“Do Chinese people eat dog?”
This is a question I got the moment I started writing about Chinese food. And it continues to be a dominant inquiry in the broad discourse on Chinese cuisine.
When I hosted a Reddit IAmA in late-June about Chinese food, the question came up again. Over and over again, in fact.
I’ll bite though.
The answer is yes. There are people in China who do eat dog. But before the proverbial pitchforks are brought out, consider this for perspective:
The majority of Chinese people have never eaten dog meat and don’t want to. And while roughly 10 million dogs in China are slaughtered each year and consumed, note the population of China, at 1.4 billion—that’s four times the population of the United States.
The people who eat dog are very much a minority in the country. A 2017 survey found that 69 percent of mainland Chinese have not consumed dog, and that most of the people who have done so did it accidentally. Even in the Chinese town of Yulin, which has become notorious for their annual dog eating festival, dog meat does not constitute a significant share of the total meat consumption among locals.
This isn’t an attempt to justify nor vilify the practice of eating dog. I must note my personal biases first—as someone who is Western-born and raised, I could never eat dog.
But I understand why people do.
In the West, dogs have always been pets. The Chinese relationship with the dog is a lot more nuanced though.
In 2011, I was in Guangxi on a study abroad trip and stumbled upon a butchery in the middle of a wet market. Along with the regular repertoire of pigs and cows, there were dog and cat carcasses. Skinned dogs hung from the ceiling with their mouths wide-open.
Some of my peers ran out in tears, traumatized from the very sight.
The rest of us stayed; we forced ourselves to. At the butchery, there was no difference between the pig, the cow, the dog, or the cat. Everything was edible meat, meant to turn a profit for the vendors. We were told there was a preference for short-haired dog breeds. The people that were selling dogs were especially reluctant to have their pictures taken because of the overarching stigma that accompanies their job.
While the experience left many of us reeling, and unwilling to eat meat for the rest of the day, the vividness of it all brought up an interesting perspective: in the West, dogs have always been pets. The Chinese relationship with the dog is a lot more nuanced though.
“Unlike Westerners who consider dogs as ‘man's best friend’ and companions, Chinese people have only ever kept watchdogs or hunting dogs, along with those to be eaten,” noted a 2014 opinion article in Xinhua, a Chinese state news agency.
In addition, dog is a traditional Chinese food with alleged medicinal benefits. It’s considered a "warming" food said to increase blood circulation. It’s typically eaten in hot pot in the frigid winters, which is why it’s a more common practice in the north where it is mostly consumed by the elderly.
Pet ownership was very uncommon in the past.
Up until the late 1980s, dogs as pets were rarely seen in cities too, in part thanks to the country's Cultural Revolution in the middle of the century. During the communist movement, pet ownership was seen as bourgeois and people did not legally hold canines as pets.
That tide is quickly changing though, as pet ownership is increasing within the country. According to the China Pet Products Association, there are 50 million registered dogs in the country. Pet ownership is growing at 15 percent a year.
In a 2015 Chinese survey, 90 percent of respondents said they were concerned about the consumption of dog. Nearly half believed the practice should be illegal. Both Chinese government officials and local citizens have publicly rallied against the practice, often citing the animal cruelty that comes hand-in-hand with the practice.
“It might be difficult to draw a universally accepted line as to what animals should be eaten,” the Xinhua article states. “But when there is already a vast variety of meat, maybe it is time to stop serving dog. Maybe it's also time to take a less strident tone against dog meat lovers, and to educate them to see a companion rather than a meal.”
The stereotypes we perpetuate
It is the stories that we listen to and tell that shape our perspective of a country. In my career as a Chinese food writer, I’ve consistently been bombarded with the dog-eating question. It’s widely used as an ad hominem attack against Chinese people as a whole.
The conversations surrounding dog-eating are so loud and so impassioned that they have managed to stereotype an entire country’s citizens, who account for roughly 20 percent of the world's population.
Some Ecuadorians eat guinea pigs. Some Scandinavians consume reindeer and moose. Some Americans and Canadians eat bear. These unconventional proteins are not at the center of the culinary conversations of these respective cultures. Certainly not for latter three, at the very least.
People have a tendency to see Chinese people as a monolithic mass.
Many people have a tendency to see Chinese people as a monolithic mass, and the problem of obsessing over this fear-mongering topic are the stereotypes that result.
It is also not up to the West to be a moral compass for the East. Yes, animal cruelty is an undeniable issue that goes hand-in-hand with dog consumption. Because of the lack of oversight and regulation, many dogs are kidnapped and slaughtered in horrendous conditions.
But ponder the living conditions of meat animals in the West, who undergo just as egregious conditions.
Pigs in the United States spend most of their lives living in the equivalent of a coach airline seat. Chickens are so stressed that they have to be debeaked so that they don’t peck each other to death. Factory meat farming in the States has also created the largest marine dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which has completely obliterated marine life.
So to everyone asking about Chinese people eating dog:
Yes, dog eating exists in China. But the next time you feel compelled to bring up this topic to a Chinese person as a conversation starter, some points to remember:
- It’s easier to point fingers at another culture and fixate on their supposed transgressions, than to address similar, more pertinent issues within one’s own borders.
- That’s racist.