In China, the culture of eating has a particularly powerful influence even in daily life. As the old saying goes, 民以食为天 mei yi shi wei tian—‘The people revere food as if it were heaven’. Both shaping and shaped by cultural values from ancient history, one sometimes can’t help but think that gastronomy is one of the central cogs in the mechanism of China. After all this is a country where its people have been known to ask each other how they’re doing with a greeting 吃了吗?—Have you eaten yet?
Moreover, the Middle Kingdom has something of a reputation for having an… shall we say…open attitude towards their food consumption. ‘Chinese people will eat anything that moves with its back pointing towards the sky’ is the general jist of the commonly heard joke. The meaning being something along the lines of we’ll eat any animal at all, anything except humans (whose back does not point to the sky).
But what of eating humans? There’s little doubt that as an action of utmost violence and savagery, cannibalism holds a uniquely reviled position in most societies. But, with an ‘open’ attitude to eating, it’s not all too surprising that are a few reports and cases scattered around detailing incidents of the devouring of human flesh.
See, here’s something funny—in Chinese, the word ‘flesh’ and ‘meat’ share the same character 肉 rou. Which can give a whole other reading to accounts of ‘meat’ eating, but the bigger point is that it’s ambiguous. Exactly what ‘meat’ they were eating is not always clear. There are a few textual references to famous incidents, however, which seem less disputable, for example the ancient story of Yi Ya 易牙 who served Duke Huan of Qi towards the end of the Spring and Autumn period (approx. 771 to 476 BC). As a display of devotion to his master, after hearing that the only gourmet dish the Duke had not eaten was human flesh, boiled his own first born son and served it to him.
Plenty of others are not so clear-cut, but our purpose here is not going to be to decide about those for certain. Instead, we can look at a different area in which cannibalism has played a role in society, namely, in literature.
Throughout twentieth century literature in particular, cannibalism became a prominent theme in many important works. The monumental Diary of a Madman for example by Lu Xun 鲁迅 contains five instances of cannibalism and is set around the premise of one individual slowly realizing that he is surrounded by a society of people who are eating each other. His chronic final note, to “Save the Children” sounds a chilling and pessimistic chord of warning.
Twentieth century Chinese history, after all, did not have a shortage of hunger or of violence—which are both reflected in the allegorical use of cannibalism in this period’s literature. Of course, each author used the theme in their own way to make their own point—from criticizing traditional Confucian values to making an analogy of one layer of society eating another, to analyzing societal relationships, it is an emotionally shocking, but powerful tool.
We can look at the Lu Xun as an example. Diary of a Madman is an allegorical short story published in 1918, just after the fall of Imperial China and when many post-revolutionary Chinese authors were concerned with discussing China’s problems. The main character is the ‘madman’ who developed a paranoia after studying the classical texts of Confucian works that the revered scripts are instructing him to ‘eat people’. When he looks around him at the area he lives, he becomes devoured by the fear that these people have succumbed to the teachings and are now harboring designs to consume him as their next victim. It’s an outright criticism of the ‘traditional’ Chinese culture and teachings, made that so much more shocking by using the taboo of cannibalism.
This is only the beginning of the analysis and it is very difficult to do justice to both the nuances and shock factor of the creative works of this period. As for real life, the mystery of the meat remains, perhaps not an uncommon question to be associated with Chinese eating habits. Some things we do learn from literature though, is that the ambiguity can make the message even more powerful.
Not gory enough for you? Try Massacres in Ancient History