Do Chinese People See Animals Differently? Yes, They Do and Here’s Why

Global condemnation about Chinese eating animals to “nourish life” and using exotic wildlife products to make Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has continued to rise. According to CNN, each year, an estimated 10,000 dogs are killed for meat during the Yulin Dog Meat Festival at summer solstice. Meanwhile, over 1500 different animal species are used in the growing market of TCM, such as rhino horn, musk, donkey skin, bear bile, pangolin scales, etc. The has done enormous detriment and even inadvertently increased threats to the animals, especially certain endangered ones.

The way Chinese see and treat animals is mind-boggling. A number of people are to blame for their insatiable greed for the search of bushmeat and rare species, especially people from southwestern region where geographical location proves favorable for trafficking, killing, and eating such things. However, even many dwellers in those areas feel indifferent to such behaviors. To dispel the myth, we hereby selected four interviewees from Southwestern China, among whom were two Yulin natives, two Yunnan inhabitants – each pair with distinct intentions – and also two youths representing the mainstream voice of a new generation in China. Meanwhile, by comparing how foreigners treat animals, we tried to find out the reasons behind this phenomenon.

Wei is infatuated by dog meat: “No bird flying in the sky tastes more delicious than a quail, and no beast walking on earth smells better than dog meat,” he conveyed to us. Yet he did not eat the meat in summer when the “Lychee and Dog Meat Festival” hit a boom on the Internet and visitors flooded into the city, for the sake of defending the place where he was born and grew up. Dog meat could also help boost male sexual potency. “We are eating the mutts, many of which come from the farm, instead of pets. The animal activists cannot impose the hijacking of morality on us.”

Feng only had a bite of dog meat in his life out of curiosity, and he was shocked to learn that one of his old neighbors cooked the dog that he kept as a pet after it died. The probable reason, he guessed, was because his neighbor had endured the Great Famine when food was scarce in the whole nation and people would eat anything including the outer layer of the tree and even dust in order to escape from hunger. Even when it came to modern times, his neighbor’s fear of not having things to eat was still deeply rooted in his memories, so dog’s meat should not be wasted, regardless of its cause of death. From this, he thought that “people had mixed feelings about dogs. The status of a dog in a livelihood is a bit higher than that of livestock, but it is in essence, a kind of livestock.”

Dog eating is a less major and urgent issue compared to the increasing desire for rare species and demand for TCM produced by endangered wildlife. Having an advanced brain tumor, Ms. Yang could not endure any operation, so she resorted to TCM and extended her life for up to seven years longer by applying musk to the affected scalp for three times, with each day a part, because the musk is said to inhibit the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Mr. Yang’s ideas about local wildlife products were conflicting – he did not advocate people buying these products since it would decrease the number of wildlife, but selling wildlife products remains the main source of income for rural people, so he would buy a few for his reserves as a help to them. In addition, he would invite his friends to have bear’s paws for dinner on important social occasions, but he himself did not eat them.

As to whether these elements of TCM could work, Yu, an experienced TCM practitioner said that it depended on the constitution of patients. As a saying goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Not all eating or taking in medicine can reach the same nourishing or therapeutic effects. Besides, many TCM doctors are strongly against killing animals, and use herbal plants for medication instead. Sun Simiao, King of the Medicine in Sui and Tang Dynasties, did record the usage of certain birds or beasts like rhino horns in his famous work Essential Formulas for Emergencies Worth a Thousand Pieces of Gold, but didn’t include it in the prescriptions. “Wildlife products like bear paw and rhino horn are rare resources, which won’t be applied unless incurable diseases occur,” Yu said. “People blindly accept the rumors passing from one generation to another, using the medicine to treat small ailments.”

Though Chinese are widely accused by killing animals for a variety of purposes, people of younger generation feel intensely pained to see that endangered animals are pushed to extremities by human behaviors. These youths are born after 1980s, receive a decent education, lament for the loss of wildlife and share the same deep concern about the relationship between animals and humans. They critically analyze humans’ behavioral psychology and explore how people can develop better initiatives.

Being a photographer and wildlife lover, Dianna deeply cares about the relationship between humans and wildlife. “Though it was commonly said that rhino horns could be used for incurable diseases, only the last few northern white rhinos remain in the world today. By no means could human beings force them to go extinct. If given the chance, I am willing to sacrifice my life for bringing [the last white rhino] Sudan back to the earth without hesitation in order to keep the species alive again.”

Prof. Mei, a doctor of anthropology, sadly finds that “there is a lack of understanding and respect for nature in modern society, where only human beings are respected while other species are treated only as an affiliate.” When asked about how people should change their attitudes towards wildlife, she believes that “education and social culture play an important role in raising people’s awareness.” For example, the documentary The Cove and the slogan of “No trade, no killing ” have left a deep impact on her and she has educated people around her to stop using wildlife products.

Based on previous interviews, we might get a look at why Chinese treat animals in such a different way. That is a big question, involving numerous elusive factors ranging from history to politics, psychology to living environment.

Surprisingly, after interviewing thirty-six people in this small-scale qualitative research project, we found that the biggest difference probably lies in that most Chinese don’t have a solid religious belief, whereas six out of twenty five foreigners directly claimed that, they as Christians have the responsibility to look after animals. According to Chinese Family Panel Studies 2014 survey, 76.4% Chinese are atheists. Without the constraint and force of an almighty god, people tend to feel that animals are distant from their lives, focus on the immediate effects and care little about the consequences. As Feng and Prof. Mei indicated, they see animals as a kind of livestock that might end up the meat in their mouth, or as an affiliate of human beings who can make them into anything they want.

A lack of religious faith also leads to an unconstrained habit of diet, and thus resulting in an uncontrolled hunger for a variety of things, especially those hard to come by. Dog meat and bear paw provide a glimpse of some Chinese’ unusual taste. Mr. Yang pointed out, “there are two kinds of people who would consume – those who are curious about unknown things and who crave for the rare things. The less these animals, the more they want to eat.” Whereas in a country where religion is an essential part, people conform to the rigorous eating discipline in order to keep their cleanness. For example, Christians can only “eat any animal that has a divided hoof and that chews the cud.” The discipline in eating, in most of the time, prevents devout disciples from wishing for more exotic parts from the animals.

Geographical disconnection to wildlife and nature is another major reason. For the past 40 years, China has experienced a massive economic boom, and by the end of 2017, 59.4% of the total population lived in urban areas, a dramatic increase from 26% in 1990. The isolation between humans and nature has gradually increased. Consequently, James, a rhino caretaker, said that “many people fail to appreciate wildlife by not growing up seeing them,” and it is often these people that tend to pay for wildlife products.

In addition, Chinese’ lack of awareness in wildlife protection also lies in not having a proper formal environment education. In China, nature study is a mandatory course that lasts for a year or two at primary school. In junior school, the course is included in geography and animal biology. Such a curriculum is not enough for raising students’ environmental awareness.

By Danyun Xiong, Chuanxi Yang, and Jiyao Zhang

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