Eating Culture Cannibalism and the Semiotics of Starvation, 1870–2001

Kathryn Edgerton-Tarpley

in Tears from Iron

Published by University of California Press

Published in print February 2008 | ISBN: 9780520253025
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520934221 | DOI:
Eating Culture Cannibalism and the Semiotics of Starvation, 1870–2001

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This chapter analyzes how the meaning of a particularly disturbing famine image, that of intrafamilial cannibalism, changed over time. The claim that human flesh was sold in shops and markets during the disaster appears in many famine texts, as does Liu's description of the progression from eating the dead to killing family members and consuming them. To a greater extent than the sale of women, cannibalism continued to serve as the quintessential emblem of the famine well into the twentieth century. Accounts of cannibalism were employed to represent not only the horror of famine but also the rapacity of the “old feudal society” as a whole. Even today, vivid descriptions of starving family members devouring each other continue to dominate the famine folktales that circulate in Shanxi.

Keywords: intrafamilial cannibalism; famine; human flesh; sale of women; Shanxi; feudal society

Chapter.  9065 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Asian History

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