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Skinning a snake
Snake eating is especially popular in Shanghai and Guangdong Province. According to one survey over 6,000 specialized restaurants in Shanghai serve snake dishes made with pit vipers, cobras, freshwater snakes and sea snakes. These restaurants serve up to 4,000 tons of snake a year. One Shanghai supplier, who provides two tons of snakes daily to restaurants, sells cobras for $14 a kilogram and pit vipers for $42 a kilogram.

Snake meat is often referred to as dragon meat on the menu. Many of the snakes served at Chinese restaurants come from the Snake Repository in Wuzhou, Guangxi Province, where more than one million snakes are raised each year. The repository is favorite tourist attraction for Chinese tour groups from Taiwan and Hong Kong who sometimes have special snake versus cat fights staged for them.

Snake eating is nothing new. Describing the practice in Canton in the 1320s, the Friar Oderic wrote: "There be monstrous great serpents likewise which are taken by the inhabitants and eaten. A solemn feast among them with serpents is thought nothing of." An often-repeated joke goes that if Adam and Eve were Chinese, they would have eaten the snake instead of the apple.

Websites and Sources: Unusual Food photos Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Good Academic site on regional cuisines ; Food Guide ; Travel China Guide Wikipedia article on History of Chinese Food Wikipedia ; Books: “Beyond the Great Wall; Recipes and Travels in the other China” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Artisan, 2008) features travel stories, political analysis and recipes from Tibet, Xinjiang, Guizhou, Inner Mongolia and other places off the beaten track in China.

Snake and Crocodile Restaurants in Guangzhou

Tourists who order snake in southern China often are treated to watching the poor reptile killed, skinned and drained of blood right before their eyes. Snake dishes offered at the Snake Restaurant in Canton include fricasseed snake with cat meat, snake breast meat stuffed with shelled shrimp, stir-fried colorful shredded snakes and braised snake slices with chicken liver. The bill for four people is often less than $30. [Source: Lonely Planet]

The Flying Dragon Snake Farm in Panyu (near Shenzen) serves snake skin with peppers, snake semen liqueur ("good for a person with a weak body"), baked cobra and five-step snake ("take five steps and die"). The farm also features a snake stage show, sells snake-based traditional medicines, and has a cobra petting zoo, a bath with hundreds of snakes and a snakatorium that offers "extended snake-diet therapy.”

The owner of the immensely popular snake farm is Chin Lung Fei, the self-proclaimed "King of Snakes. He told National Geographic that his motto is "treat snakes as friends." A Hainan Island food stall vendor who specialized in snake delicacies should have followed this advise. He was killed by poisonous bites to his hands from the heads of two snakes that he had just been beheaded. The bites were inflicted when the vendor tried to pick up the heads.

Crocodile is believed to cure coughs and prevent cancer. It is available steamed, braised or stewed at the Yuim seafood restaurant in Guangzhou, were crocodiles with their jaws taped shut roam the restaurant’s floors. A manager at the restaurant told National Geographic, “People don’t care about the cost. They just care about health.”

Zisiqiao: China’s No. 1 Snake-Producing Village

Zisiqiao, built along the edge of a canal about 200 kilometers (120 miles) from Shanghai, is a tiny snake breeding village that employed hundreds of people to breed three million snakes a year. The town has been an unlikely centre of China's snake industry for nearly four decades. It is dotted with small factory farms and its "snake culture" museum is a tourist attraction. Snakes form part of the village's informal economy, with families keeping them in backyard holds to sell to restaurants or traditional medicine traders. Dead snakes are preserved in jars at a snake farm in Zisiqiao village In Zisiqiao, snake breeders need a permit. Breeding normally begins in April or May, Winter is the off-season. [Source: David Stanway, Reuters, April 8, 2020]

Royston Chan and Aly Song of Reuters: “This sleepy village nestled in the heart of vast farmland in China's eastern Zhejiang province hides a deadly secret. A step into the homes of any of the farming families here brings visitors eye-to-eye with thousands of some of the world's most feared creatures — snakes, many of them poisonous. Cobras, vipers and pythons are everywhere in Zisiqiao, aptly known as the snake village, where the reptiles are deliberately raised for use as food and in traditional medicine, bringing in millions of dollars to a village that otherwise would rely solely on farming. "As the number one snake village in China, it's impossible for us to raise only one kind of snake," said Yang Hongchang, the 60-year-old farmer who introduced snake breeding to the village decades ago. "We are researching many kinds of snakes and the methods of breeding them." [Source: Reuters, Royston Chan and Aly Song, June 20, 2011]

In 1985, Yang started selling snakes he caught around the area to animal vendors. He soon began to worry that the wild snakes would run out and thus began researching on how to breed snakes at home. Within three years, he had made a fortune — and many other villagers decided to emulate his success. Today, more than three million snakes are bred in the village every year by the 160 farming families. Yang has now started his own company to make his business more formal and build a brand, and also to conduct research and development for his products, which range from dried snake to snake wine and snake powder. "Our original breeding method has been approved and recognised by the province and the county. They see us as the corporation working with the farming families," Yang said. "So the company researches on the snakes and they hand them over to the farms for breeding. They said this model was working very well." The original breeding method was simply putting males and females together, but now meticulous research is done on how the snakes breed, how to select good females, investigation into their diet, and how to incubate eggs so survival rates rise.

Snake Business in China

According to Reuters, before the coronavirus pandemic, China traded 7,000-9,000 tonnes of snake a year, and intensive farming may have enhanced the transmission of parasites and other infectious diseases, a study by Wuhan University published in December, 2019 said. The study looked at snakes collected from Wuhan’s seafood markets, including the one blamed for the coronavirus pandemic. “However, Yu Xuejie, professor of the School of Health Sciences at Wuhan University and one of the study's authors, told Reuters, that he did not believe snakes were the origin of the coronavirus. [Source: David Stanway, Reuters, April 8, 2020]

Royston Chan and Aly Song of Reuters: ‘snakes are renowned for their medicinal properties in traditional Chinese medicine and are commonly drunk as soup or wine to boost the person's immunity. With rising demand for snake products from restaurants and medicine halls due both to rising wealth and a government push for breeding the animals to be used in traditional medicine, Zisiqiao villagers are now boasting a annual income of hundreds of thousands of yuan per year. [Source: Reuters, Royston Chan and Aly Song, June 20, 2011]

Yang Xiubang, 46, has been raising snakes in his home for more than twenty years and said his annual income has been steadily rising. "The demand for traditional Chinese medicine is quite high in China," he said. "After we finish producing the dried snake, most of them are sent to medicine factories. This also includes snake livers and snake gallbladders." Yang added snake products from the village are currently being exported globally to countries such as the United States, Germany, Japan and South Korea. Closer to home, snake products from the village are sold in the bustling Zhejiang city of Hangzhou, where the Hangzhou Woai Company offers a plethora of goods including snake powders. "Each part of the snake is treasured," said store manager Gao Chenchang. "China has a strong snake culture, there are a lot of people — like in Guangzhou — who like to eat snakes." With such a special product, Zisiqiao's million dollar business is the envy of other rural communities. But Yang Hongchang said competition is stiff from other breeders who are rearing snakes on a larger scale than his village.

In addition, rearing the snakes comes with obvious risks. The snake farmers said they had been bitten, some by deadly snakes, and were saved only by injection of anti-venom medicine. Yang Wenfu, 55, gave up rearing species of venomous vipers after being bitten by one of them earlier in his career. "After that, I no longer dared to raise vipers. I am still scared today," he said, adding that his arm grew hugely swollen after the bite. "Life is valuable and making money is secondary."

Zisiqiao Forced To Stop Snake Breeding Because of Coronavirus

After the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, Zisiqiao was forced to scale down — if not shut — its snake breeding operation as coronavirus due to a wildlife trade ban. David Stanway, of Reuters wrote: “Since China began frantic efforts to curb a coronavirus epidemic in late January, residents of Zisiqiao have had to come to terms with a ban on wildlife trading, its lifeline for decades. Rows of wooden slats that housed the captive reptiles stand empty, and abandoned. The Chinese character for "snake" has even been removed from the sign on the front wall of a specialty snake meat restaurant on the village's edge. [Source: David Stanway, Reuters, April 8, 2020]

“In Zisiqiao, snake breeding permits were cancelled in January.“"In the village now, there's definitely no one breeding snakes, " said Yang Heyong, a 71-year old former breeder. "It must be because of the epidemic. Zhong Nanshan (China's top medical adviser) has already said it is related to bats and snakes!"

“Animal welfare organisations have welcomed China's wildlife ban, including the snake farming restrictions, and are urging the government to make it permanent. But no species should be singled out for blame, they said. While some residents of Zisiqiao said they expected restrictions to be relaxed once the crisis ends, government officials insisted they were permanent, and even if new licenses are issued later this year, the criteria will be far stricter. “At the end of the epidemic, it still won't be permitted, " said Lu Jinliang, vice-chief of the local village Communist Party. "They will have to switch professions, raise other species."

Image Sources: Weird Meat blog except skinning the snake, Perrechon, Wiki Commons and rat restaurant Asia Obscura ; YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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