Cannibalism and the Chinese Body Politic: Hermeneutics and Violence in Cross-Cultural Perception

Cannibalism and the Chinese Body Politic: Hermeneutics and Violence in Cross-Cultural Perception




    One question that always stymies us–that is, why cannot people eat people?

    Zhu Yu

  1. 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”)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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]

  5. Taking the Taiwan restaurant rumors as my starting point, in this essay I will
    elaborate a selective discursive genealogy of representations of cannibalism in
    twentieth-century Chinese culture. Specifically, I will consider four such
    cases, together with the cultural and social contexts in which they are
    embedded. In this survey, my intention is not to focus on the literal, physical
    act of cannibalism, but rather to use 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. Rather than being derived from
    explicit, manifest criteria, these psychic, social, and epistemological
    constructs are, instead, 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.

  6. My discussion of cannibalism will be conducted at two levels. On the one hand, I
    will seek to consider the significance of each instance of discursive cannibalism
    in its respective context, noting the way in which each elaboration builds, in
    part, on a shared discourse of cannibalistic allusions. On the other hand, I
    will seek to generalize from these specific instances of cannibalism and
    encorporation and use them as an abstract model for the reading process itself.
    Finally, at the end of the essay, I will seek to bring these two dimensions of
    cannibalism (contextualized specificity and abstract model, respectively)
    together, to consider the hermeneutic ethics of the act of reading cannibalism
    itself in a cross-cultural context. In particular, I will suggest that these
    actual discourses of cannibalism constitute an important challenge to how we
    approach the possibility of cross-cultural reading and perception, even as the
    abstract trope of cannibalism may itself provide a useful model for better
    understanding the hermeneutic ethics of cross-cultural reading and perception itself.


  7. Zhu Yu



    The human corporal body is, perhaps, a mere signifier. After this signifier has
    been developed [xianying] and fixed [dingying] on a roll of
    Kodak film, it becomes dark shadows [heiying]. On a sheet of wove paper
    that has been exposed to sunlight, it becomes a cluster of lights and shadows,
    with washes of ink and color added to lines and curves.

    Wuming Shi, “Reflections on the Body”

    Figure 1
    Figure 1
  8. The Taiwanese restaurant cited in the Malaysian tabloid
    article had not, it turns out, done anything out of the ordinary, though
    the images which accompanied the article were themselves not without a
    basis in reality. Specifically, the photos were taken as part of a
    performance entitled “Eating People” (or “Man-Eater”) [shiren]
    performed on 17 October 2000 in Shanghai by the 30-year-old avant-garde
    performance artist Zhu Yu (see Figure 1). One widely publicized report
    quotes Zhu as
    saying that “to create Man-eater, he said he cooked the corpses of babies
    that had been stolen from a medical school. Zhu admitted that the meat
    obtained from the bodies tasted bad, and said he had vomited several times
    while eating it. However, he said, he had to do it ‘for art’s sake'”
    (“Baby-Eating”).
  9. In public comments he made at the time of the performance, Zhu Yu sought
    to address the significance of the scandalous nature of the his act, while
    at the same time attempting to relativize the social and cultural
    assumptions which make it appear scandalous in the first place:



    One question that always stymies us–that is, why cannot people eat people?

    Is there a commandment in man’s religion in which it is written that we cannot
    eat people? In what country is there a law against eating people? It’s simply
    morality. But, what is morality? Isn’t morality simply something that man
    whimsically changes from time to time based on his/her own so-called needs of
    human being in the course of human progress.

    From this we might thus conclude:

    So long as it can be done in a way that does not commit a crime, eating people is
    not forbidden by any of man or societies laws or religions; I herewith announce
    my intention and my aim to eat people as a protest against mankind’s moral idea
    that he/she cannot eat people. (qtd. in Hua 192)

  10. Here, Zhu Yu draws attention to cannibalism’s peculiar
    position at the center of contemporary society’s own self-conception,
    while also foregrounding its status as being effectively outside the
    purview of secular authority. Like the proverbial incest taboo,
    cannibalism is often viewed as a foundational prohibition on which the
    social order is grounded, but which, at the same time, derives
    significance precisely through its own potential transgression. The
    prohibitions against incest and cannibalism are both examples of
    socio-cultural taboos which, by their very ostensible universality, bring
    into question the ontological status of the categories of cultural
    identity within which they are imbedded. Furthermore, it is not
    coincidental that both prohibitions are explicitly concerned with
    negotiations of identity and contestations of equivalence. René
    Girard, for instance, includes both incest and cannibalism under the
    master category of sacrificial violence, speculating that “We are perhaps
    more distracted by incest than by cannibalism, but only because
    cannibalism has not yet found its Freud and been promoted to the status of
    a major contemporary myth” (276-77).
  11. Despite the universalizing tenor of Zhu Yu’s own remarks, his “Man-Eater”
    performance quickly became mired in a rather mundane debate over cultural
    and social differences. For instance, by mid-July of 2001, the
    R.O.C. [Taiwan] Government Information Office [GIO] had sprung into
    action, repeating the explanation that the story and the photographs were
    actually derived from Mainlander Zhu Yu’s October performance the
    preceding year, rather than from any culinary malfeasance on the part of
    the Taiwanese restaurant, and concluded cheerfully that “the GIO wishes to
    emphasize that no event of this kind has ever taken place in Taiwan, and
    that the serving or eating of such a dish would break an ROC law against
    the defiling of human corpses” (Republic). With this rhetorical flourish,
    the GIO report succeeded in taking a debate which might have appeared to
    center on cultural universals concerning the sanctity of the human body
    and adeptly translated it into a rather more provincial debate over
    regional mores and secular authority.[4]

  12. In this way, the debate provides a prism into how various Chinese communities attempt to portray themselves and each other under the eyes
    of a globalized public. Aihwa Ong has proposed the notion of “flexible
    citizenship” to describe the processes by which “refugees and business migrants”
    (in her study, specifically Sino-Asian ones) negotiate affiliations and loyalties
    to multiple nation-states (often investing and working in one or more countries,
    while keeping their families in another). She argues that these forces of
    transnational migration have had the effect not only of encouraging these migrant
    businessmen to rethink their symbolic location within an increasingly complex web
    of ethnic and national alliances and rivalries (she cites, for instance, the
    example of how a “triumphant ‘Chinese capitalism’ has induced long-assimilated
    Thai and Indonesian subjects to reclaim their ‘ethnic-Chinese’ status” [7]), but
    also, at the same time, producing important “mutations in the ways in which
    localized political and social organizations set the terms and are constitutive
    of a domain of social existence” (215). Speaking metaphorically, therefore, we
    might conclude that what each of these interventions (by Zhu Yu himself, the
    Malaysian newspaper, the Taiwan GIO, the overseas Chinese e-mail communities,
    etc.) have in common is that they each ironically take the same alleged act of
    cannibalism and use it is as a pretext to begin cannibalistically feeding on
    each other on a global stage, as they try to negotiate the competing imperatives
    of a localized, “national” locus of identity on the one hand and of an
    increasingly fluid, transnational network of ethnic alliances and
    identifications on the other.

  13. Though unquestionably shocking in and of itself, Zhu Yu’s October 17th, 2000
    performance was by no means an anomaly when viewed in the context of his own
    recent corpus of work or that of the larger community of iconoclastic young
    artists with whom he is frequently associated. To understand the social and
    cultural context in which these artists were working, however, it is necessary to
    backtrack briefly. During the first couple of decades following the
    establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and
    particularly during the Cultural
    Revolution (1966-76), cultural production in Mainland China was tightly
    controlled. After the death of Chairman Mao and the official end of the Cultural
    Revolution in 1976, Chinese artists began to have a somewhat freer rein to
    express themselves, and some chose to develop in an experimental, avant-garde
    direction. These trends in experimental art have became increasingly pronounced
    during the 1990s, following the 1989 Tiananmen “democracy” protests and the
    subsequent military crackdown.

  14. Art historian Wu Hung has identified four general
    historical phases or “generations” in post-Cultural Revolution
    experimental art, beginning with the initial emergence of Chinese
    experimental art between 1979 and 1984: the “’85 Art New Wave Movement”
    (1985-1989); the internationalization of experimental art (1990-93); and
    the “domestic turn–art as social and political critique” (1994-present)
    (Transience 16). Within each of these broad generational
    groupings, however, the artists and their works generally span the
    spectrum from committed political protest to a cynical cultivation of
    foreign capital (and of the attendant Western fetishization of Oriental
    exotica). While initially much of this experimental art was primarily a
    response to the historical trauma of the Cultural Revolution, an important
    theme which began to emerge in the mid-1980s was that of a response to,
    and commentary on, the rapid economic development under Deng Xiaoping.
    The ideological vacuum created in the wake of the death of Mao and the end
    of the Cultural Revolution, combined with the widespread interest in
    getting rich, led to a brief period of “Nietzsche fever” in the late
    1980s, with his motto “god is dead” being perceived as having particular
    relevance to China’s current condition.[5]

  15. Having mostly emerged onto the art scene in the mid- to late 1990s, Zhu Yu
    and his colleagues could generally be placed in this fourth
    generation. No longer
    responding directly to the Cultural Revolution (as was initially the case with
    many of their older colleagues), they see themselves as trying to push the
    envelope of artistic acceptability, while at the same time remaining keenly aware
    of the interest taken in their work by foreign academics and curators. Many of
    the artists in Zhu Yu’s immediate circle are best known for what can be seen as a
    combination of installment and performance art, often using their own bodies as
    well as human and animal flesh in elaborately choreographed performances. They
    tend to work on the margins of official permissibility, with their “closed-door”
    performances generally well-publicized (though often at the last minute), but
    usually not “officially” open to the public.

  16. Zhu Yu’s “Eating People” performance itself was reportedly part of a series of
    exhibitions entitled “Obsession with Injury” [dui shanghai de
    milian
    ].[6]
    Part of a larger phenomenon of “shock-art” in contemporary
    China, this provocative series of avant-garde performances used not only animal
    and human corpses, but also the bodies of the artists themselves, in order to
    challenge conventional assumptions about the limits of both human and social
    mortality. As the artists themselves describe their project: “We have always
    wanted to explore fundamental problems concerning the existence and death of
    human beings, as well as the transformative process of spirit into material”
    (Wu, Exhibiting 207).

  17. For instance, the second, closed-door installment of the
    “Obsession with Injury” series, held on 22 April 2000, featured a
    performance
    in which Zhu Yu himself “had cut a piece of skin from his own body and sewn it
    onto a large piece of pork. A photo on the wall showed him in the middle of
    surgery; a videotape showed the process of the operation” (Hua 190-91; Wu,
    Exhibiting 206). In
    another performance, the artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu sat in adjacent chairs as
    nurses transfused their own blood into the preserved corpses of a pair of
    infant Siamese twins (Hua 98; Wu, Exhibiting 204). Peng Yu
    also participated in another performance
    which consisted of “dropping oil extracted from human fat into the mouth of a
    medical specimen of a child’s corpse,” with this latter performance also
    incorporating a video of the oil-extraction. All three of these performances
    shared a common concern with challenging conventional boundaries between human and
    animal, between living flesh and preserved corpses, as well as the boundaries
    between reality and electronic simulation (in their integration of live
    performances and videotaped reproductions).

  18. The performances in this “Obsession with Injury” exhibition, and
    others like
    it, collectively sought to bring a fresh perspective to conventional assumptions
    about the status of human corporality. While it has become commonplace, within
    the experimental trends in Chinese literature and art, to feature
    representations of acts of extreme violence being performed on the human
    body (consider, for instance, Tang Yuanbao’s act of peeling off the skin of his
    own face at the end of Wang Shuo’s novel Please Don’t Call Me
    Human
    ), what is remarkable about the “Obsession” performances is their use
    of actual human flesh (both from the artists’ own bodies, as well as that of
    preserved human corpses).

  19. The use of human and animal flesh was clearly a striking component of these sorts
    of exhibits, to the point that contemporary critics speak in general terms of the
    fascination with “meat art” in contemporary Chinese avant-garde art. At the same
    time, however, the artists, in their discussions of their work, repeatedly tried
    to downplay the significance of their use of this “meat.” For instance, at one
    point they explain that,



    First of all, we did not use corpses in a conventional sense, because all of the
    human bodies we employed were specimens that had been medically treated. Their
    cells had been conditioned by formaldehyde and could no longer rot or be infected
    by germs. These so-called bodies are germ-free and had already been turned into
    chemical substances. (Wu, Exhibiting 206)

  20. These comments are almost as startling as the performances to which they refer.
    While on the surface appearing to undercut the transgressive implications of
    their performances which appear to center around the deliberate desecration of
    human bodies (claiming, in effect, that they are not actual human bodies which
    they are using), these comments actually raise a host of potentially even more
    problematic questions concerning the limits of “human” mortality and human
    corporeality. Particularly interesting is the implication that infectious
    “germs,” typically viewed as contaminants, are actually part of what makes the
    bodies “human” in the first place.

  21. Furthermore, even as these “shock-artists” were capitalizing on the referential
    presence of their subject matter (be it actually “human” or otherwise), they were
    at the same time struggling to get beyond the purely material dimension of their
    performances. As Zhu Yu explained in a later interview:



    Our intention was not to use these materials to say something. We
    want our works to say something. But right now, the audience
    doesn’t have the ability to accept something like this is. People haven’t
    seen this kind of an exhibition before, where real things are used. The
    audience is reacting to the materials. After seeing it more times, then
    maybe they will be able to see what’s inside of these works. […] The
    result is already pre-determined because these materials, from a certain
    perspective[,] are concepts in themselves. So it’s easy for the audience
    to think purely about the materials when they see these works. From
    another perspective, the materials are an obstacle for us. (Wang,
    “Sadistic”)

  22. These comments take one of the central issues of the later cannibalism debate
    and turn it back upon itself. That is to say, one of the key themes in the
    various discussions of the cannibalism allegations was one of reference or
    denotation: to what extent did the photographs constitute mere visual simulacra,
    or to what extent could they be taken as a standing in an indexical relationship
    with an outer reality?

  23. Moreover, even after it was revealed that the controversial photographs were
    actually derived from Zhu Yu’s performance in Shanghai, questions still remained
    for some viewers over what precisely that performance consisted of: was it actual
    cannibalism, or not? Was it a cannibalistic act that was being presented as a
    work of art, or was it instead an elaborate mock-up intended to mimic an act of
    consuming actual human flesh? Similarly, in the “Obsession with
    Injury” performances, the question ultimately becomes not simply that of
    the reliability
    of the various visual reproductions being used, but also, and even more
    importantly, that of the referential status of the human body itself. The human
    body is, in a sense, being subjected here to a chiasmatic conjunction of mutually
    opposed hermeneutic imperatives. On the one hand, the medical specimens are
    being effectively evacuated of their conventional connotations, becoming
    essentially empty shells of their former selves. At the same time, however,
    these newly sterilized bodies are then remobilized as potent cultural signifiers,
    connoting the bodily fragility to which their own transformation itself stands as
    an eloquent testament.

  24. Zhu Yu’s and his colleagues’ “shock art” appears to challenge conventions
    of human morality and propriety, even as it pushes the envelope of acceptable
    artistic expression. Building, in part, on contemporary Chinese youths’
    perception that they lack an effective public forum in which to express their
    views and concerns, these sorts of sensational performances effectively transform
    the human body into a textually inscribable medium. Living in a post-Maoist
    social ethos commonly described as lacking a coherent moral center, these young
    artists rely on the deliberate transgression of some of society’s most
    deeply ingrained cultural prohibitions in order to make socially meaningful
    statements.


    Eat thy Neighbor



    Since it is possible to “exchange sons to eat,” then anything can be exchanged,
    anyone can be eaten.

    Lu Xun, “Diary of a Madman”

    As iconoclastic as it might seem at first glance, Zhu Yu’s cannibalistic
    performance was also implicitly in dialogue with a variety of other contemporary
    and historical discourses of cannibalism in Chinese culture. Some of the most
    recent such examples include Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in
    Modern China
    , Zheng Yi’s exposé on the cannibalism practiced
    during the
    Cultural Revolution (1966-76), as well as Yu Hua’s provocative 1980s
    short story
    “Classical Love,” in which an errant wanderer falls in love with a beautiful
    maiden at a remote inn, who is ultimately killed and dismembered for her meat.
    More abstract, but equally graphic, is the Hong Kong director Siu-Tung Ching’s
    popular 1988 film, A Chinese Ghost Story, which revolves around a
    graphic theme of vampiric cannibalism, with the hermaphroditic tree-spirit
    “Laolao’s” preposterously oversized tongue snaking through the
    half-real/half-fantasy space of this epistemological hinterland.

  25. Probably the more famous evocation of cannibalism in modern Chinese
    literature, however, is Lu Xun’s celebrated 1918 short story, “Diary of a
    Madman,” in which a Gogolesque paranoiac becomes convinced that his
    neighbors,
    and even his immediate relatives, are all scheming to eat his flesh. The story
    concludes with the narrator’s conviction that he, too, has unwittingly consumed
    human flesh, and as a result will himself become a cannibal, yet still holds out
    hope that “the children” may somehow be saved from this vicious cycle of
    self-consumption: “Perhaps there are still children who have not yet eaten men.
    Save the children….” (18).

  26. Lu Xun’s story is typically read as an allegorical excoriation of the
    “cannibalistic” society which China had become–one in which people feed off of
    each other’s weaknesses, rather than rallying together to a common cause. The
    work itself is also generally held up as marking the symbolic birth of a Chinese
    literary modernism, in that it not only constitutes an allegorical critique of
    the old society, but furthermore is itself one of the earliest works to be
    written in the modern vernacular.

  27. Lu Xun himself is generally recognized as one of the leading figures of the
    reformist May Fourth Movement of the late 1910s and 1920s. Following on the
    heels of the 1911 fall of China’s last official dynasty, the Qing, the May Fourth
    Movement was generally concerned with attempting to strengthen the Chinese nation
    by both introducing into China a variety of foreign (primarily Western)
    social
    ideas, scientific paradigms, and aesthetic trends, as well as identifying and
    critiquing those “traditional” tendencies in Chinese society which were perceived
    as being responsible for its weakness and inability to “modernize” effectively.
    Historian Lin Yü-sheng identifies the May Fourth Movement’s general attitude
    as being one of “totalistic anti-traditionalism”: an ostensible wholesale
    rejection of the social and ideological legacies of the past, which at the same
    time has the ironic effect of partially obscuring the degree to which the
    reformists were themselves building pre-existing models of literati
    involvement and social critique.

  28. “Diary of a Madman” is the first of the socially motivated stories which
    Lu Xun wrote during this May Fourth period, but its metaphor of
    cannibalism is one to which he would return in several of his subsequent
    writings (as, for instance, with the blood-soaked mantou bun
    which is presented, in his story “Medicine,” as an unsuccessful cure for
    tuberculosis), and which many other authors would later pick up on and
    develop in their own right. At the same time, however, the signifier of
    cannibalism in Lu Xun’s work is a richly overdetermined one, in the sense
    that it inevitably exceeds the straightforward allegorical reading
    outlined above. Cannibalism is an abstract symbol in the story, but is
    also a symbol which builds in part on allusions to actual historical
    accounts of cannibalism. Part of the narrator’s horror is precipitated by
    his gradual realization that many of the references to cannibalism in
    familiar historical texts, ranging from the fourth-century B. C. E.
    Warring States period to the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty, might
    actually be literal references, rather than mere rhetorical expressions.
    Therefore, the subtext of the story becomes not only one of critiquing
    contemporary societal conditions, but also one of distinguishing between
    empty signifiers and actual historical referents. In short, it becomes a
    question of how to read, how to make sense of the literal or figurative
    dimensions of familiar historical texts.

  29. At another point in the story, Lu Xun relates how the narrator stayed up late one
    night rereading the canonical dynastic histories, which were filled on every page
    with allusions to the Confucian ideals of “Virtue and Morality.” The madman is
    then described as having an epiphany, whereby he suddenly becomes able to
    read through the surface meaning of the texts and discern their
    implicit, underlying meaning:



    Everything requires careful consideration if one is to understand it. In ancient
    times, as I recollect, people often ate human beings, but I am rather hazy about
    it. I tried to look this up, but my history has no chronology, and scrawled all
    over each page are the words: “Virtue and Morality.” Since I could not sleep
    anyway, I read intently half the night until I began to see the words between
    the lines.
    The whole book was filled with the two words–“Eat
    people.” (10)

    “Cannibalism,” here, becomes not only a trope for a kind of clarity of
    social vision, an ability to perceive the involutive and self-destructive
    tendencies of contemporary Chinese society, but also a figure for
    a certain kind of hermeneutics, an ability to read a (historical) text
    against itself. What is at stake is not merely a simple dialectics
    between surface visibility and hidden meaning, but rather the ability to
    recognize the (potential) meaning in what was (always) already “visible”
    in the first place.

  30. Lu Xun died somewhat prematurely in 1936, at the age of 55. Although he
    was actively involved with the League of Left-Wing Writers during the last decade
    or so of his life, he made a point of never formally joining the Chinese
    Communist Party. Chairman Mao Zedong nevertheless subsequently lauded Lu Xun as
    “the major leader in the Chinese cultural revolution. He was not only a great
    writer, but also a great thinker and a great revolutionary” (372). In
    spite of this
    unconditional accolade, it nevertheless remains very questionable to what extent
    the acerbically critical Lu Xun would have approved of the subsequent Maoist
    regime. Nevertheless, under the P.R.C. Lu Xun was elevated to the pinnacle of
    the Chinese literary canon (thanks, in no small part, to Mao’s own unreserved
    endorsement of Lu Xun’s revolutionary credentials). Speaking metaphorically,
    therefore, we could say that his writings and legacy were subsequently consumed
    and incorporated by the Maoist socio-political orthodoxy, as, for instance, in
    the case of his celebrated condemnation of the “human-eating old society,” which
    ultimately became monumentalized within the post-1949 ideological rhetoric of the
    Chinese Communist Party. At the same time, this rhetorical incorporation on the
    part of the Party also involves an important process of misreading, an
    attempt cannibalistically to make a part of itself a position of ideological
    critique which, otherwise, might have potentially constituted one of its
    strongest challenges.

  31. I would take this conclusion and carry it a step further, arguing that the
    problematic posed by cannibalism (under this latter, more abstract understanding
    of the concept) is not only one of reading history, or of reading historically,
    but rather it is one of “reading” in general. The physical act of cannibalism is
    only meaningful when positioned at the interstices of identity and alterity (in
    that it is an act of consuming the non-Self with whom one has strong,
    categorical
    ties), and is grounded on the ways in which we make sense of the complex social
    tapestry which the cannibalistic act itself simultaneously negates and
    reaffirms. Furthermore, the act of cannibalism is itself grounded on a complex
    hermeneutics of identity, of how we understand and imagine our relationship with
    a variety of social Others. In the following section, I will pursue this reading
    to its logical conclusion, looking not at the consumption, but rather at the
    constitution of human flesh, and the way in which the human body itself has been
    imagined as a complex mass of incommensurable elements, lacking a preconceived
    identity, and instead actively constituted through the immune system’s continual
    hermeneutic process of “reading” patterns of identity and alterity.


  32. Devouring Oneself from Within



    Pre-eminently a twentieth-century object, the immune system is a map drawn to
    guide recognition and misrecognition of self and other in the dialectics of
    Western biopolitics.

    Donna Haraway,

    Simians, Cyborgs, and Women

    Lu Xun’s allegorical encounters with cannibalism mark an important turning
    point in his own intellectual development. It is well known that Lu Xun
    initially studied medicine in Japan, and that he later claimed that it was
    the perceived need to get to the root of the spiritual and social ills
    which afflicted contemporary China which led him to abandon his medical
    studies and instead devote himself to healing not the bodies of his
    compatriots but rather their spirits. His critical description of China
    as a cannibalistic society in “Diary of a Madman” became one of the
    rallying points of his generation and has continued to echo throughout
    the twentieth century. At the same time, even as his earlier interest in
    corporal healing was effectively sublimated, that same medicinal
    orientation was making an uncanny return in many of his later writings, as
    well as those of his contemporaries.

  33. For instance, in an essay entitled “Random Thoughts #38” and published
    under Lu Xun’s name in 1918,[7]
    the same year of “Diary of a Madman,” there is an explicit parallel drawn
    between the contagion of the human bloodstream by syphilis bacteria and
    the ideological “confusion” of the social corpus resulting from the
    influence of “Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhist monks”: “Even though we
    might now want to become real people, it is uncertain whether or not we
    will [be able to avoid being] confounded by the dark and confused elements
    in our blood-stream” (389). The essay expresses concern, furthermore,
    that this ideological disease not reach the nadir of syphilis and
    concludes with the hope that science may discover some magic
    cultural/ideological panacea, a so-called “707,” based on the recently
    discovered treatment for syphilis (arsphenamine, conventionally known at
    the time as “606”). The image of harmful reactionary ideological elements
    flowing through society’s bloodstream is evocative in and of itself, but
    the specific allusion to syphilis makes the metaphor even more compelling,
    in that the tissue damage from syphilis results, at least in part, from
    white blood cells’ attacking previously healthy tissue. The result is a
    cannibalistic extravaganza ironically reminiscent of “The Diary of a
    Madman” from a few months earlier.

  34. While the connection between the immune system and “cannibalism” is
    admittedly somewhat indirect in this 1918 essay, it is nevertheless developed
    much more explicitly in several other reformist essays published during the same
    general period. In the following discussion, I will consider three of these
    essays, all of which were published between 1915 and 1918 in the same journal,
    New Youth, which also published not only “Diary of a Madman” but
    also the 1918 “Random Thoughts” essay as well. In particular, I will focus on
    the ways in which each of these essays develops an increasingly elaborate double
    metaphor, whereby the metaphoric “cannibalism” on the part of the immune system’s
    white blood cells itself becomes a model for the ways in which different elements
    within Chinese society feed upon each other.

  35. The first of these essays appeared in the 1915 inaugural issue of New
    Youth
    . There, the editor of the journal, Chen Duxiu, published an
    influential article entitled “Call to Youth,” where he explicitly elaborates a
    metaphorical correspondence between individuals in society and cells in the human
    body:



    Youth have the same relationship to society that the new and lively cells
    have with respect to the human body. In the metabolic process, the old
    and rotten cells are constantly being weeded out, and openings are thus
    created which are promptly filled with fresh and lively cells. If this
    metabolic process functions correctly, the organism will be healthy; but
    if the old and rotten cells are allowed to accumulate, however, the
    organism will die. If this metabolic process functions properly at a
    social level, society will flourish; but if the old and corrupt elements
    are allowed to accumulate, society will be destroyed. (Chen 1)

    In this essay, the references to metabolic processes and cell replenishment
    represent an interesting synthesis of Western medical metaphors, on the one hand,
    and of the longstanding tradition, in Chinese writings, of elaborating
    metaphorical parallels between the human body and the social “body politic,” on
    the other.[8]

  36. The biomedical underpinning of the corporal metaphor is elaborated in more
    detail in “The Thought of Two Modern Scientists,” an essay Chen Duxiu
    wrote the following year, on the occasion of the death of Russian
    biologist Elie Metchnikoff (1843[5?]-1916). In the second section of this
    essay, Chen addresses Metchnikoff’s work and its relevance to human
    longevity.[9] In particular, he stresses
    Metchnikoff’s discovery of the significance of white blood cells in the
    immune system, and specifically their ability to engulf and absorb harmful
    microbes. To describe these white blood cells, Metchnikoff coined the term
    “phagocyte,” derived from Greek terms “phago” (“to eat”) and “kyto”
    (“tool”), and which Chen translated into Chinese as “shijun xibao,” or
    “bacterium-eating cell.” The obvious question to ask next, Chen writes,
    is whether the white blood cells can be seen as acting out of a sense of
    duty to the larger body, or whether they are simply pursuing a narrow
    course of individual self-interest. The answer is clear, he writes in
    response to his own rhetorical question: they are simply acting in their
    own self-interest, to feed themselves. This explains the apparent paradox
    which Metchnikoff observes, whereby as the body ages and loses its vigor,
    the white blood cells, by contrast, may become overly active,
    attacking elements of the body itself (from the nervous system to the
    cells responsible for hair pigment), “mistakenly” regarding them as
    foreign pathogens. After a further discussion of the role played by
    intestinal bacteria in the aging process, Chen concludes that once a way
    is found to control (or even eliminate) these “cannibalistic” white blood
    cells, it may be possible to extend human longevitty by a century or more
    (49).

  37. More than the specifically medical implications of Metchnikoff’s model, Chen was
    apparently fascinated by the question of the social implications which this model
    of phagocytes and their relationship to the larger body (politic), and of how
    they might enable us to rethink the relationship between “altruism” and
    “individualism.” Chen concludes the essay by applying some of these same
    questions of altruism vs. individualism to his Metchnikoff himself:



    Although Metchnikoff advocates individualism, nonetheless the principles by which
    he lived out his life were definitely not ones of absolute individualism.
    Although he did not take benevolence and altruism to be ultimate ends, his
    actions were nonetheless compatible with these general principles (51).

    What we see here, therefore, is Chen’s attempt to use biological metaphors to
    provide a model for a position of constructive social criticism, one which avoids
    the dual dangers of self-effacing conformism and “altruism,” on the one hand, as
    well as that of “absolute individualism” (e.g., the white blood cells which
    destroy the body itself), on the other.

  38. In 1918 fellow reformist Hu Shi developed this same immune system
    metaphor in the lead article of a New Youth special issue on Ibsen.
    Hu Shi concludes the article with a medical metaphor inspired by the figure of
    Dr. Stockman in Ibsen’s play, “Enemy of the People”:



    It is as if [Ibsen] were saying, “People’s bodies all rely on the innumerable
    white blood cells in their bloodstream to be perpetually battling the harmful
    microbes that enter the body, and to make certain that they are all completely
    eliminated. Only then can the body be healthy and the spirit complete.” The
    health of the society and of the nation depend completely on these white blood
    cells, which are never satisfied, never content, and at every moment are battling
    the evil and the filthy elements in society, and only then can there be hope for
    social improvement and advancement. (Hu 20)

    When we read this essay in conjunction with Chen’s original 1915 one, we realize
    that what is implied is that the “evil and filthy elements in society” are
    actually not foreign pathogens, but rather they are none other than the
    same “old and rotten” cells from the body itself. Therefore, in this essay–almost precisely contemporaneous with Lu Xun’s identification, in “Diary of a
    Madman,” of cannibalism as the metaphorical condition from which society must
    attempt to extricate itself–we here have instead an implicit argument in
    support
    of figurative cannibalism, a call for social “white blood cells” to
    seek out and consume “the evil and filthy elements in society.” An act of
    collective self-awakening, therefore, implies a process of self-alienation, a
    systematic identification and excision of unprogressive elements.

  39. While Lu Xun, Hu Shi, and Chen Duxiu were all leading members of the May
    Fourth Movement, they nevertheless all occupied quite distinct positions
    within Chinese ideology and politics. Chen Duxiu was one of the founders
    of the Chinese Communist Party, while Lu Xun made a point of never joining
    the party, though he worked closely with several Party leaders during the
    1920s and 1930s. Hu Shi, meanwhile, ended up siding with the
    Kuomingtang and consequently has been generally reviled in much Mainland
    historiography.[10] Despite these
    manifest differences in their political and aesthetic orientations, it is
    nevertheless striking that they have each come together on this same
    medico-political metaphor of the cannibalistic white blood cells.
    Somewhat independently of the meaning which they each originally might
    have intended the metaphor to convey, this metaphor itself can
    nevertheless be read deconstructively, suggesting a body at war with
    itself, but the underlying implication being that this condition is, in
    fact, part of the status quo. Young and lively cells must, for
    the benefit of the whole, seek to eliminate and replace old and tired
    ones. The boundary between productive regeneration and cannibalistic
    self-consumption, therefore, is an exceedingly tenuous one, largely
    contingent on the speaker’s relationship with the elements which are doing
    the “consuming.”

  40. The irony inherent in these various white blood cell metaphors is that while
    Metchnikoff originally suggested that the elimination of these cells would, in
    effect, forestall the aging process, in the metaphorical formulations of many of
    these May Fourth reformers, the white blood cells’ ability to feed on ossified
    portions of the social Self becomes an asset, rather than a liability. Hu Shi
    and company are, in effect, arguing that we must combat social cannibalism
    with cannibalism, devouring those reactionary elements of society before
    they can succeed in devouring us.

  41. These sorts of physiological metaphors represent a chiasmatic intersection of
    objectivity and fantasy. They draw on an increasingly detailed medical
    understanding of the structure and function of the human immune system, while at
    the same time reducing the imaginary space of the nation to a highly metaphoric
    plane. The increased precision with which the function and behavior of these
    white blood cells is described goes hand-in-hand with an increased degree of
    abstraction in the description of human behavior.

  42. Furthermore, it is highly appropriate that it was specifically the immune system
    which provided the May-Fourth-period reformers with one of their favorite
    models
    in this struggle to define themselves through the mediated gaze of the other,
    appropriate in that the immune system is itself essentially a machine of
    self-recognition and self-reproduction, one which functions by reducing processes
    of identification to the barest heuristic strategies. In fact, the immune system
    can even be seen as a quintessential sublimation of the process of
    self-identification, whereby the process of “identification” operates essentially
    independently of the “self” which it ostensibly presupposes. Accordingly, the
    immune-system metaphor provides an ironically apt model of a “pure” form of
    cannibalism, as well as an illustration of its theoretical limits. In the case
    of the immune system, relations of identity and alterity are explicitly created
    in the process of recognition itself.

  43. The coherence of the organism, therefore, is itself premised on a continual
    struggle of identity politics at the cellular level. Phagocytotic consumption on
    the part of white blood cells represents a conceptual limit-point for our
    understanding of cannibalism–it is, in a sense, not “true” cannibalism,
    because the cells only devour that which they recognize as “Other.” At the same
    time, however, the functioning of these cells illustrates the degree to which
    these categories of Self and Other are never a priori givens, but rather are
    themselves the product of metaphorical processes of reading itself.

  44. In a critical overview of more recent Western medical models of the immune
    system, feminist theorist Donna Haraway suggests that these models come to assume
    a notion of “identity” as merely an amorphous, decentered play of difference:



    Does the immune system–the fluid, dispersed, networking
    techno-organic-textual-mythic system that ties together the more stodgy and
    localized centers of the body through its acts of recognition–represent the
    ultimate sign of altruistic evolution towards wholeness, in the form of the means
    of co-ordination of a coherent self? (219)

    “In a word, no,” she writes, in reply to her own rhetorical question. The
    notions of “self” presupposed by these immune system models are, instead,
    continually contested and always already “under erasure.” While Haraway
    posits that this deconstructive turn in immune system models represents a
    specifically “post-modern,” late-twentieth-century development, my reading
    of these May-Fourth-period texts suggests that many of these
    deconstructive implications were latently present in the model all along.

  45. The “Western” medical and hygienic perspectives being introduced into
    China during the May Fourth era contributed to a number of radical shifts in
    the
    understanding of the constitution of not only the human body itself, but also
    the social communities and societies which these bodies inhabit. One of the
    more prominent examples of Chinese incorporation of Western medical knowledge is
    that of these immunological models of social organization. Ironically, however,
    one of the implications of these immunological models, as they were developed in
    the May Fourth era, involves precisely a recognition of the inherent contingency
    of the processes by which corporal or social bodies are differentiated from
    “foreign” elements. That is to say, the act of incorporating “Other” (Western)
    models ironically resulted in an implicit rethinking of the conceptual basis upon
    which the boundaries between “Self” and “Other” are constructed in the first
    place.


  46. Journeys into the Interior



    Mo Yan Sir Mo Yan Sir what’s wrong please wake up This guy wrote Red
    Sorghum
    but he’s a fledgling with alcohol can’t hold his liquor but comes
    to Liquorland to stir up trouble take him to the hospital bring a car over first
    give him some carp broth to sober him up carp promotes lactation don’t tell me he
    just had a baby a meat boy set it in a big gilded platter […]

    Mo Yan, The Republic of Wine

    The preceding May Fourth-era explorations into “cannibalistic” practices deep
    within the human body are ironically mirrored by the allegorical investigation of
    cannibalistic allegations deep within China’s own geographic interior in the 1993
    novel The Republic of Wine by one of contemporary China’s most
    pre-eminent writers, Mo Yan. Born into a peasant family in 1955 and
    raised in
    rural Northern China, Mo Yan began publishing short stories and novels in
    the
    mid-1980s. Though he is sometimes grouped with the experimental writers who came
    of age in the 1980s (including figures such as Yu Hua, Ge Fei, Can Xue, etc.), Mo
    Yan’s early fiction tends to emphasize conventional storytelling and rural
    subject matter more than these other authors, and as such would be more
    accurately categorized as a “native soil” author. The events associated with the
    4 June 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square appear to have had a significant
    influence on him, and it was in the latter part of that year that Mo Yan began
    writing The Republic of Wine, which perhaps still stands as his most
    innovative and unconventional work to date–whereby the social violence of the
    Tiananmen military crackdown would almost appear to have been displaced onto the
    narrative structure of the novel itself.

  47. Mo Yan is probably best known for his 1986 novel Red Sorghum, on
    which the renowned fifth-generation director Zhang Yimou based his
    directorial
    debut the following year. The earlier work opens with the evocative epigraph,
    “[…] As your unfilial son, I am prepared to carve out my heart, marinate it in
    sauce, have it minced and placed in three bowls, and lay it out as an offering in
    a field of sorghum”; and acts of symbolic cannibalism similarly lie at the heart
    of the work itself. For example, the secret recipe of the novel’s trademark
    wine is that it is fermented with human urine. Furthermore, later in the novel,
    there is an extended description of how, during the Chinese civil war, previously
    domesticated dogs gone wild feed on the decaying flesh of the human corpses which
    litter the landscape, and how the protagonists themselves have no other recourse
    but to feed on this dog flesh, flesh which is only one step away from their own.
    In this way, the canine-mediated cannibalism becomes a powerful metaphor for the
    internecine warfare in which China found itself in the 1940s following the
    withdrawal of the Japanese troops.

  48. The Republic of Wine, which Mo Yan began to write roughly three
    years later, builds quite directly on the thematic precedent set by Red
    Sorghum
    –literalizing Red Sorghum‘s attention to
    bacchanalian excess and cannibalistic transgression, even as it transposes the
    earlier novel’s concerns onto a more self-consciously fictional plane. The
    Republic of Wine
    constitutes not only a journey into the fictional space
    of China’s interior hinterland, but furthermore can also be seen as a figurative
    journey back into China’s own literary history of cannibalistic metaphors. For
    instance, it tropes quite explicitly on one of China’s greatest travel
    narratives: the fifteenth-century novel Journey to the West,
    whose own assorted
    allusions to cannibalistic practice constitute part of the cultural background of
    Mo Yan’s development of the topic.[11]
    Furthermore, The Republic of
    Wine
    ‘s attention to the theme of child cannibalism inevitably finds itself
    in dialogue with Lu Xun’s own classic short story on the topic, with Mo Yan’s
    novel alluding repeatedly to Lu Xun as an ironic avatar of literary canonicity.

  49. The basic premise of the main The Republic of Wine narrative
    concerns a hapless government investigator by the name of Ding Gou’er, who has
    been sent to a fictional province deep in the Chinese interior to investigate
    allegations of cannibalism, and specifically the consumption of human infants.
    When he finally arrives at this “Liquorland,” his hosts treat him to a decadent
    banquet, the pièce-de-résistance of which is a dish
    consisting of a human boy prepared whole and roasted to a deep shade of brown:



    The boy sat cross-legged in the middle of the gilded platter, golden brown
    and oozing sweet-smelling oil, a giddy smile frozen on his face. Lovely,
    naïve. Around him was spread a garland of green vegetable leaves and
    bright red radish blossoms. The stupefied investigator swallowed back the
    juices that rumbled up from his stomach as he gawked at the boy. A pair
    of limpid eyes gazed back at him, steam puffed out of the boy’s nostrils,
    and the lips quivered as if he were about to speak. (75)

  50. Upon seeing this culinary confirmation of his darkest suspicions, Ding
    Gou’er–who, by this point, is rather drunk–immediately attempts to
    arrest his hosts for practicing cannibalism. His hosts, however,
    patiently explain to him that it has all been a misunderstanding, and that
    the dish in question is actually merely an elaborate culinary simulacrum,
    carefully designed to mimic the shape and texture of a human infant, while
    in fact consisting only of mundane comestibles:



    “Old Ding, good old Ding, you’re a fine comrade with a strong humanistic bent,
    for which I respect you,” Diamond Jin said. “But you’re wrong. You’ve made a
    subjective error. Look closely. Is that a little boy?”

    His words had the desired effect on Ding Gou’er, who turned to look at
    the boy on the platter. He was still smiling, his lips parted slightly, as if he
    were about to speak.

    “He’s incredibly lifelike!” Ding Gou’er said loudly.

    “Right, lifelike,” Diamond Jin repeated. “And why is this fake
    child so lifelike? Because the chefs here in Liquorland are extraordinarily
    talented, uncanny masters.”

    The Party Secretary and Mine Director echoed his praise:

    “And this isn’t the best that we have to offer! A professor at the
    Culinary Academy can make them so that even the eyelashes flutter. No one dares
    let his chopsticks touch one of hers.” (77)

    What began as a scandal of cannibalism thus becomes, instead, a postmodern
    scandal of representation and reference; and as the novel progresses, it remains
    ambiguous (and ultimately irrelevant) whether that which the inebriated Ding
    Gou’er witnessed was an actual human infant, or merely a culinary facsimile of
    one. Furthermore, this radical skepticism towards the boundary between reality
    and representation, referent and simulacrum, in turn comes to feed parasitically
    on the plot of the actual novel itself, causing it to fold back upon itself, as a
    spectral apparition of the author himself ends up falling into the fictional
    abyss of the novel that he is attempting to write. To understand what is meant
    by this, however, it will be necessary to return briefly to a description of the
    structure and contents of the novel.

  51. The core The Republic of Wine narrative, as summarized above, is
    embedded within an outer narrative frame, in which a fictional “Mo Yan”
    (appearing as a character within his own novel) is portrayed as trying to
    complete the Republic manuscript. A central premise of this outer
    narrative frame is that the fictional “Mo Yan” finds himself in the position of
    being a reluctant cultural icon idolized by enthusiastic fans of Red
    Sorghum
    , and in particular by a certain Li Yidou, a Ph.D. candidate in
    liquor studies at the Brewer’s College in Liquorland, whose passion for wine is
    rivaled only by his morbid fascination with cannibalism and other dark recesses
    of the human soul. In this outer frame of the novel, the fictional “Mo Yan” is
    in the process of writing the The Republic of Wine narrative itself,
    even as he finds himself in epistolary dialogue with Li Yidou, who asks “Mo Yan”
    to use his institutional connections to help him gain a foothold within the
    publishing industry. Accordingly, Li Yidou sends “Mo Yan” a series of short
    stories, each more outlandish than the last, several of which center around
    discussions of children being raised with the express purpose of later being sold to
    the slaughterhouse. The fictional “Mo Yan” finds himself in a conundrum over how
    to continue to be encouraging in the face of what he increasingly perceives to be
    an onslaught of literary drivel, a conundrum which is reinforced by his growing
    ambivalence towards his own fiction.

  52. About two thirds of the way through the novel, however, this boundary
    between the outer and inner narrative frames begins to dissolve, as “Mo
    Yan” ultimately succumbs to writer’s block and abandons the The
    Republic of Wine
    narrative, deciding instead to travel to
    “Liquorland” himself to pay Li Yidou a visit. In doing so, he effectively
    abandons his presumptive authorial authority and steps into the same
    fictional space that he has already condemned to incompleteness, becoming
    an ironic Pirandellian character fleeing from his own authorship.

  53. In The Republic of Wine, the act of cannibalism constitutes an
    aporia of signification, on the basis of which the rest of the novel’s plot is
    structured. The figure cannibalism similarly provides a bridge between Lu Xun’s
    arch-canonical 1918 short story and Li Yidou’s own anti-canonical literary
    rantings. Understood more metaphorically, the figure of cannibalism could be
    seen as a pivot around which regimes of cultural and literary orthodoxy revolve,
    whereby the orthodox canon and more “popular” or marginalized culture are seen as
    actually being symbiotically dependent on each other, feeding parasitically on
    the textual remains which the other has left behind. That is to say,
    just as
    cannibalism represents a challenge to the conventional boundaries between Self
    and Other, individual and collective, similarly Mo Yan’s novel as a whole
    interrogates the boundaries between literary orthodoxy and the popular or
    transgressive genres against which it defines itself, together with the more
    ontological boundary between literary representation and the outer reality which
    literature seeks to denote.


  54. Afterimages of the Flesh




    The eyes of the fish were white and hard, and its mouth was open just like those
    people who want to eat human beings.

    Lu Xun, “Diary of a Madman”



    When you eat a fish, you must start with the eyes.

    Xu Shunying, Gushing Out

  55. Chinese society and culture have long been haunted by the specter of
    cannibalism.[12]
    This uncanny apparition not only represents a profound challenge
    to the presumed sanctity of the human body (and, in the case of “survival”
    cannibalism, marking moments at which the very bonds of human society dissolve in
    the face of extreme adversity), but also, ironically, at the same time
    potentially standing as an ultimate gesture of social unity and filial devotion
    (as in the case of Chinese “endophagy,” in which children are said to feed
    their
    ailing parents with flesh taken from their own bodies). Throughout the twentieth
    century, a variety of authors, artists, and political reformers have repeatedly
    used the figure of cannibalism to reflect on a range of issues relating to the
    constitution of social collectives and corporal subjects, while in the process
    effectively deconstructing the metaphoricity of the trope of cannibalism itself.
    While the four cases of Chinese “discursive cannibalism” which I have considered
    in this essay each date from different periods and involve diverse social groups
    and representational media, a common characteristic which they all share is that
    they are each located in a volatile liminal space in which a variety of social
    and epistemological boundaries may be problematized and rethought.
  56. To recapitulate briefly, the Zhu Yu controversy foregrounds the way in which the
    specter of cannibalism has been, and continues to be, used to reinforce perceived
    differences between different ethnic, national, or transnational social groups.
    Furthermore, even as the subsequent debates bring attention to issues of social
    signification, they also problematize issues of signification in general. That
    is to say, a recurrent theme throughout many of the debates has been one of the
    limits of reference: to what extent do the photographs actually denote a tangible
    reality? And, how does this outer “reality” signified by these texts (be it
    “actual” cannibalism, a performative act of cannibalism, or a performative
    mimicry of a cannibalistic act, etc.) ultimately impact our understanding of the
    implications of the subsequent debates? In the case of Lu Xun’s story, one of
    the central issues was the boundary between “history” and “narrative”: what is
    the relationship between narrative schemata and the historical “realities” which
    they seek to describe? How are we to understand the ultimate “truth value” of
    what appear to be metaphorical figures?

  57. With the May Fourth immunological metaphors, a central issue was that of how to
    understand the boundaries between “bodies” (either corporal or social bodies) and
    the heterogeneous elements (pathogens or contaminants) against which they define
    themselves. Finally, Mo Yan’s recent novel The Republic of Wine
    brings us back to some key issues concerning the truth-value of (“literary”)
    textual production, while at the same time encouraging a rethinking of the
    conventional boundaries between orthodox canonicity and the heterogeneous array
    of more “popular” or “marginal” discourses against which it seeks to define
    itself. Also central to the novel was another version of the semiotic quandary
    which we observed in the Zhu Yu debates–namely, the figure of the “perfect”
    simulacrum, which stymies attempts to draw meaningful distinctions between
    signifier and referent (which is paralleled in the Zhu Yu case by an ambiguity
    between signifiers with referents and those without).

  58. I will conclude here by returning to the Zhu Yu performance with which I began.
    An intriguing detail which none of the published commentaries on the performance
    has (to my knowledge) hitherto remarked upon is that, in each of the endlessly
    reproduced images of Zhu Yu eating the human infant, he is always positioned in
    front of, and below, a large poster containing a representation of what appears
    to be an anatomy textbook (see Figure 2). The book is open to a page containing
    four dissected
    views of a human eye. Easily overlooked by viewers drawn, in horrified
    fascination, to the cannibalistic drama unfolding below it, these ocular images
    actually provide crucial insight into some of the issues involved in the
    production, circulation, and visual consumption of the cannibalistic images
    themselves.

  59. Figure 2
    Figure 2
  60. These images of the human eye provide an alternate focal point for this
    photograph, graphically illustrating the degree to which the primal scene it
    depicts gains significance precisely through its process of being exchanged and
    viewed by others. Furthermore, these defamiliarizing views of the human eye
    constitute a useful reminder that our understanding of the human body, even our
    own body, is never “pure” and direct, but rather is necessarily mediated through
    different pre-existing orders of knowledge, vision, and experience.

  61. The implications of this autonomous, disembodied gaze for our understanding of
    the scene as a whole are multiple. First of all, the human visual system is
    dissected and subjected to the cold, disinterested gaze of medical science. The
    resulting medical gaze, in turn, provides an ironic counterpoint to the
    sensationalistic, morbid gaze which the photographs inevitably elicit. As a
    result, these scandalous and endlessly reproduced images are not as transparently
    intelligible as one might think and are actually located at the site of multiply
    fractured gazes: spectacular, medical, anthropological, political, and
    epistemological. My intention in this essay has been to provide additional
    perspectives to each of these components of the gaze, and in the process to
    suggest that the figure of cannibalism may itself be seen as pointing to a
    crucial border region wherein conventional categorical distinctions between Self
    and Other, us and them, reality and representation are deconstructed and put on
    display.

  62. More generally speaking, last year’s cannibalism “scandal” presents us with a
    problem of perception and perspective. On the one hand, a recurrent theme in
    most of the ensuing discussions of Zhu Yu’s performance emphasized a sense of
    cultural distance, of voyeuristically looking into a cultural space (Asian,
    Chinese, Taiwanese, etc.) which is perceived as being either subtly or radically
    distant from the socio-political location of the perceiver. On the other hand,
    many of the discussions implicitly held this cannibalism up to “their own”
    culturally specific standards, and indeed used the transgressive implications of
    Zhu Yu’s performance rhetorically to reinforce their own assumptions about the
    universality of certain cultural prohibitions.[13]

  63. Under the reading I have outlined above, the figure of cannibalism itself
    involves a paradoxical combination of identification and alterity, of violence
    and desire. The act of incorporating into oneself flesh of an Other with whom
    one shares a categorical identification, implicitly breaks down relations of
    alterity, even as it retrospectively reinforces them. Accordingly, this
    transcultural perception of cannibalism can itself provide a useful metaphor for
    the act of transcultural perception itself. In perceiving “other” cultures, we
    seek to understand, to internalize part of their inherent distance, even if only
    to reaffirm their inherent distance from “our” own.

  64. This “scandal” of cannibalism, therefore, encapsulates a compelling
    problem from the perspective of cross-cultural perception. On the one
    hand, many viewers are inclined to view cannibalism in absolute, universal
    terms which transcend specific cultural difference. It is simply
    unthinkable, according to this common view, that any human society would
    knowingly and willing practice cannibalism. On the other hand, to the
    extent that anthropologists recognize the possibility that some
    societies might practice (or might have previously practiced) cannibalism,
    they often proceed to attempt to contextualize these acts of cannibalism
    by reducing them entirely to the cultural level–suggesting that
    even actual acts of “actual” cannibalism are themselves metaphors for an
    underlying symbolic meaning. The question of cannibalism thus
    emblematizes, in a particularly graphic way, a problem which plagues all
    cross-cultural hermeneutics–namely, how to negotiate the competing
    impulses to view cultural alterity by one’s own standards, on the one
    hand, or to bracket it as radically “Other,” on the other.

  65. At the same time, I would suggest that the trope of cannibalism also presents a
    potential model for how to rethink the possibility of cross-cultural perception
    itself. Speaking in abstract terms, cross-cultural perception frequently
    contains a dimension of epistemic violence, functioning as an act of symbolic
    incorporation which, at the same time, retrospectively constructs and reaffirms
    the imaginary boundaries between Self and Other which make such reading
    meaningful in the first place. Like the figurative act of cannibalism itself,
    cross-cultural perception is typically grounded on a uneasy combination of
    epistemic violence and hermeneutic fusion, though the relative weightings of each
    of these components will naturally differ according to the specific circumstances
    involved. Just as the errant May Fourth white blood cells literally (re)shaped
    their own corporal environment through incorporative acts of “reading” alterity,
    I would propose a model of cross-cultural perception which is similarly grounded
    on acts of scopically and/or intellectually “ingesting” socio-cultural
    “alterity,” so as to reinforce, or restructure, the perceiver’s understanding of
    epistemic networks by which that notion of “alterity” is produced in the first
    place.



  66. Department of African and Asian Languages and Literatures
    University of Florida
    crojas@ufl.edu


    Talk Back




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    Notes

    I would like to thank Eric Hayot and an anonymous reader for their
    suggestions. Research for this essay was supported by a University of
    Florida Humanities Enhancement Grant.

    1. In Lacanian terms, cannibalism can be
    seen as a figurative “stain” or “quilting point,” a point which is
    radically outside a certain symbolic system while at the same time
    providing the necessary which gives that system form in the first place.
    Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, in a related context, speaks of the “asystematic”
    points of radical alterity which are a necessary component of any system.

    2. Here and throughout this
    essay these sorts of generalizations about “our” and “other” cultures are
    being used strategically, or are “under erasure” (to borrow Derrida’s useful
    term); and, indeed, one of my arguments is precisely concerned with the
    re-evaluation of these accepted notions themselves.

    3. In 1979 the anthropologist
    William Arens published a highly polemical book in which he argues that
    there is no conclusive material evidence that cannibalism has ever existed
    as a systematic social practice anywhere in the world at any point in
    history, arguing instead that all apparent instances of cannibalism are
    merely the result of optimistic over-readings of either textual rhetoric or
    fundamentally ambiguous material evidence (see The Man-eating
    Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy
    ). Arens’ book provided a
    lightning rod of contention and was useful to the extent that it brought
    critical attention to the latent ethnocentrism implicit in Western
    anthropology’s longstanding fascination with cannibalism. At the same
    time, however, Arens’ position, with its emphatic and almost messianic
    opposition to the very possibility of human cannibalism, can actually be
    seen as itself stemming from a parallel ethnocentrism, insofar as he is
    unwilling to confront the implications such cannibalism would have for our
    perception of the cannibals as anthropological subjects (see Gardner 27-50).

    4. In this respect, the 2000/2001 round of
    cannibalism allegations can be seen as a ironic reprise of a similar series of
    allegations only five years earlier, on the occasion of the 1995 International
    Conference on Women’s Rights in Beijing. At that time, foreign tabloids,
    Christian organizations, and even U.S. Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia
    were taken in by spurious claims that human fetuses were considered a rare
    delicacy by many Chinese gourmands. The politicians, in particular, used the
    story rhetorically to support their opposition to granting China Most-Favored-Nation status, but
    saw little need to pursue the actual allegations any further (see Dixon; this
    article was apparently first published in early October of 2000, shortly before
    Zhu Yu’s performance, but may have been revised as recently as 5 June 2001
    [judging by the dates of the file and its folder in the web site’s publicly
    readable directory]).

    5. On “Nietzsche fever” in China in the
    mid-1980s, see Wang and Cheng.

    6. According to the Taiwan GIO report, Zhu Yu
    admitted in a telephone interview that the performance was part of the April 12
    “Obsession with Injury” performances (that is, the second installment of the
    “Obsession” series), which does not correlate with the November 13 date cited in
    most other sources. It is unclear at this point, therefore, whether the repeated
    identification, in many Chinese reports, of the performance with the “Obsession”
    exhibit is in reference to a subsequent installment of the “Obsession” series, or
    merely an unwitting perpetuation of an original error. The question is left
    somewhat ambiguous in the Fuck Off catalogue, where the images are only
    identified by the title “Eating People” and the date, 13 November 2000
    (though
    other images, in the same catalog, from Zhu Yu’s April 13 “Obsession with Injury”
    performances in Beijing are clearly identified as such).

    7. Lin Yü-sheng notes that
    there is some
    evidence that this piece was written not by Lu Xun himself, but rather by his
    brother Zhou Zuoren (who was also an accomplished and well-recognized
    literary figure in his own right; the “evidence” which Lin cites is that Zhou
    himself claimed authorship in a subsequent letter to Cao Juren). However, as Lin
    also notes, Zhou did not actually deny that the views he had expressed were
    shared by
    Lu Xun, but only that there were minor stylistic differences in the essay which
    distinguished it from Lu Xun’s own work, differences which so far had gone
    unnoticed by the general readership. Furthermore, the essay continues to be
    included in Lu Xun’s collected works under his own name (Lin 116).

    8. For instance, the classical
    medical text Simple Questions of the Yellow Emperor (probably
    dating from the first century B.C.E.) states that “the heart functions as
    the prince and governs through the soul; the lungs are liaison officers
    who promulgate rules and regulations; the liver is a general and devises
    strategies.” Similarly, the Tang dynasty Taoist master Sima Chengzhen
    (eighth century C.E.) elaborates, “The country is like the body: follow
    the nature of things, don’t let your mind harbor any partiality, and the
    whole world will be governed” (qtd. in Schipper 102).

    9. Chen is drawing here primarily on
    Metchnikoff’s monograph. The subject of this essay, and of Metchnikoff’s original
    book, is particularly poignant in that the essay was written in the year of
    Metchnikoff’s death.

    Metchnikoff’s claims to fame include his discovery of the phagocytotic role of
    white blood cells in the immune system as well his being the younger brother of
    Ivan Ilyitch, immortalized by Tolstoy in his story “The Death of Ivan Ilyitch.”

    10. Lin Yü-sheng contrasts
    these three figures as follows:

    Chen Duxiu, who eventually became a Marxist and the first leader of the
    Chinese Communist Party, was known as a man of intense moral passion,
    combative in temperament and fearlessly individualistic. His mind was
    more forceful than subtle; he was not greatly concerned with the nuances
    of meaning or the complexities involved in social and cultural issues. Hu
    Shi, on the other hand, was a Deweyan liberal and eventually became an
    ambivalent supporter of the Guomindang. He was a well-rounded and
    self-content personality, affable and urbane, and not without a touch of
    vanity. He possessed an alert mind, and was superficially lucid in his
    manner of expression, but he did not involve himself in social and
    cultural issues at their most difficult levels and never probed deeply
    into the problems with which he was concerned. Lu Xun, by contrast, was
    an extremely complex person, with a sharp wit and a sensitive, subtle, and
    creative mind. He was known for his sardonic humor and mordant sarcasm.
    Outwardly, he was distant and cold; inwardly, deeply pessimistic and
    melancholy–but with a genuine warmth and moral passion which enabled him
    to express the agony of China’s cultural crisis with great eloquence.
    Politically, he was highly sympathetic to the Communists in his later
    years, but he eschewed formal party ties and firm ideological
    commitments. (9)

    11. For a more detailed discussion of the
    relationship between these two texts, see Yang.

    12. For an interesting, though
    thoroughly uncritical, survey of discourses of cannibalism from throughout
    Chinese history, see Chong.

    13. On one web site discussion, for
    instance, the author confidently asserts that “the taboos against eating
    one’s
    own are universal, and rumors about violations of these taboos are used to vilify
    members of competing cultures” (“Fetus”)(emphasis added).


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