Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Chinese, food and cruelty

SBS is currently showing a 4 part documentary on Wednesday evenings called "The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World". Last night was episode 2.

I missed part of the first episode, so I'm not sure where in China it is, but the place is truly gigantic. (It can seat 5,000 customers.)

The show is by turns fascinating and (when it comes to treatment of animals) pretty horrifying to Western eyes.

First, the fascinating part. The show seems to give a pretty good insight into the psychology of many Chinese, and if last night's episode was anything to go by, it paints a pretty bleak picture of a materialistic society very obsessed with money. Sure, much of the population was grindingly poor until very recently, so a concern with money is understandable from that point of view. But still, it's not a good a look.

It also indicates that it will be a very unhappy society if lots of people stop making money in the economic downturn. My scepticism as to the successful future of China remains.

The animal cruelty issue was on display in both episodes. Last week, it was the dish where the live fish has its body cooked in boiling oil with its head held out, so it can be served on the plate with its mouth moving. OK, so it's cold blooded; it looks gross to me, but I won't get too worked up about seafood eaten while half alive.

But last night there was a brief scene of a chicken being scolded in boiling water while still alive. The dish was served with the head on, but still I can't see why the scalding and feather removal has to start while it is alive.

I do not understand why the Chinese seem immune to Western ideas of animal cruelty. In Congo Journey, a book I am currently reading, an America watching the way some pygmies kill an antelope makes the observation that it is only with the farming of animals, which involves caring for their welfare, that people start to worry about animal cruelty.

Nice theory, but it doesn't seem to have worked with the Chinese!

Harry Clarke had a post about this topic earlier this year, but none of the comments really enlightened as to why the Chinese don't seem to feel for animals in quite the same way much of the West does.

Still, a lot goes on in Western farming without being noticed. Chickens have a pretty miserable life here too, but at least a quick death.

Same with pigs. The cages they use to stop pregnant sows moving for months at a time while pregnant are (I reckon) just indefensible from a cruelty point of view, and it's only lack of knowledge in the community that hasn't led to the practice being rejected earlier. (The sow can stand, and sort of lie down, but not turn around. It is stuck in that position for up to 4 months. Can you imagine the uproar if dogs were allowed to be confined in that way?)

I see that a website (presumably industry funded) that defends the practice is careful to avoid any photos. A stop to the practice was one of the propositions successfully passed in California recently.

So it's not as if the West is completely cruelty free. Still, it seems hard to imagine the Chinese even getting interested in such issues, and I don't know why.

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