CHINESE are renowned around the world for their love of food, sometimes strange food. The SARS outbreak last year led to great criticism of Chinese, especially Cantonese, over some of their unique dining "customs". The condemnation centred on the eating of various animals, especially wild ones, that other peoples could never imagine themselves eating - for example, mice and cats.
"However, that doesn't mean that all Chinese do things the same way," said Jiang Liyang, a gastronome in Shanghai who has been studying Chinese history and dining. "But Chinese people really do lack an awareness when it comes to protecting animals," he said.
People in most regions in China today are eating "normal" food but in ancient times a series of "cruel" dishes were created which did involve the torture of animals. Some of them would astonish modern Chinese.
According to the level of cruelty, nine dishes were on this menu. The cruelest one was when a group of diners sat down to consume the brain of a live monkey.
A small table was prepared for the diners with a hole in the centre, the same size as a monkey's head. The live monkey was fastened under the table with part of its head showing through the hole. The hair on its head was shaved and the skull was cut open. The monkey would begin to squeal with pain as seasonings and oil were sprinkled onto the brain and diners around the table ladled sections of the brain onto their plates. It was considered a delicious dish.
"Chinese people trust in the idiom that 'A thing is valued if it is rare,' so that some thought eating strange and precious things showed their wealth and social status," Jiang said.
People today don't have easy access to this dish any more but a very few still try to eat it in secret, Jiang said.
Another "cruel dish" was eating new-born mice, called "san zhi er" (three screams).
The diners would order mice that had just been born and a plate of sauce. The baby mouse would scream first when a diner seized it with a pair of chopsticks. It would scream a second time when it was dipped into the seasonings and its last scream was emitted as it entered the diner's mouth.
Some Cantonese still eat mice because they believe mouse meat is rich in protein. This was confirmed by Jiang, but he said mouse meat was also dangerous because it contained a lot of bacteria.
"SARS was actually not caused by civet cats but by mice," he asserted. "People in what is now East China's Anhui Province in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) were the first to eat civets."
He recalled that in his childhood around 1949, a Cantonese vendor came to Shanghai, swapping Cantonese dim sum for mice caught by locals.
Painful but tasty
Another "cruel dish" concerned the carving up of a live donkey, a practice, Jiang said, that still persists among farmers in some villages in Henan and Hebei provinces.
The legs and head of a donkey were held by cords fixed to five poles. The diners could choose meat from whichever part of the donkey they wanted.
A butcher would pour boiling water onto the part selected, remove the hair and cut the meat off while the donkey was still alive. The process was similar to an ancient torture called "ling chi", to put a person to death by slow dismemberment.
It's said that Cixi, the notorious Dowager Empress at the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), was fond of eating roasted duck's claws.
The duck would be placed on an iron plate over a fire lit below and the duck would begin jumping as the heat became unbearable. It would also become thirsty and diners would give it soy bean oil to drink so that the claws would be flavoured when cut off for eating.
Cixi's favourite part of the dish was the thin layer of skin on the bottom of the duck's feet. She usually had this dish when eating a hot pot dinner.
Other dishes on the "cruel list" included "zui xia" (shrimps in alcohol) where the "drunken" shrimps were eaten alive and "feng gan ji" (wind-dried chicken) where the belly of a chicken was opened while it was alive and its insides removed and seasonings inserted.
Chinese seemed to be willing to go to any lengths to obtain a delicacy. Jiang said that one ancient dynasty was even overthrown by soldiers lured by a list of delicious food that the rebels would serve them after victory.
"People in Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong and Guangxi in the south are used to eating strange things," Jiang said.
One of the most famous was the Cantonese soup, "long hu dou" (tiger fighting with dragon), made from cat and snake meat which were nicknamed "little tiger and little dragon".
The Yunnan people used to eat a sort of paste made from the eggs of ants. It has been proved that eating ants can be good for the health but the dish looks disgusting.
"We used to believe that wild animals were more tasty than domesticated poultry or pigs. It's not true. There was a greater possible of spreading viruses among people," Jiang said.
However, he believes that the torture of animals was never part of mainstream Chinese cuisine as sometimes alleged by Westerners.
And the West is not entirely innocent either. "Western people who like goose liver are also guilty of badly treating geese, force-feeding them continuously to fatten only the liver," he said.