The barrage of information—sensory, cultural, linguistic, emotional—experienced by a Westerner traveling in China can be both thrilling and overwhelming. Depending on your personality and interests, certain things tend to cut through that noise and grab your attention. For me, one of those things is dogs. On our November 2009 trip to China, my traveling companions and I found ourselves taking photos of the dogs we saw in all the different places we went. Although the phenomenon of “toy dog as fashion accessory” is definitely catching on in major Chinese cities, most of the dogs we photographed were living in more rural areas in a more traditional man-dog relationship, which is to say they were not relentlessly groomed and spoiled. In some cases the conditions they lived in were a bit pitiful. Like dogs anywhere else, however, one thing that all of these Chinese dogs seemed to share was personality.

Given the familiar and purposeful way with which he trotted down Dali’s Foreigner Street, the center of night life in the city, this party animal seemed to be running an errand or something. In fact, the more “urban” dogs we saw all seemed to share that sense of purpose and to live faster-paced lives, much like the cities’ human denizens.

Watching this weird-looking dog in Dali, however, really made me sad. A still photo doesn’t do its weirdness justice; the way it moved made it seem somehow broken, or as if a mad scientist had assembled it from leftover dog parts. It was clearly suffering from some kind of debilitating affliction.

These guys were enjoying the sunlight partway up Lijiang’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at White Water River, hanging out with tourists and yaks. They were apparently used to having their pictures taken, as they were uninterested in our presence and utterly nonchalant. Begging for food was clearly beneath them, too, so they also must have been quite well fed. Something about the self-assured coolness of that second dog somehow reminds me of Jack Nicholson or Marlon Brando.

This dog in Lijiang’s “old town” area of Baisha (“White Sand”) hung out with us in the open-air restaurant where we ate, begging for scraps, which it got quite a few of. At first I thought the owners wouldn’t want us feeding it and thus encouraging it to keep begging, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that some people wouldn’t want a dog underfoot as they ate. It didn’t bother us, at any rate. But this dog sure seemed to have a sense of entitlement—it made me feel like a total jerk for even considering not feeding it. A couple of other restaurants we ate at in Yunnan and Guangdong also had dogs hanging around, and they actually lent a certain charm to these places. Reminded me a bit of the dog lying on the bar at Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar in Bandera, Texas, a “dude ranch” town I used to frequent as a kid.

a cute puppy in Lijiang, China a cute dog in Shuhe Old Town, Lijiang, China
A cute puppy in Lijiang
(photo by CIT’s Tracy Liu)
Another cute dog in Lijiang
(photo by CIT’s Tracy Liu)

I don’t even remember seeing these dogs that Tracy, a friend working in our Shanghai office, got photos of, but they’re cute little fellows.

This dog in Shuhe, our favorite “old town” area of Lijiang, on the other hand, made quite an impression on us and probably a lot of other tourists, too. We all agreed that this is one homely pooch, clear proof that “ugly” is an international language. It’s no Sam, mind you, but not very attractive. Since it seemed like a nice dog, though, I’ll refrain from talking any further smack about it. Poor guy.

a friendly dog wagging its tail at Xianggelila (Shangri-la), China three toy dogs pulling a cat in a patriotic chariot during Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China
Mmmm…gimme some more o’ that!
(photo by CIT)
(photo by CIT)

As you can see from its blurry tail, this dog roaming the streets of Xianggelila’s Old Town was quite pleased, presumably because it was being fed.

These poor dogs were pressed into service to pull this preening, pompous pussycat in its own chariot—a flagrant perversion of the natural order, in my caninocentric opinion. But far stranger stuff than this goes down in Shanghai.

a classic Chinese dog raised for food in Shaoguan, China
In memoriam: Rover
(photo by CIT)

I’ve saved the most tragic dog for last. This dog that we met briefly in Guangdong seemed like a perfectly serviceable companion—healthy, apparently well behaved, and even reasonably good-looking. As we passed by, our local tour guide made a comment that this dog would “上桌子,” which literally means “go up on the table.” You can probably guess what he meant, but I unthinkingly and naively replied with something like “Oh, lots of dogs have a tendency to jump up on the table.” Foolish foreigner. What he meant, of course, was that the poor dog was destined to be someone’s dinner. As I understand it, in many places in China dogs are generally not eaten, but Guangdong is one of the exceptions. Man’s best friend, indeed. Although I try not to be culturally judgmental, I must admit this is one practice that seems just barbaric to me. On the other hand, if you don’t see anything barbaric, you’re not really traveling. That should be a saying. In any case, rest in peace, O Tasty Rover.

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