Alexis Hooi

When there is more to it than dog meat

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-29 07:16
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In the minds of the Chinese, Fan Kuai is one of the most famous generals under Liu Bang, the peasant-turned-first emperor of China's Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220).

As a close friend of the Han Emperor Gaozu, Fan was from the same hometown as his ruler in Pei county, now called Feng county, Jiangsu province.

Fan is also known in Chinese history as a butcher of dog meat.

There are even records of a happy homecoming for the triumphant, dog-meat-loving Liu after he vanquished his enemies, in a celebration of song and dance penned in the timeless poem Da Feng Ge.

So it is understandable that debate is now heating up over the latest proposed draft of the country's first animal welfare law prohibiting the consumption of dog meat. Fines in the draft will be up to 5,000 yuan ($733) with a maximum detention of 15 days for potential violators.

Like many people in the West, supporters of the draft view eating dog meat as taboo. Heartlessly butchering and devouring man's best friend can be animal cruelty to the highest degree.

But as with many other Chinese habits and practices that usually draw more foreign criticism than they deserve, eating dog meat in China also has cultural connotations and other dimensions that are often overlooked.

Dog meat, as mentioned above, has been on Chinese plates for centuries. From the southern and eastern provinces of Guangdong and Jiangxi to northeastern provinces such as Jilin and Liaoning neighboring the Korean Peninsula, eating dog meat is part of traditional dietary beliefs passed down through generations in these regions.

In other areas, eating dog meat is firmly entrenched in local history and livelihood.

When the latest proposed draft came out, many residents in Shiqiu town of Nanjing, capital of Jiangsu, reportedly flew into a fury - theirs was a town famous for serving dog meat dishes that numerous local businesses depended on. The area had been an impoverished one in the old days and became famous for the food only because residents in the past had to graciously resort to serving dog in hosting guests.

Even so, the habit is now limited to a few areas in the country and is far from widespread.

It is also hard to avoid drawing parallels with the perennial debate over the Japanese consumption of whale meat - a dish that became a staple in post-war Japan after being introduced by its American occupiers as a cheap source of protein, and one that is now marginally eaten by many of the younger generation who see the dietary habit more as a cultural remnant.

Chinese diners who choose to eat dog will also attest to the fact that the meat now comes from lesser breeds that are specifically raised for food and not the household pets that might immediately come to mind for opponents of the habit and animal welfare activists.

Taken as a culturally legitimate food source, these breeds raised for food must then be given the same humane treatment that animal welfare groups advocate for farm animals that make up most of the world's meals.

More importantly, the proposed draft must continue to be open to public feedback so that all these factors and interests can be taken into consideration before any legislation is passed.

Only then can reasonable compromise be made on a culturally sensitive issue at home and abroad.


(China Daily 01/29/2010 page8)