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Eating Babies II: Coming Back for Seconds

Zhu Yu's would-be debunkers are unconvincing and the culture of death is emerging.

11:00 PM, Jan 8, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
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A FEW DAYS AGO--the night of January 1, as it happens--British television's Channel 4 aired a program about art in China that featured photographs of performance artist Zhu Yu eating the corpse of a stillborn baby.

Other Chinese artists shown in the program painted dead Siamese twins with their blood and drank wine that had been used to preserve an amputated human penis. This caused, as you might expect, a certain amount of upset in the former home of the now, at last, completely deceased Queen Victoria. "Perverts and Narcissists: Channel 4's Cashing in on a Chinese Artist Eating a Dead Baby Is a Greater Outrage Than the Cannibalism," opined a headline in the Guardian. Speaking a more traditional British idiom, the Liverpool Post gave over the front page to "It's Sick: Bereaved Mum Hits out at TV Baby Shocker."

The program--called "Beijing Swings!" and hosted by the London Times's art critic Waldemar Januszczak--even caused some comment in America. "C4 Backs Baby-Eater," noted Daily Variety. "Baby-Biting Photos Will Air: Channel 4 Defends Docu on Chinese Art," explained the Hollywood Reporter, while the Philadelphia Daily News chimed in with "Chinese 'art' lands on British TV." "TV Execs Defend Program On Eating Dead Tot," added the Toronto Sun.

All of which led me to write a Daily Standard piece last week called Eating Babies. I intended the story about Channel 4--together with a 1995 news report about a clinic that asserted the nutritional value of aborted fetuses--to be merely a strong anecdotal introduction to a reflection about the decay of the old picture of culture as necessarily involved in defending reverence for the human--to be replaced by a new picture, the final shape of which I cannot fully discern but which seems to be a complete culture of death.

I received a surprising number of e-mails in response to that column, and what was odd was that a good many insisted I must be making up the whole thing about Channel 4 and Zhu. I wasn't. You can find online news items about the brouhaha here, here, and here. There really is a British Channel 4, there really is a man named Zhu Yu, he really did have photographs taken of his eating what he and the Times's Januszczak and the program's producers said actually was a stillborn baby's corpse, and the pictures really were aired.

Declaring my column a "blood libel" against the Chinese people, the Boston Phoenix linked to two web discussions that many of the e-mailers cited as well--the well-respected Snopes.com and David Emery's About.com site on urban legends--both of which, it was claimed, leave the stories about Zhu Yu and the 1995 clinic "debunked" and "discredited."

THIS NEEDS some sorting out. There is, in fact, an urban legend out there, captured in the title of the Snopes article: "Taiwan's Hottest Restaurants Offer Grilled and Barbequed Fetuses." And this legend certainly has been debunked. The timing is a little confused. In recent interviews promoting the British television program, Zhu Yu says he performed the baby-eating in his home in 2001. But the exhibition of the photographs documenting it was apparently for a 2000 show called "Eating People." Regardless, in 2001, a Malaysian paper printed the photos of Zhu in his Beijing home--and claimed they were pictures of a restaurant in Taiwan that serves dead babies for the discerning diner.

Once the pictures were picked up on the web (by rotten.com), the legend was set loose--and rightly attacked by Emery and Snopes, who note that Taiwan is not Beijing, a single performance artist is not an entire culture, and, anyway, there is a long history of falsely accusing other peoples of eating babies (this is where the Boston Phoenix lifted the "blood libel" bit).