Consuming camels in western China

By Thomas White, University of Cambridge

 

Alashan, in western Inner Mongolia, is on the frontline of Chinas battle against desertification. In recent years this remote, sparsely populated region has entered national consciousness as the source of the sandstorms that have menaced Beijing and northern China with increasing frequency. As in other parts of Inner Mongolia, the government has linked this environmental crisis to overgrazing, and strict stocking limits have recently been introduced. Local herders, most of who are ethnic Mongolians, can no longer rely on the cashmere goat which brought them a degree of wealth in the 1990s. The Bactrian camel, however, is exempt from the strict stocking limits, in an effort to ensure its survival. Its numbers had declined rapidly after decollectivisation in the early 1980s, superseded in its function as a beast of burden by motorbikes and cars. Its coarse hair brought in far less money than cashmere.

 

The camels significance has been bolstered in recent years by the local governments efforts to produce a distinct Alashan brand, to encourage tourism and outside investment. In 2012 Alashan was officially declared Chinas Hometown of Camels(luotuo zhi xiang). The local government has sponsored camel culture, including camel races, in which local herders are enthusiastic participants. It has also sought to find novel ways of commodifying the camel, and it is in this context that camels have begun to be marketed as a source of food. In the past, camel meat that found its way onto the market was sold cheaply as beef. In the last few years, however, camel meat has no longer needed this disguise, and now fetches a higher price than beef. This reflects Alashans incorporation into broader Chinese consumption habits. Tourists in China often seek out unusual local delicacies: camel meat in Alashan has thus been marketed as a local specialty(techan). In addition, numerous food safety scandals in recent years have led to an increasing concern among Chinese consumers with the provenance of their food, and a growing appetite for foods marketed as greenor organic. Alashan camel meat gained organic certification at the end of 2014. Through the fears and desires of these consumers, remote pastoral regions such as Alashan are transfigured from zones of environmental crisis into pollution-free rural idylls where the safety of food is ensured by the free-range grazing habits of livestock.

 

Local Mongolians, however, are deeply ambivalent about the consumption of camel meat. Among many herders, camels are regarded as a store of buyan -merit-fortune- whose dispersal herders seek to avoid. Much of Mongolian religion is orientated towards the ritual production of buyan; camels are thus tied in to a broader ethico-religious sphere of value. The affective quality of the relationship between herder and camel is also very important: herders say that they keep camels because they love them. Many camel herders are thus reluctant to slaughter their animals, and avoid eating camel meat. Among some urban Mongolians, abstaining from camel meat serves as an ethnic marker, distinguishing them from Han Chinese. At the same time, Mongolians point with some pride to the organic status of camel meat, and make reference to scientific research on its health benefits. At a time of rapid urbanisation, even those herders who abstain from camel meat see its organic status as demonstrating that the pastoralist way of life exists in harmony with nature, thereby countering the figuring of pastoralism as destructive of the environment. The question of camel meat in Alashan, then, offers us a way to explore the morally charged entanglement of culture, food and the environment in contemporary China.

Photos of Student Fieldwork