fetal soup w/ ginger and orange peel
March 10, 2007 8:01 PM   Subscribe

FetusSoupFilter: Looking for an exhaustive report into a terrifying rumor about Chinese diet that seems to have more legs than any report of infanto-cannibalism should.

[editor's note: confirmed hoax. -c]

Simple question: Do Chinese eat aborted fetus?

At core, I'm as skeptical as every one of you, but... on one side we have Snopes and About dismissing this outright as racist trash [as I originally did], but then you have this, the entire nation of the Philippines convinced that they do, and my Chinese friends here telling me with a straight face that they personally eat fetus. Chinese aren't known for their dry humor. Even my Chinese-American co-worker tells me her mother has been offered fetus while sick at the hospital.

It fits in with the Chinese mentality that eating X in an animal helps X in a person, thus if you drink a lot you should eat liver, etc.

I'm looking for exhaustive reports on the issue from a credible source.
posted by trinarian to Food & Drink (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you're thinking of the placenta [1] [2].
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:10 PM on March 10, 2007

I'm familiar with the placenta eating, but my friends were clearly identifying this as between 3-5 month old fetus. This was their rebuttal to me calling it 人肉.
posted by trinarian at 8:16 PM on March 10, 2007

... which is why I'm asking for credible sources. The third links pretends to have a legitimate newspaper copy + paste up.
posted by trinarian at 8:31 PM on March 10, 2007

"The third link [at least] pretends to have..."
posted by trinarian at 8:33 PM on March 10, 2007

People of many cultures use placental and fetal material from non-human animals (check out how many American products are made with placenta). Rarely, new mothers -- definitely including the occasional American, especially in 60s/70s hippie circles -- eat all or part of their own placentas after giving birth. If your Chinese friends are telling you they eat fetus and you really believe they're not pulling your leg, maybe it's better to accept the cultural difference than to deny it or sensationalize it ("terrifying"?). Then again, if I were one of your Chinese friends, maybe I'd be able to summon enough dry humor to tell you yes with a straight face... especially if I'd been asked that question too many times by disapproving Americans...
posted by lorimer at 8:34 PM on March 10, 2007

I've met and talked with someone, a trained nurse, who has eaten (human) placenta soup.

The circumstances is important; this was during a high-stress poverty-era rural setting. From what I gather from the conversation, it was protein that would have been discarded and the food/nutrient value of the to-be-discarded placenta was recognized. The nurses would ask for the permission of the mothers and sometimes the mothers would also partake (childbirth and gestation is stressful and expends tremendous amounts of energy and nutrients).

As an aside, I spoke with her when she was in her 90's and she did not have a single wrinkle. I'm bad at guessing ages in general, but she looked no older than 40 or 50 (and that's mostly from bone and muscle atrophy).

As for aborted fetuses - it sounds like a bad joke (some guy gets out of prison, goes to a brothel, and chows down on a "tomato") or racism. I'm not discounting 'monsters' who might get a kick out of doing something like this (or mass-murdering prostitues ala Pickerton or eating humans ala whatshisname Dahlmer) but eating aborted fetuses isn't, afaik, a custom.
posted by porpoise at 8:38 PM on March 10, 2007

>the entire nation of the Philippines convinced that they do

Er, what? Was there a cite for that "fact" which got missed?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:45 PM on March 10, 2007

lorimer: I really don't think they're joking, and it's a relatively rare rumor that I picked up by being around Filipino's in China and then hearing it again when I was down there last month. The topic was brought up over beer the other night as, "Listen to this crazy thing Filipino's think you guys eat..."

This isn't something I think they'd hear a lot of. By their reply, I'm assuming they're telling the truth that they at least think they're consuming fetus soup.

porpoise: They way it's spoken of, it's meant as a health food the same way placenta is.

ambrose: It's not meant as an academic source, merely the source of rumor. The fact that it comes from a Catholic country where abortion is illegal gave the rumor even less weight to me until I came back to China.

As you can tell from the question I'm asking, I'm looking for sources one way or another instead of trying to convince you with what little I know from scattered conversations and crap links.
posted by trinarian at 8:59 PM on March 10, 2007

porpoise: Pickton.
posted by docgonzo at 9:03 PM on March 10, 2007

Hm. There's a movie with a short story about this sort of thing: Three Extremes features this story:

"Dumplings - An aging actress wanting to reclaim her youth goes to a woman who makes dumplings that supposedly have regenerative properties. However, they contain a gruesome secret ingredient."

Secret ingredient being human fetus, of course.

Not that it answers the question. Your Chinese friend might be helping to simply propagate an entire country's snipe hunt. :)
posted by smallerdemon at 9:19 PM on March 10, 2007

I have nothing to back this up, but I really cannot think even the Cantonese would even consider this. I never heard about anything like this when I was in China, nor did I come across it academically whilst studying China. As far as I know the last tribes that routinely practiced cannibalism were defeated and driven out of China over a thousand years ago.

Also from personal experience at least the main body of Chinese society is about as baby centric as any I have ever seen, there is nothing more important then family in Confucian culture, and I think that to eat your descendants even dead ones would be a cardinal sin to them.

So, I think they were messing with you.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:05 PM on March 10, 2007

i am cantonese. they are playing with you and considering how seriously you're taking it (even despite snope's debunking), i'm not surprised. have you even looked at the rest of the site in your third link?
posted by pinksoftsoap at 10:49 PM on March 10, 2007

The phillipines are 85% catholic. I think you've steped into some hillbilly anti-abortion conspiracy theories along with some chinese buds who are pulling your leg.

FWIW, some Indians eat kutti pi which consists of animal fetuses. I wouldnt be surprised if the conspiracy theory started there.
posted by damn dirty ape at 11:14 PM on March 10, 2007

have you even looked at the rest of the site in your third link?
What he said. Not cool.
posted by juv3nal at 11:55 PM on March 10, 2007

I don't know why you Americans treat this as such a big deal. Here in Australia, spare foetuses have regularly been fed to the homeless in soup kitchens attached to the major teaching hospitals since the Howard Government merged the Health Department with the Welfare Department.

Horses for courses; when in Rome, etc.
posted by flabdablet at 12:17 AM on March 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

there was a chinese movie some years back called 'dumplings'. it is a psycho-thriller and story is about the use of aborted fetus as fillings for sumplings. it is for anti-aging .
The movie review
maybe that was when this story started making the rounds.
posted by kryptos at 12:29 AM on March 11, 2007

I just asked my friends chinese girlfriend, (whose english is very good) and she also said that she has heard that people in China eat fetuses. However she didn't have any specifics and it struck me as a rumor. I have also seen those pictures from the thrid link on a chinese site which claimed it was actually taiwanese people eating the fetuses. And there was reports of cannabalism by Red Guard members in Yunnan.
posted by afu at 1:36 AM on March 11, 2007

and my Chinese friends here telling me with a straight face that they personally eat fetus. Chinese aren't known for their dry humor. Even my Chinese-American co-worker tells me her mother has been offered fetus while sick at the hospital.

I was in China for a month or so and I can think of a few people I met who would pull my leg in this way. I'm also living away from the US for an extended time at the moment and there is a definite temptation when you feel like you've explained your country for the millionth time to just make something outrageous up.

I understand what you're saying in the point I emphasized, but I really have met so many people who contradict cultural truisms that I believe they only go so far. The English, for instance, are known for their dry humor, but have you seen Benny Hill?

So, I don't know, it sounds a bit like a misunderstanding or someone's joke.
posted by Slothrop at 1:38 AM on March 11, 2007

I won't link, but there are photos of this on Rotten.com
posted by A189Nut at 3:11 AM on March 11, 2007

I have lived and China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and this speculation is completely false.

The title of your post is also extremely offensive.

Also, where did you get this piece of BS from? "It fits in with the Chinese mentality that eating X in an animal helps X in a person"
posted by mphuie at 3:44 AM on March 11, 2007 [2 favorites]

I definitely recall having similar tales recounted to me by northern Chinese friends as examples of the decadence of the then newly wealthy south (I think they located it around Shenzhen, a byword for a hollow materialist boom-town where morals count for nothing and cash buys you anything). Although the way I heard the anecdotes, and their content, scream 'urban legend', considering the lengths some go to to eat a variety of extremely endangered wildlife (I translated an article on the trade for a journo friend), I personally wouldn't absolutely rule out some filthy rich bastard having done this.
mphuie - one part of that article I mentioned talked about how eating wildlife is popular with people it hot southern parts because it can 清热 (dispel heat).
posted by Abiezer at 4:27 AM on March 11, 2007

And having now got round to reading the thread, a) I've heard plenty of dry and dark humour in my time in China; and b) there are fairly well documented examples of politically-inspired cannibalism in Guangxi as recently as during the Cultural Revolution, though making a link between that and this would be fatuous IMO.
posted by Abiezer at 4:34 AM on March 11, 2007

the entire nation of the Philippines convinced that they do

Excuse me? I'm from/in the Philippines, and this is the first time I've heard of such a conviction, so I would love to hear citations for this assertion.

If there's anything about the Chinese that a majority of Filipinos believe, it's that a) they're great at math, and b) they put cat meat in siopao/mantou. They eat a lot of strange things, like shark fins and chicken feet, but so do we (Filipinos). Them eating fetuses, I've never heard of, though I can see why people would think it was "plausible". I'm pretty sure it's as much of an urban legend as the cat meat in siopao rumor, something grownups use to scare their children into doing what they say.
posted by Lush at 5:24 AM on March 11, 2007

It's confirmed: I was duped. They admitted it. The Chinese have a much dryer humor than I ever gave them credit for.

Lush: as per the "entire nation thing," I just heard it several times down there after telling people I live in China and my Filipino girlfriend and her friends were the first to bring it up.

Abiezer: This is all taking place in Shenzhen. A curious twist was that my co-worker tried to spin it that the Hong Konglians come up here to buy bargain-basement priced fetus for consumption in the SAR.

mphuie: the title comes from the pseudo-news link in the third link when a doctor describes how he cooks it up. Perhaps it's just a Cantonese thing, but as a relatively squeamish eater of internal organs, so I hear over and over again, "Eat it, it's good for your _____." The example was from this weekends hotpot, "we drink beer, so we must eat liver." I heard the same thing in Tianjin though, so you probably just weren't paying attention.
posted by trinarian at 6:08 AM on March 11, 2007

[and by "The Chinese have...", I know I'm speaking in broad generalities and there are always exceptions to the rule, I just hadn't experienced this exception in my seven months yet and was quite convinced they at least believed it. Bonus points that a table of seven was able to stay in character.]
posted by trinarian at 6:19 AM on March 11, 2007

That seems to fit trinarian; it seems the legend requires it to be an outrage committed by the wealthy, privileged 'other,' who has the cash but not 'our' moral restraint. For my northern friends it could be anyone down south during the post-Deng-"Southern Tour" boom, and I can imagine for actual people there Hong Kongers could fill a similar role in the narrative.
posted by Abiezer at 6:25 AM on March 11, 2007

Even if this is true, unless women are getting pregnant and having abortions to provide eatable fetuses on purpose, or forced to abort so their fetuses might be eaten, it's not that morally icky, in the same way that a starving person eating an already-dead corpse is not as icky as Dahmerism.

But then I'm still not entirely persuaded that Swift's Modest Proposal was meant as a joke, as I'm half-serious when I propose offering the keeled-over corpses of America's morbidly obese "poor" to genuinely starving famine victims in Africa. It does seem a shame to bury or cremate all that protein. The issues that give me pause are practical, e.g., whether diabetes taints the meat as tuberculosis would, or if thorough cooking kills blood-borne viruses. I find it morally unobjectionable so long as people are not being forcibly farmed, and practically speaking it's far more sanitary than cattle or pig farming (self-fattening people can use flush toilets, e.g.).
posted by davy at 9:48 AM on March 11, 2007

I just remembered that there's an episode in the Jung Chang book "Wild Swans" where something like this happens, once, during a famine. Not remotely the same thing as it being an accepted cultural practice of course but it might have helped spread the rumour.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:37 PM on March 11, 2007

Actually, the author of Stiff went to China to research this very topic as part of her text about "the curious lives of human cadavers." And while she cites several different articles, and while she also interviewed several people involved in the case, I don't remember there being a conclusive yes or no answer.

The book is hilarious though.
posted by santojulieta at 1:47 PM on March 11, 2007

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