Spirit, Monster, Table and Tongue

By Caroline Merrifield, Yale University §

My friend Zhang is one of the head chefs at the fine-dining farm-to-table restaurant in Hangzhou, China, where I did most of my dissertation fieldwork. Zhang is a charismatic talker, and he is often recruited by the restaurant owner to explain his philosophy of cooking to guests and visitors. He has a favorite joke about food additives, which are routinely used in commercial kitchens. Many Chinese terms for industrial food additives have the character for “essence” appended to the end – MSG is literally “flavor essence” (味精), and chicken flavoring is “chicken essence” (鸡精). Zhang says that, when he got to thinking seriously about it, he realized “essences” are usually bad news: the same character, “essence,” shows up in words for fairy tale “spirits” (妖精) that bring chaos and uncertainty to the human world. He doesn’t allow any “essences/spirits” in his cooking, just to be on the safe side. It’s a funny thing to say, the way Zhang tells it, not least because his audience will likely be thinking of the sexy demons and fox spirits in fantasy TV serials who are always out to trick the unsuspecting hero. In the telling, Zhang becomes a hero of the kitchen, resisting the siren song of MSG and other ‘unnatural’ or ‘uncanny’ flavor enhancers.

Kitchen. Photo by Caroline Merrifield.

Tricky characters like food “essences” aren’t the only fairy tale figures prowling the realm of food in China. Over the past decade, numerous high-profile food safety scandals have erupted across the country. While serious problems with food safety and quality certainly existed in the food system before the mid-aughts, the increasing ubiquity of social media platforms like Weibo, and later Weixin, has enabled information about even relatively localized food safety problems to be shared, and amplified, on a national scale. As Yan Yuanxiang has pointed out, unsafe food results from a complex mix of causes, roughly classifiable as arising from conditions of ‘insufficient modernization’ (e.g. poor hygiene and storage) or from the ‘modernization’ process itself (e.g. overuse of agricultural chemicals) (Yan 2012). However, the scandals that weigh most heavily on consumers’ minds are those involving fake and deliberately adulterated products (c.f. Veeck et al. 2015), widely known as “black-hearted products” (黑心产品) in the media and in everyday conversations. Across scandal narratives of deceptive and “poisoned” (有毒) food, a class of villains has emerged: the shadowy holders of the “black hearts” in question.

bad-faith producer
Bad-faith producer: The bottle is labeled “hydrogen peroxide”; the container says “marinade ingredients”. 
Source: Huang, Hui. 2015. No title. In: Have You Eaten Niubaiye Beef Tripe? A Black-Hearted Boss Produced and Sold Poison Marinade Ingredients for Ten Years. Quanzhou Net, August 27. [黄晖. “你吃过牛百叶牛肚吗 黑心老板十年生产毒卤料当街卖.” 泉州网.]

The touchstone case of black hearts and poison food is the 2008 milk powder scandal. Actors throughout the supply chains of the Sanlu Group, as well as other major milk companies, were revealed to be engaging in, or tacitly endorsing, systematic practices of intentional adulteration (Pei et al. 2011, Xin and Stone 2008). Melamine, an industrial compound with high nitrogen content, was routinely added to diluted fluid milk to mimic higher protein levels; when ingested, it can cause kidney stones and other serious damage to kidney function (Bhalla et al. 2009). 300,000 children reportedly became ill after consuming formula containing melamine, and six died (Ingelfinger 2008, Xiu and Klein 2010). Innocent babies; a ‘pure’ food for primal nourishment; and people, ‘out there,’ making the decision to mix nonfood with food, and send the toxic mixture on its way, through the market, to the babies – the elements of the story formed a potent combination.

An analysis written by veteran reporter Chen Jibing at the end of 2008, a few months after the scandal broke, conveys a widespread sentiment about the incident. He writes:

We can now comprehensively analyze the melamine incident on many different levels: raw ingredient supply channels, production companies, government or technology, regulatory oversight, the legal system. Yet before we engage in this kind of rational reflection, we must not overlook a basic truth: melamine, this all-pervading white powder, has already broken through a moral baseline for civilized society. I think that this is the real reason that the “melamine incident”…has caused such a powerful psychic shock throughout our society.[1]

Chen acknowledges that unscrupulous business practices are nothing new, in China or elsewhere; the broken “moral baseline” that distinguishes this case is that actors were carrying out these practices in clear knowledge of the potential for harm. He continues:

From the dairy farmers and the milk collection stations, to the milk powder companies, straight to local government, people at every stage just lightly overstepped this boundary for all kinds of material interests, not a thread of regret troubling their souls. Behind the obscuring white fog of melamine, we can see the ruins of the toppled towers of morality. The thing that really chills people’s hearts is that, by contemporary standards, the vast majority of the people crazily dumping melamine into milk wouldn’t count as any kind of “monster.”

This is what the notion of black hearts stands for, in context: a critique of an unsettlingly banal sort of evil.[2]

The national outcry[3] over the milk scandal prompted the adoption of updated national food safety legislation, in 2009. A food safety commission was created under the auspices of the State Council in 2010, and was initially headed by Li Keqiang, the current premier. Under the Xi Jinping administration, issues of food safety have been increasingly taken up at the highest levels of government policy-making as an urgent matter of national security. Beyond the immediate sense in which unsafe food poses a threat to public order[4] by calling into question the routine clicking-along of the (state-architected) status quo, unsafe food also calls up and calls out the underlying premise of state legitimacy.[5] The developmentalist state promises a “Chinese Dream” (中国梦) of “moderate prosperity” (小康)[6] for all, a condition of material security and wellbeing to be brought about through the Party’s leadership of society and oversight of the market. Unsafe food gives the lie to dreams of prosperity; it represents a breach of state provision, not merely in the register of ‘better things,’ but in the realm of bare life.

Additives: The menacing particles are labeled “additives”; the bowl is labeled “instant noodles.”  
Source: China Commercial News. 2015. Artist unknown, no title. In: Why Instant Noodles are Always Being “Demonized.” China Commercial News Net, September 10. [中国商报.  方便面为什么总被“妖魔化.”]

In light of the high political stakes of food safety, the public security apparatus and official media have worked together to produce a public-facing information campaign centered around the dual devices of “exposure” (曝光) and the “strike” (打击). In news reports on actions against the production of unsafe food, brave public security officers “capture” (抓获) suspects and “demolish” (捣毁) “black workshops” and “black dens” (黑作坊, 黑窝点), where they discover strange substances: soup seasonings containing ground opium poppy capsule[7]; sausages and noodles made with industrial gelatin and industrial salts[8]; “gutter oil” collected from food waste and wash-water.[9] These narrative conceits – plucky, courageous officers swinging the “sharp sword” (利剑) of the law[10] to defend ‘the common people’ against “black-hearted” producers – are reproduced in regular ‘investigative’ television segments on state TV channels. The broadly-cast message: the Party is actively defending the lives of its citizens, and the safety of their tables (百姓餐桌)[11] and tongues (舌尖上的安全).[12]

Yet this is fundamentally an after-the-fact sort of story: the officers and the reporters break down the door of a “black den” after “the suspects” have already produced and sold unknown quantities of fake or poisoned food. Once out in the world, black-hearted products resist detection.

In summer 2015, the China Food and Drug Administration, the Ministry of Agriculture, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine, and the National Cyberspace Administration partnered with the state news service, Xinhua, to create something called the China Food Rumor Refuting Net. On the premise that the internet is awash in false information about food safety, causing ordinary people to become irrationally fearful, the site claims to provide “authoritative” information from scientific experts. Yet the collection of articles featured on the site seems only to emphasize existential uncertainty surrounding food. When I visited the site in late August, headlines proclaiming the falsity of a ‘rumor’ about pork floss made of cotton sat next to other headlines: “Selenium Content in Infant Formula Shows Dilution with Water”[13]; “Chives Have Pesticide Residue Levels Up To 7.7 Times the Standard.”[14] Untrue information about food does circulate widely; for instance, a friend told me she’d read online that all cherry tomatoes come from transgenic seeds. But even the most ‘scientific’ and ‘authoritative’ sources acknowledge the difficulty of telling the fake from the real. In 2013 and 2014, news reports on a series of “fake meats” scandals quoted findings from public security investigations: fox, mink, and rat meat was being passed off as mutton.[15] Dead pig carcasses were being repackaged as beef.[16] Suspect meat was submitted to “professional testing” and DNA analysis in order to determine its true origins – which, with the additions of gelatin, colorings, synthetic flavorings, nitrates, and so on, had been sufficiently obscured for sale to, say, the neighborhood hotpot restaurant.

roots of food safety cartoon
Roots of food safety: The base is labeled “black den”; the bag is labeled “industrial gelatin, industrial salt”; the tree trunk is labeled “poisoned food.”
Source: “Da Chao” [pen-name]. 2016. Illegal Additives. Xinhua News Service. In: Poison Foods were “Best-Sellers” for Three Years. Shaanxi Daily, July 26.  [大巢. 非法添加. 新华社. 有毒食品竟“畅销”三年. 陕西日报.]

“Rumors” (谣言) could also be translated as “folk theories” – the state’s “rumors” are often the public’s attempt to find rules to guide perception in the face of radical uncertainty. In a 2013 paper on consumer food-buying strategies in Kunming, Jakob Klein writes:

Ms Yang, a recently retired university librarian married to a professor, would look for leafy vegetables with insect holes, reasoning that if insects ate them they could not contain pesticides. Ms Liang, an office worker in a city government bureau, argued that cauliflowers should not be too white: ‘It feels like they have chemical fertilizers in them, that they exceed [prescribed limits]. You must choose the ones that are from the mountains, they are slightly yellow. They don’t look pretty.’ Similarly, she told me, tomatoes should not be evenly red, as it suggests that they have been grown in a plastic greenhouse. (Klein 2013: 382).

During my fieldwork, I listened as friends and acquaintances traded the same kinds of practical guidelines. Buy fatty pork: pigs naturally have some fat on them, and unusually lean meat signals that the pig was treated with clenbuterol – “lean meat essence” (瘦肉精), in Chinese. Only buy watermelons with seeds – those without might be genetically modified. Look for certain colors and textures, attend to certain smells – is the eye of the fish cloudy? Is the chicken too large for its age? At the point of purchase, the consumer tries to use the evidence of her senses to arrive at some ‘truth’ of the product. Yet “professional’ and “scientific” modes of detection are only able to reach firm existential ground after-the-fact, after tons of product have already been sold. Workaday heuristics – rumors and rules-of-thumb – begin to seem like a kind of hopeful ward, rather than a means to accurate divination.

rural supermarket w dog
Rural supermarket with dog. Photo by Caroline Merrifield.

Chinese novelist Ning Ken has recently written about his use of the term “ultra-unreal” (超幻) to name literary production in contemporary China that grapples with a reality – as shown on the news – that seems like a hallucination, more fictional than fiction. He connects the ‘fable-like” quality of everyday reality to the abuse of power, which allows people to act beyond the bounds of ‘ordinary’ imagination. He writes:

[T]here is actually a very close connection between these stories about the abuse of power and ordinary people. As you all know, in China food safety is a matter of urgent concern for ordinary people. There are toxins in our rice; there are toxins in our vegetables; there are toxins in our pork. There are toxins in our baby formula. Restaurants cut costs by recovering and reusing cooking oil that has been used and thrown out, and this oil has toxins in it too…China faces a mountain of such difficulties, an Everest of difficulties, and they are the direct result of the misuse or abuse of power.[17]

It’s telling that Ning illustrates everyday “ultra-unreality” with examples of toxic food: the stories – the rumors – only attempt to keep up with the news. Real incidents, with raids on black dens and piles of mysterious ‘essences,’ closely follow the narrative conventions of fantasy. As Mel Chen writes, “There is, indeed, something ‘unworlding’ that might be said to take place in the cultural production of toxic notions. A ‘normal’ world’s order is lost when, for instance, things that can harm you permanently are not even visible to the naked eye” (Chen 2017: 203).[18]

rural small shop
Rural small shop. Photo by Caroline Merrifield.

In China, the complex of fake-adulterated-poisonous food harbors toxic potential. This potential is certainly a question of specific technical, measurable, medical harms – how much kidney damage, at what dosage? Diarrhea and vomiting, for how long? Bacterial or chemical contamination? But what defines the public conversation about unsafe food in China is the prominence of malignant human actions and intentions. It is as if the ‘essence’ of nefariousness is imbued within black-hearted foods, lying dormant as it travels, to be unleashed at a later time and in a distant place. Black-hearted products are the medium conveying the harm of bad-faith actions ‘downstream.’ The food carries the poison of bad faith; the cause is the manufacturer who breaches the moral baseline – a ‘monster,’ whether he seems like one or not.

Works Cited (English)

Bhalla, Vivek, et al. 2009. Melamine Nephrotoxicity: An Emerging Epidemic in an Era of Globalization. Kidney International 75: 774-779.

Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press.

Croddy, Eric. 2004. Rat Poison and Food Security in the People’s Republic of China: Focus on Tetramethylene Disulfotetramine (Tetramine). Archives of Toxicology 78(1): 1-6.

Feng, Michael X.Y. 2015. The ‘Chinese Dream’ Deconstructed: Values and Institutions. Journal of Chinese Political Science 20(2): 163–183.

Ingelfinger, Julie R. 2008. Melamine and the Global Implications of Food Contamination. New England Journal of Medicine 359(26): 2745-2748.

Jacobs, Andrew. 2010. China Sentences Activist in Milk Scandal to Prison. The New York Times, November 10. Available online: <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/world/asia/11beijing.html?mcubz=1&gt;

Klein, Jakob A. 2013. Everyday Approaches to Food Safety in Kunming. The China Quarterly 214: 376-393.

Lei, Ya-Wen, and Zhou, Daniel Xiaodan. 2015. Contesting Legality in Authoritarian Contexts: Food Safety, Rule of Law and China’s Networked Public Sphere. Law and Society Review 49(3): 557 – 593.

Ning, Ken. 2016. Writing in the Age of the Ultra-Unreal. Trans., Thomas Moran. New England Review 37(2). Available online: <http://www.nereview.com/vol-37-no-2-2016/writing-in-the-age-of-the-ultra-unreal-2/&gt;

Pei, Xiaofang, et al. 2011. The China Melamine Milk Scandal and its Implications for Food Safety Regulation. Food Policy 36(3): 412-420.

South China Morning Post. 2011 Police Hound Activist on Family Day Out. June 2. Available online: <http://www.scmp.com/article/969435/police-hound-activist-family-day-out&gt;

Veeck, Gregory, Ann Veeck, and Zhao Shuming. 2015. Perceptions of Food Safety by Urban Consumers in Nanjing, China. The Professional Geographer 67(3): 490-501.

Xin, Hao, and Stone, Richard. 2008. Chinese Probe Unmasks High-Tech Adulteration With Melamine. Science 322 (5906): 1310-1311.

Xiu, Changbai and Klein, K.K. 2010. Melamine in Milk Products in China: Examining the Factors that Led to Deliberate Use of the Contaminant. Food Policy 35: 463-470.

Yan, Yunxiang. 2012. Food Safety and Social Risk in Contemporary China. Journal of Asian Studies 71(3): 705-729.

Works Cited (Chinese)

Chen, Jibing. 2008. Discussion: Melamine has Challenged the Moral Bottom Line of “Taboo.” China News Service, December 12. [陈季冰. 评论:三聚氰胺挑战了“禁忌”这条道德底线. 中新网] Available online: <http://www.zsnews.cn/News/2008/12/31/1006559.shtml&gt;

Fang, Qing. 2015. Dead Pigs “Become” Beef – A Case of a Family-Style Operation – Sixteen Sentenced in Guangdong. Guangzhou Daily, January 23. [方晴. 死猪“变”牛肉 以家族式经营作案 广东16案犯领刑.  广州日报]  Available online: <http://news.xinhuanet.com/legal/2015-01/23/c_127413756.htm&gt;

Henan Commercial News, Covert Investigation Group. 2017. Multiple Government Departments Conduct Overnight Investigation of Gutter Oil Storage Locations, Demolishing Multiple Black Dens. Henan Commercial News, March 31. [河南商报暗访组. 郑州多部门连夜查处地沟油储存点 捣毁多个黑窝点. 河南商报] Available online: <http://www.henan100.com/news/2017/696465.shtml&gt;

Huang, Ming. 2015. At the 2015 Forum on Protection against Food and Drug -Related Crimes, [Vice-Minister of Public Security] Huang Ming Emphasised the Concentration of General Knowledge; Policies to Prevent and Punish Collusion; Forceful Protection of the Safety of the People’s Tables and the Safety of Medicines. China Anti-Falsification Report 7: 10-12. [黄明. 黄明在2015食品药品安全刑事保护论坛上强调 凝聚各方共识 共谋打防良策 有力维护百姓餐桌安全和用药安全. 中国防伪报道.]

Sun, Mei, and Sun, Jie, eds. 2016. Use of Industrial Gelatin as Food Ingredient Prompts Reflection on Oversight before the Incident; Widespread Anger at Preschool’s Use of Mouldy Rice. People’s Daily Online – Food Safety Channel, August 4. [孙梅、孙杰 , 责编. 工业明胶变“佐料”引发事前监管反思 幼儿园使用发霉大米惹众怒. 人民网-食安频道] Available online: <http://www.spaq.people.com.cn/n1/2016/0804/c398010-28611060.html&gt;

Wang, Jinxue, and Qin, Hua, eds. 2017. Willing to Shoulder Burdens, Brave Enough to Innovate, Acting with Benevolence: An Excellent Group, Laden with Honors, Moving Ahead Despite a Heavy Burden. People’s Daily Online – Communist Party of China News Net, July 6. [王金雪、秦华, 责编. 敢担当 勇创新 善作为:一个负重前行满载荣誉的优秀集体. 人民网-中国共产党新闻网.] Available online: <http://dangjian.people.com.cn/n1/2017/0706/c412885-29387997.html&gt;

Worker’s Daily. 2013. In Focus: “Fake and Adulterated Mutton” Undermines Establishment of Traceability Mechanism. Worker’s Daily Online, May 15. [工人日报. 焦点: “掺假羊肉”倒逼溯源机制建立. 中工网.] Available online: <http://firm.workercn.cn/c/2013/05/15/130515083951798317771.html&gt;

Zhang, Qiaosu, ed. 2017. Ministry of Public Security Publicizes Classic Cases of Food Safety Crimes. Xinhua News Service, July 3. [张樵苏, 责任编辑. 公安部公布一批打击食品安全犯罪典型案例. 新华社.] Available online: <http://news.xinhuanet.com/legal/2017-07/03/c_1121256932.htm&gt;

Zhang, Xinshuo, ed. 2017a. Selenium Content in Prescription Infant Formula Shows Dilution with Water; Shanghai Nestle Product Service Company Under Investigation. Xinhua News Service, July 26. [张欣烁, 责任编辑. 婴儿配方食品硒含量“掺水” 上海雀巢产品服务公司被调查. 新华社] Available online: <http://news.xinhuanet.com/food/2017-07/26/c_1121380312.htm&gt;

Zhang, Xinshuo, ed. 2017b. Chives Have Pesticide Residue Levels Up To 7.7 Times the Standard. Beijing Evening News, August 18. [张欣烁, 责任编辑. 一款韭菜农残超标高达7.7倍. 北京晚报] Available online:  <http://news.xinhuanet.com/food/2017-08/18/c_1121501792.htm&gt;


[1] My translation.

[2] A 2004 paper in the journal Archives of Toxicology provides an instructive contrast. The author, investigating cases of human death by exposure to the rat poison tetramine in China, cites a number of high-profile cases of deliberate poisoning, rather than accidental ingestion. The proprietor of a snack shop adulterates a competitor’s goods with rat poison, causing 42 deaths. A student attempts to get revenge on a disliked teacher by sprinkling rat poison on the school cafeteria’s vegetables. A man poisons the milk his wife drinks so that he can marry his mistress. A restaurant worker tries to poison her boss over withheld back-pay. The author declares a situation of “chaotic misuse.” Yet in the incidents referenced in the article, the poisoners have a definite target in mind – a rival, a foe. People other than the target may become sick or die, but as unintended collateral damage. Chen Jibing points to something else in his analysis of the melamine milk scandal: uninterested indiscriminacy. See Croddy (2004).

[3] See, for example, Lei and Zhou (2015). The authors discuss the role of the social media platform Tianya, which was ascendant at the time, in facilitating the flow of information about the scandal.

[4] Zhao Lianhai, a father whose child became ill from melamine-contaminated formula in 2008, started an online group, Kidney Stone Babies, to organize parents of other affected children. He was outspoken about the harms to children and the relatively light penalties faced by the dairy industry. Zhao was detained in 2009, and in 2010 was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for “inciting social disorder.” Although he was released on medical parole in late December 2010, he remained under close surveillance by police. See Jacobs (2010), SCMP (2011).

[5] The legitimacy of imperial Chinese rule was grounded in the political notion of the Mandate of Heaven: natural disaster, and famine in particular, were signs of Heaven’s displeasure with the ruler. Such a ruler could be rightfully overthrown by the people. Chinese states invested heavily in infrastructure, like massive irrigation works and public granaries, to ensure food provision for the populace, even in times of crisis or natural disaster.

[6] For a gloss on the relationship between concepts of “moderate prosperity” and the Chinese Dream, see Feng, Michael X.Y. (2015).

[7] See Zhang, Q. (2017), for an example from Shanghai. The use of poppy capsules in seasonings, particularly at restaurants, has made the news with some frequency in the last year or so – it is not an isolated practice.

[8] This example from the Northeast featured in a weekly ‘digest’ list of food safety incidents compiled for the “food safety” news channel of the People’s Daily website. See Sun and Sun (2016). People’s Daily is considered to be a mouthpiece for the Party.

[9] See Henan Commercial News (2017). This example from Henan focuses on periurban “black dens.”

[10] A recent party news release on public security food safety work is particularly dense with these cliches. See Wang and Qin (2017).

[11] For a representative example of this kind of official language, see Huang (2015).

[12] The slogan “Safety on the Tip of the Tongue” was first used by Xi Jinping in 2013; since then, it has been widely used in official publications at various levels of government. The slogan is a play on the title of the popular foodie TV series, “Bite of China” – literally, “China on the Tip of the Tongue” (舌尖上的中国).

[13] See Zhang, X. (2017a). This story implicates Nestle Shanghai in selling substandard prescription infant formula.

[14] See Zhang, X. (2017b). This article from a Beijing paper was featured on the Xinhua Food Rumor Refuting page.

[15] See Worker’s Daily (2013).

[16] See Fang (2015). The story, which focuses on criminal cases involving a ‘fake’ meat production chain, was reported in Guangzhou Daily.

[17] For an English translation of Ning’s written remarks on the subject, see Ning (2016).

[18] In Animacies, Mel Chen uses the tools of cognitive linguistics to question a simple binary of life/nonlife. Toxicity figures heavily in Chen’s writing as “an animated, active, and peculiarly queer agent”: ‘toxins’ move across space and between mediums; they ‘queer’ boundaries as they go, posing a “potential threat to valued human integrities” (Chen 2012: 10, 159). Chen devotes a chapter to the 2007 “lead panic” in the US over potentially contaminated toys imported from China. In addition to sharp analysis of the racial and national hierarchies that lead comes into association with over time, Chen argues that lead “has the capacity to poison definitively animate beings, and as such achieves its own animacy as an agent of harm” (Chen 2012: 187). In the case of Chinese toys in the US, the emphasis is on the animate ‘toxin’ itself, rather than human intentions.

Caroline Merrifield is a PhD candidate in Anthropology at Yale, where she is currently finishing her dissertation on China’s growing food movement. Drawing on fieldwork at a fine-dining farm-to-table restaurant in Zhejiang Province, the project explores morality, trust, and kinship in the making of ‘good’ food.

This post is part of our series Toxic Bodies.