Dear Urban Legends:
I received an email last week which was quite disturbing and, to say the least, disgusting. It is about dead babies that can be bought from hospitals in Taiwan for $70 to meet the high demand for grilled and barbequed babies!
I am sure this must be a hoax, although the message comes with an attached slide show, showing how the baby is prepared, cooked and eaten.
Could you please investigate?
Given the nature of the "evidence" — that is to say, tabloid-style rumor-mongering and unsourced images found on the Internet — we must proceed under the assumption that the Chinese as a people, whether in Taiwan or on the mainland, are no more inclined to eat human babies than folks who live anywhere else in the world.
The same holds true for Jews, Christians, "Gypsies," witches, aborigines, Satanists, and all the other ethnic and religious groups accused of practicing this bloody "custom" down through the centuries. There's simply no proof that such a custom exists, or has ever existed, anywhere on earth. The burden of proof lies with those who claim otherwise.
Prejudice and blood libel
The claim that killing and eating babies (or fetuses) is a common and accepted practice in China (or Thailand, Japan, Korea, or Israel, etc.) is essentially a modern version of an ancient form of bigotry known as "blood libel," which historically consisted of one group accusing another of murdering infants during the course of ritual sacrifices. According to the Greeks, the Jews did it; according to the Romans, the Christians did it; according to the Christians, it really was the Jews who did it; and so on, and so on, since time immemorial.
Sociologists say the driving forces behind such bigotry are ignorance, xenophobia (fear of "the other"), and psychological projection (attributing perceived moral failings of one's own group to others). As an example of the latter, it has been speculated that the spread of horror stories in the West about the supposed use of unborn babies as food in Asia may be fueled by qualms about social practices closer to home — practices such as abortion, for example, and the so-called "cannibalization" of fetal tissue for scientific research.
'Cannibalism' as art
In any case, it's difficult to tell — and under dispute — whether photographs circulating online since December 2000 which appear to show an Asian man cooking and eating a human fetus are real or fake. We do know, thanks to documentation provided on Chinese-Art.com, that they were the work of a conceptual artist named Zhu Yu. The photos were exhibited at an underground art show after being rejected as "too controversial" by curators of the Shanghai 2000 Bienniale. For those who haven't seen them and aren't too squeamish to take a peek, here are two examples from Zhu's postmodern performance piece, aptly titled "Eating People," collected from forwarded emails:
The artist himself, whose past accomplishments include an opus called "Canned Human Brains," has claimed in interviews that he used real aborted fetuses stolen from a medical school to create the piece, and that he actually cooked and ate the fetuses "for art's sake."
Should we take him at his word? Not necessarily.