China’s wild animal markets are by no means unique

‘We might suppose that Wuhan’s animal markets are part of a uniquely Chinese tradition, leading up to the current plague. But the facts do not allow for such clarity’

Wild Life
Menu of a wild meat restaurant in Wuhan market, where civet, bamboo rat and other animals were sold (via Weibo)

The droppings of a cormorant, mixed with lard and applied nightly to the affected part, can treat a disfiguring red nose caused by a lifetime of excessive drinking. That at least is the cure recorded in a great Chinese Materia Medica assembled over 27 years in the late 16th century by Li Shizhen. In 50-odd volumes he assembled knowledge accumulated in many centuries, and the work is still used by some today.

In the 1930s Dr Bernard Read of the Peiping (now Beijing) Union Medical College published a part translation of Li’s compendium with an updated commentary. My wife discovered it in a Beijing bookstore in 1974 and since then its volumes on bird and other animal drugs have provided me with fascinating glimpses of early Chinese zoology. When the coronavirus erupted from the wildlife section of a Wuhan market, it seemed worth looking to see if Li Shizhen or Dr Read might have some light to shed.

They did, first by showing that Wuhan’s markets have form in this respect. An 1871 study quoted by Dr Read stated that trichinosis (a roundworm infestation that can lead to pneumonia) “has been found to the extent of two per cent in the pigs of the Hankow [i.e. northern Wuhan] market”. 

Li Shizhen himself linked trade in wild mammals to Wuhan’s province of Hubei, stating that in the 5th century hedgehogs were especially collected for medicinal purposes in the province. Read added that when he was writing, 1,400 years later: “Central and South China have quite a trade [of hedgehogs] through Hankow.” These hedgehogs, Erinaceus amurensis, closely related to our own Erinaceus europaeus, were still on sale in the Wuhan market when it was closed in January. Live hedgehog cost 18 yuan RMB; hedgehog meat only 8.

So Wuhan’s animal markets have a long and significant history and we might suppose that this is part of a uniquely Chinese tradition, leading up to the current plague. But the facts do not allow for such clarity.

We have become alarmed at the sharp recent decline of our hedgehogs. It may be tempting to contrast our concern with Chinese medicinal or culinary use of the animal, yet I heard as a child how “gypsies” in my part of the country baked hedgehogs in balls of clay so as to peel off their spiny skins before eating them. Larousse Gastronomique states that the animal is “regarded by some people as very good to eat”. Hedgehog appears in medieval Italian recipe collections. Official London pharmacopoeias of the late 17th century include fat rendered from hedgehogs in their lists of medicines. So we long shared and have not entirely abandoned the Chinese attitudes to the hedgehog as a source of food and medicine.

The same goes for other species. Li Shizhen does not solely describe the value of cormorant droppings. He also lists the excrement of eagles, peacocks, chickens (to heal cracked nipples), Tree Sparrows, swallows (for mouth sores), Bean Geese (mixed with human semen, for painful burns), and pigeons (for itching ulcers). Is this ancient medicine with purely Chinese characteristics? No. Peacock droppings and those of chickens, geese and pigeons are all listed in the 17th-century London pharmacopoeias. 

As for the birds themselves, there is nothing quite so bizarre in Li Shizhen as the
attempt to treat Charles II’s very ill consort Catherine of Braganza. On October 19, 1663, Pepys recorded in his diary that the Queen had (live, cut-open) pigeons “put to her feet”. She recovered. The “cure” survived in Britain and France into the 20th century. In 1900, according to the Pall Mall Gazette, it had quite a following in Paris. For meningitis, for example: “The head of the patient . . . is shaved, and then the breast of the (freshly-killed) pigeon is ripped open by the operator, and the warm and bleeding carcass immediately applied to the bared skull.”

I rest my case. The Chinese tradition is not unique or uniquely bizarre. In the developing world, ancient remedies and diets survive among subsistence farmers while Western practice has taken over in the urban moneyed populations. In the developed world traditional habits have been forgotten, and now incite scorn. In places like China and India both ancient and modern systems survive together. With the growth in human population and pressure on dwindling wild habitat, hunger for “bush meat” in Africa, ruthless Western methods of rearing poultry and the brutal carelessness of Chinese markets have all recently caused outbreaks of lethal disease.

In China this will change. Covid-19 has been a political near-death experience for President Xi Jinping. He cannot admit that fear of reporting bad news played a part so he has attacked the other cause. On February 3, Xi told a meeting of the supreme Chinese Communist Party body: “We have long recognised the risks of consuming wildlife, but the ‘game industry’ is still huge and poses a major public health hazard. No more indifference! I have given instructions on the subject.” Three weeks later, China’s legislature banned “the illegal trading of wildlife and . . . the consumption of wild animals.” Since then, 20,000 farms raising civets and other creatures (hitherto encouraged by the authorities) have been closed down, and hundreds of arrests made.

The new measures are temporary, do not include all species, and leave medicinal usage untouched. But they will reinforce a second factor. Public taste for wild animals, never as strong in north China as in the south, has been waning and many of the young now regard it with aversion. So the threat to man from the squalid and dangerous contemporary Chinese form of an ancient global practice will be reduced. The threat to wild species from their exploitation as medicines for humans may not be.