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I remember a few months after I wrote my 2007  Vanity Fair piece on the famine in the remote Indian tribal state of Mizoram that comes every 48 years due to an explosion of the jungle rat population due to the flowering of the particular single species of bamboo that covers most of the state and produces a protein-rich, avocado-like fruit which the rats devour, so the males stop eating their young, and their population explodes, and the rats then eat all the crops of the Mizos (see Dispatch #43 , “The Rats Are Back”), I read about an unrelated rat population explosion  in central Hunan, China, due to a succession of mild winters  (i.e. global warming) and rising floodwaters, plus the extermination of most of their natural predators, which was quickly contained because everybody in the afflicted region simply ate the rats. It was the main dish at restaurants and on family dinner tables for months.  The Mizos, on the other hand, are squeamish about eating rats.

When I was in Guangzhou, the former Canton and China’s ivory carving and trading capital, I learned that there is a special market for cats. You pick your cat and they kill it and butcher it on the spot for you to take home and eat, and another one that specializes in wild animal meat like snakes and rats. There is an expression that the South Chinese eat anything with wings except a plane and anything with legs except a chair. I asked Grace Gabriel, the head of the Beijing office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) about this curious ominivorousness and she emailed,

“Tracing Chinese cultural history back a few thousand years, respect for nature and compassion for other beings are values that have been cherished in religious beliefs, as cultural heritage and guiding principles. The concept of ‘living in harmony with nature’ was reflected in art, literature and up until the beginning of the last century, China still had rich biodiversity in many regions. People lived sustainably with the long term view of leaving something for future generations. Unfortunately, the political turmoil of the last hundred years in China have decimated most of these beliefs. Wars, foreign invasions and occupations, civil conflicts and then Mao political movements stripped away basic trust between people, compassion and empathy and long term view. Today, there is no dominant religion in China. The society is ruled by one principal only: Make Money for Me. On the way to make riches for oneself, there is no concern for anything including other people and the environment, let alone animals. Unfortunately what was the depiction of one group of people ‘eating everything in sight’ [the South Chinese] is adopted by a lot more people now. And Chinese have the ability to travel all over the world now. Especially in countries where law and order are not well established these Chinese feel that they can eat anything. With elephant ivory, there are some laws which may have deterrence effect. But to animals such as dogs and cats, there is no law in China that protect them. So, in addition to the demand reduction campaign to end wildlife trade, IFAW has been involved in research and draft of an anti-cruelty legislation in China, in the hopes that the law can cover companion animals as well.

As to eating giraffe’s bone marrow, it couldn’t be traditional medicine as there are no giraffes in China! There is a saying about eating whatever part of the animal helps the same body part on a person. This saying quite often is taken very literally, I am afraid.

Big sigh…

Grace”

This summer I was on the Sasha Show, which airs on an NPR station in Fort Myers, Florida, and the host, Sasha, asked me if the omonivorusness of the Chinese had anything thing to do with the famine during Mao that killed some 30 million. Wouldn’t wild animal  have been seen as a windfall of protein not to be passed up ? Good question, and a lot of wildlife was probably preyed on during the famine that wouldn’t have been otherwise, but the omnivorousness seems to go back many centuries.

This September I was in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, and I got talking a Chinese man from Singapore who was staying at my hotel. He was in the palm oil business, which is decimating Borneo’s rain forest, but was a gentleman of some culture and refinement. I asked him about this unfortunate ominivorousness, and he said it goes back to the ancient emperors, who were always trying everything and anything, in their effort to stay young and vigorous and to find the secret of immortality.

This jives with a communication from Susan R. Weld, a scholar of ancient Chinese law at Georgetown University : “There are a number of studies on eating in Chinese history and culture – always very important.   Excavated medical recipe texts from the early Han (second century BC) show that ideas of medicine had changed sharply from reliance on bribeable spirits to consumption of subtly assembled and blended medicines to restore health or prevent disease.

Some of the medicines were made from rare and exotic animals, expensive to procure and impossible for ordinary people to get for themselves.   In short, only for the very rich.  This resembles golf in our society, really just an exercise in conspicuous consumption of water, time and land area. It was  an era when conspicuous consumption of human sacrificial victims was another popular way to show off one’s wealth and power to the spirits of the Afterlife.
This style of medicine did not always turn out well for the patients, as the rich are often found in their graves positively stuffed with the toxic medicines/ foods they relied on to cure them of their diseases.  Prime example is cinnabar –
Regardless, I have always thought the costly and peculiar foods like the snake banquet, civet cats, huge living lobsters slowly carved up for the banquet guests before having their carcasses made into soups and sauces, all function in life as forms of medicines carefully combined to readjust imbalances in yin and yang.   In the grave, the same foods may be both a boast and a threat to the spirits – this person should be well-treated.”
A final possibility, whose validity I will leave to the cultural psychoanalysts to evaluate,  is that this eating of wild animals is not only to get the good medicinal stuff in them, but it could subconsciously represent man’s conquest of the natural world, our defeat of the other species,  expressed by literally devouring them. Like traditional people who eat/ate the hearts or livers or brains other vital organs of their enemies (which was also going on in ancient China). Or in the case of the Chinese in Africa, devouring its wildlife could be a symbolic triumphant celebratory feasting over China’s colonization of Africa.
The severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)  provoked by a coronavirus that emerged in southern Chinese province of Guangdong (Canton) in November 2002 and spread globally till stopped in July 2003, after having infected 8,096 people and killed 774, was traced to civet cats that were being sold in a wild meat market.
AIDS was traced to the simian retrovirus SIV. When I wrote my piece about trying to pinpoint the source of AIDS in Africa in l987 (see Dispatch #54), the prevailing theory was that it had crossed over to humans from a green monkey that was butchered and eaten somewhere on the southerwestern shore of Lake Victoria and mutated into the lethal HIV. Now the  source is thought to have been a chimpanzee in Gabon.
There’s no reason to eat wild animals. The bushmeat trade is decimating the wildlife in Africa, even more than the million or so ominivorous Chinese there. There’s no reason to eat animals at all. You can have a much healthier diet and a longer life as a vegetarian. The Chinese have to be made aware of the disastrous impact of not only their ivory consumption, but their cuisine and pharmacopeia. These traditional folk medicines like bear gall bladder and rhino horn (to improve sexual performance) have got to be retired. Rhino horn, which now fetches $40,000 a kilo on the Chinese black market, is made entirely of keratin, the same substance human fingernails are made of. You would get the same effect, and much more cheaply,  by adding a few shavings of your fingernails to your morning coffee. But this devouring of rare and endangered wildlife, as Dr. Weld points out,  is all about conspicuous consumption.At the expense of our fellow creatures. The last wild rhino in Vietnam (the Javan species) was just killed. Please my dear Chinese and East Asian friends, who are such wonderful and civilized people, your adventurous gastronomy evolved at a time when wild animals existed in abundance. Now many species are on the brink of extinction. Could you please think about what you are eating and drop the sentient beings from your menus ? Shark-fin soup, the body parts of of Africa’s incomparable and fast-disappearing wild animals– None of them is necessary. Give them up, we beg you.

The consumption of ivory by China’s bao fa hu or “suddenly wealthy,” which is driving the slaughter of about 100 elephants a day in Africa, isn’t the only problem. When I was reporting my Vanity Fair piece, “Agony and Ivory,” late last year, I learned that Chinese in Zimbabwe are eating wild painted dogs, lion-bone soup, and soup made from the lower legbones of giraffes, and that Chinese in Kenya are buying up the dogs and cats in Maasai villages and wiping out entire troops of baboons local populations of  leopard tortoises. What’s going on with this omnivorousness ? Why do the Chinese have no qualms about eating pretty much anything that moves ?

I remember a few months after I wrote my 2007  Vanity Fair piece on the famine in the remote Indian tribal state of Mizoram that comes every 48 years due to an explosion of the jungle rat population due to the flowering of the particular species of bamboo that covers most of the state and produces a protein-rich, avocado-like fruit which the rats devour, so the males stop eating their young, and their population explodes, and the rats then eat all the crops of the Mizos (see Dispatch #43 , “The Rats Are Back”), I read about an unrelated rat population explosion  in Hunan, China, due to a succession of mild winters  (i.e. global warming) and rising floodwaters, plus the extermination of most of their natural predators, which was quickly contained because everybody in the region simply ate the rats. It was the main dish at restaurants and on family dinner tables for months.  The Mizos, on the other hand, are squeamish about eating rats.

When I was in Guangzhou, the former Canton and China’s ivory carving and trading capital, I learned that there is a special market for cats. You pick your cat and they kill it and butcher it on the spot for you to take home and eat, and another one that specializes in wild animal meat like snakes and rats. There is an expression that the South Chinese eat anything with wings except a plane and anything with legs except a chair. I asked Grace Gabriel, the head of the Beijing office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) about this curious ominivorousness and she emailed,

Tracing Chinese cultural history back a few thousand years, respect for nature and compassion for other beings are values that have been cherished in religious beliefs, as cultural heritage and guiding principles. The concept of ‘living in harmony with nature’ was reflected in art, literature and up until the beginning of the last century, China still had rich biodiversity in many regions. People lived sustainably with the long term view of leaving something for future generations. Unfortunately, the political turmoil of the last hundred years in China have decimated most of these beliefs. Wars, foreign invasions and occupations, civil conflicts and then Mao political movements stripped away basic trust between people, compassion and empathy and long term view. Today, there is no dominant religion in China. The society is ruled by one principal only: Make Money for Me. On the way to make riches for oneself, there is no concern for anything including other people and the environment, let alone animals. Unfortunately what was the depiction of one group of people ‘eating everything in sight’ [the South Chinese] is adopted by a lot more people now. And Chinese have the ability to travel all over the world now. Especially in countries where law and order are not well established these Chinese feel that they can eat anything. With elephant ivory, there are some laws which may have deterrence effect. But to animals such as dogs and cats, there is no law in China that protect them. So, in addition to the demand reduction campaign to end wildlife trade, IFAW has been involved in research and draft of an anti-cruelty legislation in China, in the hopes that the law can cover companion animals as well.

As to eating giraffe’s bone marrow, it couldn’t be traditional medicine as there are no giraffes in China! There is a saying about eating whatever part of the animal helps the same body part on a person. This saying quite often is taken very literally, I am afraid.

Big sigh…

Grace”

 This summer I was on the Sasha Show, which airs on an NPR station in Fort Myers, Florida, and the host, Sasha, asked me if

In September I was in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, and I met a Chinese man from Singapore who was staying at my hotel. He was in the palm oil business, which is decimating Borneo’s rain forest, but was a gentleman of culture and refinement. I asked him about this unfortunate ominivorousness, and he said it goes back to the ancient emperors, who were always trying everything and anything, in their effort to stay young and vigorous and immortal.

This jives a communication from Susan R. Weld, a scholar of ancient Chinese law at Georgetown University : “There are a number of studies on eating in Chinese history and culture – always very important.   Excavated medical recipe texts from the early Han (second century BC) show that ideas of medicine had changed sharply from reliance on bribeable spirits to consumption of subtly assembled and blended medicines to restore health or prevent disease.

Some of the medicines were made from rare and exotic animals, expensive to procure and impossible for ordinary people to get for themselves.   In short, only for the very rich.  This resembles golf in our society, really just an exercise in conspicuous consumption of water, time and land area.   It was  an era when conspicuous consumption of human sacrificial victims was another popular way to show off one’s wealth and power to the spirits of the Afterlife.
This style of medicine did not always turn out well for the patients, as the rich are often found in their graves positively stuffed with the toxic medicines/ foods they relied on to cure them of their diseases.  Prime example is cinnabar –
Regardless, I have always thought the costly and peculiar foods like the snake banquet, civet cats, huge living lobsters slowly carved up for the banquet guests before having their carcasses made into soups and sauces, all function in life as forms of medicines carefully combined to readjust imbalances in yin and yang.   In the grave, the same foods may be both a boast and a threat to the spirits – this person should be well-treated.”
The severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)  provoked by a coronavirus that emerged in southern Chinese province of Guangdong (Canton) in November 2002 and spread globally till stopped in July 2003, after having infected 8,096 people and killed 774, was traced to civet cats that were being sold in a wild meat market.
AIDS was traced to the simian retrovirus SIV. When I wrote my piece about trying to pinpoint the source of AIDS in Africa in l987 (see Dispatch #54), the prevailing theory was that it had crossed over to humans from a green monkey that was being butchered somewhere on the southerwestern shore of Lake Victoria. Now it’s supposed to have come from a chimpanzee in Gabon.
There’s no reason to eat wild animals. The bushmeat trade is decimating the wildlife in Africa. There’s no reason to eat animals at all. You can have a much healthier diet and a longer life as a vegetarian. Someone has to get through to the Chinese about this too.
These traditional folk medicines like bear gall bladder and rhino horn (to improve sexual performance) have got to be retired. Rhino horn, which now fetches $40,000 a kilo on the Chinese black market, is made entirely of keratin, the same substance human fingernails are made of. You would get the same effect, and much more cheaply,  by adding a few shavings of your fingernails into your morning coffee. But this devouring of rare and endangered wildlife, as Dr. Weld points out,  is all about conspicuous consumption.
At the expense of our fellow creatures. The last wild rhino in Vietnam (the Javan species) was just killed. Please my dear Chinese and East Asian friends, who are such wonderful and civilized people,  could you possibly revise your diet and cut this out ?

0 thoughts on “#71: Why Do the Chinese Eat Everything ?”

  1. Chinese diet and fishing methods are also depleting the ocean. Many bait fish are now being used to feed people. Then what?

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