Tabletop Taboo

The close of 2017 brought an end to a turbulent year for dogs in the U.S. and Asia.  September was an especially beastly month, as Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump traded jabs back and forth. Kim compared Trump’s U.N. speech to the sound of a dog barking, and needled with a response to Trump’s threats by saying, “frightened dogs bark louder.” I’ll admit I got some karmic pleasure hearing those insults after well-documented cases of Trump referring to women as dogs.

September was also a stormy time for Chinese and American artists, who likewise found themselves at the center of East-West controversies in the art world and elsewhere. On one end of the spectrum, Chinese artist and human rights activist, Ai Weiwei, made a splash in November by installing an outdoor exhibit in New York sardonically titled, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” a not-so-veiled jab at Donald Trump’s call for an American wall.

On the darker end of the spectrum, the Guggenheim removed an exhibit of Chinese artists called Art and China After 1989: Theater of the World when it drew protests from animal rights activists. Three controversial installations made up the heart of the exhibit: a video of two pigs mating, a video performance piece by Peng Yu and Sun Yuan called Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other (two restrained, muzzled pit bulls on treadmills that appear aggressive, but cannot reach one another), and Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World, in which live insects devour one another (as they are known to do).

While the political and art controversies swirled in the U.S., yet another dog controversy broke out in Shanghai. After a performance in September, Alex Pall of the electronic dance music duo, The Chainsmokers, found himself in hot water over a joke he made when an interviewer asked if he takes his dog on the road. After stating that he’d probably bring his dog anywhere, he qualified: “Well, I don’t know if I’d bring her to China.”

Instant outrage in the age of outrage. Pall issued an apology via Twitter. Ai Weiwei came to the defense of Theater of the World, which he helped curate, and eventually, the real theater of the world moved on. North Korea, of course, is not inclined to apologize. The fact that so many of these cultural and artistic clashes involved dogs (and the 400-year-old cultural convention of eating them) couldn’t be more timely: 2018 is finally here, and it’s the Year of the Dog.

The treatment of dogs and charges of racism associated with eating them have been cultural sore spots between people of Western and Eastern ancestry for years. With the rise of extreme food TV, it appears Western curiosity and outrage over the practice may actually be fueling its increase for the sake of tourism. On the other hand, a good bit has been written on the declining popularity of dog meat in Asia (the usual explanation has to do with an increase in pet ownership). But eating dogs is still so common in many parts of Asia that Marybeth Bond, host of the well-known travel blog, The Gutsy Traveler offers advice on “how to avoid eating dog or cat meat”.

In China, ever conscious of the Western gaze, the government is trying to stamp out the practice, fearing it makes the country look backward. But its failed attempts to shut down the annual, and widely publicized, Yulin Lychee and Dog Festival in Guangxi — a gruesome slaughter of ten thousand dogs during a summer solstice celebration — is evidence of how hard it is to extinguish a centuries-old cuisine. Guangxi’s proximity to Vietnam and historical migration between the two regions explain the prevalence of the custom in this area of China; many say the practice is limited to Guangxi or to rural and under-developed areas. Some polls suggest more than half of China’s population reject the idea of eating dog meat. But here’s the thing. I came across this in suburban Shanghai, not in some rural province, on my way to pay the phone bill.

Dog meat for sale in Shanghai

A Korean-American friend of mine once told me a story of being teased as a child, the claim being that he ate dogs. As an American kid, he didn’t understand the taunt. Later when he asked his native Korean mother about it, she was taken aback but told him, in no uncertain terms, never to talk about it, and yes, Koreans (in Korea) did eat dogs, but in America, it was a source of shame.

I think we all accept that the racially charged “dog-eater” slur (like all racial slurs) has little to do with logic. There’s no meaningful difference between eating a dog and a lamb or a pig – we’ve heard about the intelligence of pigs, yet bacon is still one of America’s universally loved foods. And Asia isn’t alone in eating dogs. Historically, many cultures of the world have used dogs as food. The West continues to be alternately outraged and fascinated by dog meat largely because we humanize dogs in ways that many Asians do not. Americans. in particular, are selective with this tendency, however. People own pet birds, and we still eat birds — and no one is accused of being racist if they say something “tastes like chicken.”

The history of dogs and people is long and intertwined. Dogs are widely considered to be the first domesticated animal species, and they populate both the Eastern and Western mythological and folkloric traditions. In the Chinese zodiac, the dog is assigned practical and useful traits like reliability, desirability, and responsibility (along with stubbornness), but none of the noble traits the Western tradition attributes to canines. And by the way, if your Chinese zodiac sign is a dog, don’t get too excited about 2018; it’s considered bad luck to be in your zodiac year.

Dogs are more than zodiac figures in China, however; they also have a literary history. The Chinese god Erlang Shen, in the classic Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, has a dog companion who accompanies him and helps him fight. In fact, there are many more dogs in Chinese mythology and folklore than in Greek mythology, yet the Chinese don’t give them special dispensation from being consumed.

Certainly, love for dogs is not only a Western concept. There is historical evidence that the ancient Chinese kept dogs as pets. But traditional Chinese medicine also has an ancient history of recommending animal cures, and the Chinese folkloric tradition often bestows power on people who eat animals. In The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston makes the connection between Chinese folklore and the custom of eating comprehensively. Humanized animals do not populate her Chinese mother’s world. Instead, her mother, “a capable eater,” was forever guarding against ghosts and animal spirits: “My mother could contend against the hairy beasts, whether flesh or ghost, because she could eat them,” Kingston explains.

Worst Chinese zodiac placemat ever?

In the ancient Western tradition, The Odyssey is ground zero for some of the earliest literary dogs. Surprisingly, the Greeks have few mythological dogsand none that I know of where dogs are eaten, which is strange given how much time they devote to stories about human cannibalism. When dogs do appear, they are usually eating people — especially dead bodies, disgraced and unburied.

Dogs appear right away in The Odyssey. When Telemachus, immature and insecure, calls a tribunal of the elders to complain about the grasping suitors, he arrives, “not by himself — two swift dogs came with him.” The poet makes clear that Telemachus is not alone in this daunting task, which is a distinction from just arriving with your dogs in tow. Personally, I make a distinction between my canine and human companionship. Homer appears not to.

The best example of the Western humanistic view of dogs in The Odyssey is the death of Argos, a true archetypal canine. In a few short passages over two pages, Argos is imbued with the most elevated humanistic traits: loyalty, love, admiration, shame, sorrow, joy, recognition, revelation. Not only does he wait twenty years for Odysseus to return, Argos recognizes his master despite a disguise! The loyalty of Argos rivals, and perhaps even exceeds, the loyalty of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. That’s as human as you can get:

“So Argos lay there dirty,
covered with fleas. And when he realized
Odysseus was near, he wagged his tail,
and both his ears dropped back. He was too weak
to move towards his master. At a distance,
Odysseus had noticed, and he wiped
his tears away and hid them easily. . . .”

“Twenty years
had passed since Argos saw Odysseus
and now he saw him for the final time –
then suddenly, black death took hold of him.”**

After 3,000 years and tears of devotion, our view of dogs is still the same. Even Anthony Bourdain, who famously ate warthog anus and swallowed a beating cobra heart, refuses to eat dog meat, although he has also argued that vilifying the practice is illogical.

Portrait of Brisco, Moxie’s best friend, and man’s best friend

In a CNN interview this year, Huang Yong Ping, one of the censored Chinese artists from the Guggenheim exhibit, makes note of a Western moral standard — he calls it “adoration of animals” — that the Chinese do not necessarily accept. He claims the Western adoration of animals is really about love of self. It’s about being loved by our dogs. We’ve chosen to love dogs and not pigs or birds.

If Yong Ping is correct and the Chinese really do view dogs (and indeed all animals) differently, that puts a different spin on the Alex Pall incident. In Huang Yong Ping’s context, the accuser (you’re being racially insensitive!), as much as the joker bears blame for making Western moral ideas superior to the views of dog-eating people — the accuser is demonizing the practice by making it unmentionable. Michael Pollan probably wasn’t referring to dog meat when he said, “we also eat ideas,” but he was right. The Western problem with eating dogs is really a problem with eating an idea.

It’s hard to tell if the outrage over Alex Pall’s comment in Shanghai was from Chinese people or Chinese-Americans (or Chinese elites, who are more likely to hold some Western values). Conflicts around topics like this among the Chinese often arise as both the Old World and the New World try to coexist but instead collide. Most of the uproar happened on Twitter, which is banned in China (yet, accessible like all contraband). If there was criticism on WeChat, I didn’t find it, but I don’t speak Mandarin.

I’ve talked to Chinese people in China about dog meat, and despite the fact that dogs are also popular pets in China, more so every day, it’s not something people seem freaked out about (see The Nasty Bites). Certainly, there’s a socio-economic slight implied for some Chinese — it’s a class thing now — similar to joking in America about Appalachians eating opossum, you can only do it if you’re from Appalachia (or western Pennsylvania, in my case). Yet followers of The Shanghaiist blog know Alex Pall was kind of right.

The Chinese are aware that Westerners do not eat dogs. They are aware that Americans have different standards of animal welfare. But we Americans should not fail to notice the irony that it was a Chinese citizen, Ai Weiwei, who argued in favor of free speech in America and against censorship when the Guggenheim pulled its autumn exhibit: “Pressuring museums to pull down artwork shows a narrow understanding about not only animal rights but also human rights,” he said. Was he addressing the PRC or the United States? It’s hard to tell.

Whether China bends to the Western moral code on dogs remains to be seen. In the end, logical or not, I could never eat a dog; I’m Western through and through. But I’m also not outraged at the practice. Humane treatment of animals prior to their arrival on the tabletop is where moral arguments should exist, and we are all culpable on that front. Here’s hoping that 2018, The Year of the Dog, is the source of improved understanding between the U.S. and China.

That’s my dog, Moxie, on the header, by the way. I could never bear to cook up those eyeballs.

“. . . among the many things we eat, we also eat ideas.” — Michael Pollan, Cooked.

*Moxie photo credit: Harmony Button
Quotes from The Odyssey, below, are from this translation by Emily Wilson, published in 2017. This is the first published translation of The Odyssey by a woman.




3 Comments Add yours

  1. Jim says:

    Nicely done. Btw, love Maxine Hong Kingston’s books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you. Hard topic to write about without incuring the wrath of dog lovers (among which I count myself). Current events helped.


  2. Jim Corsale says:

    I like the pun (?).

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s