China is ushering in the Year of the Dog. Until recently, few Chinese regarded the animals as pets and many viewed them just as something to eat. However, as Rupert Wingfield-Hayes discovers, attitudes are changing.
Perhaps the most enduring stereotype about the Chinese is that they are cruel to animals.
One of my earliest memories as a child is of my father telling me stories about his own childhood in 1930s Shanghai.
One of his favourites was about his cook, of how he would watch her skinning frogs alive and throwing them, still twitching, in to a pot of boiling water.
"Oh, how cruel those Chinese are," I would tell myself.
So when I finally made it to China, I was prepared to be horrified.
I was not to be disappointed. Especially, when it came to dogs.
One of my first "China" experiences was in a live animal market in the south.
I stood frozen to the spot as right in front of me a man used a wire noose to drag a dog howling and writhing from an overcrowded cage.
Compared to the grinding poverty of life for so many millions of Chinese, the treatment of dogs seems to pale
In one swift movement he pulled out a huge knife and plunged it into the dog's chest.
Blood spurted everywhere, including all over the other terrified dogs still crammed into the cage below.
Next to me, entirely unperturbed, stood a respectable looking Chinese gentleman, merrily discussing with the dog butcher which bits of the animal tasted best.
Over the years I have become inured to such scenes. Compared to the grinding poverty of life for so many millions of Chinese, the treatment of dogs seems to pale.
It looked like some canine version of Guantanamo Bay
But last week, with the Year of the Dog rapidly approaching, I decided a revisit was in order.
My first stop was a dog farm in the countryside an hour from Beijing.
It looked like some kind of canine version of Guantanamo Bay.
Each cage was barely six feet square.
In the freezing north Chinese winter, the cage floors were a sheet of ice.
I had been expecting Chinese dogs. But to my surprise many were Western breeds, German shepherds, even a St Bernard.
Manically they paced their cages, round and round, one stuck its head through the bars, its eyes pleading, whining pitifully.
In China, dogs are intelligent animals that are also good to eat, much like pigs are in Britain
I thought my presence might spook the proprietor.
Far from it, he told me proudly of how he had imported the St Bernards to cross breed with Chinese dogs.
To him dogs are a business like any other, no different from raising pigs or sheep.
He has a point. In China, dogs are intelligent animals that are also good to eat, much like pigs are in Britain.
But one thing he said to me caught my attention.
"This business is no good any more," he said. "There's no money to be made in it."
And I was soon to find out why.
For my next stop I wanted to visit a dog meat restaurant, but finding one proved trickier than I had imagined.
For two days my assistant scoured Beijing.
"Isn't there one behind the Korean embassy?" I asked.
"No" she said "that's closed."
"What about the one over by the World Trade Centre?"
"That's closed too."
Finally we did find one, way out in a grimy suburb on the north side of the city.
Inside I found Mr Feng and a group of colleagues tucking in to a steaming bowl of dog meat hotpot.
They invited me to join them. The bottle of rice liquor in the middle of the table was already half empty and Mr Feng was in talkative mood.
"We love to come here in the winter and eat dogs," he told me. "It's good for your health, it makes you feel strong."
"But," he added, with a conspiratorial grin, "don't tell any of my colleagues who are dog lovers. They'd be really upset if they knew we were here eating."
Dog lovers? In China?
Pampering dogs is becoming more socially acceptable in China
Well yes, actually there are. A growing army of them.
One is Li Xuefeng. She is not exactly China's Barbara Woodhouse, a softly-spoken, round woman in her early 30s. She is, though, equally barking mad about dogs.
The next day in another grimy suburb of Beijing, Miss Li showed me round her pride and joy: The Beijing "Pet Nation Dog Academy".
It is more like a giant canine beauty salon. There are hot baths, blow driers, clipping tables and shelves filled with dog hair dye.
There are thought to be more than a million pet pooches in Beijing
When I told Miss Li I was from Britain, a huge smile spread across her face.
"Oh, Britain", she said excitedly, "the home of Crufts."
Tears were now coming to her eyes.
"One day China will have a dog show just like Crufts," she said wistfully. "That is my dream."
Price of a puppy
Miss Li is far from alone.
It is only 10 years since Beijing's ban on dog owning was lifted.
But already there are thought to be more than a million pet pooches in the city.
The price of a pure breed puppy now starts at around £1,000 ($1,770).
And what of Miss Li's fellow Chinese who persist in eating her four-legged friends?
"I want to smash every dog restaurant in the city," she told me, giggling. "But really I don't think it's necessary.
"The dog restaurants are disappearing fast," she said.
"Young Chinese have very different attitudes towards animals, they really love dogs."
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 January, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.