Fake News? Chinese Cannibalism Cookbooks?

Sy Montgomery’s review of CANNIBALISM: A Perfectly Natural History By Bill Schutt includes the following paragraph:

Next time you eat Chinese, for example, you might discuss how, during the Yuan dynasty, royalty and upper-class citizens did so, too. So frequently did high society dine on fellow citizens that the various methods of preparing human flesh — including baking, roasting, broiling, smoke-drying and sun-drying — filled 13 pages of one book Schutt consulted. (Children were considered the tastiest, followed by women and last, men.) In fact, so-called epicurean cannibalism — that is, eating your fellow men/women/children because they taste good and not just because there’s nothing else in the house — was still widespread in China into the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution.

Smithsonian Sackler - China - bce 10c Western Zhou Ritual Food Gui with handlesI know there are documented cases of cannibalism in Chinese history (Great Leap Famine), and plenty of food crises in which cannibalism was at least widely rumored (including the Yuan era), but for all of the “The Chinese Will Eat Anything” articles I’ve seen, I’ve never seen a claim of anything like this. Schutt is, apparently, a biologist and the review claims that he’s interviewed and consulted anthropologists. My immediate reaction is that he can’t tell the difference between a satire and a supernova, and has fallen prey to the “primary sources must be true” school of amateur historiography.

However, I’m open to the possibility that I’ve just missed out on these sources, and that every other food historian and anthropologist who’s studied China has missed them as well, or decided to keep them a trade secret. (credit to Matt Thomas for bringing this to my attention)

Anyone want to weigh in?

p.s. The most comprehensive source I’ve found so far is Sutton, Donald S. “Consuming Counterrevolution: The Ritual and Culture of Cannibalism in Wuxuan, Guangxi, China, May to July 1968.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 37, no. 1 (1995): 136-72. www.jstor.org/stable/179381. This is an attempt to put Zheng Yi’s account of the 1968 Wuxuan county wave of cannibalism into cultural context, but doesn’t support either of the claims above, either that cannibalism was “widespread” in the Cultural Revolution (though I guess that would depend on your definition) or the Yuan cookbook. It does corroborate the tradition of using human body parts as medicinal ingredients/sacrifices and some ritual consumption of defeated enemies, at least in stories.


  1. Please see: Cannibalism in China, Key Ray Chong, (Longwood Academic) 1990. See especially, Chapter 6 (“Methods of Cooking Human Flesh in China”) pp 145-157.

    1. It’s not easy to get hold of from here, but I’m hoping someone who does have access can share what they know. What I do know is that Sutton’s article suggests that he’s not entirely reliable, or consistent with what historians know. I’d really like to hear from historians who know the sources rather than biologists and amateur investigators.

  2. And I’d really like to hear from people who have read the book, checked my sources, then followed up with their own research (rather than those who read a review and start ragging on an author whose book they obviously haven’t bothered to read ). That way, we might all learn something.

  3. I have not read the Schutt book, but from what I can tell he seems to be wrong. The Key Ray Chong book he mentions does indeed have an entire chapter on methods of cooking human meat, but most of the citations about cooking methods are to K.C. Chang’s -Food in Chinese Culture-, and all of them are about cooking methods in general, although Chong implies that these methods were regularly used to cook humans. This seems entirely spurious to me, and I don’t regard the book as a reliable source.
    Key Ray Chong does have lots of examples from Chinese literature and history of people eating the flesh of enemies as a sign of victory. K.C. Chang’s book mentions some of these as well, E.N. Anderson’s -The Food of China- talks about cannibalism, but claims (correctly, I think) that the stories about restaurants that served human meat were just stories, regardless of what credulous authors like Gernet thought. Anderson, E. N. The Food of China. Yale University Press, 1990. pp. 83, 104, 274. There seems to have been a real trend of stories about eating humans in the Yuan and Ming, the most famous of which is the one in -Water Margin- There may be a good article or book on the theme of cannibalism in pre-modern Chinese literature. On modern literature you can see Rojas, Carlos. “Cannibalism and the Chinese Body Politic: Hermeneutics and Violence in Cross-Cultural Perception.” Postmodern Culture 12, no. 3 (July 1, 2002). doi:10.1353/pmc.2002.0025.

  4. Huang Chao’s rebellion apparently involved mass slaughter and consumption of civilians during the later Tang Dynasty. Yue Fei apparently is reputed to have resorted to Jin corpses for food during supply-starved circumstances.

    In Dieter Kuhn’s _The Age of Confucian Rule_, he seems to describe in brief the weak cannibalism taboo in China, where cannibalism was a form of revenge, filial piety, bravery, punishment, or torture (I paraphrase).

    I actually like it very much because it’s fun to think of cannibals piloting stealth fighters as well as operating the second-largest economy, in nominal terms, in the world. It’s very taboo in the West (besides figurative cannibalism as part of certain mainstream religious practices), but it needn’t be taboo elsewhere, and when you apply the scalpel of reason, the real reasons not to do it would be the risk of prion disease as well as the exploitative ethos (see Lu Xun’s “A Madman’s Diary”) intrinsic in a case where people literally become predator and prey.

  5. I’m not sure it it’s fair to refer only to the review, but this may be helpful

    With a copy of Key Rey Chong’s book in hand: Chong is a sinologist, it’s a scholarly book, based on careful reading of a wide range of classical sources. He describes cannibalism for survival, punishment, revenge, filial piety, love, hatred, but as far as i can find in it, only 10 cases of “taste-related cannibalism” in the whole imperial periond (p. 164). The section on the Yuan dynasty does not mention any royal banquets.

    So Chong’s book can’t be the source for the review saying “so-called epicurean cannibalism — that is, eating your fellow men/women/children because they taste good and not just because there’s nothing else in the house” was common in the Yuan, and absolutely none for concluding that gourmet cannibalism was a continuous tradition, as in saying it “was still widespread in China into the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution,” when the consumption of human flesh was vengeful or survival.

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