I wrote the following paper for a Cultural Anthropology class taken in Fall, 2018. The purpose of the assignment was to take a controversial practice from another culture, and assess it using one of the core principles of Anthropology: Cultural Relativism. Eg. Avoiding the judgement of a practice or culture by using the values of your own.
Eating Dog: Shining a Light on Culinary Cultural Relativism
Every summer in the city of Yulin, in the Guangxi province of China, thousands gather for a festival that, since its inception in 2009 has drawn the ire of the international community. In fact, since its creation over 11 million people worldwide have petitioned in an attempt to bring this festival and its practices to a close. This celebration, which involves the local population coming together to enjoy traditional plates of lychee fruit, has become one of the most controversial contemporary festivals in the world, but the 11 million people protesting it are not up in arms over the fruit, but rather the protein portion which makes up the traditional plates of this festival’s cuisine. In modern Asia, practices which were once common globally have persisted into current times. This dichotomy leaves us with the greatest example of contemporary cultural relativism that one can think of, with a practice so culturally jarring it leaves even the most rational Westerners lighting their torches and sharpening their pitchforks. I’m talking of course, about the practice of eating dog.
It is beyond doubt that dog meat has at least been occasionally consumed by every culture where it was available at some points in history. Dog meat was even referred to as “Blockade mutton” in Germany during its many points of starvation crisis in the midst of the 20th century. In the years since however, the consumption of dog meat in the West has fallen significantly, and is now seen as a meal of last resort for the impoverished or otherwise truly desperate. In some circles, it is seen as a point of moral superiority over neighboring countries in the East.
But why do people feel this way? What is it about dogs which rile up these defensive feelings? What is it that makes those in the West boil with rage at the concept of consuming dogs as livestock, as they themselves do with so many other animals?
Cultural kinship, for starters.
Dogs are, in many homes in the West (and all over the World), considered to be part of the family. They are the guardian spirits of the home, watching over its daily functions with an eye to detail only possible for a creature whose entire world is made up by the home. They defend this world completely. They watch over the children, and interact with them like siblings. For many children growing up, the family dog is a closer part of their life than even some human relatives. It is due to this hallowed place in the heart of Western identity that people react so strongly to idea of eating canine as livestock meat.
To contrast this Western cultural norm, dog ownership was actually banned during Mao’s cultural revolution starting in 1966. Although this is no longer the case, and dog ownership is now increasing with China’s rising middle class (with 64 million registered dogs as pets), it appears as if this gap in cultural pet ownership history may have had an effect on the Chinese perception of a dog’s place in society. Currently, between 10 and 20 million dogs are slaughtered for consumption each year in China, and although the youth population and some celebrities have increasingly called for bans or a reduction in dog meat consumption, the festival (and other dog meat proprietors) appear to be rolling forward with little regard given to these concerns.
The consumption of dog meat has a long history in Asian cultures, with many folk remedies and traditional medicines citing it as an important ingredient. It is said that eating dog during the summer months can be used to bring health and good luck to a family. Still other myths claim that dog meat can be used to increase the male libido, and combat disease.
China is no stranger when it comes to controversial folk-remedies, with shark fin soup being one of particular notoriety. Served at weddings and other special occasions, shark fin soup is considered particularly problematic due to the massive fishing operations undertaken to fuel its growing market. Often cited as being wasteful and inefficient, these fishing operations have been known to leave sharks to die after having only their valuable fins removed.
Another example of a controversial Chinese folk remedy ingredient is that of the rhino horn. Controversial to the point of being utterly illegal to harvest, China remains the number one importer of rhino horn despite the international taboo surrounding it, and the complete lack of evidence that rhino horn possesses any medical properties whatsoever. Much like with shark fin soup, rhinos are often shot and left to die upon having their horns extracted. There are currently 5 species of rhino on the World Wildlife foundation’s “Critically Endangered” list. The Chinese black-market trade of rhino horn continues despite this.
Given these facts, it is important to place the Lychee and Dog Meat festival into its proper cultural context. Due to the aforementioned examples, it could be argued that animal welfare isn’t particularly high on the list of Chinese cultural values, so a phenomenon such as the Lychee and Dog Meat festival perhaps should not be considered too surprising, or viewed as an outlier on the scale of acceptable activities within China.
One of the greatest arguments against the Lychee and Dog Meat Festival is the frequent claims of animal cruelty it faces. Over 10,000 dogs are slaughtered and consumed during the 10-day festival in late June, with many videos existing of dogs being public slaughtered with clubs. Cats are also consumed at the festival, with the occasional report of either animal being skinned alive, or having their fur burned off using propane torches.
This all sounds extremely harsh, but animals being killed at auction or in marketplace environments is not uncommon in China, or indeed in many other parts of the World. In the developing world is it common practice to have your livestock picked out from a pen, then slaughtered and processed right in front of you. In some ways, this practice can be preferred because it allows the customer to see that the process was undertaken properly, with the feathers plucked and toxic parts or organs removed.
Given all this, the Lychee and Dog Meat festival hardly stands out as anything other than business as usual in regards to contemporary animal rights in China.
Taking a wider lens to this issue, I think its important to think about the status of meat production globally. One of the biggest criticisms of the Lychee and Dog Meat festival is that the animals in question are transported in confined, inhuman conditions, with live animals often stuck in extremely small cages alongside dead ones. But how does this differ to the treatment of livestock animals in the West?
Countless investigative reports and activist videos exist displaying the unsanitary and inhumane conditions of factory farms in the Western world. Transportation of livestock creatures is taken with as much forethought to their comfort as a farmer would have when transporting apples or carrots (That is to say, very little).
Cows are slaughtered with sledgehammers and chickens are eviscerated with saw blades attached to assembly line tracks, all behind the closed doors of fully legal, sanctioned slaughterhouses all over the world. Female cow mothers are kept perpetually pregnant, confined to tight spaces and slaughtered as soon as their bodies are incapable of producing milk. The entire backbone of the global meat industry rests on nothing more than a perpetual, mechanized holocaust for cows and other livestock we deem “appropriate for human consumption”.
One can only imagine the horror that Hindu’s must feel in response for the global appetite to their sacred animal, the cow. My point being is that animal cruelty for the purposes of meat production exists everywhere. Those who feel horror and disgust at the concept of eating cats and dogs should realize that the sympathies generated for these animals in particular are almost entirely culturally bound. Given a different upbringing, they may feel a similar outrage when confronted with the dietary norms which make up the dinner plate of their own culture.
At the very least, when purchasing meat from a traditional market in China, you receive the grounding and macabre benefit of seeing where your food comes from, no matter what it’s made of. Although the practice of eating dog will no doubt continue to horrify and confound outsiders, it is nonetheless a consistent part of Chinese culture, and should not be dismissed as outstandingly cruel given the cultural context from which the practice originates.