“Yes, China could do better in terms of public hygiene. But, moral panic over the foods the Chinese eat is more about cultural prejudices than anything else.”
Epidemics have always scared the bejeezus out of people—and with good reason. Smallpox alone killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone, prior to its eradication in 1980. No wonder the Pale Horseman of the Apocalypse is usually associated with pestilence. Given that—as Darwin would have it—we will forever live in a struggle for existence, it is unlikely that we will ever defeat germs altogether.
This typically prompts cultural anxieties. Germs are much more than little things that kill people; they also can become a means of expressing xenophobia. In the midsts of epidemics, cultural outsiders frequently become scapegoats. In the 14th century, one third of the European population was wiped out by bubonic plague. At the time, nobody knew what caused this terrible pandemic, but Jews were frequently pointed to as culprits and were accused of poisoning wells.
Furthermore, particular groups become associated with certain contagious diseases and, as a result, can find themselves targets of discrimination. Sometimes, the outbreak of a disease is blamed on a particular group’s cultural habits, and this contributes even more to their discrimination. In the United States during the 19th Century, cholera was blamed on Irish immigrants and their living conditions in urban slums. In the early days of AIDS, it was thought that this was a gay disease brought on by their promiscuity; in more recent times, Africans have become associated with HIV/AIDS and are occasionally blamed for its spread because of alleged sexual contacts with chimpanzees.
We now have a new outbreak. The coronavirus has begun in China. Although the entire city of Wuhan has been quarantined by the Chinese government, some cases have also been reported in neighboring countries, as well as in the United States. As with many other epidemics in human history, this has also become an occasion for xenophobia.
Anxieties over the so-called “Yellow Peril” are nothing new. The demographic power of East Asia has always made Westerners nervous. China was perceived as a sleeping giant that—if awoken—could bring forth havoc to Europe and North America. The Chinese may now be seen as a “model minority” by some parties in the United States; however, in 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. The fictional Chinese villain Fu Manchu was not just a funny mad scientist; he was the expression of the imagined dangers that the Far East, with its huge population, embodied.
Trade brings cultures closer, so the “othering” of China has dissipated in more recent times—but not entirely. With its crowded cities, China is still perceived as a danger to global health. There is certainly legitimacy to that view. But, additionally, Chinese eating habits are especially frowned upon, and Chinese dietary choices likely remain one of the significant leitmotivs in Western cultural anxiety about China.
Predictably, this is becoming the case with the coronavirus outbreak. It appears that the virus spread to humans from a bat, sold for consumption in a meat market in Wuhan. This confirms many Westerners’ fears that the Chinese cannot be trusted because they will eat anything. Who, in their right mind, could eat cute little puppies?
Some clarification is in order. Yes, China could do better in terms of public hygiene. But, moral panic over the foods the Chinese eat is more about cultural prejudices than anything else. Perhaps this time a bat was responsible for the spread of the coronavirus. But, as a rule of thumb, bats are not particularly dangerous creatures to eat. As they are described in the Oxford Companion to Food, bats, “are clean animals living exclusively on fruit, and have a taste which has been compared (like so much other exotic animal fare) to that of chicken.” One might say that, even if bats are clean creatures, eating wild animals is still not a particularly good idea. Sure—but, then, let’s make a bigger deal out of deer hunting; after all, there are risks involved.
Anthropologists have long studied cultural prohibitions on food. One common conclusion they reach is that specific foods are seldom prohibited on safety grounds. Take, for example, the Jewish and Muslim prohibitions against eating pork. Yes, pork may cause trichinosis, but it is doubtful that whoever wrote Leviticus (the Biblical book that inspires this prohibition) had that disease in mind. Anthropologist Mary Douglas argued that pork was more likely prohibited because the pig defied Hebrew classifications, whereas Marvin Harris believed pork was prohibited because it is not practical to raise it in the desert. Whatever the reason, the prohibition of pork reflected Middle Easterners’ own cultural and economic concerns, rather than objective sanitary knowledge. Cows may cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease but don’t expect a rabbi or an imam to outlaw eating steak anytime soon.
This anthropological insight should tell us something about our shock when we see the Chinese eating dogs. Every year, thousands of activists will sign petitions against the Yulin dog festival. If you are a strict vegetarian and are concerned about animal welfare as a whole, then you have a legitimate claim. But, if you eat sheep, cows, or chicken but still tear your garments upon seeing the Chinese eating dogs, then—at best—you are a hypocrite and—at worst—you are a bigot. Pigs and cows are just as intelligent as dogs (in fact, pigs may even be more intelligent), so what, exactly, makes going to McDonald’s a normal activity but going to the Yulin festival a crime? Hard to say. One might argue that the Chinese are especially cruel to dogs when they eat them, but if one believes that, then surely he has not visited a Western slaughterhouse.
I am no friend of cultural relativism. Over the years, in books and articles, I have consistently argued for the cultural superiority of the West in many relevant aspects. But, the time has come for me to give the devil his due: when it comes to the Chinese and that which they eat, we need relativism. In the 16th century, Michel de Montaigne famously said that cannibalism in Brazil was not so bad because Europeans did worse things. To me, this always appeared to be a cheap shot. However, upon seeing the recurrent hysteria over some Chinese villager eating a bat or a dog (and also taking into account the nasty and long history of the “Yellow Peril” moral panic in the West), I now think that—at least this one time—we, Westerners, should be more like Montaigne.
This stance will even prove beneficial in fighting the coronavirus. We need to persuade China to take better sanitary measures, such as it is now doing in building a hospital from scratch in Wuhan. However, pontificating about how monstrous Chinese people are for eating Lassie will not help at all.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80