But the culinary custom that generates stronger emotion and more opposition than any other is the East Asian custom of killing and eating dogs.
“Man’s best friend,” many people say, should never end up on someone’s dinner table.
On Friday, Chinese and international animal rights campaigners presented an 11 million-signature petition — their largest yet — against an annual dog-meat festival due to take place this month in the southern Chinese city of Yulin.
Some 30 million dogs are killed across Asia every year for their meat, with more than a third of that number in China, campaigners say. Thousands are set to be slaughtered in Yulin for the festival, which starts June 21. Opponents say pets are stolen and strays rounded up for the festival, before being beaten to death in slaughterhouses.
Communist China has long had an ambivalent relationship at best to the idea of keeping pets. During Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, the practice was denounced as elitist and bourgeois. During the preceding Great Famine, of course, peasants would eat any animal they could lay their hands on.
But in increasingly modern, middle-class and urban parts of China, a growing number of people own dogs and cats. Eating them — and indeed consuming other “delicacies” such as shark fin soup — is becoming increasingly controversial, with young people, in particular, latching on to the idea of animal rights.
Campaigners also cited “numerous violent clashes” between pet owners and dog thieves.
A March survey by state broadcaster China Central Television found that 56 percent of respondents would support a law banning the eating of dogs, while 40 percent would oppose such a law.
“China’s dog meat trade is animal abuse and criminality on a massive scale, and a stain on China’s international reputation,” said Peter Li, China policy expert at Humane Society International (HSI), in a statement after presenting the petition to the Yulin government office in Beijing.
Yufeng Xu, founder of Beijing Mothers Against Animal Cruelty called the festival “a total embarrassment to China.”
Defenders argue that eating dog meat is a traditional Chinese practice going back thousands of years and have ascribed a wide variety of health benefits to dog meat, with various parts of the animal being recommended at one time or other to treat rheumatism, benefit the kidneys or the stomach, or even improve a man’s sex drive.
In parts of southern China and South Korea, eating dog meat is thought to help cool people down during the hot summer months.
“It is very hard to get through the summer, so people create this kind of fight-poison-with-poison method to resist the summer heat by eating the ‘hottest’ food,” one resident of Yulin posted on Zhihu.com, the Chinese equivalent of Quora in 2013. “This is part of our local custom.”
“I also want to point out that the dogs we eat are specially raised for their meat. We don’t eat pet dogs! It’s just like people eat carp but don’t eat goldfish!”
But animal rights groups say the Yulin festival was only invented in 2010 by dog traders to boost their profits and has resulted in the illegal and unregulated seizure of many dogs.
In the past few weeks, activists said they had rescued some 500 dogs from trucks on their way to slaughter. “Many of the dogs were pure breeds such as golden retriever and huskies who were still wearing their pet collars,” they said in a joint statement.
Campaigners feel like they are making progress. In 2011, another dog-meat festival in the eastern city of Jinhua was canceled because of an online outcry about cruelty, the New York Times reported.
In a telephone interview, HSI’s Li said the authorities in Yulin had already scaled back the dog-meat festival in response to public pressure and dissociated the government from it, with two slaughterhouses and a dog market closing in recent years.
The Yulin representative office in Beijing accepted the activists’ petition for the first time on Friday, showing they were not as “arrogant” as they used to be, Li said. He said HSI would soon release a survey showing public opinion in favor of their campaign and estimating that more than 70 percent of Chinese people had never eaten dog meat.
On Monday, Chinese legal scholar Chang Jiwen argued in a commentary in Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily that the government should ban publicity for the dog-meat festival and “effectively stop its existence.”
“The dog-meat festivals in Yulin and other places have caused an unfavorable impact on our national image,” he wrote in an article jointly authored with two students, Liu Kai and Guo Shunzhen. As China becomes a developed country, it should meet higher standards for soft power as well as economic power, they argued.
“The nation invests a large amount of human, material and financial resources in improving the image of China globally,” they wrote. “All of these efforts might be in vain because of issues like the ‘Yulin dog meat festival.’ ”
Gu Jinglu contributed to this report.