Do They Eat Babies in China?

Dear Reader:

I think we can safely say that the Chinese as a people do not routinely eat babies or fetuses; nor do Jews, Christians, witches, aborigines or any other groups accused of doing so over the centuries. There’s simply no proof of it. There has never been. What the historical record shows is that the allegation has surfaced time and time again as an ethnic and religious slur.

The claim that baby or fetus eating is an accepted practice in China (or Thailand, or Japan, or Korea, or Israel, as other variants of this same rumor claim) is more or less a modernized version of an ancient legend known as “Blood Libel.”  It has typically taken the form of one culture accusing another (or a subculture) of ritually sacrificing infants and in some cases eating them. The Greeks accused the Jews of it, the Romans accused the Christians, Christians accused the Jews again, and so on throughout history.

Folklorists say the driving forces behind such legends are ignorance, xenophobia (fear of other peoples and creeds) and/or one culture projecting upon another its misgivings about unsettling moral trends at home. One might speculate in the present case, for example, that the spread of horror stories in the West about the crass use of fetuses as food in Asia is fueled by qualms about the practice of abortion and the so-called “cannibalization” of fetal tissue for scientific research in our own countries. There are few more emotionally charged issues in modern life.

In any case, it’s hard to tell (and under dispute) whether the horrific photographs circulating via email since December 2000 are real or fake. We do know because we found documentation on them at a site called Chinese-Art.com that they were created by a conceptual artist named Zhu Yu, who exhibited them at an underground art show after they were rejected as too controversial by curators of the Shanghai 2000 Bienniale. In the piece, which he called “Eating People,” a serious of photographs indeed appears to show Zhu cooking and eating a human baby or fetus. For those who haven’t seen them and aren’t too squeamish to take a peek, here are two examples from this postmodern masterpiece

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