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You Are Whom You Eat: Cannibalism in Contemporary Chinese Fiction and Film

  • Author(s): Tsai, Yun-Chu
  • Advisor(s): Scruggs, Bert
  • et al.

My project, You Are Whom You Eat: Cannibalism in Contemporary Chinese Fiction and Film, studies cannibalism in the works of Yu Hua, Mo Yan, and Lillian Lee. In contrast to other scholars who have interpreted cannibalism in modern and contemporary Chinese literature as merely allegorical, I find that cannibalism is better understood as both allegorical and literal. The trope of cannibalism uncovers the potential incorporation of Chinese gourmandism (Chinese culture of eating food and delicacies) and medicinal/gourmet cannibalism (eating human flesh for health benefits or pleasure) in the discourse of modernization and globalization. This project considers literary and cultural texts as problematic sites in which historical memory and cultural pathology are juxtaposed. It engages with key periods of Chinese history: the Great Leap Forward (1958-61), the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the 1989 Democracy Movement and contemporaneous economic reforms, and the rise of today’s Chinese Dream. Contemporary writers no longer use cannibalism to illustrate the split between tradition and modernity. They instead explore it as an allegory of cooperation between tradition and modernity, while also exploring people’s desire to cannibalize – metaphorically and literally – in a market economy.

In my dissertation, I employ historical and anthropological perspectives, and literary and psychoanalytic analyses to show how the trope of cannibalism has been involved with Chinese identities, and argue that the ambiguous boundaries and identities portrayed and imagined through cannibalism in contemporary Chinese literature debunk the progressive temporality of history and the integrity of subjectivities. I build on the modernist texts of Lu Xun, who portrays feudal China as a cannibalistic system in which every person is a consumed victim and/or a consuming cannibal, and argue that these contemporary writers continue to advance the allegory of China as a cannibalistic, self-consuming society. These authors’ works centered on cannibalism have mass appeal because they reflect and embody both the anxiety of being marginalized and consumed others and the desire for consumption in post-socialist, neoliberal Chinese society. They reveal people’s anxiety about the rapid transformation that is causing displacements and their ensuing insecurity in neoliberal China, in which desire for mass consumption is intertwined with China’s internal consumption of minorities and Chinese overseas expansion.

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