Typically eliciting a combination of horror and fascination, cannibalism can be seen as a sort of archetypal stain that both reinforces and challenges our notion of who “we” are. Fantasies of cannibalism occupy a crucial liminal space where the boundaries of Self, society, and even representation itself are constituted and contested. This essay elaborates a selective genealogy of representations of cannibalism in modern Chinese culture, with examples drawn from literary, political, and avant-garde performative texts. Rather than focusing on the physical act of cannibalism, this study instead uses 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. These psychic, social, and epistemological constructs are, it is argued, 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. Finally, this cross-cultural reading of cannibalism is used to reflect on the challenges, and possibilities, of cross-cultural reading itself. While noting the inherent difficulties of “reading” cannibalism in a cross-cultural context, this essay argues that the trope of cannibalism also presents a useful model for rethinking the possibility of cross-cultural perception itself. Cross-cultural perception may sometimes be perceived as an epistemologically “violent” act, an act of symbolic incorporation which, simultaneously, retrospectively constructs and reaffirms the imaginary boundaries between Self and Other which make such reading meaningful in the first place.
One question that always stymies us—that is, why cannot people eat people?Zhu Yu
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 mid-March, when 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 enjoys a 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.1 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 by the prospect of cannibalistic practice among primitives, deviants, etc., in “other” cultures.2 Discourses and fantasies of cannibalism, therefore, occupy a crucial liminal space where the presumptive limits of human society are simultaneously challenged and implicitly reaffirmed.3
Taking the Taiwan restaurant rumors as my starting point...