Since at least the 1990s, the topic of animals has been receiving attention from scholars wishing to explore the relationships between these and human beings in such fields as ecology, archeology, zoology, literature, and history. English-language scholarship in the humanities has explored human-animal relationships in terms of health, animal husbandry, domestication, food, and public hygiene (i.e., William H. McNeill, Virginia DeJohn Anderson, Richard W. Bulliet, Madeleine Ferrières, and Martha Few and Zeb Tortorici). Worthy of special note is JAPANimals: History and Culture in Japan’s Animal Life, edited by G. M. Pflugfelder, and B. L. Walker: this pioneering 2005 work addresses animals’ roles in Japanese cultural contexts ranging from religious rituals and regional identity to natural resources and food production.

Animals through Chinese History: Earliest Times to 1911 (2018) is perhaps the first to explore the significance of human-animal relationships in Chinese history. Edited by Roel Sterckx, Martina Siebert, and Dagmar Schäfer, the book consists of an introduction and twelve chapters, all smoothly written and convincingly argued. In the introduction, “Knowing Animals in China’s History,” the three editors discuss appropriate methodological approaches, ranging from conventional primary sources to researcher imagination. These approaches can help clarify the historical significance of animals to such topics as Chinese governance, environmental transformation, and moral and religious thought.

In chapter 1, “Shang Sacrificial Animals: Material Documents and Images,” Adam C. Schwartz examines specific sacrificial inscriptions on oracle bones of the late Shang period. He focuses on animal sacrifice, pen-raised animals (e.g., oxen, sheep, and pigs), animal taxonomy (e.g., male and female), and traits affecting the economic value of animals (e.g., species and color). This chapter offers a clear overall account of Shang-era animal sacrifice for worship and divination. In a similar vein, in chapter 2, “Animals to Edible: The Ritualization of Animals in Early China,” Sterckx argues that the breeding, managing, and slaughtering of animals from farm to table generated specific meanings related to ritualistic practices. To offer good-quality animals for sacrificial rituals, Chinese practitioners of animal husbandry would oversee a series of comprehensive breeding stages. Effective management of livestock controlled costs until animals were brought to slaughter, which, in sacrificial blood-letting contexts, might be closely associated with royalty and political alliance. Thoughtfully structured and approachable in style, this chapter is a useful examination of sacrificial animals from birth to death.

In chapter 3, “Filial and Righteous Animals in Early Medieval Confucian Thought,” Keith Knapp identifies Confucian distinctions between humans and animals (e.g., virtue, reciprocity, filial piety, compassion, and devotion). Confucian thought held that that even though certain sorts of animals practice the above-mentioned virtuous behaviors, their cognition is qualitatively inferior to human beings’ cognitive engagement. In chapter 4, “Walking by Itself: The Singular History of the Chinese Cat,” Timothy Barrett and Mark Strange chronologically explore the roles of cats in historical Chinese texts, including feline-themed Buddhist texts. These roles often had medical and allegorically sociopolitical overtones. After the Song era, literary references to cats played up their roles as pets, mice-catchers, and keys to divination. Chapter 5 shifts from cats to insects, as David Pattinson, in “Bees in China: A Brief Cultural History,” chronologically explores the roles of these pollen-collecting creatures in Chinese history. Initially, before the emergence of beekeeping, Chinese culture represented bees as cruel, poisonous, and dangerous. As Chinese understanding of bees expanded, the cultural depiction of bees switched from negative to positive. Specifically, bees became associated with politics, since bees work hard to produce honey and diligently defend against external threats.

In chapter 6, “Where Did the Animal Go?” Francesca Bray notes several approaches to understanding animals’ emerging and receding significance in historical Chinese treatises. The main argument of this chapter is that the cultural factors shaping China’s livestock are key to understanding how agricultural treatises addressed them. In chapter 7, “Animals as Text: Producing and Consuming ‘Text-Animals,’” Martina Siebert argues, in a highly theorized manner, that a genre of writing (“pulu” writing, roughly translated as “treatises and lists”), produced knowledge about animals: some of this knowledge involved a remote, indirect understanding of animals that authors repeatedly regenerated in texts era after era; by contrast, some of the other knowledge involved a close, direct understanding of animals derived chiefly from personal observations. In chapter 8, “Great Plans: Song Dynastic Institutions for Human and Veterinary Healthcare,” Dagmar Schäfer and Han Yi argue that, by the Song Dynasty, the veterinary business had reached a level of maturity at which farming, the prevention and control of epidemic disease, the training of animal experts, and animal-related institutions were all unfolding with considerable efficiency.

In chapter 9, “Animals in Nineteenth-Century Eschatological Discourse,” Vincent Goossaert, using the contents of morality books, discusses why and how eschatological discourse emerged in nineteenth-century China in association with exhortations to refrain from killing animals—an exhortation that, if ignored and violated, would likely result in unparalleled human disaster. In chapter 10, “Reconsidering the Boundaries: Multicultural and Multilingual Perspectives on the Care and Management of the Emperors’ Horses in the Qing,” Sare Aricanli stresses the significance of horse management in the Qing era by incorporating Qing-era institutions, people, animal medicine, and linguistics into a cross-dynasty study. In chapter 11, “Animals as Wonders,” Zheng Xinxian examines Qing-era writings on deer and falcons to shed light on the interactions between Qing emperors and Han Chinese scholars. Finally, in chapter 12, “Reforming the Humble Pig,” Mindi Schneider discusses changes in contemporary China’s pig industry and pork consumption. In particular, she stresses that state regulation, modern industrial pork, public heath, and food safety have together molded the pig-related industries in twenty-first-century China.

It is after a thorough reading of this book that I say that it is a truly high-quality endeavor that deserves a great deal of attention from any scholar interested in the history of Chinese food, animals, and human-animal relationships. First, it offers cross-dynastic and cross-regional perspectives on the evolution of human-animal relationships in Chinese history. Second, each chapter sets out solid arguments pertaining to these relationships’ associations with social, cultural, and political aspects of Chinese culture. Third, the primary sources cited are very rich and the arguments put forward by the authors are compelling. Indeed, I would argue that this book has opened new and creative channels for conducting research into the history of human-animal relationships in China. This broad field of inquiry—from diet and nutrition, traditional Chinese medicine, and the arts through to environmental changes—deserves much greater attention now and in the future.