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Controversies First Hand: Dogs as Food

It is a stigma China may never shake. Today it is the source of many unfair prejudices and a great number of jokes; the internet’s tubes are filthy with inflamed diatribes, dog-friendly campaigns and slogans, and reports of official attempts to curb the ancient custom of canine consumption.

Coming to China on the proverbial eve of the country’s great coming out bash, the 2008 Olympic Games, we most likely missed the heyday of dog meat.  Perhaps the practice was just shoved into back alleys, away from the typical foreigner haunts, or dealt under the guise of chicken. Or maybe my expectations were bloated – I still imagine street vendors once sold dog paws on sticks alongside stinky tofu, and hung them to dry by their necks, whole and skinned, like ducks. But most of the canines we found were choking only on collars, tongues to the pavement, happy.

Most, mind you. Naturally, a thing so ingrained can not be dug out in any short span of time, and certainly not by way of distant edicts or scattered grassroots efforts (after all, Chinese food has survived countless regime changes and political campaigns). In Yichang, we sometimes passed by dogs undergoing vigorous shampoos, only to find them stuffed into curbside cages the next day – that night’s special. When we asked our students if they had eaten gourou, the answer was a chorus of “Delicious!”  Even if the dogs of the capital have been liberated, enclaves will forever remain. There’s always the notoriously unpicky eaters of Guangdong province. And we all know the golden rule: it’s easier to say things have changed than to actually change them.

However, here in the former capital of Nanjing, dogs seem to reign. If they touch their feet to the ground at all, their owners keep a close, parental watch. Most wear sweaters, and some pants – a few even have shoes. The smaller species can be seen slouching languidly in handle-bar baskets, like royalty in sedan chairs. In some places, old men collect their pooches by setting a wicker basket to the sidewalk for it to climb aboard. Other times, with no vessel at hand, the owners cradle their darlings in their arms.  But as bizarre as these customs are, we have to say that it seems unbelievable that anyone – in this city, at least – would even think of throwing one of these mutts to the wok.

Then again, things are not always what they seem.  And what is a couple square blocks in a city of six million, let alone the country?

… … …

Winter took us south to Vietnam. Ninh Binh, a city not far from Hanoi, is an escape from the fabricated tourist Vietnam, but we were more than wondering if we had inadvertently gone north and crossed back into China – technically, perhaps, we were in a different country, but that seemed to mean little more than the contour of a border line. It was China with a French twist – gray and yellow thin, pointy roofs climbing out like spores from the mud; but from the waist down: China. The wide, mad thoroughfare, pluming exhaust, the same sidewalks of square patterns, garbage in the drains, glaring bright signs on every storefront above sliding metal doors. And the eyes were the same – curious, wary, lewd at times, turning independently in passing heads to follow us as we walked.

It was here that we had a head turning episode of our own. In China, we had seen our share of odd loads attached to bikes: chickens in various stages of the life cycle (alive and clucking, dead and feathered, dead and skinned, etc.); baby pigs snorting their own excrement; and most notably, a bushel of dangling ducks that announced their approached with a symphonic string of disoriented quacks. But what we witnessed in Ninh Binh was so shocking that we did not even think to take out our cameras – so shocking that I can’t manage to adequately build up the situation. So I’ll just get it over with. We saw: a wooden cage strapped to the back of a rickety bicycle, filled – packed with precision – with at least a dozen forlorn puppies. They were absolutely silent.

We stuck to Oreos and french fries that night.

It was actually comforting to return to Nanjing and once again see the dogs stained with hair dye instead of soy sauce. But now something nags at my mind – somewhere at the back, where I can ignore it if I really want. The imagination has its way of comparing things, of drawing correlations and discovering hidden relationships, and I keep coming back to one. To help explain, I’ve included a simple composite sketch, purposefully lining up the two images of concern:

Two bicycles, two containers, each containing one or more pathetic looking dogs.  Is it possible that what we have taken to be love and affection is really just a perverted cover-up for an embarrassing custom?  Is this just the new Chinese equivalent of dressing up your hog for the county fair, while all along its destined for slaughter?  Questions are all I have at this point, I’m afraid.  Let your own mind be the judge.

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