Do They Eat Babies in China?

From the Urban Legends Mailbag

Zhu Yu: "Eating People". Viral image

Dear Urban Legends:

I received an email last week which was quite disturbing and, to say the least, disgusting. It is about dead babies that can be bought from hospitals in Taiwan for $70 to meet the high demand for grilled and barbecued babies!

I am sure this must be a hoax, although the message comes with an attached slide show, showing how the baby is prepared, cooked and eaten.

Could you please investigate?

Dear Reader:

Given the nature of the "evidence" — namely, tabloid-style rumor-mongering and unsourced images circulating on the Internet — we must proceed under the assumption that the Chinese as a people, whether on the mainland or in Taiwan, are no more inclined to eat human children than folks in other parts of the world.

The same holds true for Jews, Christians, "Gypsies," witches, aborigines, Satanists, and all the other ethnic and religious groups accused of practicing this bloody "custom" down through the centuries. There's simply no evidence that it exists, or has ever existed, anywhere on the planet. The burden of proof is on those who claim otherwise.

Prejudice and Blood Libel

The notion that killing and eating human babies or fetuses is an accepted practice within certain groups is essentially a modern version of an ancient form of bigotry known as "blood libel," which consisted, historically, of one group accusing another of murdering infants in ritual sacrifices.

The Greeks accused the Jews of doing it; the Romans accused the Christians of doing it; according to the Christians, it really was the Jews who did it — and so on, since time immemorial.

Sociologists say the driving forces behind such ideas are ignorance, xenophobia (fear of "the other") and psychological projection (attributing perceived moral failings of one's own group to others).

As an example of the latter, it has been speculated that the spread of horror stories in the West about the supposed use of unborn babies as food in Asia may be fueled by qualms about social practices closer to home — practices such as abortion, for example, and the so-called "cannibalization" of fetal tissue for scientific research.

'Cannibalism' as Art

In any case, it's difficult to tell — and under dispute — whether photographs circulating online since December 2000 which appear to show an Asian man cooking and eating a human fetus are real or fake. We do know, thanks to documentation provided on, that they were the work of a conceptual artist named Zhu Yu. The photos were exhibited at an underground art show after being rejected as "too controversial" by curators of the Shanghai 2000 Bienniale. 

The artist himself, whose past accomplishments include an opus called "Canned Human Brains," has claimed in interviews that he used real aborted fetuses stolen from a medical school to create the piece and that he actually cooked and ate the fetuses "for art's sake."

Should we take him at his word? Not necessarily.

Doll Parts?

It is true — to the point of being a cliche, in fact — that avant-garde artists will say and do anything to shock their audiences, so we're obliged to acknowledge the possibility that Zhu Yu is telling the truth — that he really did cook and eat human fetuses in front of a camera.

On the other hand, they don't call the kind of work Zhu does performance art for nothing, and it has been argued that he may have constructed his "fetuses" out of doll parts and animal carcasses, pretended to consume them in front of a camera and issued tongue-in-cheek statements to the press claiming he was actually eating human flesh.

That's a theory I'm inclined to support, because, frankly, if Zhu's claims were factual he'd probably be serving jail time right now. There's no reason to suppose the government of China is any more tolerant of cannibalism than governments anywhere else. The fact that Zhu's work was rejected for inclusion in an state-run exhibition bears that out. By his own "admission," the fetuses Zhu allegedly cooked and ate were obtained illegally, thus, if he is telling the truth, he could be prosecuted as an accomplice in that crime, as well.

Chinese Officials Demand Retraction

In early 2001, a Malaysian tabloid published several of Zhu's photos in conjunction with a story alleging that the signature dish of a particular Taiwanese restaurant contains the "meat" of human infants. Taiwan government officials immediately demanded a retraction — a de facto confirmation that baby eating is not particularly well-accepted by the Chinese.

Shortly afterward, the same pictures turned up on a prominent website specializing in tasteless content (, prompting reports in the British press that Scotland Yard and the FBI were investigating their origins. The owner of said website maintains he has never been contacted by authorities from any country, however.

As of August 2001, the photos were still on display there.

Sources and further reading:

• "Baby Eating Allegations Denied by Irate Officials." Taipei Times, 22 March 2001.
• "Baby Eating Photos Are Part of Chinese Artist's Performance." Taipei Times, 23 March 2001.
• "Officials Tone Down Chinese Art Exhibit." Associated Press, 8 Jan 2001.
• "Blood Libel Myths: Then and Now."
• "Dead Baby Muncher Pic Spawns Police Inquiry." The Register, 22 Feb 2001.
• "Online Baby Muncher Is an Artist." The Register, 23 Feb 2001.
• Dixon, Poppy. "Chinese Eating Fetuses: Christian Pornography." Adult Christianity, October 2000.
• Ellis, Bill. Aliens, Ghosts, and Cults: Legends We Live. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001; pp 46-57.
• "The Violent Trend in Chinese Contemporary Art.", 2001.
• "Chinese Avant-Garde Art Is a 'Social Evil'." The Art Newspaper, 2000.