Ask Mei

Man’s best friend?

What Chinese people think of pets

Man’s best friend?

Q: What do Chinese people think of pets? (Female reader, USA)

Pets (宠物) are a relatively new phenomenon, at least in urban China.

When I was growing up in a major city in Northeast China in the seventies and early eighties, I never saw anybody own a pet (if we don’t count fish and birds). The reason was simple – people could barely feed and house their own families so there was little economic means or incentive to keep a pet.

Take my own (three-generation) family of six as an example. Our main staple throughout the 1970s consisted of coarse corn bread, sorghum, potato and cabbage. All protein products, including tofu, were strictly rationed. My childhood birthday treat was a hard-boiled egg. Besides lack of food, we were also short on living space. My family lived for 10 years in a 12-square-metre room in a Soviet-style apartment building that served as our living room, bedroom, dining room and study. We shared the kitchen and a toilet with another family in the same unit.

Things improved dramatically after Deng Xiaoping initiated reforms in 1978. Our dinner table got fuller with better food. And our living space was doubled in the mid-eighties when we moved into a new two-bedroom apartment equipped with our own kitchen and bathroom.

Fast forward 30 years. Things in China are almost unrecognisable nowadays, at least in the economic sense, with glittering skyscrapers, massive apartment blocks, choked highways and roaring high-speed trains.

You also see many people walking their pet dogs in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. But one interesting observation I have is that most of the dog owners are relatively young retirees (the retirement age in China is 60 for men and 55 for women unless they are senior government officials, who retire five years later).

This is easy to comprehend because most city dwellers in China only have one child per family. So when they reach the retirement age, their only children are either in university or have just started working and not yet produced grandchildren for them to look after. Conversations with many of these retirees confirmed my belief. They also say they treat their dogs as their second child because they feel lonely and unfulfilled.

I do see some young people with dogs and cats as well but they are mostly young and well-educated professionals who prefer to own a pet than having a baby.

Now you may ask why fewer families with young children own pets in China. The reason is also simple. The “little emperors” (the nickname for the only child in each family) command the upmost love and care in each family. And many Chinese view animals with suspicion as they are perceived as unpredictable, unhygienic and even outright dangerous. That’s why they tend to keep their youngsters away from animals, including dogs and cats.

One recent personal experience is illustrative. I was hiking in Hong Kong with my family and a British friend who owns a handsome golden retriever called Freddie. When we passed a three-generation mainland Chinese family, the grandmother was so startled to see Freddie that she immediately grabbed her young grandson and called out in Mandarin: “Look out for the dog! Stay away! This is so terrifying, just terrifying…” When I translated this to our dog-owner friend, he burst out laughing. Obviously he had never heard anybody describe Freddie as “terrifying”.

Another interesting phenomenon is that with the rising number of pet owners in China, more people have adopted Western views, such as dogs being man’s best friend. As a result, there have been increasing clashes between animal lovers and those who traditionally view “animals as food”. In recent years, many dogmeat festivals across China have been challenged, boycotted and even cancelled (see WiC243). And since the start of last month, guide dogs have been allowed on Beijing’s subway trains. So if you are an animal lover, you should feel happy that pets are steadily winning over the Chinese these days (in some cases, perhaps to an extreme degree; see And Finally).

A native Chinese who grew up in northeastern China, Mei attended an elite university in Beijing in the late 1980s and graduate school in the US in the early 1990s. Over two decades she has worked in the US, Hong Kong and mainland China, both in the media and with two global investment banks, where she has honed her bicultural perspective. If you’d like to ask her a question, send her an email at [email protected]

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