Do They Eat Babies in China?

The urban legend is connected to the work of a controversial artist

Zhu Yu: 'Eating People'
Viral image

According to urban legends and online rumors, dead babies are sold in Chinese hospitals and cooked and eaten as a delicacy. The "evidence" of this—tabloid-style rumor-mongering and unsourced images circulating on the internet—has managed to fool a surprising number of people. The truth is that the Chinese are no more inclined to eat human children than people in any other part 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.

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 the 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 the perceived moral failings of one's own group to others). As an example of the latter, some sociologists speculate that the spread of horror stories 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

Bolstering the myth that the Chinese consume babies are a number of photographs, circulated online since December 2000, which appear to show an Asian man cooking and eating a human fetus. It's difficult to tell whether the images are real or fake. We do know, thanks to documentation provided on Chinese-Art.com, that the photographs are the work of a conceptual artist named Zhu Yu.

They were exhibited at an underground art show after being rejected as "too controversial" by the curators of the 2000 Shanghai Biennale.

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.

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. Perhaps 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. Some critics believe the artist constructed his "fetuses" out of doll parts and animal carcasses pretended to consume them in front of the camera and issued tongue-in-cheek statements about eating human flesh to provoke the press.

It's a theory that's easier to believe than Zhu's own claims, which, if they were true, would mean the artist would probably be serving jail time.

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 a state-run exhibition bears that out. By his own "admission," the fetuses Zhu allegedly cooked and ate were obtained illegally, meaning, if he is telling the truth, he could be prosecuted for additional crimes 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 contained 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 Rotten.com, a prominent website specializing in tasteless content, prompting reports in the British press that Scotland Yard and the FBI were investigating their origins.

However, the owner of the website said that he had not been contacted by any authorities.

Sources

  • “Baby-Eating Allegations Denied by Irate Officials.” Taipei Times, www.taipeitimes.com/News/local/archives/2001/03/22/0000078565.
  • “Baby-Eating Photos Are Part of Chinese Artist's Performance.” Taipei Times, www.taipeitimes.com/News/local/archives/2001/03/23/78704.
  • “Blood Libel, Host Desecration and Other Myths.” Religious Tolerance, www.religioustolerance.org/jud_blib1.htm.
  • Everipedia. “Child Cannibalism.” Everipedia, 2 Dec. 2017, everipedia.org/wiki/Child_cannibalism/.
  • Greene, Thomas C. “Online Baby Muncher Is an Artist.” The Register, The Register, 23 Feb. 2001, www.theregister.co.uk/2001/02/23/online_baby_muncher/.