On China’s Illegal Wildlife Trade, Ethnocentrism, And Culture

VICE documentary China's illegal animal trade 1

Patrick Brown is a professional photojournalist who has spent the last twenty years of his life documenting all facets of the illegal sale of endangered animals in Asia. Driven by his life’s passion, he has recorded all sorts of travesties committed upon animals for the sake of profit, and compiled a book of photographs called “Trading to Extinction.” He is considered an expert in his field.

When VICE chose to do a documentary on animal exploitation, Brown was a natural choice to be the on-camera lead. A crew followed him to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, as he visited one of the largest illegal animal trade markets in the world…

Like any other tourist. And as a tourist would, he explains the Chinese consumption of endangered animals in terms that are black and white:

What drives the industry is naivety and greed. Naivety in the sense of lack of education regarding what the health benefits from some of these products do.

Perhaps Brown — who lives in Thailand — doesn’t understand Chinese culture very well, and he’s entitled to his opinion, but labeling Chinese “naive” is to adopt a morally superior position in which the Chinese are “children” who must “grow up” and adopt the moral standard of the West.

I wouldn’t expect any journalist to be completely objective; furthermore, I agree that some Chinese’s cavalier, wholesale attitude toward the environment is detrimental. What I don’t agree with is the kind of foreign investigative journalism that encourages ethnocentrism while disparaging its subject, leaving viewers or readers no opportunity to confront related issues within their own society.

To be fair to Brown, he has firmly said that he isn’t an animal activist; he is a photojournalist who wants his pictures to do the talking for him. Other Western journalists, however, are much more direct in their accusations.

VICE documentary China's illegal animal trade 2

There is another VICE documentary called “Prostitutes of God” regarding child prostitutes in India called devadasi, sanctioned sex workers ordained by a religious temple. Reporter Sarah Harris concludes in the middle of the film that “this religious ritual is just a justification for poor families to pimp out their daughters”; meanwhile, Harris’ interviewees admit that they want to do this job rather than go to school because they want to feed their family the requisite two square meals a day. When explained the origin story of the goddess Yellamma numerous times, Harris flat out rejects it as “never being able to understand it” — you know, someone else’s faith-based beliefs.

In a recent Jezebel story about the immense popularity of plastic surgery in South Korea, writer Dodai Stewart describes the photos of women who have had the procedure as “show[ing] a burning desire to fit inside a very narrow scope of what’s seen as beautiful. It’s not about what’s inside, it’s not about character, it’s about an artificial ideal.” The old stereotype “you Asians all look the same,” in Stewart’s mind, is transformed into “you Asians actually all want to look the same.”

Outraged white middle class: while this news sounds outrageous to you, as offended as your sensibilities have become, they happen for a reason. At the risk of de-sensationalizing a story, a reader’s deeper comprehension and understanding of these reasons is a gateway to accepting another culture — and thus coming off that high moral ground from which a smug, accusatory finger can be wagged.

VICE documentary China's illegal animal trade 3

Animal cruelty has been all over Chinese news lately, but when people read about the atrocities, they don’t want their indignation to be supplemented with understanding and therefore negated. Anger is visceral, and it’s easy; taking a nuanced look at the values of another culture also makes it difficult for one to justify his or her own cultural shortcomings.

Many Western readers don’t want to hear about the Chinese worldview in which man occupies the balance between heaven and earth and of which everything has a rightful place in the universe – whereby animals of all kind are relegated to a secondary plane. Man’s role in the universe is so established that it was a (god among) man, Houyi, who tamed the heavens by shooting down all but one of the seven suns that scorched the earth, thus making it suitable for humans to cultivate and thrive.

Neither are Western readers treated to the perspective that the Chinese worldview is still by and large the same as when China was under feudalism hundreds of years ago; that the burgeoning middle class of the modern Chinese society did not exist back then, and so now strain the environment and its resources to the breaking point. To put it in a Chris Rock-style sound bite, there are at present too many rich people in China. (What’s a brother got to do to make some money around here?)

VICE documentary China's illegal animal trade 4

It’s almost a shame that Patrick Brown made a great documentary to go along with his condescension. But while he was quick to judge the Chinese for being “naive” and “greedy,” he also introduces a bit of cultural background to help viewers understand why Chinese consume shark fin soup:

A few hundred years ago, people would be invited to a wedding and just the immediate family would have shark fin soup and guests would stand around in awe that they would be able to eat shark fin soup. It was a very sought after delicacy. Now the wedding parties have grown to 300 or 400 people and they all have shark fin soup.

And yet, he remains more critical of Chinese merchants in the illegal animal trade than of Burmese poachers, of whom he says, “This is a way of life for them.”

Listen, Patrick Brown: this is a way of life for some Chinese as well. It doesn’t mean it’s right – it just means that the culture here deserves to be equally acknowledged before it is so easily dismissed and condemned. Furthermore, this means that for real change to happen, the entire landscape of Chinese culture must change to allow for a worldview that can see past its current horizons.

Thousands of years ago, the ongoing Chinese preoccupation with longevity led to an interest in attaining immortality; the upshot of this being kings would eat mercury that was erroneously thought of as “immorality pills”… and die. Well, that changed. Chinese culture does change, but it won’t do so to appease the self-righteous criticism of everyone else.

terroir lives in China and blogs at Sinopathic.


30 Responses to “On China’s Illegal Wildlife Trade, Ethnocentrism, And Culture”

  1. TF

    And there is also an ancient Chinese thought of tian ren he yi, which means harmony of man with nature. This promotes an ecological balance between man and nature. So, isn’t it equally ethnocentric to assume “The Chinese” all have the same world view, or indeed “the Chinese” have not changed this view for hundred of years? – ah, the immutable, unitary, unchanging Chinese! I suggest you guard against your own orientalism while accusing others of ethnocentrism.

    Reply
    • terroir

      “… guard against your own orientalism while accusing others of ethnocentrism.”

      This sounds very encouraging. Hopefully someone will pass a note along to VICE and they will hire me to do a documentary for them.

      Reply
  2. name

    “I wouldn’t expect any journalist to be completely objective”: assumption.

    “Outraged white middle class: while this news sounds outrageous to you, as offended as your sensibilities have become, they happen for a reason”: assuming the reader (you) us white middle class and assuming what you say sounds outrageous (arrogant).

    “a reader’s deeper comprehension and understanding of these reasons is a gateway to accepting another culture”: patronising.

    “Many Western readers don’t want to hear about the Chinese worldview…”: how “many”? sources? patronising assumption again.

    “Neither are Western readers treated to the perspective that the Chinese worldview is still by and large the same as when China was under feudalism hundreds of years ago”: oblivious of a great deal of academic and non-academic literature on the topic. Assuming “western readers” are all ignorant western readers.

    “the Chinese worldview”: essentialist.

    Hey BJC, what is this patronising, arrogant and over-assuming rant? What a shame, this blog is going down the toilet.

    Reply
    • Ick

      I was genuinely annoyed when I first read this piece as I assumed it was written by Mr. Tao, who generally composes thoughtful and balanced posts. So it came as something of a relief to see that it wasn’t.

      To add to your comments, “Perhaps Brown — who lives in Thailand — doesn’t understand Chinese culture very well, and he’s entitled to his opinion, but labeling Chinese “naive” is to adopt a morally superior position in which the Chinese are “children” who must “grow up” and adopt the moral standard of the West.”

      I assume that Mr. Brown is rightfully commenting on the naivety (I would personally call it ignorance) of belief in homeopathic magic; like effecting like. (Sharks don’t get sick therefore eating them will prevent illness).

      “Many Western readers don’t want to hear about the Chinese worldview in which man occupies the balance between heaven and earth and of which everything has a rightful place in the universe – whereby animals of all kind are relegated to a secondary plane. Man’s role in the universe is so established that it was a (god among) man, Houyi, who tamed the heavens by shooting down all but one of the seven suns that scorched the earth, thus making it suitable for humans to cultivate and thrive.”

      I rather wish someone might one day define what manor of creature a ‘Western reader is’ is a British Educated Ghanaian atheist a western reader, or does Mr. Terrior simply use the term as shorthand for the ‘White Man’. Furthermore, perhaps in his dislike for European and Christian culture the author has avoided their histories.

      “So God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on that entire move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand. (Genesis 9:1-2)”

      Seems to possess a passing similarity to his “Chinese worldview”, which I might add to be a rather fallacious statement, given that it is not possessed by many of the P.R.C. citizens in my acquaintance, and is in fact vociferously opposed by a majority of the Taiwanese, Hong Kong and overseas Han whom I judge friend.

      Reply
      • name

        Keep in mind that this is the same guy that used to poison every conversation on Custer’s ChinaGeeks. He’s a professional troll. That BJC publishes this rubbish only proves the deteriorating quality of this blog, or perhaps Tao wants to turn it into yet another passive-aggressive Chinese whining wall. Amen.

        Reply
      • terroir

        “I assume that Mr. Brown is rightfully commenting on the naivety (I would personally call it ignorance) of belief in homeopathic magic”
        ” in fact vociferously opposed by a majority of the Taiwanese, Hong Kong and overseas Han whom I judge friend”

        Traditional Chinese who follow traditional Chinese homeopathic magic = ignorant
        The Westernized overseas Chinese who don’t believe in said magic and reach for an aspirin whenever they feel like a character in a pharmaceutical commercial = they whom I(ck) judge friend.

        Doesn’t leave much wiggle room. Based upon your large-scale willingness to nullify a whole culture, you might as well say:
        “Anyone who runs is a V.C.! Anyone who stands still… is a well-disciplined V.C.!”

        Reply
    • terroir

      There you have it: conclusive proof that someone has read the story all the way through.

      Sirrah, seeing as your internet debating skills are finely honed from picking apart well crafted arguments explaining why the USS Enterprise can beat up the Death Star, be far from it for me to dissuade your Cracker-Jack opinion.

      However, a SEO analysis of your comment turned up some key words you use to refute this essay – all of which could have been avoided had the author had the presence of mind to always use these following phrases: “..kind of..”, “..sometimes..”, “..in a way..”, “..somewhat..”, “..some..” and “maybe/perhaps/I dunno”.

      This, of course, would just water down the original opinion to a limp, insipid run-of-the-mill generic opinion whose milquetoast timidness wouldn’t offend nor inspire anyone. Kind of like the way you’ve picked your internet handle.

      Since you don’t actually say anything about the article’s opinion itself, I’m just going to go ahead and arrogently assume that you agree with my patronizing.

      I will throw you a bone, though: “this blog is going down the toilet” — this well-worn, tired, empty internet cliche so totally true for once. This blog has meandered away from the impossibly high standards of “Acid Dumplings” and will never recover. Just like the New Yorker, it wasn’t too long ago when I read one of its comics and just about completely didn’t understand.

      Reply
    • terroir

      No. The “outraged white middle class” comment was for the readers/viewers of these stories, the main demographic advertised to by the internet, and not the plastic surgery obsessed South Koreans who include puppies in their diet nor the child prostitutes of India who can’t afford illegal animals as part of their two requisite square meals a day. They’re probably out getting plastic surgery and, uh, having sex.

      Reply
      • Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

        What is this white middle class exactly? Describe to me exactly what kind of person you mean. Are left-wing weirdo’s and right-wing wacko’s both in that group? What about people who were poor or rich their entire life and suddenly got into middle class? Do they have to take lessons to alter their world view so it fits in this ‘white middle class’? Are only whites eligible? If someone from the white middle class has more than two Asian friends and eats with chopsticks, is he allowed to have an opinion or do you need some other credentials?

        Reply
        • terroir

          Pig Bile O’,

          nah. Judging from your response, it looks like the term “white middle class” only refers to the people who care to be offended by the term “white middle class”.

          Fun tip: whole wheat bread is more nutritious than Wonder.

          Reply
          • Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

            Fun tip: Write another article on how superior you are. Everyone loves to read that shit.

  3. Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

    Lol, given the previous whiney posts I was actually expecting it to be a Tao post again. Imagine my consternation when I found out it wasn’t. Interestingly enough it now seems that there is some sort of whine-contest going on and terroir seems to have raised the bar. It will be interesting to see who can top this. Perhaps a piece on the Diaoyu/Senkaku-conflict marginalized into a stinking pile of shit presumably all caused by those filthy neglecting Americans? Or perhaps invite some expert who can explain all about HAARP being used by the USA to pollute Beijing’s air?

    Looking forward to your next piece on how we should respect baby-rape to cure AIDS in Africa, because we shouldn’t think that we are any better than people who want to cure aids by raping babies. It’s a time-honored tradition to have sex with babies to cure AIDS, and therefore it is as meaningful and useful to humanity as antibiotics. Notice also how it is always white people complaining about this! They must think they’re so much better than these culturally enlightened people who are just embracing their beautiful world view. This is a way of life for these people. We have to respect that. Respect baby-rape!

    Reply
  4. Big Pile O' Fragrant Roses

    I didn’t mean that last comment. I love these very insightful posts on Beijing Cream.

    Signed,
    Hariti Ambuku MD
    Dept. of Baby-Rape
    Tipitapi Hospital

    P.s. I have enclosed five babies for your good health. Live long and prosper.

    Reply
  5. DSLAM

    Just because people come from different cultures doesnt immunize them from criticism. All cultures have aspects that can, AND SHOULD, be criticized. For the Chinese, this is one of them. Their ridiculous beliefs in the curative powers of animal parts is naive and ignorant and should be criticized to no end until it stops. As humans there should be some universal values and violations of those values is fair game from anyone from anywhere to criticize. Believing in some quaint notion of cultural relativism is also offensive and rather racist. It’s no excuse.

    Reply
  6. WTO

    On the one hand there is the need to have respect for culture and then there is also a need to recognize when some things just don’t work in the modern world.

    A British officer in India had this reaction to the Indian practice of Sati (widow-burning):

    “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

    Sati has some Hindu roots and some say it actually glorified the woman. Possibly, but some things just don’t belong in the 21st century.

    Reply
  7. wafflestomp

    “”but labeling Chinese “naive” is to adopt a morally superior position in which the Chinese are “children” who must “grow up” and adopt the moral standard of the West.’”

    Morally Chinese people do need to grow up. Sorry Tao. Perhaps not adopt the wests morals but at least stop doing shit like watching women get beat and throwing shit at animals.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I need to shit in my own pool, when in rome eh?

    Reply
  8. Jeff Ward

    Very disappointing article. The planet is being destroyed and yet the people all over this planet are being asked to be sensitive and silent because a cultural ignorance is wiping us off the planet. China needs to be shamed for the damage being done. China’s own biodiversity is nearly extinct and now they are importing the practices across the planet (rhinos, sharks, and global warming) at a pace that gives little time left. Time for the world to stand against this.

    Reply
    • Chackie Jan

      I find your comment racist in nature and you should feel bad. China is taking good care of pandas so it’s just a small detail that sharks and dolphins are going extinct. Other countries aren’t saving pandas, so they should sit in the corner and be ashamed.

      Reply
  9. Dan

    I hate pieces like this. I really do. The author is moralizing against others for moralizing, like a worm devouring its own shit.

    Cruelty to animals is wrong. If that cruelty is culturally entrenched, then it’s a cultural fault that should be spoken out against. It doesn’t matter who speaks out against it, be he “white middle-class” or otherwise.

    Anthony, I suggest you write a rebuttal, because I’m mostly in agreement with the other comments — if BJC increasingly publishes articles like this, its quality is deteriorating. I’m not interesting in editorials that remind me of freshman year English.

    Reply
  10. Jack

    This man has been documenting animal cruelty in Asia for 20 years… he most likely knows an awful lot about it, and thus is more than “entitled to his opinion” – he should, indeed, be taken very seriously.

    If a Chinese photojournalist had expressed similar sentiments to Brown, would terroir have taken issue with them? I personally don’t feel the ethnic background of a whistleblower, nor their knowledge of the relative merits of TCM (most of which is rooted in totally sustainable herbalism, and not attacked in Brown’s reporting), has any bearing on his findings. He hasn’t plucked his reports out of thin air – they are supported by countless biologists and environmental groups, of countless creeds and ethnic backgrounds, in most countries.

    To call Brown ethnocentric, and attempt to discredit his research by making value judgements on his value judgements, is to dodge the far more uncomfortable and far less semantic debate he is trying to force us to have.

    Should we, sometimes, sacrifice “culture” for the sake of the biosphere?

    True, “culture” creates the market for animal parts. A market which now, unlike during the reign of the Yellow Emperor, involves a complex industrial chain and the slaughter of rare and endangered species en masse. Whether or not this is an expression of culture is immaterial when the damage is irreparable and permanent.

    TCM was never designed to serve the needs of 1.3bn (much less 7bn and counting), and thus the issue here isn’t its relative effectiveness so much as its impact on the wider environment. Panda brains might cure cancer, or albino narwhal tusks hold the secret to immortality – but nobody is keen to start laboratory testing.

    No tradition should be allowed to stand unquestioned. No researcher, regardless of ethnicity, should have their research dismissed out of hand.

    Reply
    • Chackie Jan

      Excellent comment. Doubt terroir will respond though, as he/she seems to ignore comments that shatter her simplistic view of the world.

      Reply
  11. M

    O.K then. Aside from the intestinal dislike some of our readers have for terrior , what have we learnt today?
    Respect of the photo journalist apart all this will do is make a lot of people who already dislike china add ammunition to mental assault rifles as this is fodder made by a westerner, for westerners. This in turn , if such criticism becomes large enough for some Chinese govt employed wu mao to take notice. will just bring about some puff piece about “thos hypocritcal western dicks are picking on us again” BS and nothing will get done. A few people got to puff their little chests out and be angry is all.
    Real change to attitudes in China can only come from the Chinese making these kinds of photo docs,but as the person who raises his voice in china is often heard wailing late at night under a flurry of kicks and blows this will only be done slowly and cautiously.

    Reply
  12. rageMeh

    Wasn’t the point that cultures(if cultures why not individuals?) decide right from wrong, and that there is no objective right and wrong? In which case it seems impossible for the author to hold to this argument while telling others that it is their duty to do the same.
    The self-righteous moral relativist chastises others for not being as open-minded, but in doing so places him/herself in a position of moral superiority and destroying the original argument.

    Reply

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