In the Northern hemisphere, June 21 is the longest day of the year. The summer solstice has always had a key importance since ancient times for different cultures and has been celebrated with festival, rituals and dances to honor the sun. In Yulin, a city in the Southern Chinese province of Guangxi, they celebrate this day with an annual dog-eating festival. Each year during summer solstice, it’s thought that 10000 dogs are cooked and eaten in this city of 5 million and a half inhabitants.
This does not mean that you need to take yes as an answer to the frequently asked question “do they really eat dogs in China?”. Over the past 30 years, as the country became more wealthy, meat consumption has increased dramatically, but dog meat is not widely available and is certainly not what you would find on a restaurant’s menu around the country. Eating dogs is a food habit to be found in some areas of the Middle Kingdom and other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Korea, but it is not widespread as someone would think and is gradually disappearing.
Looking at the past, in the 8th century, Pekingese dogs were a status symbol in China, to the point that just people living inside the forbidden city were allowed to raise them; the situation reversed during the communist era, when having a dog was considered bourgeois and Chinese stop keeping animals in their houses, if not to help in the fieldwork. Later on, when the open door policy started bringing some more money in the pockets of middle class Chinese, the habit of having pets was reintroduced, dogs taking the place of those children who were not allowed to be born under the one-child policy.
The habit quickly spread in the big cities of the coast and has amplified in the last few years. It mostly concerns the new well-off middle class, who can afford to spend relatively big amount of money to take care of a pet. Walking on the streets of Beijing, Chongqing or Shanghai, you can now see a lot of shops selling dogs and pet care services, including modish hairstyles and dresses for every occasion. Only in Beijing, there are 1,2 million registered dogs, and the number goes up to 10 million for the whole country. However, the figure is pretty different in China’s internal regions, where the population lives in the countryside and, according to the statistics of the Peking office of World Animal Protection, 25 million dogs are still butchered every year.
With the widening number of middle-class Chinese owning pets, criticism to dog-eating festival is also growing fast. The perception of the population has changed, with a key role played in it by social media. Although it is not illegal to eat dog meat, the Yulin Festival has become a target for the animal lovers – mostly within China – who are against it. In the last few years Chinese activists have done a lot to save dogs; a similar dog-eating festival which used to take place every year in Jinghua was banned in 2011 under the pressure of public opinion.
Supporting the cause, the vice-president of the animal protection association in Xiamen noticed that the Yulin festival is only 20 years old, therefore it cannot be considered an old tradition. Activists are asking the government to introduce a law to define cruel behavior against animals and to push for more strict sanitary controls. According to the Chinese health minister, between two and three thousand people die every year of rabies, this is even more alarming considering that a vast percentage of the dogs eaten at the festival comes from the black market.