What Is China's Current Attitude Concerning Dogs?

In China attitudes toward dogs are complex and varied and have changed over time

Posted Feb 21, 2018

Scarleth Marle photo - Creative Content License
Source: Scarleth Marle photo - Creative Content License

I was standing at a crosswalk waiting for the traffic light to change when a young Chinese woman walked by with a handsome red Chow Chow on leash. One of two women standing near me commented to her companion "You know in China dogs aren't pets, they are just grown and butchered as meat. They even have this mythology that red dogs are better for stewing and black dogs are better for frying." Her friend muttered some words of disapproval about the situation as the light changed and they moved into the crosswalk.

It saddened me to hear that people have so little knowledge about the Chinese attitude toward dogs in modern times. China's relationship to dogs is complex, and it has changed many times over that nation's long history. The archaeological evidence says that the early ancestors of modern Chinese were already keeping dogs during the Neolithic age, which is more than 7000 years ago. The evidence suggests that the dogs were being kept for three reasons, protection, hunting and food.

The protective function of dogs was an important one. It was not uncommon to have dogs tied up near the door of the house, or kept in the front yard, to sound the alarm if someone approached and to deter unwanted visitors from entering.

The use of dogs for hunting was quite common up until around the 10th century and then it declined as more of the prime hunting land was converted to agricultural use. By the time the Ming Dynasty arose in the 14th century, hunting had become mainly a leisure activity enjoyed by the nobility. Hunters often used a now extinct breed of dog known as the xigou, which was related to the Saluki or to the long-haired Greyhound (which is now also extinct). They were used mainly to hunt rabbits and other small game.

It was at this same time that many wealthy Chinese started keeping dogs as house pets, and this is also when we see the first appearance of the Pekingese which ultimately became the favorite lapdogs among the members of the imperial court.

Although dogs were now being kept as pets they also doubled as rat catchers. Some were specifically selected for that job, thus the Chinese Crested was the preferred rat catcher that sailors kept on the ships of that time.

However meat was a rare commodity in feudal China, which drove the Han Chinese in both the northern and southern provinces to eat dog meat. For farmers this was a valuable supplement to their diets which consisted mainly of rice and vegetables. In one account from the 4th century B.C. we are told the story of King Goujian of Yue. He hoped to increase birthrates so that he could recruit more soldiers for his armies. To this end he introduced an edict granting families who gave birth to male offspring a reward. That reward consisted of two urns of wine and a dog to be eaten by the boy's mother to help her recover her strength after giving birth.

Toward the end of the first century the practice of eating dogs began to decline due to the spread of the newly introduced religions of Buddhism and Islam. In both of these religions it is forbidden to eat certain animals and this included dogs. These religions were more widely accepted among the upper classes, and it soon became a social taboo to eat dogs among the higher ranks of society. However in the general population, especially in rural areas, the practice continued.

In more modern times, with the increasing abundance of meat from other sources, and the rising practice of keeping dogs as pets, fewer and fewer Chinese eat dogs. In fact many urban and middle-class Chinese question the morality of killing dogs for meat and there has been a lot of internal controversy focusing on the dog meat festival at Qianxi in Zhejiang Province, and several others around the country.

The practice of keeping dogs as pets began to increase in popularity in China during the 20th century. Unfortunately it met a major setback during the rule of Mao Zedong. In the mid-1960s Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution banned pet dogs, claiming that they were consuming too much of the nation's limited food supplies and were symbols of Western capitalist elites. People who owned pet dogs were publicly shamed, dragged out into the street and forced to watch while their pet was beaten to death. With Mao's demise in 1976 The Cultural Revolution came to a fairly abrupt end and so did the negative consequences of keeping a dog.  

In the following years the practice of having dogs as pets gradually became more prevalent especially in the cities. Furthermore, the way that the Cultural Revolution conditioned people to speak about dogs as "parasites" or symbols of the "bourgeois aristocracy" began to disappear. Now the general population returned to viewing dogs as loyal, friendly, tenacious, and humble creatures. For example, prior to the vernacular language movements of the early 20th century many Chinese used the word quan  (a classical word for "dog") as a way of modestly referring to their family members. After the Cultural Revolution the word quanzi ("the dog son") returned as a way of familiarly speaking about one's male child to others.

In 1979, faced with skyrocketing population growth which looked like it would ultimately outstrip the available food supply, China introduced the "One Child Policy". Under this rule most couples are allowed to have only one child or else face the possibility of fines, sterilization, abortion, and loss of employment and related benefits. Because of the strong human urge to nurture it is not surprising that since restrictions on pets had been lifted, couples began to fill the void that they felt because of an absence of children with the presence of pet dogs.

In 2013 China began to relax the One Child Policy which allowed couples to apply for permission to have a second child. [There were over 12 million applications in the first year.] However by this time it had become a common practice to have pet dogs as companions and many couples kept several. Thus by 2015 the government began to feel that the rising population of pet dogs was a problem and in many regions a policy of one dog per household was instituted. Still the popularity of dogs was such that a substantial infrastructure including clubs and a set of social networks for dog owners had already developed and these persist through today.

My brother, who is the president of a small Canadian college, often travels to China because of cooperative educational programs involving his institution and several Chinese colleges. In the course of one of his trips he met a man who is a member of the Beijing Kennel Club. The club is trying to educate the general population about dogs (and my brother was pleased to tell me that they have copies of a number of my books translated into Chinese in their kennel club library). However he also learned from this acquaintance that the Chinese preferences for dogs is now changing. Instead of the familiar native Chinese breeds, such as the Pekingese, Chinese Crested, Chow Chow, and Shar-Pei, Chinese pet owners have developed a preference for foreign breeds such as Poodles, Pugs and Chihuahuas. It is somehow felt that owning these foreign breeds of dogs is a status symbol associated with affluence and societal position.

An interesting example of this trend is that the native-type Pekingese is no longer favored and is becoming difficult to find in China. Rather the preference is for the Western style Pekingese. The Pekingese which was originally the favorite of Chinese Royals had a relatively short coat which could be multicolored with prominent areas of white, and although the dog had a foreshortened face it was not extremely flat. You can see an example in the left image which is a portrait of Lootie, a Pekingese taken by British Army from the Imperial kennels in the Forbidden City palace complex in Beijing during the Boxer Revolution and given to Queen Victoria. Compare Lootie with the contemporary Western-style Pekingese with its very long and full coat, extremely flattened face and absence of white patches. It is this imported Pekingese style which is now favored by modern dog owners in China and considered to be of higher status and value than the traditional type.

Both images Creative Content License CC0
Source: Both images Creative Content License CC0

It should be quite clear from this brief narrative that the Chinese relationship with dogs is complex and has changed over time. However it seems clear that  one cannot justify the conclusion that the dominant attitude toward dogs in China is that they are merely an alternative source of meat. Dogs in China still have a protective function, there are also service dogs, and dogs that serve as status symbols for some Chinese. However, just as here in the West, the vast majority of dogs in China are pet dogs who are viewed as companions and usually treated as family members.

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