One question that always stymies us--that is, why cannot people eat people?
Rumors of cannibalism began to circulate over the internet during the early
months of last year (2001), typically accompanied by graphic photos of a Chinese
man calmly chewing on what appears to be a dismembered human fetus (see Figure 1),
together with sensational commentary along the lines of:
What u are going to witness here is a fact, don't get scared !" It's
Taiwan's hottest food..." In Taiwan, dead babies or fetuses could be
bought at $50 to $70 from hospitals to meet the high demand for grilled
and barbecued babies ... What a sad state of affairs!! ("Fetus")
These internet rumors began to achieve a modicum of legitimacy in
the small Malaysian tabloid Warta Perdana fed a growing
international controversy in reporting that a certain Taiwanese restaurant was
serving a dish consisting of the baked flesh of human fetuses. The story
eventually precipitated such an uproar that the CIA and Scotland Yard ultimately
got involved to try to sort things out.
While these allegations of cannibalism were, at a literal level, apocryphal, they
are nevertheless quite instructive. The rumors themselves, together with the
morbid transnational fascination that fed them and allowed them to grow, are
interesting for two reasons. First, these rumors did not spring up in a
vacuum, but rather they are implicitly in dialogue with a rich and multifaceted
discursive tradition of cannibalism in modern, and premodern, China. And,
second, cannibalism itself occupies a rather curious position in our own
(Western) cultural imagination, and the challenge of how to read cannibalism
cross-culturally has important implications for the broader question of what is
at stake, and at risk, in cross-cultural reading and criticism in general.
Cannibalism is a curious thing. In modern Western culture, cannibalism
virtually unparalleled hold on the popular imagination as an act of primal social
violence. It is frequently held up as an almost unthinkable transgression of the
social and moral codes which make us who we are.
At the same time, however, this nearly unthinkable act has consistently, and
somewhat paradoxically, proved to be all-too-thinkable, as evidenced both
by the abundance of cultural representations of cannibalism which exist
in our "own" culture, together with the voyeuristic fascination occasioned
prospect of cannibalistic practice among primitives, deviants, etc., in "other"
cultures. Discourses and fantasies of
cannibalism, therefore, occupy a crucial liminal space where the presumptive
limits of human society are simultaneously challenged and implicitly reaffirmed.
Taking the Taiwan restaurant rumors as my starting point, in this essay I will
elaborate a selective discursive genealogy of representations of cannibalism in
twentieth-century Chinese culture. Specifically, I will consider four such
cases, together with the cultural and social contexts in which they are
embedded. In this survey, my intention is not to focus on the literal, physical
act of cannibalism, but rather to use the discursive tradition of
cannibalism as a prism through which to reflect on the processes of
identification and differentiation by which not only the Self but also an array
of social collectivities are constituted. Rather than being derived from
explicit, manifest criteria, these psychic, social, and epistemological
constructs are, instead, the result of complex flows of equivalence and alterity,
and often it is, ironically, precisely at the closest points of identification
that the most systematic patterns of social rupture are produced.
My discussion of cannibalism will be conducted at two levels. On the one hand, I
will seek to consider the significance of each instance of discursive cannibalism
in its respective context, noting the way in which each elaboration builds, in
part, on a shared discourse of cannibalistic allusions. On the other hand, I
will seek to generalize from these specific instances of cannibalism and
encorporation and use them as an abstract model for the reading process itself.
Finally, at the end of the essay, I will seek to bring these two dimensions of
cannibalism (contextualized specificity and abstract model, respectively)
together, to consider the hermeneutic ethics of the act of reading cannibalism
itself in a cross-cultural context. In particular, I will suggest that these
actual discourses of cannibalism constitute an important challenge to how we
approach the possibility of cross-cultural reading and perception, even as the
abstract trope of cannibalism may itself provide a useful model for better
understanding the hermeneutic ethics of cross-cultural reading and perception itself.
The human corporal body is, perhaps, a mere signifier. After this signifier has
been developed [xianying] and fixed [dingying] on a roll of
Kodak film, it becomes dark shadows [heiying]. On a sheet of wove paper
that has been exposed to sunlight, it becomes a cluster of lights and shadows,
with washes of ink and color added to lines and curves.
Wuming Shi, "Reflections on the Body"
- The Taiwanese restaurant cited in the Malaysian tabloid
article had not, it turns out, done anything out of the ordinary, though
the images which accompanied the article were themselves not without a
basis in reality. Specifically, the photos were taken as part of a
performance entitled "Eating People" (or "Man-Eater") [shiren]
performed on 17 October 2000 in Shanghai by the 30-year-old avant-garde
performance artist Zhu Yu (see Figure 1). One widely publicized report
quotes Zhu as
saying that "to create Man-eater, he said he cooked the corpses of babies
that had been stolen from a medical school. Zhu admitted that the meat
obtained from the bodies tasted bad, and said he had vomited several times
while eating it. However, he said, he had to do it 'for art's sake'"
In public comments he made at the time of the performance, Zhu Yu sought
to address the significance of the scandalous nature of the his act, while
at the same time attempting to relativize the social and cultural
assumptions which make it appear scandalous in the first place:
One question that always stymies us--that is, why cannot people eat people?
Is there a commandment in man's religion in which it is written that we cannot
eat people? In what country is there a law against eating people? It's simply
morality. But, what is morality? Isn't morality simply something that man
whimsically changes from time to time based on his/her own so-called needs of
human being in the course of human progress.
From this we might thus conclude:
So long as it can be done in a way that does not commit a crime, eating people is
not forbidden by any of man or societies laws or religions; I herewith announce
my intention and my aim to eat people as a protest against mankind's moral idea
that he/she cannot eat people. (qtd. in Hua 192)
- Here, Zhu Yu draws attention to cannibalism's peculiar
position at the center of contemporary society's own self-conception,
while also foregrounding its status as being effectively outside the
purview of secular authority. Like the proverbial incest taboo,
cannibalism is often viewed as a foundational prohibition on which the
social order is grounded, but which, at the same time, derives
significance precisely through its own potential transgression. The
prohibitions against incest and cannibalism are both examples of
socio-cultural taboos which, by their very ostensible universality, bring
into question the ontological status of the categories of cultural
identity within which they are imbedded. Furthermore, it is not
coincidental that both prohibitions are explicitly concerned with
negotiations of identity and contestations of equivalence. René
Girard, for instance, includes both incest and cannibalism under the
master category of sacrificial violence, speculating that "We are perhaps
more distracted by incest than by cannibalism, but only because
cannibalism has not yet found its Freud and been promoted to the status of
a major contemporary myth" (276-77).
Despite the universalizing tenor of Zhu Yu's own remarks, his "Man-Eater"
performance quickly became mired in a rather mundane debate over cultural
and social differences. For instance, by mid-July of 2001, the
R.O.C. [Taiwan] Government Information Office [GIO] had sprung into
action, repeating the explanation that the story and the photographs were
actually derived from Mainlander Zhu Yu's October performance the
preceding year, rather than from any culinary malfeasance on the part of
the Taiwanese restaurant, and concluded cheerfully that "the GIO wishes to
emphasize that no event of this kind has ever taken place in Taiwan, and
that the serving or eating of such a dish would break an ROC law against
the defiling of human corpses" (Republic). With this rhetorical flourish,
the GIO report succeeded in taking a debate which might have appeared to
center on cultural universals concerning the sanctity of the human body
and adeptly translated it into a rather more provincial debate over
regional mores and secular authority.
In this way, the debate provides a prism into how various Chinese communities attempt to portray themselves and each other under the eyes
of a globalized public. Aihwa Ong has proposed the notion of "flexible
citizenship" to describe the processes by which "refugees and business migrants"
(in her study, specifically Sino-Asian ones) negotiate affiliations and loyalties
to multiple nation-states (often investing and working in one or more countries,
while keeping their families in another). She argues that these forces of
transnational migration have had the effect not only of encouraging these migrant
businessmen to rethink their symbolic location within an increasingly complex web
of ethnic and national alliances and rivalries (she cites, for instance, the
example of how a "triumphant 'Chinese capitalism' has induced long-assimilated
Thai and Indonesian subjects to reclaim their 'ethnic-Chinese' status" ), but
also, at the same time, producing important "mutations in the ways in which
localized political and social organizations set the terms and are constitutive
of a domain of social existence" (215). Speaking metaphorically, therefore, we
might conclude that what each of these interventions (by Zhu Yu himself, the
Malaysian newspaper, the Taiwan GIO, the overseas Chinese e-mail communities,
etc.) have in common is that they each ironically take the same alleged act of
cannibalism and use it is as a pretext to begin cannibalistically feeding on
each other on a global stage, as they try to negotiate the competing imperatives
of a localized, "national" locus of identity on the one hand and of an
increasingly fluid, transnational network of ethnic alliances and
identifications on the other.
Though unquestionably shocking in and of itself, Zhu Yu's October 17th, 2000
performance was by no means an anomaly when viewed in the context of his own
recent corpus of work or that of the larger community of iconoclastic young
artists with whom he is frequently associated. To understand the social and
cultural context in which these artists were working, however, it is necessary to
backtrack briefly. During the first couple of decades following the
establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and
particularly during the Cultural
Revolution (1966-76), cultural production in Mainland China was tightly
controlled. After the death of Chairman Mao and the official end of the Cultural
Revolution in 1976, Chinese artists began to have a somewhat freer rein to
express themselves, and some chose to develop in an experimental, avant-garde
direction. These trends in experimental art have became increasingly pronounced
during the 1990s, following the 1989 Tiananmen "democracy" protests and the
subsequent military crackdown.
- Art historian Wu Hung has identified four general
historical phases or "generations" in post-Cultural Revolution
experimental art, beginning with the initial emergence of Chinese
experimental art between 1979 and 1984: the "'85 Art New Wave Movement"
(1985-1989); the internationalization of experimental art (1990-93); and
the "domestic turn--art as social and political critique" (1994-present)
(Transience 16). Within each of these broad generational
groupings, however, the artists and their works generally span the
spectrum from committed political protest to a cynical cultivation of
foreign capital (and of the attendant Western fetishization of Oriental
exotica). While initially much of this experimental art was primarily a
response to the historical trauma of the Cultural Revolution, an important
theme which began to emerge in the mid-1980s was that of a response to,
and commentary on, the rapid economic development under Deng Xiaoping.
The ideological vacuum created in the wake of the death of Mao and the end
of the Cultural Revolution, combined with the widespread interest in
getting rich, led to a brief period of "Nietzsche fever" in the late
1980s, with his motto "god is dead" being perceived as having particular
relevance to China's current condition.
Having mostly emerged onto the art scene in the mid- to late 1990s, Zhu Yu
and his colleagues could generally be placed in this fourth
generation. No longer
responding directly to the Cultural Revolution (as was initially the case with
many of their older colleagues), they see themselves as trying to push the
envelope of artistic acceptability, while at the same time remaining keenly aware
of the interest taken in their work by foreign academics and curators. Many of
the artists in Zhu Yu's immediate circle are best known for what can be seen as a
combination of installment and performance art, often using their own bodies as
well as human and animal flesh in elaborately choreographed performances. They
tend to work on the margins of official permissibility, with their "closed-door"
performances generally well-publicized (though often at the last minute), but
usually not "officially" open to the public.
Zhu Yu's "Eating People" performance itself was reportedly part of a series of
exhibitions entitled "Obsession with Injury" [dui shanghai de
Part of a larger phenomenon of "shock-art" in contemporary
China, this provocative series of avant-garde performances used not only animal
and human corpses, but also the bodies of the artists themselves, in order to
challenge conventional assumptions about the limits of both human and social
mortality. As the artists themselves describe their project: "We have always
wanted to explore fundamental problems concerning the existence and death of
human beings, as well as the transformative process of spirit into material"
(Wu, Exhibiting 207).
- For instance, the second, closed-door installment of the
"Obsession with Injury" series, held on 22 April 2000, featured a
in which Zhu Yu himself "had cut a piece of skin from his own body and sewn it
onto a large piece of pork. A photo on the wall showed him in the middle of
surgery; a videotape showed the process of the operation" (Hua 190-91; Wu,
Exhibiting 206). In
another performance, the artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu sat in adjacent chairs as
nurses transfused their own blood into the preserved corpses of a pair of
infant Siamese twins (Hua 98; Wu, Exhibiting 204). Peng Yu
also participated in another performance
which consisted of "dropping oil extracted from human fat into the mouth of a
medical specimen of a child's corpse," with this latter performance also
incorporating a video of the oil-extraction. All three of these performances
shared a common concern with challenging conventional boundaries between human and
animal, between living flesh and preserved corpses, as well as the boundaries
between reality and electronic simulation (in their integration of live
performances and videotaped reproductions).
The performances in this "Obsession with Injury" exhibition, and
it, collectively sought to bring a fresh perspective to conventional assumptions
about the status of human corporality. While it has become commonplace, within
the experimental trends in Chinese literature and art, to feature
representations of acts of extreme violence being performed on the human
body (consider, for instance, Tang Yuanbao's act of peeling off the skin of his
own face at the end of Wang Shuo's novel Please Don't Call Me
Human), what is remarkable about the "Obsession" performances is their use
of actual human flesh (both from the artists' own bodies, as well as that of
preserved human corpses).
The use of human and animal flesh was clearly a striking component of these sorts
of exhibits, to the point that contemporary critics speak in general terms of the
fascination with "meat art" in contemporary Chinese avant-garde art. At the same
time, however, the artists, in their discussions of their work, repeatedly tried
to downplay the significance of their use of this "meat." For instance, at one
point they explain that,
First of all, we did not use corpses in a conventional sense, because all of the
human bodies we employed were specimens that had been medically treated. Their
cells had been conditioned by formaldehyde and could no longer rot or be infected
by germs. These so-called bodies are germ-free and had already been turned into
chemical substances. (Wu, Exhibiting 206)
These comments are almost as startling as the performances to which they refer.
While on the surface appearing to undercut the transgressive implications of
their performances which appear to center around the deliberate desecration of
human bodies (claiming, in effect, that they are not actual human bodies which
they are using), these comments actually raise a host of potentially even more
problematic questions concerning the limits of "human" mortality and human
corporeality. Particularly interesting is the implication that infectious
"germs," typically viewed as contaminants, are actually part of what makes the
bodies "human" in the first place.
Furthermore, even as these "shock-artists" were capitalizing on the referential
presence of their subject matter (be it actually "human" or otherwise), they were
at the same time struggling to get beyond the purely material dimension of their
performances. As Zhu Yu explained in a later interview:
Our intention was not to use these materials to say something. We
want our works to say something. But right now, the audience
doesn't have the ability to accept something like this is. People haven't
seen this kind of an exhibition before, where real things are used. The
audience is reacting to the materials. After seeing it more times, then
maybe they will be able to see what's inside of these works. [...] The
result is already pre-determined because these materials, from a certain
perspective[,] are concepts in themselves. So it's easy for the audience
to think purely about the materials when they see these works. From
another perspective, the materials are an obstacle for us. (Wang,
These comments take one of the central issues of the later cannibalism debate
and turn it back upon itself. That is to say, one of the key themes in the
various discussions of the cannibalism allegations was one of reference or
denotation: to what extent did the photographs constitute mere visual simulacra,
or to what extent could they be taken as a standing in an indexical relationship
with an outer reality?
Moreover, even after it was revealed that the controversial photographs were
actually derived from Zhu Yu's performance in Shanghai, questions still remained
for some viewers over what precisely that performance consisted of: was it actual
cannibalism, or not? Was it a cannibalistic act that was being presented as a
work of art, or was it instead an elaborate mock-up intended to mimic an act of
consuming actual human flesh? Similarly, in the "Obsession with
Injury" performances, the question ultimately becomes not simply that of
of the various visual reproductions being used, but also, and even more
importantly, that of the referential status of the human body itself. The human
body is, in a sense, being subjected here to a chiasmatic conjunction of mutually
opposed hermeneutic imperatives. On the one hand, the medical specimens are
being effectively evacuated of their conventional connotations, becoming
essentially empty shells of their former selves. At the same time, however,
these newly sterilized bodies are then remobilized as potent cultural signifiers,
connoting the bodily fragility to which their own transformation itself stands as
an eloquent testament.
Zhu Yu's and his colleagues' "shock art" appears to challenge conventions
of human morality and propriety, even as it pushes the envelope of acceptable
artistic expression. Building, in part, on contemporary Chinese youths'
perception that they lack an effective public forum in which to express their
views and concerns, these sorts of sensational performances effectively transform
the human body into a textually inscribable medium. Living in a post-Maoist
social ethos commonly described as lacking a coherent moral center, these young
artists rely on the deliberate transgression of some of society's most
deeply ingrained cultural prohibitions in order to make socially meaningful
Eat thy Neighbor
As iconoclastic as it might seem at first glance, Zhu Yu's cannibalistic
performance was also implicitly in dialogue with a variety of other contemporary
and historical discourses of cannibalism in Chinese culture. Some of the most
recent such examples include Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in
Modern China, Zheng Yi's exposé on the cannibalism practiced
Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as well as Yu Hua's provocative 1980s
"Classical Love," in which an errant wanderer falls in love with a beautiful
maiden at a remote inn, who is ultimately killed and dismembered for her meat.
More abstract, but equally graphic, is the Hong Kong director Siu-Tung Ching's
popular 1988 film, A Chinese Ghost Story, which revolves around a
graphic theme of vampiric cannibalism, with the hermaphroditic tree-spirit
"Laolao's" preposterously oversized tongue snaking through the
half-real/half-fantasy space of this epistemological hinterland.
Since it is possible to "exchange sons to eat," then anything can be exchanged,
anyone can be eaten.
Lu Xun, "Diary of a Madman"
Probably the more famous evocation of cannibalism in modern Chinese
literature, however, is Lu Xun's celebrated 1918 short story, "Diary of a
Madman," in which a Gogolesque paranoiac becomes convinced that his
and even his immediate relatives, are all scheming to eat his flesh. The story
concludes with the narrator's conviction that he, too, has unwittingly consumed
human flesh, and as a result will himself become a cannibal, yet still holds out
hope that "the children" may somehow be saved from this vicious cycle of
self-consumption: "Perhaps there are still children who have not yet eaten men.
Save the children...." (18).
Lu Xun's story is typically read as an allegorical excoriation of the
"cannibalistic" society which China had become--one in which people feed off of
each other's weaknesses, rather than rallying together to a common cause. The
work itself is also generally held up as marking the symbolic birth of a Chinese
literary modernism, in that it not only constitutes an allegorical critique of
the old society, but furthermore is itself one of the earliest works to be
written in the modern vernacular.
Lu Xun himself is generally recognized as one of the leading figures of the
reformist May Fourth Movement of the late 1910s and 1920s. Following on the
heels of the 1911 fall of China's last official dynasty, the Qing, the May Fourth
Movement was generally concerned with attempting to strengthen the Chinese nation
by both introducing into China a variety of foreign (primarily Western)
ideas, scientific paradigms, and aesthetic trends, as well as identifying and
critiquing those "traditional" tendencies in Chinese society which were perceived
as being responsible for its weakness and inability to "modernize" effectively.
Historian Lin Yü-sheng identifies the May Fourth Movement's general attitude
as being one of "totalistic anti-traditionalism": an ostensible wholesale
rejection of the social and ideological legacies of the past, which at the same
time has the ironic effect of partially obscuring the degree to which the
reformists were themselves building pre-existing models of literati
involvement and social critique.
"Diary of a Madman" is the first of the socially motivated stories which
Lu Xun wrote during this May Fourth period, but its metaphor of
cannibalism is one to which he would return in several of his subsequent
writings (as, for instance, with the blood-soaked mantou bun
which is presented, in his story "Medicine," as an unsuccessful cure for
tuberculosis), and which many other authors would later pick up on and
develop in their own right. At the same time, however, the signifier of
cannibalism in Lu Xun's work is a richly overdetermined one, in the sense
that it inevitably exceeds the straightforward allegorical reading
outlined above. Cannibalism is an abstract symbol in the story, but is
also a symbol which builds in part on allusions to actual historical
accounts of cannibalism. Part of the narrator's horror is precipitated by
his gradual realization that many of the references to cannibalism in
familiar historical texts, ranging from the fourth-century B. C. E.
Warring States period to the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty, might
actually be literal references, rather than mere rhetorical expressions.
Therefore, the subtext of the story becomes not only one of critiquing
contemporary societal conditions, but also one of distinguishing between
empty signifiers and actual historical referents. In short, it becomes a
question of how to read, how to make sense of the literal or figurative
dimensions of familiar historical texts.
At another point in the story, Lu Xun relates how the narrator stayed up late one
night rereading the canonical dynastic histories, which were filled on every page
with allusions to the Confucian ideals of "Virtue and Morality." The madman is
then described as having an epiphany, whereby he suddenly becomes able to
read through the surface meaning of the texts and discern their
implicit, underlying meaning:
"Cannibalism," here, becomes not only a trope for a kind of clarity of
social vision, an ability to perceive the involutive and self-destructive
tendencies of contemporary Chinese society, but also a figure for
a certain kind of hermeneutics, an ability to read a (historical) text
against itself. What is at stake is not merely a simple dialectics
between surface visibility and hidden meaning, but rather the ability to
recognize the (potential) meaning in what was (always) already "visible"
in the first place.
Everything requires careful consideration if one is to understand it. In ancient
times, as I recollect, people often ate human beings, but I am rather hazy about
it. I tried to look this up, but my history has no chronology, and scrawled all
over each page are the words: "Virtue and Morality." Since I could not sleep
anyway, I read intently half the night until I began to see the words between
the lines. The whole book was filled with the two words--"Eat
Lu Xun died somewhat prematurely in 1936, at the age of 55. Although he
was actively involved with the League of Left-Wing Writers during the last decade
or so of his life, he made a point of never formally joining the Chinese
Communist Party. Chairman Mao Zedong nevertheless subsequently lauded Lu Xun as
"the major leader in the Chinese cultural revolution. He was not only a great
writer, but also a great thinker and a great revolutionary" (372). In
spite of this
unconditional accolade, it nevertheless remains very questionable to what extent
the acerbically critical Lu Xun would have approved of the subsequent Maoist
regime. Nevertheless, under the P.R.C. Lu Xun was elevated to the pinnacle of
the Chinese literary canon (thanks, in no small part, to Mao's own unreserved
endorsement of Lu Xun's revolutionary credentials). Speaking metaphorically,
therefore, we could say that his writings and legacy were subsequently consumed
and incorporated by the Maoist socio-political orthodoxy, as, for instance, in
the case of his celebrated condemnation of the "human-eating old society," which
ultimately became monumentalized within the post-1949 ideological rhetoric of the
Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, this rhetorical incorporation on the
part of the Party also involves an important process of misreading, an
attempt cannibalistically to make a part of itself a position of ideological
critique which, otherwise, might have potentially constituted one of its
I would take this conclusion and carry it a step further, arguing that the
problematic posed by cannibalism (under this latter, more abstract understanding
of the concept) is not only one of reading history, or of reading historically,
but rather it is one of "reading" in general. The physical act of cannibalism is
only meaningful when positioned at the interstices of identity and alterity (in
that it is an act of consuming the non-Self with whom one has strong,
ties), and is grounded on the ways in which we make sense of the complex social
tapestry which the cannibalistic act itself simultaneously negates and
reaffirms. Furthermore, the act of cannibalism is itself grounded on a complex
hermeneutics of identity, of how we understand and imagine our relationship with
a variety of social Others. In the following section, I will pursue this reading
to its logical conclusion, looking not at the consumption, but rather at the
constitution of human flesh, and the way in which the human body itself has been
imagined as a complex mass of incommensurable elements, lacking a preconceived
identity, and instead actively constituted through the immune system's continual
hermeneutic process of "reading" patterns of identity and alterity.
Devouring Oneself from Within
Lu Xun's allegorical encounters with cannibalism mark an important turning
point in his own intellectual development. It is well known that Lu Xun
initially studied medicine in Japan, and that he later claimed that it was
the perceived need to get to the root of the spiritual and social ills
which afflicted contemporary China which led him to abandon his medical
studies and instead devote himself to healing not the bodies of his
compatriots but rather their spirits. His critical description of China
as a cannibalistic society in "Diary of a Madman" became one of the
rallying points of his generation and has continued to echo throughout
the twentieth century. At the same time, even as his earlier interest in
corporal healing was effectively sublimated, that same medicinal
orientation was making an uncanny return in many of his later writings, as
well as those of his contemporaries.
Pre-eminently a twentieth-century object, the immune system is a map drawn to
guide recognition and misrecognition of self and other in the dialectics of
Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
For instance, in an essay entitled "Random Thoughts #38" and published
under Lu Xun's name in 1918,
the same year of "Diary of a Madman," there is an explicit parallel drawn
between the contagion of the human bloodstream by syphilis bacteria and
the ideological "confusion" of the social corpus resulting from the
influence of "Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhist monks": "Even though we
might now want to become real people, it is uncertain whether or not we
will [be able to avoid being] confounded by the dark and confused elements
in our blood-stream" (389). The essay expresses concern, furthermore,
that this ideological disease not reach the nadir of syphilis and
concludes with the hope that science may discover some magic
cultural/ideological panacea, a so-called "707," based on the recently
discovered treatment for syphilis (arsphenamine, conventionally known at
the time as "606"). The image of harmful reactionary ideological elements
flowing through society's bloodstream is evocative in and of itself, but
the specific allusion to syphilis makes the metaphor even more compelling,
in that the tissue damage from syphilis results, at least in part, from
white blood cells' attacking previously healthy tissue. The result is a
cannibalistic extravaganza ironically reminiscent of "The Diary of a
Madman" from a few months earlier.
While the connection between the immune system and "cannibalism" is
admittedly somewhat indirect in this 1918 essay, it is nevertheless developed
much more explicitly in several other reformist essays published during the same
general period. In the following discussion, I will consider three of these
essays, all of which were published between 1915 and 1918 in the same journal,
New Youth, which also published not only "Diary of a Madman" but
also the 1918 "Random Thoughts" essay as well. In particular, I will focus on
the ways in which each of these essays develops an increasingly elaborate double
metaphor, whereby the metaphoric "cannibalism" on the part of the immune system's
white blood cells itself becomes a model for the ways in which different elements
within Chinese society feed upon each other.
The first of these essays appeared in the 1915 inaugural issue of New
Youth. There, the editor of the journal, Chen Duxiu, published an
influential article entitled "Call to Youth," where he explicitly elaborates a
metaphorical correspondence between individuals in society and cells in the human
In this essay, the references to metabolic processes and cell replenishment
represent an interesting synthesis of Western medical metaphors, on the one hand,
and of the longstanding tradition, in Chinese writings, of elaborating
metaphorical parallels between the human body and the social "body politic," on
Youth have the same relationship to society that the new and lively cells
have with respect to the human body. In the metabolic process, the old
and rotten cells are constantly being weeded out, and openings are thus
created which are promptly filled with fresh and lively cells. If this
metabolic process functions correctly, the organism will be healthy; but
if the old and rotten cells are allowed to accumulate, however, the
organism will die. If this metabolic process functions properly at a
social level, society will flourish; but if the old and corrupt elements
are allowed to accumulate, society will be destroyed. (Chen 1)
The biomedical underpinning of the corporal metaphor is elaborated in more
detail in "The Thought of Two Modern Scientists," an essay Chen Duxiu
wrote the following year, on the occasion of the death of Russian
biologist Elie Metchnikoff (1843[5?]-1916). In the second section of this
essay, Chen addresses Metchnikoff's work and its relevance to human
longevity. In particular, he stresses
Metchnikoff's discovery of the significance of white blood cells in the
immune system, and specifically their ability to engulf and absorb harmful
microbes. To describe these white blood cells, Metchnikoff coined the term
"phagocyte," derived from Greek terms "phago" ("to eat") and "kyto"
("tool"), and which Chen translated into Chinese as "shijun xibao," or
"bacterium-eating cell." The obvious question to ask next, Chen writes,
is whether the white blood cells can be seen as acting out of a sense of
duty to the larger body, or whether they are simply pursuing a narrow
course of individual self-interest. The answer is clear, he writes in
response to his own rhetorical question: they are simply acting in their
own self-interest, to feed themselves. This explains the apparent paradox
which Metchnikoff observes, whereby as the body ages and loses its vigor,
the white blood cells, by contrast, may become overly active,
attacking elements of the body itself (from the nervous system to the
cells responsible for hair pigment), "mistakenly" regarding them as
foreign pathogens. After a further discussion of the role played by
intestinal bacteria in the aging process, Chen concludes that once a way
is found to control (or even eliminate) these "cannibalistic" white blood
cells, it may be possible to extend human longevitty by a century or more
More than the specifically medical implications of Metchnikoff's model, Chen was
apparently fascinated by the question of the social implications which this model
of phagocytes and their relationship to the larger body (politic), and of how
they might enable us to rethink the relationship between "altruism" and
"individualism." Chen concludes the essay by applying some of these same
questions of altruism vs. individualism to his Metchnikoff himself:
What we see here, therefore, is Chen's attempt to use biological metaphors to
provide a model for a position of constructive social criticism, one which avoids
the dual dangers of self-effacing conformism and "altruism," on the one hand, as
well as that of "absolute individualism" (e.g., the white blood cells which
destroy the body itself), on the other.
Although Metchnikoff advocates individualism, nonetheless the principles by which
he lived out his life were definitely not ones of absolute individualism.
Although he did not take benevolence and altruism to be ultimate ends, his
actions were nonetheless compatible with these general principles (51).
In 1918 fellow reformist Hu Shi developed this same immune system
metaphor in the lead article of a New Youth special issue on Ibsen.
Hu Shi concludes the article with a medical metaphor inspired by the figure of
Dr. Stockman in Ibsen's play, "Enemy of the People":
When we read this essay in conjunction with Chen's original 1915 one, we realize
that what is implied is that the "evil and filthy elements in society" are
actually not foreign pathogens, but rather they are none other than the
same "old and rotten" cells from the body itself. Therefore, in this essay--almost precisely contemporaneous with Lu Xun's identification, in "Diary of a
Madman," of cannibalism as the metaphorical condition from which society must
attempt to extricate itself--we here have instead an implicit argument in
support of figurative cannibalism, a call for social "white blood cells" to
seek out and consume "the evil and filthy elements in society." An act of
collective self-awakening, therefore, implies a process of self-alienation, a
systematic identification and excision of unprogressive elements.
It is as if [Ibsen] were saying, "People's bodies all rely on the innumerable
white blood cells in their bloodstream to be perpetually battling the harmful
microbes that enter the body, and to make certain that they are all completely
eliminated. Only then can the body be healthy and the spirit complete." The
health of the society and of the nation depend completely on these white blood
cells, which are never satisfied, never content, and at every moment are battling
the evil and the filthy elements in society, and only then can there be hope for
social improvement and advancement. (Hu 20)
While Lu Xun, Hu Shi, and Chen Duxiu were all leading members of the May
Fourth Movement, they nevertheless all occupied quite distinct positions
within Chinese ideology and politics. Chen Duxiu was one of the founders
of the Chinese Communist Party, while Lu Xun made a point of never joining
the party, though he worked closely with several Party leaders during the
1920s and 1930s. Hu Shi, meanwhile, ended up siding with the
Kuomingtang and consequently has been generally reviled in much Mainland
historiography. Despite these
manifest differences in their political and aesthetic orientations, it is
nevertheless striking that they have each come together on this same
medico-political metaphor of the cannibalistic white blood cells.
Somewhat independently of the meaning which they each originally might
have intended the metaphor to convey, this metaphor itself can
nevertheless be read deconstructively, suggesting a body at war with
itself, but the underlying implication being that this condition is, in
fact, part of the status quo. Young and lively cells must, for
the benefit of the whole, seek to eliminate and replace old and tired
ones. The boundary between productive regeneration and cannibalistic
self-consumption, therefore, is an exceedingly tenuous one, largely
contingent on the speaker's relationship with the elements which are doing
The irony inherent in these various white blood cell metaphors is that while
Metchnikoff originally suggested that the elimination of these cells would, in
effect, forestall the aging process, in the metaphorical formulations of many of
these May Fourth reformers, the white blood cells' ability to feed on ossified
portions of the social Self becomes an asset, rather than a liability. Hu Shi
and company are, in effect, arguing that we must combat social cannibalism
with cannibalism, devouring those reactionary elements of society before
they can succeed in devouring us.
These sorts of physiological metaphors represent a chiasmatic intersection of
objectivity and fantasy. They draw on an increasingly detailed medical
understanding of the structure and function of the human immune system, while at
the same time reducing the imaginary space of the nation to a highly metaphoric
plane. The increased precision with which the function and behavior of these
white blood cells is described goes hand-in-hand with an increased degree of
abstraction in the description of human behavior.
Furthermore, it is highly appropriate that it was specifically the immune system
which provided the May-Fourth-period reformers with one of their favorite
in this struggle to define themselves through the mediated gaze of the other,
appropriate in that the immune system is itself essentially a machine of
self-recognition and self-reproduction, one which functions by reducing processes
of identification to the barest heuristic strategies. In fact, the immune system
can even be seen as a quintessential sublimation of the process of
self-identification, whereby the process of "identification" operates essentially
independently of the "self" which it ostensibly presupposes. Accordingly, the
immune-system metaphor provides an ironically apt model of a "pure" form of
cannibalism, as well as an illustration of its theoretical limits. In the case
of the immune system, relations of identity and alterity are explicitly created
in the process of recognition itself.
The coherence of the organism, therefore, is itself premised on a continual
struggle of identity politics at the cellular level. Phagocytotic consumption on
the part of white blood cells represents a conceptual limit-point for our
understanding of cannibalism--it is, in a sense, not "true" cannibalism,
because the cells only devour that which they recognize as "Other." At the same
time, however, the functioning of these cells illustrates the degree to which
these categories of Self and Other are never a priori givens, but rather are
themselves the product of metaphorical processes of reading itself.
In a critical overview of more recent Western medical models of the immune
system, feminist theorist Donna Haraway suggests that these models come to assume
a notion of "identity" as merely an amorphous, decentered play of difference:
"In a word, no," she writes, in reply to her own rhetorical question. The
notions of "self" presupposed by these immune system models are, instead,
continually contested and always already "under erasure." While Haraway
posits that this deconstructive turn in immune system models represents a
specifically "post-modern," late-twentieth-century development, my reading
of these May-Fourth-period texts suggests that many of these
deconstructive implications were latently present in the model all along.
Does the immune system--the fluid, dispersed, networking
techno-organic-textual-mythic system that ties together the more stodgy and
localized centers of the body through its acts of recognition--represent the
ultimate sign of altruistic evolution towards wholeness, in the form of the means
of co-ordination of a coherent self? (219)
The "Western" medical and hygienic perspectives being introduced into
China during the May Fourth era contributed to a number of radical shifts in
understanding of the constitution of not only the human body itself, but also
the social communities and societies which these bodies inhabit. One of the
more prominent examples of Chinese incorporation of Western medical knowledge is
that of these immunological models of social organization. Ironically, however,
one of the implications of these immunological models, as they were developed in
the May Fourth era, involves precisely a recognition of the inherent contingency
of the processes by which corporal or social bodies are differentiated from
"foreign" elements. That is to say, the act of incorporating "Other" (Western)
models ironically resulted in an implicit rethinking of the conceptual basis upon
which the boundaries between "Self" and "Other" are constructed in the first
Journeys into the Interior
The preceding May Fourth-era explorations into "cannibalistic" practices deep
within the human body are ironically mirrored by the allegorical investigation of
cannibalistic allegations deep within China's own geographic interior in the 1993
novel The Republic of Wine by one of contemporary China's most
pre-eminent writers, Mo Yan. Born into a peasant family in 1955 and
rural Northern China, Mo Yan began publishing short stories and novels in
mid-1980s. Though he is sometimes grouped with the experimental writers who came
of age in the 1980s (including figures such as Yu Hua, Ge Fei, Can Xue, etc.), Mo
Yan's early fiction tends to emphasize conventional storytelling and rural
subject matter more than these other authors, and as such would be more
accurately categorized as a "native soil" author. The events associated with the
4 June 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square appear to have had a significant
influence on him, and it was in the latter part of that year that Mo Yan began
writing The Republic of Wine, which perhaps still stands as his most
innovative and unconventional work to date--whereby the social violence of the
Tiananmen military crackdown would almost appear to have been displaced onto the
narrative structure of the novel itself.
Mo Yan Sir Mo Yan Sir what's wrong please wake up This guy wrote Red
Sorghum but he's a fledgling with alcohol can't hold his liquor but comes
to Liquorland to stir up trouble take him to the hospital bring a car over first
give him some carp broth to sober him up carp promotes lactation don't tell me he
just had a baby a meat boy set it in a big gilded platter [...]
Mo Yan, The Republic of Wine
Mo Yan is probably best known for his 1986 novel Red Sorghum, on
which the renowned fifth-generation director Zhang Yimou based his
debut the following year. The earlier work opens with the evocative epigraph,
"[...] As your unfilial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in
sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in
a field of sorghum"; and acts of symbolic cannibalism similarly lie at the heart
of the work itself. For example, the secret recipe of the novel's trademark
wine is that it is fermented with human urine. Furthermore, later in the novel,
there is an extended description of how, during the Chinese civil war, previously
domesticated dogs gone wild feed on the decaying flesh of the human corpses which
litter the landscape, and how the protagonists themselves have no other recourse
but to feed on this dog flesh, flesh which is only one step away from their own.
In this way, the canine-mediated cannibalism becomes a powerful metaphor for the
internecine warfare in which China found itself in the 1940s following the
withdrawal of the Japanese troops.
The Republic of Wine, which Mo Yan began to write roughly three
years later, builds quite directly on the thematic precedent set by Red
Sorghum--literalizing Red Sorghum's attention to
bacchanalian excess and cannibalistic transgression, even as it transposes the
earlier novel's concerns onto a more self-consciously fictional plane. The
Republic of Wine constitutes not only a journey into the fictional space
of China's interior hinterland, but furthermore can also be seen as a figurative
journey back into China's own literary history of cannibalistic metaphors. For
instance, it tropes quite explicitly on one of China's greatest travel
narratives: the fifteenth-century novel Journey to the West,
whose own assorted
allusions to cannibalistic practice constitute part of the cultural background of
Mo Yan's development of the topic.
Furthermore, The Republic of
Wine's attention to the theme of child cannibalism inevitably finds itself
in dialogue with Lu Xun's own classic short story on the topic, with Mo Yan's
novel alluding repeatedly to Lu Xun as an ironic avatar of literary canonicity.
The basic premise of the main The Republic of Wine narrative
concerns a hapless government investigator by the name of Ding Gou'er, who has
been sent to a fictional province deep in the Chinese interior to investigate
allegations of cannibalism, and specifically the consumption of human infants.
When he finally arrives at this "Liquorland," his hosts treat him to a decadent
banquet, the pièce-de-résistance of which is a dish
consisting of a human boy prepared whole and roasted to a deep shade of brown:
The boy sat cross-legged in the middle of the gilded platter, golden brown
and oozing sweet-smelling oil, a giddy smile frozen on his face. Lovely,
naïve. Around him was spread a garland of green vegetable leaves and
bright red radish blossoms. The stupefied investigator swallowed back the
juices that rumbled up from his stomach as he gawked at the boy. A pair
of limpid eyes gazed back at him, steam puffed out of the boy's nostrils,
and the lips quivered as if he were about to speak. (75)
Upon seeing this culinary confirmation of his darkest suspicions, Ding
Gou'er--who, by this point, is rather drunk--immediately attempts to
arrest his hosts for practicing cannibalism. His hosts, however,
patiently explain to him that it has all been a misunderstanding, and that
the dish in question is actually merely an elaborate culinary simulacrum,
carefully designed to mimic the shape and texture of a human infant, while
in fact consisting only of mundane comestibles:
What began as a scandal of cannibalism thus becomes, instead, a postmodern
scandal of representation and reference; and as the novel progresses, it remains
ambiguous (and ultimately irrelevant) whether that which the inebriated Ding
Gou'er witnessed was an actual human infant, or merely a culinary facsimile of
one. Furthermore, this radical skepticism towards the boundary between reality
and representation, referent and simulacrum, in turn comes to feed parasitically
on the plot of the actual novel itself, causing it to fold back upon itself, as a
spectral apparition of the author himself ends up falling into the fictional
abyss of the novel that he is attempting to write. To understand what is meant
by this, however, it will be necessary to return briefly to a description of the
structure and contents of the novel.
"Old Ding, good old Ding, you're a fine comrade with a strong humanistic bent,
for which I respect you," Diamond Jin said. "But you're wrong. You've made a
subjective error. Look closely. Is that a little boy?"
His words had the desired effect on Ding Gou'er, who turned to look at
the boy on the platter. He was still smiling, his lips parted slightly, as if he
were about to speak.
"He's incredibly lifelike!" Ding Gou'er said loudly.
"Right, lifelike," Diamond Jin repeated. "And why is this fake
child so lifelike? Because the chefs here in Liquorland are extraordinarily
talented, uncanny masters."
The Party Secretary and Mine Director echoed his praise:
"And this isn't the best that we have to offer! A professor at the
Culinary Academy can make them so that even the eyelashes flutter. No one dares
let his chopsticks touch one of hers." (77)
The core The Republic of Wine narrative, as summarized above, is
embedded within an outer narrative frame, in which a fictional "Mo Yan"
(appearing as a character within his own novel) is portrayed as trying to
complete the Republic manuscript. A central premise of this outer
narrative frame is that the fictional "Mo Yan" finds himself in the position of
being a reluctant cultural icon idolized by enthusiastic fans of Red
Sorghum, and in particular by a certain Li Yidou, a Ph.D. candidate in
liquor studies at the Brewer's College in Liquorland, whose passion for wine is
rivaled only by his morbid fascination with cannibalism and other dark recesses
of the human soul. In this outer frame of the novel, the fictional "Mo Yan" is
in the process of writing the The Republic of Wine narrative itself,
even as he finds himself in epistolary dialogue with Li Yidou, who asks "Mo Yan"
to use his institutional connections to help him gain a foothold within the
publishing industry. Accordingly, Li Yidou sends "Mo Yan" a series of short
stories, each more outlandish than the last, several of which center around
discussions of children being raised with the express purpose of later being sold to
the slaughterhouse. The fictional "Mo Yan" finds himself in a conundrum over how
to continue to be encouraging in the face of what he increasingly perceives to be
an onslaught of literary drivel, a conundrum which is reinforced by his growing
ambivalence towards his own fiction.
About two thirds of the way through the novel, however, this boundary
between the outer and inner narrative frames begins to dissolve, as "Mo
Yan" ultimately succumbs to writer's block and abandons the The
Republic of Wine narrative, deciding instead to travel to
"Liquorland" himself to pay Li Yidou a visit. In doing so, he effectively
abandons his presumptive authorial authority and steps into the same
fictional space that he has already condemned to incompleteness, becoming
an ironic Pirandellian character fleeing from his own authorship.
In The Republic of Wine, the act of cannibalism constitutes an
aporia of signification, on the basis of which the rest of the novel's plot is
structured. The figure cannibalism similarly provides a bridge between Lu Xun's
arch-canonical 1918 short story and Li Yidou's own anti-canonical literary
rantings. Understood more metaphorically, the figure of cannibalism could be
seen as a pivot around which regimes of cultural and literary orthodoxy revolve,
whereby the orthodox canon and more "popular" or marginalized culture are seen as
actually being symbiotically dependent on each other, feeding parasitically on
the textual remains which the other has left behind. That is to say,
cannibalism represents a challenge to the conventional boundaries between Self
and Other, individual and collective, similarly Mo Yan's novel as a whole
interrogates the boundaries between literary orthodoxy and the popular or
transgressive genres against which it defines itself, together with the more
ontological boundary between literary representation and the outer reality which
literature seeks to denote.
Afterimages of the Flesh
The eyes of the fish were white and hard, and its mouth was open just like those
people who want to eat human beings.
Lu Xun, "Diary of a Madman"
When you eat a fish, you must start with the eyes.
Xu Shunying, Gushing Out
Chinese society and culture have long been haunted by the specter of
This uncanny apparition not only represents a profound challenge
to the presumed sanctity of the human body (and, in the case of "survival"
cannibalism, marking moments at which the very bonds of human society dissolve in
the face of extreme adversity), but also, ironically, at the same time
potentially standing as an ultimate gesture of social unity and filial devotion
(as in the case of Chinese "endophagy," in which children are said to feed
ailing parents with flesh taken from their own bodies). Throughout the twentieth
century, a variety of authors, artists, and political reformers have repeatedly
used the figure of cannibalism to reflect on a range of issues relating to the
constitution of social collectives and corporal subjects, while in the process
effectively deconstructing the metaphoricity of the trope of cannibalism itself.
While the four cases of Chinese "discursive cannibalism" which I have considered
in this essay each date from different periods and involve diverse social groups
and representational media, a common characteristic which they all share is that
they are each located in a volatile liminal space in which a variety of social
and epistemological boundaries may be problematized and rethought.
To recapitulate briefly, the Zhu Yu controversy foregrounds the way in which the
specter of cannibalism has been, and continues to be, used to reinforce perceived
differences between different ethnic, national, or transnational social groups.
Furthermore, even as the subsequent debates bring attention to issues of social
signification, they also problematize issues of signification in general. That
is to say, a recurrent theme throughout many of the debates has been one of the
limits of reference: to what extent do the photographs actually denote a tangible
reality? And, how does this outer "reality" signified by these texts (be it
"actual" cannibalism, a performative act of cannibalism, or a performative
mimicry of a cannibalistic act, etc.) ultimately impact our understanding of the
implications of the subsequent debates? In the case of Lu Xun's story, one of
the central issues was the boundary between "history" and "narrative": what is
the relationship between narrative schemata and the historical "realities" which
they seek to describe? How are we to understand the ultimate "truth value" of
what appear to be metaphorical figures?
With the May Fourth immunological metaphors, a central issue was that of how to
understand the boundaries between "bodies" (either corporal or social bodies) and
the heterogeneous elements (pathogens or contaminants) against which they define
themselves. Finally, Mo Yan's recent novel The Republic of Wine
brings us back to some key issues concerning the truth-value of ("literary")
textual production, while at the same time encouraging a rethinking of the
conventional boundaries between orthodox canonicity and the heterogeneous array
of more "popular" or "marginal" discourses against which it seeks to define
itself. Also central to the novel was another version of the semiotic quandary
which we observed in the Zhu Yu debates--namely, the figure of the "perfect"
simulacrum, which stymies attempts to draw meaningful distinctions between
signifier and referent (which is paralleled in the Zhu Yu case by an ambiguity
between signifiers with referents and those without).
I will conclude here by returning to the Zhu Yu performance with which I began.
An intriguing detail which none of the published commentaries on the performance
has (to my knowledge) hitherto remarked upon is that, in each of the endlessly
reproduced images of Zhu Yu eating the human infant, he is always positioned in
front of, and below, a large poster containing a representation of what appears
to be an anatomy textbook (see Figure 2). The book is open to a page containing
views of a human eye. Easily overlooked by viewers drawn, in horrified
fascination, to the cannibalistic drama unfolding below it, these ocular images
actually provide crucial insight into some of the issues involved in the
production, circulation, and visual consumption of the cannibalistic images
These images of the human eye provide an alternate focal point for this
photograph, graphically illustrating the degree to which the primal scene it
depicts gains significance precisely through its process of being exchanged and
viewed by others. Furthermore, these defamiliarizing views of the human eye
constitute a useful reminder that our understanding of the human body, even our
own body, is never "pure" and direct, but rather is necessarily mediated through
different pre-existing orders of knowledge, vision, and experience.
The implications of this autonomous, disembodied gaze for our understanding of
the scene as a whole are multiple. First of all, the human visual system is
dissected and subjected to the cold, disinterested gaze of medical science. The
resulting medical gaze, in turn, provides an ironic counterpoint to the
sensationalistic, morbid gaze which the photographs inevitably elicit. As a
result, these scandalous and endlessly reproduced images are not as transparently
intelligible as one might think and are actually located at the site of multiply
fractured gazes: spectacular, medical, anthropological, political, and
epistemological. My intention in this essay has been to provide additional
perspectives to each of these components of the gaze, and in the process to
suggest that the figure of cannibalism may itself be seen as pointing to a
crucial border region wherein conventional categorical distinctions between Self
and Other, us and them, reality and representation are deconstructed and put on
More generally speaking, last year's cannibalism "scandal" presents us with a
problem of perception and perspective. On the one hand, a recurrent theme in
most of the ensuing discussions of Zhu Yu's performance emphasized a sense of
cultural distance, of voyeuristically looking into a cultural space (Asian,
Chinese, Taiwanese, etc.) which is perceived as being either subtly or radically
distant from the socio-political location of the perceiver. On the other hand,
many of the discussions implicitly held this cannibalism up to "their own"
culturally specific standards, and indeed used the transgressive implications of
Zhu Yu's performance rhetorically to reinforce their own assumptions about the
universality of certain cultural prohibitions.
Under the reading I have outlined above, the figure of cannibalism itself
involves a paradoxical combination of identification and alterity, of violence
and desire. The act of incorporating into oneself flesh of an Other with whom
one shares a categorical identification, implicitly breaks down relations of
alterity, even as it retrospectively reinforces them. Accordingly, this
transcultural perception of cannibalism can itself provide a useful metaphor for
the act of transcultural perception itself. In perceiving "other" cultures, we
seek to understand, to internalize part of their inherent distance, even if only
to reaffirm their inherent distance from "our" own.
This "scandal" of cannibalism, therefore, encapsulates a compelling
problem from the perspective of cross-cultural perception. On the one
hand, many viewers are inclined to view cannibalism in absolute, universal
terms which transcend specific cultural difference. It is simply
unthinkable, according to this common view, that any human society would
knowingly and willing practice cannibalism. On the other hand, to the
extent that anthropologists recognize the possibility that some
societies might practice (or might have previously practiced) cannibalism,
they often proceed to attempt to contextualize these acts of cannibalism
by reducing them entirely to the cultural level--suggesting that
even actual acts of "actual" cannibalism are themselves metaphors for an
underlying symbolic meaning. The question of cannibalism thus
emblematizes, in a particularly graphic way, a problem which plagues all
cross-cultural hermeneutics--namely, how to negotiate the competing
impulses to view cultural alterity by one's own standards, on the one
hand, or to bracket it as radically "Other," on the other.
At the same time, I would suggest that the trope of cannibalism also presents a
potential model for how to rethink the possibility of cross-cultural perception
itself. Speaking in abstract terms, cross-cultural perception frequently
contains a dimension of epistemic violence, functioning as an act of symbolic
incorporation which, at the same time, retrospectively constructs and reaffirms
the imaginary boundaries between Self and Other which make such reading
meaningful in the first place. Like the figurative act of cannibalism itself,
cross-cultural perception is typically grounded on a uneasy combination of
epistemic violence and hermeneutic fusion, though the relative weightings of each
of these components will naturally differ according to the specific circumstances
involved. Just as the errant May Fourth white blood cells literally (re)shaped
their own corporal environment through incorporative acts of "reading" alterity,
I would propose a model of cross-cultural perception which is similarly grounded
on acts of scopically and/or intellectually "ingesting" socio-cultural
"alterity," so as to reinforce, or restructure, the perceiver's understanding of
epistemic networks by which that notion of "alterity" is produced in the first
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1. In Lacanian terms, cannibalism can be
seen as a figurative "stain" or "quilting point," a point which is
radically outside a certain symbolic system while at the same time
providing the necessary which gives that system form in the first place.
Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, in a related context, speaks of the "asystematic"
points of radical alterity which are a necessary component of any system.
2. Here and throughout this
essay these sorts of generalizations about "our" and "other" cultures are
being used strategically, or are "under erasure" (to borrow Derrida's useful
term); and, indeed, one of my arguments is precisely concerned with the
re-evaluation of these accepted notions themselves.
3. In 1979 the anthropologist
William Arens published a highly polemical book in which he argues that
there is no conclusive material evidence that cannibalism has ever existed
as a systematic social practice anywhere in the world at any point in
history, arguing instead that all apparent instances of cannibalism are
merely the result of optimistic over-readings of either textual rhetoric or
fundamentally ambiguous material evidence (see The Man-eating
Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy). Arens' book provided a
lightning rod of contention and was useful to the extent that it brought
critical attention to the latent ethnocentrism implicit in Western
anthropology's longstanding fascination with cannibalism. At the same
time, however, Arens' position, with its emphatic and almost messianic
opposition to the very possibility of human cannibalism, can actually be
seen as itself stemming from a parallel ethnocentrism, insofar as he is
unwilling to confront the implications such cannibalism would have for our
perception of the cannibals as anthropological subjects (see Gardner 27-50).
4. In this respect, the 2000/2001 round of
cannibalism allegations can be seen as a ironic reprise of a similar series of
allegations only five years earlier, on the occasion of the 1995 International
Conference on Women's Rights in Beijing. At that time, foreign tabloids,
Christian organizations, and even U.S. Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia
were taken in by spurious claims that human fetuses were considered a rare
delicacy by many Chinese gourmands. The politicians, in particular, used the
story rhetorically to support their opposition to granting China Most-Favored-Nation status, but
saw little need to pursue the actual allegations any further (see Dixon; this
article was apparently first published in early October of 2000, shortly before
Zhu Yu's performance, but may have been revised as recently as 5 June 2001
[judging by the dates of the file and its folder in the web site's publicly
5. On "Nietzsche fever" in China in the
mid-1980s, see Wang and Cheng.
6. According to the Taiwan GIO report, Zhu Yu
admitted in a telephone interview that the performance was part of the April 12
"Obsession with Injury" performances (that is, the second installment of the
"Obsession" series), which does not correlate with the November 13 date cited in
most other sources. It is unclear at this point, therefore, whether the repeated
identification, in many Chinese reports, of the performance with the "Obsession"
exhibit is in reference to a subsequent installment of the "Obsession" series, or
merely an unwitting perpetuation of an original error. The question is left
somewhat ambiguous in the Fuck Off catalogue, where the images are only
identified by the title "Eating People" and the date, 13 November 2000
other images, in the same catalog, from Zhu Yu's April 13 "Obsession with Injury"
performances in Beijing are clearly identified as such).
7. Lin Yü-sheng notes that
there is some
evidence that this piece was written not by Lu Xun himself, but rather by his
brother Zhou Zuoren (who was also an accomplished and well-recognized
literary figure in his own right; the "evidence" which Lin cites is that Zhou
himself claimed authorship in a subsequent letter to Cao Juren). However, as Lin
also notes, Zhou did not actually deny that the views he had expressed were
Lu Xun, but only that there were minor stylistic differences in the essay which
distinguished it from Lu Xun's own work, differences which so far had gone
unnoticed by the general readership. Furthermore, the essay continues to be
included in Lu Xun's collected works under his own name (Lin 116).
8. For instance, the classical
medical text Simple Questions of the Yellow Emperor (probably
dating from the first century B.C.E.) states that "the heart functions as
the prince and governs through the soul; the lungs are liaison officers
who promulgate rules and regulations; the liver is a general and devises
strategies." Similarly, the Tang dynasty Taoist master Sima Chengzhen
(eighth century C.E.) elaborates, "The country is like the body: follow
the nature of things, don't let your mind harbor any partiality, and the
whole world will be governed" (qtd. in Schipper 102).
9. Chen is drawing here primarily on
Metchnikoff's monograph. The subject of this essay, and of Metchnikoff's original
book, is particularly poignant in that the essay was written in the year of
Metchnikoff's claims to fame include his discovery of the phagocytotic role of
white blood cells in the immune system as well his being the younger brother of
Ivan Ilyitch, immortalized by Tolstoy in his story "The Death of Ivan Ilyitch."
10. Lin Yü-sheng contrasts
these three figures as follows:
Chen Duxiu, who eventually became a Marxist and the first leader of the
Chinese Communist Party, was known as a man of intense moral passion,
combative in temperament and fearlessly individualistic. His mind was
more forceful than subtle; he was not greatly concerned with the nuances
of meaning or the complexities involved in social and cultural issues. Hu
Shi, on the other hand, was a Deweyan liberal and eventually became an
ambivalent supporter of the Guomindang. He was a well-rounded and
self-content personality, affable and urbane, and not without a touch of
vanity. He possessed an alert mind, and was superficially lucid in his
manner of expression, but he did not involve himself in social and
cultural issues at their most difficult levels and never probed deeply
into the problems with which he was concerned. Lu Xun, by contrast, was
an extremely complex person, with a sharp wit and a sensitive, subtle, and
creative mind. He was known for his sardonic humor and mordant sarcasm.
Outwardly, he was distant and cold; inwardly, deeply pessimistic and
melancholy--but with a genuine warmth and moral passion which enabled him
to express the agony of China's cultural crisis with great eloquence.
Politically, he was highly sympathetic to the Communists in his later
years, but he eschewed formal party ties and firm ideological
11. For a more detailed discussion of the
relationship between these two texts, see Yang.
12. For an interesting, though
thoroughly uncritical, survey of discourses of cannibalism from throughout
Chinese history, see Chong.
13. On one web site discussion, for
instance, the author confidently asserts that "the taboos against eating
own are universal, and rumors about violations of these taboos are used to vilify
members of competing cultures" ("Fetus")(emphasis added).
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