By Richard Wesley
Off the top it should be said that I myself see clearly the faults of modern western medicine. The reason why many have been turning towards eastern and holisitic medicine is because it provides a notion of healing based in a concept of the whole organism as well as a bridge between the physical the spiritual (something absent from reductionistic western science). This being the case, it should be said that most who do have an interest in alternative medicine pursue it with a humane system that is based often in notions of respect for life and living creatures. It would be a good lesson for the Chinese or Korean traditional druggist. It should also be noted that this article does not imply that Koreans have no “history of compassion”. Their society, like all others is made up of competing vectors. The dogs of Korea have a long history of Koreans loving and caring for dogs. The problem is that his voice has been often overborne by the shouts of a careless system of superstition
‘Some kinds of Chinese medicine are based on a mere play of words or on some fantastic associations of thought. The toad who has a wrinkled skin is used in the cure of skin troubles, and a particular kind of frog that lives in cool, deep ponds on hillsides is supposed to have a cooling effect on the bodily system. For the last two years the local papers in Shanghai have been full of advertizements for a certain ‘lung-shaped’ plant which is produced in Szechuen and recommended as the cure for tuberculosis. And this goes on in an uninterrupted series until we come to the popular belief that a schoolboy should not eat chickens claws lest he develop the habit of scratching the pages of a book.’
Lin Yu Tang ‘My Country and my People’ (1935)
In the case of dog eating the Chinese have somewhat of a different take than the Koreans – for them dog is good for warming one up in winter while Koreans eat them in summer to give males strength and sexual stamina. When looked at in the light of the above passage, by one of the foremost Chinese thinkers of the modern age, what is presented as an aspect of culture, dogeating, begins to seem more of a case of superstition passing itself off as a science of healing. While one may accept that there is something silly about the whole thing, the assertion is still made that – ‘though it may seem silly it is an aspect of distinct culture and therefore beyond criticism by someone outside of that culture’. But what if it is not an aspect of a distinct culture but a symptom of a universal tendency to design a pseudo-science that brings the internal working of the inside into correspondence with the workings of the equally mysterious world around us. Take for example the Chinese five elements of that compose the being (fire,water,wood, metal, earth). Western medicine had similar notions, the Greeks and the 4 ‘humours’. Certainly if one wants a good example of an alchemist shop in medieval Europe, the present day Chinese or Korean traditional druggist provides a good example. It came as a great surprise to a Korean student of mine when I informed him that leaches were a common method of treating ailments in ‘traditional’ western medicine. Indeed, up until the coming of modern medicine leaches were also used in Korea, replaced only by the similar principle of drawing the blood to the surface used in ‘bu-hwang’. It is really not so much a matter of a distinct culture of medicine as a different era of medicine.
But what may seem silly to us, may be more than just silly, it may be very destructive. When the basis of a healing methods is a distant superstition that nobody even knows the origin of anymore it can become in the modern world a horrible justification for abuse. It is believed that tiger parts give strength. Now every day one tiger dies somewhere in the world. Projections are that soon the only tigers in the world will be those in zoos (and those behind very big fences in zoos). That demand for tiger in Korea and China continues to exist despite the fact that there won’t be anymore tigers soon shows the chaotic ends of supersitious medicine in the modern world.
The torture and eating of dogs and cats is a symptom of a deeper system of adherence to superstition in the name of culture that flies in the face of the needs of people in the modern age to reformulate the relations between people, nature and other animals. Korea was until the last 40 years, a rural country. Most Koreans now in the cities can recall life growing up on the farm. In coming to the city, now Koreans are realizing a changing relation between not only themselves and others but between themselves and animals. The keeping of companion animals , animals who live as part of the family, began only some 20 years ago. The keeping of cats is only now beginning to become popular, toppling the supertition system that has maintained cats as evil (not unlike, again, Europe in the middle ages when cats were associated with witchcraft). The supersition worked well with the dog meat industry. It was also claimed that cat was good for treatment of rheumatism. Now that people are realizing a new value to the cat and are beginning to develop a more compasionate relation, the old, and not so old, superstitions are only dead-weights to the realization of the change.
Many Koreans now recognize the value of dogs and cats as companion animals. What is not, however, recognized is the dangerous contradiction that exists between the superstition system and the modern revision of values and relations. Just as tigers and almost any endangered animal is threatened with extinction by Korean men in search for healings (usually virility), dogs and cats will continue to be regarded as disposable items because of continuation of the dangerous old ideas. Dogs that can be sent to the dog butcher when they are no longer wanted (as is often the case now) doesn’t contribute to a relation to dogs as beings with their own value. Learning to love and respect animals begins with learning to care and be responsible for companion animals. Koreans have been discovering this new relation, not from a superstition but from a real experience. The problem is that they can’t get themselves free from the power of all these ancient ‘truths’ , and those who propogate them, to make the change real. Certainly legalizing and promoting dog meat will only make the contraditions deeper and give more strength to the past over and against the present.
Superstition may be a colorful aspect of a culture, a link to some more primative time long forgotten. But who would ever argue in the west that because Plato favoured slavery that we should bring it back under guise of it being a cultural tradition? Society moves on, our relations naturally change, and, hopefully, the change is based more in reason and compassion than in superstition. In the case of Korean dog and cat eating, there is a whole silent society waiting to love animals. Opposed to them is not a unique culture of healing and health. Dog eating superstition is based in a familiar pattern of superstitious ideas, similar in both east and west. These are things meant to be grown out of, not maintained forever as if people, and their web of relations to the animals and world around them, never change.