The last dog meat restaurant
The last dog restaurant closes in Beijing
The last ‘name’ restaurant specialising in dog-meat closed in 2009. There was a small voice suggesting that this last bastion of an ancient and traditional culinary practice should be retained, using the same arguments as are used in support of the preservation of ancient buildings. But modern times prevailed and recognising that eating dog is frowned upon, especially by potential visitors to the Beijing Olympics at the time, it is now gone from public view. It is still possible to find dog on the menu in some restaurants, but not usually where tourists will find them. In the village I expect it will take many years before this practice goes completely out of fashion.
For tourists, the dogs you are likely to see are pets and treated in ways directly comparable to western pets. Many Chinese consider their dogs to have a special relationship with them and this view is rapidly spreading throughout Chinese culture, resulting in what western viewers would consider to be a more humane treatment and consideration, or is that more correctly ‘human’ treatment.
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Chinese and Western dog cultures
The Chinese view of all this is clearly different to the usual western view. In China, animals are just animals and there is little distinction between feelings for a dog or a pig or chicken. Western peoples seem to be closer to their dogs, maybe as a result of the long history of symbiotic hunting partnerships and in guarding the home as light-sleeping watchman. The written history shows differences. Western texts before the advent of the novel show dogs in the roles of hunting and guarding, but rarely as pets, this closeness to dogs only appears after the Romantic era rise of poetry and the advent of the modern novel. Even then it is the ‘popular’ end of the market where relationships with dogs are described, somewhere even more ‘popular fiction’ than Dickens. Wordsworth would not have ‘wandered lonely as a cloud’ to find his ‘host of golden daffodills’ with a dog as company; Keats clearly did not take his dog into his fantastic ‘Hyperion’ to warn of the occasional approaching god or hero; if he had he may have found his way back out ! there is little mention in Chinese correspondingly recent texts about dogs, also the traditional place of the dog in Chinese society has traditionally been outside the house.
‘Dogs, along with pigs, constituted the major source of animal protein in ancient China’
‘The ancient word for dog meat was ran (肰). Indeed, it was so common that theOld Chinese character meaning "to burn" or "to roast" showed dog meat on top of a fire (然)’
The Zhou Li divides dogs into three categories: the tianquan (田犬) or watchdog, the feiquan (吠犬) or barking dog, and the shi-quan (食犬) or edible dog. With the exception of the liver every part of the animal was considered edible.
On the other hand the original ‘lap dog’ is the Pekinese of Peking, (the previous name for Beijing) and this exception is reflected in the vast numbers of dogs with ‘Pekinese’ looks and manner still seen everywhere in China. In the older texts from the period that runs from the time the Roman Emire was upstarting until its demise in five or six hundred AD, (the same period that China was holding annual poetry examinations for civil servants).
Western soceties have been subjected to generations of Romatic era texts that have personified animals. ‘Lassie’ and ‘Black Beauty’ among countless animals imagined with human emotions and ‘feelings’, including frogs, badgers and foxes in 'Wind in the Willows' have elevated the cultural perception of emotion and reasoning in animals. This has created a dichotomy for the majority of people who still eat animals. When discussing the issue of eating dog meat the Chinese will genuinely ask ‘what is the difference between dog meat and pork, or beef ?’ A fundamental fact of animal intelligence is on the side of the Chinese in this regard, a pig is reckoned to be more intelligent than a dog by many people who ‘know’ a pig, or pigs, to the same degree most people might ‘know’ a dog; by this reasoning we might examine more closely our own confused relationships with dogs and with bacon!
The modern dog in China
The big change regarding dogs in modern China did not only come in Beijing with the Olympics, dog ownership has rocketed nationally. In 2007 it was normal to see the occasional old lady with a Pekinese, now in 2010, every breed of dog can be seen on leads and following obediently to heel in every street. This ‘pet keeping explosion’ parallels the increasing numbers of middle classes and more free income, but in any society the very poor will see an animal in a different light to that of the more wealthy! When daily difficulties include just getting the family fed then social niceties and inhibitions tend to evaporate.
The burgeoning pet-dog population threatens to produce the next phase of difficulties, dog excrement in public places that most western countries faced at one time or another. Although Chinese are no less reluctant to get their hands dirty than anyone else, more so maybe with a cultural habit of not touching anything from stair rails to toilet seats, social peer pressure is a greater force in China than bylaws ever were in western countries; in public places the practice of cleaning up after a dog seems to be the normal practice without the demand of little gangs of bullying little laws.
Still the treatment of pets is different, puppies are on sale in many streets, many people buy puppies and the clearly obvious ‘lesser numbers’ of older dogs would indicate that not all puppies survive past their cute stage. The same applies to rabbits. The favoured pet rabbit is a miniature Disney generated white rabbit with long ears. These are sold in tiny cages, mainly to children, and although not apparently mis-treated they sicken easily and it is rare to an adult rabbit except occasionally where somebody brings a number of caged pets and birds outside every day; in these cases they would appear to be the owners hobby and they are skilled in animal care.
To summarise. Dog culture in China is evolving rapidly, in the cities dog ownership and care is similar to any Western city while in the countryside there is a different relationship where dogs are still pets but are not imaagined to have human characteristics and privelages.
For tourists, the dogs you are likely to see are pets and treated in ways directly comparable to western pets. Many Chinese consider their dogs to have a special relationship with them and this view is spreading throughout Chinese culture, resulting in what western viewers would consider to be a more 'humane' treatment and consideration, or maybe western perception is confusing this with ‘human’ treatment.