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.
I 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.