The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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).

About the question of whether Zhu ate an actual baby, the urban-legend sites are considerably less confident. Snopes suggests, "As for the 'baby,' it was most likely constructed by placing a doll's head on a duck's carcass." "Most likely" isn't quite the conclusion one hopes for in a full-blown debunking, and, anyway, the sources cited in support of the duck-and-doll explanation provide no more evidence than that they also suspect it isn't true. Emery writes, "we have to acknowledge the possibility that Zhu Yu is telling the truth," although he's "inclined to agree with" the theory that it's a hoax. Again, this isn't quite the debunking we want, and Emery ends his account: "Take the Poll: 'Do you believe this artist when he claims he actually cooked and ate human fetuses?'"

THE POLL QUESTION ought rather to match Zhu's claim that he ate a single late-term stillborn baby. Still, taking that poll, Zhu, the Channel 4 program's producers, and, with less certainty, Channel 4's press team and Waldemar Januszczak would all vote yes, while I--well, what do I believe about Zhu? It's entirely possible that he faked his performance. But he says he didn't, and Channel 4 says he didn't--and they both claim great artistic panache for daring to outrage public sensibility, which makes it fair game to take them at their word and be outraged. This is the television channel, after all, that recently sold 500 tickets to an autopsy and then filmed the whole thing, complete with audience reaction, like a live-action game show.

Maybe I'm wrong to think that has something to say about the degradation of culture caused by abortion in America and Europe. That's an argument worth having. There's something sad, after all, about the damage we're doing to our anti-bourgeois artists: They want so desperately to traumatize us, and they have to go to the lengths of baby-eating even to get a small rise. (See, for instance, the perfect parody in the Onion, "Marilyn Manson Now Going Door-to-Door Trying to Shock People.")

Nonetheless, the example of Channel 4 needs to be fit somewhere in our picture of the world, as does the example of Stanford University, which insists that it will not be cloning in the new center it is setting up to clone embryos (not fetuses, as I mistyped in my piece last week). There are parts of a new picture--jigsaw-puzzle pieces of an emerging arrangement of the world--floating around out there, and one of the most important things we can do is try to figure out now what that picture will eventually look like, before it's too late to do anything to prevent it.

ABOUT THE April 13, 1995 report in the Daily Telegraph on the promotion of aborted-fetus-eating by the Shenzhen Health Centre, I'm much more dubious--but, again, the debunkings are less than complete. The Snopes report says that "nothing apparently" came of a Frank Wolf demand for an investigation, "leading us to believe" that the story isn't true. You can find a more determined attempt to discredit the story here, which I like primarily because it quotes with approval Judie Brown of the American Life League, perhaps the hardest-liner among mainstream anti-abortion activists and a woman this odd site wouldn't touch with a barge pole in any other context.

The story began with an Eastern Express article by the China reporter Bruce Gilley, author of the 1998 "Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China's New Elite." A few other newspapers picked up the story, including the Telegraph, but the Internet and e-mail lists were the primary vehicles for its transmission, and it picked up along the way the usual set of confusions, pet peeves, and distortions that computer connectivity has made a daily feature of our lives. (A note to the reader: Don't believe those e-mails you get from the widow of the assassinated finance minister of Bulungi who will split $5 million with you later if only you send her $10,000 now.)

This isn't the best provenance for a story, but the debunkings on the standard urban-legend sites seem to reject it primarily because it has the shape of an urban legend, and, anyway, we really don't want it to be true. That's not necessarily wrong: The morphological intuition of experts is a pretty good guide, and our sense of what human beings will instinctively find abominable is generally accurate.

But that's not the same thing as concrete evidence, and, anyway, we can be trained, or brutalized, or degraded out of our instincts about the seemly and the abominable--which is what, finally, my column last week was about. The picture of a culture of death is being created in front of us. Don't look at the individual pieces as they are held up, one by one. Look at the puzzle that's being filled in.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.