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Dogs are known the world over as man's best friend. But in China, dogs are also eaten as food. Looking past the oftentimes offensive stereotype regarding the treatment of canines in Chinese society, how does Chinese culture view our four-legged friends?
Dogs in Chinese History
We don't know exactly when dogs were first domesticated by humans, but it was probably more than 15,000 years ago. Studies have shown that genetic diversity among dogs in highest in Asia, which means the domestication of dogs probably happened there first. It's impossible to say exactly where the practice began, but dogs were a part of Chinese culture from its very genesis, and their remains have been found in the country's most ancient archaeological sites. This doesn't mean that dogs of that age were particularly well cared for, though. Dogs, along with pigs, were considered a chief source of food and were also commonly used in ritual sacrifices.
But dogs were also used by the ancient Chinese as helpers when hunting, and hunting dogs were kept and trained by many Chinese emperors. Several breeds of dogs were developed in China, such as the Pekingese, Shar Pei, and Tibetan Mastiff.
In more recent history, dogs were common in rural areas, where they served in part as companions but mostly as work animals, performing functions like shepherding and assisting with some of the farm labor. Although these dogs were considered useful and often given pet names-as is true for Western farm dogs-they weren't generally considered pets in the Western sense of the word and were also considered a potential source of food if the need for meat ever outweighed their usefulness on the farm.
Dogs As Pets
The rise of China's modern middle class and a shift in attitudes about animal intelligence and animal welfare has led to a sharp rise in ownership of dogs as pets. Pet dogs used to be quite uncommon in Chinese cities where they served no practical purpose because there was no farm work to be done-and they were banned in many urban areas in the early 1990s. However, today dogs are a common sight on streets in Chinese cities nationwide, partly because of the health benefits of dog ownership.
China's government hasn't quite caught up with the modern attitudes of its people, though, and dog lovers in China face a few issues. One is that many cities require owners to register their dogs and forbid the ownership of medium or large dogs. In some cases, there have been reports of overzealous enforcers confiscating and killing large pet dogs after they were ruled illegal in local law. China also lacks any sort of national laws regarding animal cruelty, meaning that if you see a dog being mistreated or even killed by its owner, there's nothing you can do about it.
Dogs As Food
Dogs are still eaten as food in modern China, and indeed it isn't particularly difficult in major cities to find at least a restaurant or two that specializes in dog meat. However, attitudes towards the eating of dog vary widely from person to person, and while some consider it just as acceptable as eating pork or chicken, others are vehemently opposed. In the last decade, activist groups have formed in China to attempt to stamp out the use of dog meat in cuisine. On several occasions, these groups have even hijacked trucks of dogs bound for the slaughter and redistributed them to proper owners to be raised as pets, instead.
Barring a legislative ruling one way or the other, China's tradition of dog-eating isn't going to disappear overnight. But the tradition is less important to, and often more frowned-on by, the younger generations, which have been raised with a more cosmopolitan worldview and have had more exposure to the joys of owning dogs as pets. It seems likely, then, that the use of dog meat in Chinese cuisine may become less common in the years to come.
Sources and Further Reading
- Feng, Yanyan et al. "Prevalence and characterization of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus pseudintermedius in pets from South China." Veterinary Microbiology 160.3/4 (2012):517-524.
- Headey, Bruce, Fu Na, and Richard Zheng. "Pet Dogs Benefit Owners' Health: A 'Natural Experiment' in China." Social Indicators Research 87.3 (2008): 481-493.
- Koiviola, Zhanna. "China's love-hate history with dogs." GB Times, June 13, 2016.
- Zhang, Han et al. "Antibodies to Toxoplasma gondii in Stray and Household Dogs in Guangzhou, China." The Journal of Parasitology 96.3 (2010):671-672.