The Chinese Monkey Incident: When Should Personal Morality Overshadow Cultural Sensitivity?

If you’re still here out of morbid curiosity, I’ll continue. I don’t write this to be gratuitous in any way. The event I outline below is only to lay foundation for a broader, more important moral and cultural question.

Vagabondish is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Read our disclosure.

The Chinese Monkey Incident

My step-father was telling us the story of how his boss, Dan, flew to China to drum up new clientèle for their wholesale seafood business. His prospective clients treated him to a local restaurant that specializes in very traditional Chinese fare – a variety of animal delicacies. At the conclusion of a dozen or so courses including all manner of mammal, fish, reptile and insect bits, the coup de gras was delivered to the table: a live monkey. The monkey was walked to the dining table, into the center of which a hole had been cut, then strapped to the underside of the table with only its head protruding through the top. Still alive, the screaming animal’s scalp was subsequently sawed off and its brains scooped onto the plates of waiting dinner guests for all to enjoy.

If you’ve never heard this story before, let me be the first to reveal that it’s largely believed to be utter bullshit – an urban myth. My stepfather had never heard the story before, so was naive to his boss’ deceptive tale of travel horror. (For those interested, this site debunks the Live Monkey Brains myth in greater detail.)

The Real Question

My question is this: what if it weren’t BS? What if you were Dan and found yourself in the position of civilized Westerner and guest of live monkey brain-eating Chinese?

Would you simply remove yourself from the table without a word and never look back?

Would you vocally and openly decry the entire situation as barbaric to the faces of your fellow diners and storm out?

Or would you sit there in quiet disgust and chalk it up to just another “cultural difference”?

Perhaps it’s too hypothetical and extreme a question. Let’s take a few relatively tamer examples that I, and I’m guessing many Vagabondish readers, find to be the unnecessary exploitation of animals for the sake of blood sport entertainment.

How about cock fighting? Or bull fighting? Or the Michael Vick incident? These are very real “sports” occurring in countries throughout the world every day. What if, during your travels, a group of new-found friends and locals that you met a few days ago are headed to some animal blood sport match? Would you go, despite your own sense of morality? Or would you decline and risk insulting and perhaps alienating yourself amongst them?

Is it fair to dismiss anything which you might find morally repugnant as “just a difference in cultures”? After all, what gives “civilized” Westerners the right to impose their self-righteous sense of morality on the cultures of “developing” countries?

As travelers, I think we’re generally more accepting than most. But how far is too far for you personally? Or is there no clear-cut boundary at all? When does or should personal morality overshadow any semblance of cultural sensitivity?

I don’t know the answer, but I do think it’s a more complicated question than it might first appear. Truth be told, I don’t know what I’d do in any of the above situations.

Founding Editor
  1. I’ll bite. (See what I did there?)

    I am very much against people eating shark fin soup, which is a huge sign of prestige in much of Asia. You can’t throw a wedding in China, for example, without serving shark fin soup. As China and South East Asia in general becomes more wealthy, there has been a huge upswing in industrial scale shark finning in the last couple of decades – to the point now where a million plus sharks are killed each year, threatening total extinction.

    I have been offered shark fin soup, and I have politely declined, and explained my reasons equally politely for doing so. So far I have been met at worse with a polite nod, at best with a conversation that began with “I had no idea…”. If sharks were being reared and farmed so there was no scarcity, like cows and chickens, I would have no problem with finning. As it is, in the next ten years I will not have much to look at when I go diving because it will all have been caught and eaten.

  2. This is a great question Mike, one that I’ve had difficulty wrapping my head around particularly with understanding gender roles in Islamic countries. Does my feeling that burqah-wearing is inherently wrong or oppressive mean than I’m bigotted or culturally incompetent? Should I write my position off as a biased product of Western rearing, or is it a legitimate belief similar to the those held by Middle-Eastern feminists?

    I feel like too often travelers are scared to turn a critical eye on what lay outside the borders of their home country – this likely leads us to view those nations as “exotic” places where bizarre traditions do and should take place. The irony is we are entirely comfortable criticizing our own nation’s cultural aspects; i.e. I have little reservation in attacking Christian fundamentalists, but I bite my tongue when it comes to Islamic fundamentalists. Why?

    What we should acknowledge is that there is two sides to the coin in every country: in the hypothetical Chinese monkey situation, there would likely be many Chinese animal rights activists who would would abhor such practices. Similarly – in an example from real life – after feeling a bit sheepish for declining to eat dog in Korea, I found out that many Koreans young and old refuse to eat the dish as well. Are they “less Korean” or turning their back on their culture for doing so? Certainly not.

  3. When I was 10 I went with my parents to Guadalajara to meet some long lost familia. There was this goat on their property that I became especially fond of. When it came time for the big welcome feast, I accidentally wandered into the area where my cousins were slaughtering the goat. They strung it up afterward, and I had to walk past it. Same situation happened with the rabbits I had played with. La familia thought my surprise at this was hysterical.

    Come dinnertime, I refused to eat when I made the connection between sentient beings and what was on our plate. My parents were mortified and I embarrassed them for life.

    The birria incident made me a vegetarian when I grew up. Today, would I do the same thing and not eat it? Yes, but instead of pouting and crossing my arms at the table, I’d quietly pass the carne on to my husband’s plate.

  4. Not an easy set of questions.
    In the examples we are in a foreign land and very very far from the ethics/morality of my hometown.And probably quite alone. On the other hand I only have one chance to say something and once that chance is gone it is gone for good.

  5. Thanks to everyone for all the great replies. This is a very real question that’s perplexed me since I started considering a ’round-the-world trip.

    It would appear that the best solution is to simply pass on anything that one finds personally objectionable, but without getting up on a soapbox to blast the “less civilized” around you with a monologue on personal morality. If locals/friends ask why you’ve politely declined, then they’ve chosen to open up the dialogue and it’s appropriate to do so.

  6. I am so glad that monkey brain story isn’t true. I’ve heard it since I was a kid. If I were in a situation like this I would definitely pass. But in a situation such as restaurants where they have the really fresh sushi. Carving up the live fish on the table. I would have to walk out. That wouldn’t be as offensive as if I stayed and shared my true feelings.

  7. I worry when people’s morality changes geographically. It’s possible to hold onto a personal moral code without being judgmental of other cultures. For example: I don’t eat meat, but I don’t think it’s inherently bad. I think there are good and bad ways of treating the animals beforehand, but eating a little meat with dinner is natural. If I go to a restaurant with a foreigner in America, I understand that there will be cultural differences and try to use it as a way to understand other places. I feel that the same is usually true when I’m the foreigner. As long as I politely decline, most people won’t be offended. As for those who are offended, do I really want to spend much time with close-minded people in any country?

  8. Thanks for raising this, Mike. It’s a very tricky question.

    As far as dietary preferences go, I’ve actually always found the idea that you MUST eat all local specialties or risk mortally offending the locals to be kind of, well, patronizing. I’ve been told, as a vegetarian, that if I want to be an authentic and open-minded “traveler” that I have to bend my rules while traveling.

    But if a foreigner with a set of dietary restrictions came to visit me in Canada, and was reluctant to abandon their habits, I would never be offended!

    The same goes (to a lesser extent) to clothing restrictions. It seems to me that there’s an assumption at work, that “exotic” peoples can’t comprehend or accept that anyone might be different than themselves. If “we” can comprehend cultural differences, why can’t “they”?

    I think the key, in all your possible scenarios, is politeness and open, honest communication. Explaining that you can’t or won’t partake because of your own customs is fine; if they ask for reasons, explaining is fine. Storming out, haranguing or passing visible judgment, etc, are not so fine.

    The treatment of women – and where my boundaries lie in situations related to that treatment – is a whole other huge, complex issue.

  9. This is not a difficult one for me at all. And I am shocked that it is for so many. I do extensive travel and for what its worth, if suffering is involved.. I want no part of it. As John Lydon has pointed out so many times Culture is bullshit. Really how can anyone identify with cruel treatment as a culture. It has to change. Sorry I know you want to be sensitive to others but sports with animals are only sports to the people. Not the animals. Sport implies fair and agreed to competition. This is not that – so therefor is not a sport.

    What you eat.. well as humans we need to evolve together. If there is suffering in death, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

    The idea that the more a dog suffers the more tasty it is is crap. It’s an excuse to be a brute and does not deserve polite consideration. I am a human just like the other human who is engaging in a cruel thing.

    Let’s cultivate a culture of humanity not your origins or my origins. Just compassion. My dead relatives did lots of cruel things I would never do. I don’t need to identify with them. I am who I am.

  10. Hi,
    I wouldn’t agree this is a difficult question. It’s very easy one in fact.
    In “monkey situation” I would say – sorry guys, my culture and religion does not allow me to not even take part in it but even not to pretend that you guys ding it.

    Why always it is Westerners who have to be “sensitive”, “aware of diferrence” and so on?

    I am not saying that we should shout aloud: “Back off creepy barbarians”, but I believe we should share our, “western”/”civilized” point of view.

  11. I don’t think this is a very complicated question. If someone wanted me to watch a dog fight, I’d probably just tell them that I’m too soft-hearted to see animals hurt and that attitude is normal in my culture. People are aware that cultural differences exist and they usually respect personal feelings. I suppose there are times when you have to weigh your own personal comfort against sacrifices that people might have made for you — for example, even if I had strong feelings against eating meat, if a host had spent a lot of money to provide a roast, I’d be sure to eat it at least once. For the most part, however, I don’t think you have to do things that make you uncomfortable or violate your morality.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Let's Make Sure You're Human ... * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

Subscribe to Our 'Under the Radar' Newsletter
If you love travel, you're gonna love this!