likely to be even less common in other areas.
Dogs have a long and illustrious history in China – dating as far back as 1700BC, when they had one of three distinct roles: a watchdog, a hunting dog, or dinner. Simultaneously friend and foe, ceramic dogs have been found dating to the Han Dynasty (206BC-220AD), during which they were buried with their owners to accompany them to the next life, but were also sacrificed as food for the gods.
There are some nasty comments online condemning China as uncivilized and inhumane for allowing the continuation of dog consumption. In defense, one blogger explains: “China has endured numerous horrific famines throughout its history and perhaps this (dog-eating) practice is a vestige from more difficult times … The average Chinese lives on less than 3000 USD per year so could equally be for economic reasons. It’s with such ambiguity that this topic is even discussed … I suppose it’s not much worse than the industrial rearing and slaughter of the animals we deem culturally acceptable to eat in the West.”
Another blogger of Chinese origin discusses his qualms with inter-generational conflict as his parents serve him dog during Chinese New Year – to which he is horrified: “My mother always told me that tens of millions of people died of starvation in that time (the Great Famine 1958 – 1961) and that my grandfather used to have to dig out bark to cook for the children. In those times, food shortages were widespread, making meat — which included dog meat — a very extravagant food item. As China advanced over the years, leading to better economic conditions, meat was no longer seen as an extravagant food item, but the experiences from those times carried on throughout the culture.”
In his book “The Mouth that Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism, and the Politics of Eating in China”, Gang Yue recounts an old Chinese joke: “Anything with two legs is edible except your parents; so is anything with four legs, except the bed.” Better to be a dog in Shanghai today, than in Guilin during the Great Famine.
The character for dog in Chinese is 狗 gou, and I particularly like the idiom 打狗看主 dagoukanzhu, which means before hitting the dog, understand its master … i.e. when handing uncomfortable matters, one must take into consideration all parties/perspectives. This idiom is especially apposite when we in the West are tempted to criticize China’s history of dog-consumption.
Don’t forget that in 2017, Australians were urged to eat more kangaroo meat, as government statistics showed that in 2016, there were almost 45 million kangaroos cohabiting the nation, twice their human population (Australia and Shanghai have similar populations of around 25 million). And in France, just across the pond from the UK, delicacies such as pieds de porc (pig feet), langue de boeuf (beef tongue) and couilles de mouton (sheep’s testicle) are entrenched in tradition.
I am not endorsing the meat industry, and anyone reading this who knows me personally might be thinking this is all a bit rich coming from a girl who was proudly vegan for a year or so. Yes the meat industry is barbaric, and I still believe it needs to end. But at least in China, the entire animal is consumed, and there is a more raw, real sense of exactly how that meat ended up on your plate. Strolling around the Yulin Dog Meat Festival will give you a clear enough image – growing up, my bacon came in clean, tightly-sealed plastic, not thudded down on wooden tables, exposing all the layers of flesh.
Many people in China are fiercely opposed to the Yulin Dog Meat Festival. Reuters reports the animal protection group Humane Society International has said “the festival was “manufactured” by the dog meat traders and that dog meat was not part of mainstream food culture in China”. Whilst local police wish to maintain safety and stability in the local area amid growing pressure from activists, their efforts have been relatively futile as locals remain indifferent to international contempt.
Before I leave Guilin, I spend the evening chatting with the young Chinese staff at my hostel. I tell them about my doggy run-in, and they all joke the Shangri-La dogs have a higher quality of life than they do. I don’t disagree, and we joke around looking at some of the outrageous doggy outfits you can buy on taobao. I ask 19-year-old Liyong what he thinks about eating dog. He says when he was little his mother told him eating dog would make him ugly, so he won’t ever try it. I turn to Jingqi, who says she is vegan and that dog meat will make her fat.
Every time I return to the UK after a spell in China, within 24 hours someone asks me “… so did you eat dog?” – my answer is usually “I don’t think so” given my propensity for street-food noodles, sometimes sprinkled with mystery meat. But now it’s confession time; that day in Guilin I did eat dog, and it tasted like beef.
* No copyright infringement is intended
** Cover image from Xinhua News