How easy it was for 19th century colonialists to regard all street dogs from Constantinople to Peking in the same, unflattering light. American missionary Arthur H. Smith had this to say about Chinese street dogs in his most well-known book amongst readers of English (both foreign and Chinese alike):
“The Buddhist religion is responsible for the reluctance of the Chinese to put an end to the wretched existence of the pariah dogs with which all Chinese cities are infested, yet the trait of character thus exhibited is not so much Chinese as Oriental. Mr. J. Ross Browne, who was once Minister from the United States to China, published an entertaining volume of travels in the East, adorned with drawings of his own. One of these represented what appeared to be a congress of all varieties of lean and mangy dogs, which was offered as ‘a general view of Constantinople.’ The same cut would do good service as a sketch of many Chinese cities. The Chinese do not appear to experience any serious discomfort from the reckless and irrepressible barking of this vast army of curs, nor do they take much account of the really great dangers arising from mad dogs, which are not infrequently encountered. Under such circumstances, the remedy adopted is often that of binding some of the hair of the dog into the wound which it has caused, a curious analogy to the practice which must have originated our proverb that ‘the hair of the same dog will cure.’ The death of the dog does not seem to be any part of the object in view.”
Arthur Smith, Chinese Characteristics (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1894) p. 136.
The picture that Smith references is reproduced below. A pity that neither Browne nor Smith, writing decades later, found it worthwhile to unpack the motley composition of a very interesting looking group of dogs. Rather, their own prejudices compelled them to Orientalize, homogenize, trivialize, and ultimately to dismiss a scene which no doubt could have revealed a radically different conception of how dogs have long been an organic element of their own environments, with fortunes and vicissitudes determined by human interference — whether native or colonial.
When I read these anecdotal encounters between imperialist men and foreign dogs, the language is often so thick with ideological bias, I can’t help but to regard it all as fiction. By fiction I don’t mean writing which is false, but rather, an imaginative account that situates and embeds an author in a particular time and space, even as they purport to be offering transcendent, ahistorical facts. As a matter of habit, I am suspicious of anyone who relies on the authority of facts to speak unaided. For behind every such act of “objective” documentation, there has always been a person — the objectifier who selects and crafts their textual, visual, phonographic or other evidence, transforming it from the merely true to the real.