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Cannibalism With Chinese Characteristics
Exploring China's Long and Unique History Of Cannibalism
This was originally published for Man’s World 6 magazine and is republished with the kind permission of the editor, you can read it and find many incredible articles and pieces here.
“The flesh was consumed not simply out of "class hatred" or "revolutionary revenge." Livers and hearts were taken for other reasons: to "embolden the eater" or to cure the eater's ailments… Some old men took the brain of a dead victim while an old woman suffering from an eye ailment sought the eyeballs. Filial piety and parental duty motivated some young individuals, who took pieces of flesh home for their parents, and some mothers brought their sick children to the site of the butchery for a piece of liver. Various culinary procedures adopted seem to suggest the presence of "gourmet cannibalism" as well… This does not cohere with any "system" of classification.”
This disturbing paragraph, taken from Gang Yue’s book ‘The Mouth That Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism and the Politics of Eating in Modern China’, manages to capture exactly why the Chinese experience with cannibalism is so odd, so unusual and so unique. The context, which we will explore more thoroughly later on, is the so-called ‘Guangxi Massacre’ of 1966-76. We see encapsulated here all the reasons why academics and researchers struggle to explain the Chinese anomaly in this area of the human experience. I want to try and break down this description and look at what sources and works we have to make sense of the following: Do episodes of Chinese cannibalism follow an older historical script? Why do we see medical, nutritional and revenge cannibalism occurring in the same time and place, and why does China seem to be almost alone in practising ‘filial’ and ‘gourmet’ cannibalism? This combination is what I will dub ‘Cannibalism with Chinese Characteristics’.
The Nuances of Eating People
Cannibalism seems a straightforward topic to describe: the act of eating a human body. But as soon as we start to look more closely, we find that cannibalism, far from a blind act performed by unthinking creatures, is typically a socially taboo subject with specific rules and episodes determining where it takes place. The most basic distinction, credited to Dutch ethnographer Rudolf Steinmetz, is between endocannibalism and exocannibalism. Endocannibalism is where only the bodies of those related to you as part of your kin network or larger social tribe are eaten. Exocannibalism is the opposite - only the bodies of those unrelated and far distant from your group are consumed. The standard definitions of these come from anthropological and archaeological work studying groups such as the Maori, who eat the bodies of their enemies, or the Amazonian Amahuaca, who eat the pulverised bones of their relatives to banish malevolent spirits.
Other classification schemes have explored medical cannibalism, consuming body parts for health reasons; mortuary cannibalism, related to endocannibalism - where consumption takes place during funeral rites; dietary cannibalism, eating human flesh for sustenance or to fend off starvation and non-normative or deviant cannibalism - modern serial killers or internet cannibals who do not reflect their social norms.
In the 1919 short story ‘Medicine’, written by Chinese author Lu Xun, an old man and his wife go out to purchase a folk remedy to help cure their son from tuberculosis. They invest their savings in this medicine, but it fails to work and their little boy dies. The remedy in question turns out to be a warm bread roll soaked in the blood of an executed revolutionary. After the sick boy dies and is buried, the mothers of them both - revolutionary and citizen - meet at the graveside and Xun draws our attention to the metaphor of the old literally feeding off the blood of the young and dynamic.
China is not alone in having a history and medical tradition which called for the use of human body parts and substances. The consumption of blood, ground up bone and all sorts of grisly products has a long pedigree, likely stretching back into the archaic past. The European penchant for eating dried and powdered mummified corpses was well documented, right into the 18th century. Recipes for human blood marmalade, skull bones in alcohol, moss grown on the heads of executed men - these all fill the excitable columns of journalists quick to point out that Europeans had gruesome tastes at exactly the time they were demonising Native Americans and others for cannibalism. This may be a fair point, but China presents its own unique set of historical phenomena surrounding the medico-religious use of the human body.
Chinese civilisation is often touted as the world’s oldest and most continuous, particularly by the modern Chinese state, who wish to emphasise the extended lineage of writing, education and even human evolution through time from at least the Neolithic onward. This is a debatable claim, but at the very least it has more merit than attempting to derive European civilisation from an equally early time period, so let us withhold scepticism and engage on their terms. With the religious traditions of Taoism drawing on the Neolithic Hongshun Wuist cultures of shamanism and Confucianism tapping into ideas dating back to the Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BC), we can therefore argue that the medical traditions and prohibitions of both belong to the deepest wellsprings of what it means to be Chinese.
The oldest written medical text in China is the Wushi’er Bingfang - Recipes for 52 Ailments - dating to 168 BC in the Han Dynasty. Among magical incantations and snake bite cures is the mention of several human body parts: hair, fingernails and menstrual cloth, to be used as remedies. In 1597, Li Shizhen published the Bengcao Gangmu, his most important work and the best preserved source of Chinese medicine. In it, Shizhen details the extensive and meticulous use of human body parts for a wide range of conditions. These can be as crude as a whole human head, or as particular as the white sediment from a child’s urine, the first faeces of a newborn baby, placental fluid, the earth from underneath a hanged man, ground gallstones, human tears and saliva, or the ‘bregma’ - the point at which the sutures on the skull meet. Detailed instructions exist for processing human urine or the collection of copious quantities of semen, and even female vaginal secretions. (Shizhen warns against using such secretions, saying “They consider this a treasured drug and indulge in sex excessively, eating such a foul thing. This practice will shorten their lifespans greatly. What a stupid thing!”).
What is crucial here is that this use of the human body for medicine is deeply rooted, forms part of a continuous tradition and has yet to be properly stamped out. Claims and cases of herbal folk healers using body parts continue to be reported in modern China; as late as 2005 a Chinese cosmetics company was investigated by the UK House of Commons select committee on health for apparently using human skin, harvested from executed prisoners, in their beauty products. The company’s agents defended the practice as “traditional”.
Warlords & Warriors - Cases of Cannibalism
One of the oldest literary references to cannibalism in the Chinese canon is during the War of the Three Kingdoms, set between AD 169-280. The warlord Liu Bei, who founded the state of Shu Han, is recorded as engaging in and permitting cannibalism as his men went hungry. Surrounded by the forces of Yuan Shu, he and his troops ate dead bodies to stay alive. More interestingly, the tale of the criminal hunter Liu An reveals what will be a theme in this essay - the uniquely Chinese concept of filial cannibalism. Liu An has nothing to serve Liu Bei, which is embarrassing and degrading, so he kills his own wife and serves her flesh up to the warlord. Despite Liu Bei discovering this the next day, Liu An is rewarded later by the Emperor as a faithful servant.
In a similar story, the Tang general Zhang Xun and his men experience severe hunger during the Battle of Suiyang. Zhang repels attack after attack from Yin Ziqi, and the city is at first well stocked with supplies. Eventually the men resort to eating their horses, then birds and rodents. Finally Zhang kills his favourite concubine and divides her among his men. This prompts an explosion of cannibalism as first the servants, then all the women of the city, then all the non military men are killed and eaten. A point worth mentioning is that none of the victims are recorded as putting up any resistance to their fate. The death and consumption of the concubine has been a source of literary creativity ever since - Yao Maoliang's southern drama Shuangzhong ji provides agency to the concubine so that she willingly volunteers her body for the greater cause. In doing so the author leans on the Confucian line of thinking that links the macrocosm of the state with the microcosm of the family, her sacrifice and total absorption into the political unity of the body politic, in other words - the state is a natural organic entity which rests on the filial love of its subjects.
The historian Key Rey Chong documents a number of similar sieges and moments of military peril where opposing sides agree to swap children as food. He provides evidence for 177 instances of cannibalism, either from starvation or some other cultural imperative. The numbers between dynasties stay roughly the same. In a paper by Harry F Lee, published in 2019, a meta-analysis of Chinese literature, archaeology and history revealed a huge number of incidents of cannibalism over the period 1470-1911. Lee reports that 1194 cases of cannibalism can be positively identified, and that the majority of them match the time periods for both drought and war. This is unsurprising, given that the majority of cannibalism cases stem from the need to eat. But the number is high and certainly Lee could not have captured every episode.
Confucianism & Filial Cannibalism
By now it might be clear that Chinese cannibalism does have certain characteristics which set it apart - there aren’t a great number of military sieges where the defending army resorts to eating the people it is trying to protect. Central to these unique elements is the Confucian notion of filial piety.
“Among the various forms of virtuous conduct, xiao comes first (baixing xiao weixian !"),” declares a well known Chinese proverb. In the Shuoyuan , Confucius is quoted as saying, “Among human practices, none is greater than xiao.” Xiao is commonly rendered as “filial piety… Some scholars contend that the character xiao appears in the oracle bones; most agree that it occurs in Western Zhou (1045–771 BCE) sources, frequently as a verb in texts about the performance of sacrifices… probably at the very earliest stages in their history, the Chinese gave filial piety an extremely exalted position – treated it as something one might almost call an absolute, a metaphysical entity”
“Holzman’s study describes “the peculiar passion [for filial piety] that took hold of the country at the beginning of the Later Han dynasty (25–220 CE),” and explains how “the excesses to which filial piety was carried at that time illustrate an aspect of Chinese psychology that, once understood, will help us appreciate much that usually remains incomprehensible in Chinese history.” According to Holzman, the centrality of the homage children rendered to their parents and ancestor worship in Chinese culture, which create a strong tie binding succeeding generations one to another, explain both its enduring character and the difficulty of adapting it to the modern world”
The concept of filial cannibalism comes from the zoological study of cannibalism. A wide range of animals, fish and insects engage in the practice of eating all or part of their offspring. In fish it is particularly associated with paternal care species, and in insects it serves to limit parasites, to fend off starvation and improve reproductive fitness for the survivors. In general there is no consensus as to how and why the practice emerged in evolutionary history.
Why this is important for our subject is that China has been noted by various historians as essentially the only place where filial cannibalism became a standard human practice (Confucian practices in Korea led to children finger chopping for their parents). At its deepest most spiritual level, the filial act of a child offering up their own body to their parents is a reversal of the natural order of biology, for the next generation to feed the old with their very flesh. In a story by the early Qing philologist Mao Qiling, a young man called Yang engages in both gegu, the act of slicing off a body part (usually a portion of thigh, upper arm or finger) to feed to a parent, and coprophagy. He tastes his ill father’s faeces, and is upset that their sweetness indicates his coming death, he then slices off a portion of his arm to feed and cure his mother. Tina Lu, in her work Accidental Incest, Filial Cannibalism, & Other Peculiar Encounters in Late Imperial Chinese Literature, describes this incident:
“Parenthood's essence is to create new bodies; when Yang chooses coprophagy and cannibalism to express devotion to his parents, he seems to suggest that filiality's point is to defy—or at least undo — the heart of parenthood. If biology makes three where there were two, this filial son, through both eating and feeding, attempts to make one of three.”
Gegu has a long documented history as an accepted social practice. Noted in the tenth century, by the sixteenth it was a staple feature of stories, dramas and debates. The physician Li Shizhen, who we met earlier, railed against gegu:
“How could any parent, even if seriously ill, possibly desire their offspring to harm their bodies and limbs, and consume their own flesh and bones? Such [practices] stem from the views of the foolish”.
As we saw, his criticism falls flat as he begins listing all the medical uses of human body parts. His disgust is in line with a basic reading of Confucian ethics, that children should not harm their own bodies, but this prescription has never stopped serious acts of filial devotion where children look to feed starving parents. Religious scholar Jimmy Yu notes that filial cannibalism perhaps has a political parallel wherein earlier Chinese rulers would eat the body of a previous claimant. The Yellow Emperor claimed victory over the monstrous Chi You and had him quartered, simmered and served to his soldiers. Dynastic succession, from the Xia to the Shang and then to the Zhou often involved stories of one leader being fed to another, such as the Zhou inheritors eating King Zhou of Shang’s body raw, or drinking his blood. Yu tentatively makes the case that gegu fits into a Chinese concern with regeneration and renewal through sacrifice.
The Emotions of Eating
A number of Chinese writers and thinkers, such as Lu Xun, Zheng Yi and Mo Yan, have discussed the interesting theme of hunger and of eating which runs through much of Chinese literature and thought. Two ancient idioms exemplify the primal emotion to not only kill your enemy, but to fully abolish them through ingestion - shirou qinpi (eating your flesh and sleeping on your hide) and henbude bani chile (I really want to eat you - said as an expression of rage).
The first comes from the Zuozhuan, the oldest work of narrative history detailing the period 722 - 468 BC. The warrior Zhou Chuo resents that his Duke praises two adversaries which he had just beaten, and declares to him that he will eat them and sleep on their hides. While this isn’t a formal declaration of intent, it underscores the emotional resonance of eating one’s enemies, just as the second popular saying also reinforces. Historian Edward Schafer describes this kind of impulse writ large during the Tang Dynasty:
“A very special kind of ritual food was human flesh. It was by no means an uncommon occurrence for outraged Tang citizenry to chop up the body of a corrupt or tyrannical official and eat him .... In 739 an officer of the court, who enjoyed the monarch's favor, accepted a bribe to cover up the crime of a colleague; the affair came to light, and the ruler had the offender beaten severely, after which the official supervising the punishment cut out the culprit's heart and ate a piece of his flesh. Again, in 767 a man murdered his rival, who had accused him of misdeeds, and having sliced his body into gobbets, he partook of them. In 803 a military officer led a mutiny against his commander, killed him, and devoured him, presumably with the help of his associates”
This kind of cannibalism has been described as ‘revenge cannibalism’, springing not from the pangs of starvation and hunger, nor from the filial excesses of Confucian piety, but rather from the primal urge to absorb and obliterate an offender, a criminal, a heretic or a rival.
China’s long agrarian history has fostered a near obsession with eating as a central metaphor for existence. Adages such as ‘people revere food as if it were Heaven’ or the more recent ‘anything with two legs is edible except your parents; so is anything with four legs, except the bed’ exemplify the importance of food and eating almost without cultural constraint. The Maoist Revolution and the language of Revolution pitched itself intentionally against an old-world order of human flesh and feasting, focusing on the belt tightening and iron bowl sacrifices the people would need to make to renew the world. We saw earlier in Lu Xun’s parable of traditional medicine how the revolutionary impulse was itself cannibalistic, but the luxury and decadence of the former epoch was often described through the notion of ‘gourmet cannibalism’.
The idea of gourmet cannibalism is a disturbing one, that people would consume human flesh not out of necessity or even ritual proscription, but for its taste and properties as a form of food, like any other high value victual. It is hard to evaluate any serious claim that China at any point institutionalised the practice of making feasting foods from human bodies, but hints do exist. In the fictional story The Republic of Wine by Mo Yan, gourmet cannibalism becomes a major theme; in the apocryphal story of Yi Yan, a chef to the Duke Huan, he cooks up his own son’s head to serve to his superior, not only out of filial loyalty, but because the Duke enjoys the taste and flavour. Most sensationally, in his potted history of cannibalism, the writer Bill Schutt claimed to have seen Yuan Dynasty era documents detailing numerous ways to cook and eat children, including recipes and complex cooking and roasting methods. Again, such stories are almost impossible to corroborate, but it appears that at the very least, whispered rumours of such practices pepper Chinese history, to be drawn upon by writers and thinkers in later generations. To quote Yun-Chu Tsai, author of a dissertation on Chinese cannibalism in literature and reality:
“Chinese gourmandism and gourmet cannibalism share the same discourse in which the existence of “the other” is meaningful only for the desire and satisfaction of the self. Both Chinese gourmandism and gourmet cannibalism share the logic of eating animals or human beings for one’s own immoderate physical need and pleasure”
A Spasm of Violence - The Revolution
Turning to one of the most disturbing outbreaks of cannibalism in the modern world - the Cultural Revolution - we see all the major themes discussed so far appear in the same place at the same time. The quote at the beginning of the article can now finally be put into context - the emphasis on a widespread, shared belief in the medicinal powers of human flesh, the author’s insistence that not only was revenge cannibalism at play, but also undertones of gourmet and filial cannibalism, and finally the simple reality that unrelated people engaged in a spasm of violence, culminating in shamelessly carving up corpses to take home for their relatives. So what exactly happened in the Guangxi Massacre?
For a full and truly devastating account of the massacre one must turn to Zheng Yi’s Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China. Here the darkest episodes of the Revolution played out and the mildest descriptions contain off-handed remarks such as: “Strolling down the street, the director of the local Bureau of Commerce carried a human leg on his shoulder, which he was taking home to boil and consume”. In a nutshell then - Guangxi is an autonomous region in the south of China. During the Cultural Revolution two factions of communists emerged, allied to different powerful leaders. This turned into a violent struggle during which the ‘reactionary’ faction lost ground and was defeated. The scale is tragic, anywhere between 100 and 150,000 people were killed, and in the most savage fashion. Researchers list: beaten to death, stoning, drowning, electrocution, buried alive, boiling, beheading, disembowelment, lynching (hanging) and gang rape to the point of death. At least one person had dynamite strapped to their back and blown up for amusement. On top of this came the even more shocking revelation that over 400 of these people were eaten -
“A geography instructor named Wu Shufang was beaten to death by students at Wuxuan Middle School. Her body was carried to the flat stones of the Qian River where another teacher was forced at gunpoint to rip out the heart and liver. Back at the school the pupils barbecued and consumed the organs.”
Everything we have talked about so far came to the fore. Revenge was in the air and in the stomach. According to the Chinese historian Song Yongyi:
“There were reports of cannibalism across 27 counties in Guangxi; that's two-thirds of all the counties in Guangxi. There was one man who was beaten to death where he stood. He had two kids, one of 11 and one of 14. The local officials and armed militia said that it was important to eradicate such people, and so they not only killed those two children: they ate them too. This took place in Pubei county, Guangxi, where 35 people were killed and eaten in total. Most of them were rich landowners and their families. There was one landowner called Liu Zhengjian whose entire family was wiped out. He had a 17-year-old daughter, Liu Xiulan, who was gang-raped by nine people [for 19 times] who then ripped open her belly, and ate her liver and breasts. There were so many incidents like this.”
The Scarlet Memorial and other works on the massacre are truly gruesome reading, in part for the outrageously normalised attitude that militia and faction leaders had towards killing people for crimes such as crying over a dead relative or collecting a loved one’s mutilated body for burial, but also for the passivity of the victims and the quiet toleration and harvesting of bodies by the local populace. In the forward to the book, historian Ross Terrill laments the total acceptance of death by the accused: “as the sticks and knives were wielded, the innocent just knelt down silently, no begging, no cursing, no arguing, and not the slightest show of a willingness to resist…. Not one act of direct physical heroism is recorded by Zheng Yi… no-one died in a physical attack on a murderer”. The most heartbreaking reading was of children made to lie on top of their parents as they were buried alive, and yet, there was no protest. This is a motif we have seen before, in the Battle of Suiyang - one wonders whether Confucian piety and deference had been so inculcated into the civilisation that people simply could not halt what was happening.
The tales of cannibalism in Guangxi between 1966-76 are too numerous to cover, but they range from emboldened thugs who kept tallies of the number of livers they ate, to students who cooked their teacher in a bout of revolutionary fervour; a militia woman who enjoyed severing male genitalia, storing them in alcohol to drink for their power; a killing committee, held at Pingshan Square, in Shangsi County, ended with 10 people being beaten to death and a committee member (Li Hao) removing their hearts and frying them for the remaining members. The mind boggles and protests that surely this must be exaggeration and slander, someone must have known this was happening further up the Communist Party hierarchy? The massacre ended in 1976, the first official investigation began in 1981, and more followed. Historians know of at least one petition to Beijing, from a former veteran and rightist, Wang Zujian, imploring that the central authorities step in and halt the bloodshed and cannibalism across Guangxi. The consensus is that, even if Mao himself was not aware, some close to him certainly were.
This has been a long essay, so my conclusions shall be brief. We’ve traced a narrative across the entirety of Chinese civilisation, from the earliest sieges and battles, to popular literature, medicinal textbooks, religious duties and well documented modern events. We can say with some confidence that China has had a unique relationship with this taboo. The longevity of agriculture has exposed the historical population to lengthy periods of starvation and famine, the early codification of religious morality, in particular Confucianism, created a distinctly Chinese approach to the relationship between ancestor worship, the family and the state. One’s filial duties go so far as to serve up yourself, both for your parents, and for your emperor. The cultural focus on food, on eating, combined with the vampiric ancestor cult and vision of the human body as mere meat created a potent brew, topped off with traditional medicine. If I had time I would explore the psychology of bureaucracy as a petty and spiteful motivator of revenge, but that can’t be here.
Overall I have hopefully shown that, while cannibalism is a part of the human story in general, in China it very much comes with distinct Chinese characteristics.