Wok the Dog: Christmas in China

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As Americans scrambled to prepare for the Christmas holiday, it was time to reflect on the true meaning of the holiday. Things that make the holiday special are not “things.” It’s the time spent together with family and friends and memories made.

This year I will not be with my family this holiday season as I am away working in China, but they are with me in heart. In December, Rongjiang , located in the south-eastern part of China, and where I am living, will soon celebrate its end of winter holiday (Dong Zi), with festivals, gatherings and rituals that include dog-meat eating. Locals say, that eating dog-meat is not only “delicious,” but “good for one’s health” and “keeps the blood warm.” Dog-meat is also consumed in other cities, and not just only in winter time. The southern Chinese city of Yulin, also known as the “Big Market”, is the largest trading center for live dogs, some of which will end up on the dining table, to celebrate their summer solstice with a dog-eating festival. Animal-rights activists estimate that around 10,000 dogs are killed every year for the festival, where they’re consumed along with lychees and grain alcohol. Some dogs are strays while others are stolen pets. Breeds range from Dalmatians to Labradors to Tibetan Mastiffs. This year, some festival-goers started early to avoid the protesters, who didn’t succeed in shutting down this year’s festival but did drive up the price of meat (newrepublic.com).

Many cultures view the consumption of dog meat to be a part of their cuisine, while others consider consumption of “man’s best friend” to be inappropriate and offensive on both social and religious grounds. Especially with cultural globalization, greater international criticism (particularly from Western countries, as well as organizations such as World Animal Protection) has been increasingly directed against dog meat consumption and the torture of dogs caged and farmed for their meat. In response to criticisms, proponents of dog meat have argued that distinctions between livestock and pets is subjective, and that there is no difference with eating the meat of different animals.

As an anthropologist , I have been taught the difference between cultural relativism, understanding a culture on its own terms verses, ethnocentrism, using a yard stick to measure or judge another culture based on one’s personal biases. Further, in the United States, scientific analysis of human feces found at the Cowboy Welsh site in Colorado proves the Anasazi Indians were cannibals. The site dates to about 950 AD. Here, at least 1200lbs of human flesh were processed and eaten. A mask made from the skin of a human face was also excavated from this site.

Native Americans wouldn’t just kill and eat a family, but they’d eat the family dog too. The Sioux, Cheyenne, Paiute, Nez Pierce, and Hidatsa all ate dog until the early 20th century. The Kickapoo were famous for their puppy stew. The Aztecs raised fat little dogs which they castrated so the canines would grow even fatter.

Dog-eating in North America dates to at least 9400 BP. Human feces containing part of a dog’s skull, dog meat, dog brains, fish, bird, and prickly pear fruit was found in Hinds Cave in south Texas. Dog meat has also been used as survival food in times of war and/or other hardships. Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark, better known as Lewis and Clark, led one of the most famous expeditions in American history. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, the Corps of Discovery Expedition was one of the earliest exploratory missions to the Pacific Coast. Traveling across this massive distance required a lot of preparations, in particular food. To understand how difficult and physically demanding the Corps of Discovery Expedition was, you need only look at the amount of food they consumed. On July 13, 1805, Clark wrote: “We eat an emensity of meat; it requires 4 deer, or an elk and a deer, or one buffaloe to supply us plentifully 24 hours.” When wild game was plentiful, each man consumed up to 9 pounds of meat in one day. A few times during the journey, they bartered with Native American tribes for dogs which were used as a meat source (thehistorykitchen.com).

Since living in Rongjiang, I have seen dog-meat being sold in open markets as well as I being offered a meal of dog-meat, vegetables and rice by some proud and smiling Chinese cook, right from his wok. Larry Fine, who is best known as a member of the comedy act The Three Stooges once exclaimed, “Hot dog, when it comes to cooking, I’m the cat’s meow.” I wonder if he’s ever been to China?

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.