A report on Radio 4’s Today this morning, in which the reporter was dispatched to Belgium, a hub of columbology (is that right?), presumably with a coloured rubber band around his ankle, has set me off on a trawl through the hitherto obscure world of Chinese pigeon fancying.
I’d been expecting one or two references, never having come across pigeon fancying in any of my many travels in China, but a Baidu search for saige 赛鸽 turned up over 4.5m pages. Pigeon fancying, it seems, is uniting people from the biggest cities to the humblest villages.
Saige.com lists the top 200 clubs across China, from the tropical Hainan Island to Harbin in northern Manchuria and from Shanghai on the east coast to the deserts of Xinjiang in central Asia, but there are hundreds if not thousands more. There are unconfirmable claims on the web of there being 2m registered pigeon fanciers and perhaps 6m in total, making China by far the biggest country for pigeon fancying worldwide (Belgium, which after my native Yorkshire is perhaps the spiritual home of pigeon fancying, by comparison has a total population of just 10m).
There are several important competitions held each year in China, of which the Great Wall, the Union Cup and Shanghai’s Tai’an Classic seem to be some of the biggest. The Great Wall is hosted by the Beijing Jinding Great Wall International Pigeon Racing Centre, and hopefuls must fly for hundreds of miles and beat off entrants from across the PRC, Taiwan and Europe to be crowned gewang, or Pigeon King. The top prize is almost £20,000, and the entire prize fund runs into millions of renminbi. The Chinese, it’s been noted before, love their gambling, and pigeon racing has the added bonus of demanding the same painstaking attention to detail and subtle artistry as the more traditional hobbies of raising fighting crickets or songbirds. On the mainland, the sport benefits besides from being utterly non-political.
It isn’t without its detractors, of course. In a country which is rather ashamed of being the world capital of bird ’flu, having one’s neighbour built a rickety pigeon loft full of bird poo and feathers seems to be for many anxious citizens a reason to call the local environmental health officers. In one case in Beijing, it was decided that pigeon lofts fell under the same rules as any other domesticated poultry cages, meaning that they had to be properly cleaned and disinfected and kept a minimum distance downwind of other residents.
In 2009, the authorities at Beijing Capital Airport apparently swooped (sorry) upon illegal lofts that had been jerrybuilt on a rooftop within the airport’s safety zone. It took a whole day to clear away 490 square metres of coops, though I can find no mention of what became of the birds. Officially, they should have been disposed of by incineration, but I suspect some might have ended up as succulent Drunken Squab or the equally delicious Hongshao Pigeon.