As the coronavirus emerged as a global pandemic during early 2020, “ground zero” of the disease was initially named in the press as the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the city of Wuhan, Hubei, in central China. With a population of over 11 million residents, and as a major transportation hub situated on the Yangtze River, Wuhan was placed under strict lockdown at the end of January by Chinese authorities, with severe restrictions on travel and movement. These efforts at containment proved too late to prevent the eventual spread of the virus around the world. The dramatic global impact of the virus has been all too painfully clear, yet the exact origins and zoonotic transmission pathway of the virus remain uncertain. Scientists suggest that SARS-CoV-2 probably jumped from horseshoe bats to an unknown intermediate animal vector, from which it spread to humans, but exactly how, where, and when this happened is still unknown (Cyranoski 2020).
The social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have not been limited to public health and the economy. Anti-Chinese bias incidents have been on the rise around the world, with President Trump and his supporters insisting on calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” or using the even more overtly racist epithet of “kung flu.” The idea that exotic Chinese eating habits and unhygienic wet markets are to blame for the coronavirus have led many around the world, including Australia’s prime minister and US congressional lawmakers, to call for a wholesale ban on all wildlife wet markets globally (Neuman 2020). More scurrilous versions of these anti-Chinese sentiments have also circulated on the internet, with claims that the Chinese eat raw bats and video footage of Chinese people, supposedly in Wuhan, eating “bat soup” (Rozsa 2020; Palmer 2020).
What exactly is a wet market? Why are they so popular in China? Do Chinese people really eat bats and other wildlife? If so, why? Why don’t they ban these markets, when so many zoonotic diseases come from China? How might we think more critically about wildlife consumption, zoonotic diseases, and their relationship to our food supply? As Chinese food historians, we wanted to share our perspectives on these and other related questions with a broad public. On May 14, 2020, we held a public virtual panel discussion on “Rumor, Chinese Diets, and COVID-19: Questions and Answers about Chinese Food and Eating Habits,” with Miranda Brown (Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Professor of Chinese Studies, Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Michigan), Wendy Jia-Chen Fu (Associate Professor, Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures, Emory University), and Michelle T. King (Associate Professor, History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Donny Santacaterina (doctoral candidate, History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) served as moderator. The panel was sponsored by the Carolina Asia Center and the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The opinions expressed here are the speakers’ own and do not represent the views of any other entity. This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity; the full recording can be viewed at https://covid19asia.unc.edu/2020/05/234/.
On Wet Markets
I think we should start from the supposed ground zero of the virus. What exactly is a wet market? Why is it called a “wet” market in English? The Chinese term in Taiwan is just “traditional market” (chuantong shichang).
If you have ever been to one, sometimes they are pretty wet! I think it’s a “wet market” because they frequently have fresh fish, and they have to hose down the floor a lot. Some markets may have live animals, but not all of them. Most consumers who are shopping there want the freshest available produce or meat, and they feel if they choose from individual vendors, among whom they can bargain and comparison shop, they’ll get a better, fresher, quality product at a cheaper price. Traditionally speaking, it’s the original farm-to-table. I will say, though, that the trend in Taiwan, and even in China, is that more and more people are moving toward supermarkets and grocery stores like what we see in the United States.
One thing that I don’t think many people have realized is that refrigeration is really a recent thing in Greater China. Take Taiwan, where until 1980, only 10 percent of the population had home refrigerators (Crook and Hung 2018: 26). Refrigeration has only become a standard household feature in China in recent decades, and it is still not universal in rural areas. From that perspective, a wet market makes a lot of sense. If you want meat, fish, or dairy, you will have to buy it fresh every day, because these things do not hang out very well on your kitchen counter.
The primary distinction being implied by “wet” is in contrast to “dry.” “Dry” refers to packaged goods, so what you are getting by going to a wet market, as opposed to a dry market, are fresh foods, which makes the comparison with farmers’ markets not unreasonable. I think what is lost in the present discussion of wet markets is any understanding of how wet markets and supermarkets as food purveyors have developed in China post-1976. On the one hand, we are talking about “traditional” practices that are associated with the commercial sale of food. On the other hand, we are also talking about wet markets as commercial enterprises that were subject to new inputs and constraints after the liberalizing of the economy during the 1990s and 2000s, resulting in changes that have made some of these markets into newly configured market economy structures that deal in products that are not very traditional, or that engage people in ways that only mimic what might be older habits but actually do so in new ways.
A distinction should be made between wet markets in general and those specific markets where wildlife is sold, because I think there has been a conflation of these two things. A lot of people seem to think that there are wet markets everywhere in China where you can get bats. No, it’s not like that. At most wet markets, you’re asking, what’s your cut of pork or beef, or what fresh fish or squid do you want, what vegetables do you want? A lot of the things would be very familiar to you, they would just be directly from a vendor instead of on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic. Wildlife markets, of the kind that they are talking about in Wuhan, selling endangered and exotic creatures, are less common. They are not the average wet markets where most people are shopping.
On Double Standards Regarding Food Habits
We have a Western love story with farm-to-table, things that are fresher, small markets, etc., whereas we are disgusted with similar instances in the Chinese case. Would anybody like to comment on the differences in perspective when we look at American or European farmers’ markets, versus when we look at Asian ones?
I am reminded of Anthony Bourdain and other chefs who became prominent because they were traveling around the world and especially in different parts of Asia, going to local marketplaces, including food stalls located in or near wet markets. On the one hand, we see the bystander fascination of “Oh my goodness, it’s so hectic and crazy,” but on the other hand, these places are also treated as sites of culinary authenticity, because this is how the locals buy their food, how they cook their food, and how they eat their food. This sort of proximity becomes the realness of that place. The thinking becomes, “You have not really been to China if you haven’t been here,” or “You cannot really understand Vietnam if you haven’t eaten this.” Somehow, we want those people and those places to both be demonstrably and essentially authentic in real ways that we can’t imagine, and yet at the same time, we also want to be able to say, “That’s not what we would do.” We would get our nicely packaged meat at a supermarket, refrigerated and pre-cut.
I think a case can be made for eating wildlife that isn’t endangered, a feature of many cuisines and not just China. In fact, you can buy wildlife [venison, rabbit, alligator meat] in the United States. I was reminded recently of how wonderful alligator sausage, a specialty of New Orleans, can be. People savor it as an expression of local culture. This makes me wonder why we have no problem eating alligator meat or venison, but we object to people eating civets [the presumed source of the 2003 SARS outbreak]. After all, civet has historically been a culinary delicacy in China and remains so in some circles.
The first time I ever heard about civet was actually from my undergraduates talking about civet coffee. There is a cross-border civet trade, and civet coffee is something that rich people in New York and San Francisco can order from Amazon—you can get the cage-free variety. This is something I don’t see a lot of in Western media when we talk about how civet was linked to the SARS outbreak. Looking in the other direction hasn’t happened enough.
We should be thinking hard about why people consume wildlife. It’s worth pointing out that some Westerners have reasons for preferring some wildlife to factory-produced meat. I have found writers who talk about wildlife as an ultimate form of free-range organic meat, and a sustainable food source (Schmitt 2015).
We need to open our minds to what food can be. People need to get over the idea that Chinese food is weird because it is different. The Chinese consume meat and milk from a wide variety of animals (like yaks, for example). That is a wonderful thing. I’m worried that the breakneck pace of food industrialization will lead to less biodiversity and less variety in the diet. I don’t look forward to the day where there are only three meats on a Chinese table: pork, chicken, and beef. We don’t want China to feel like it needs to become like the US: a world of rubbery chicken breasts and hamburgers.
On Wildlife Consumption in China
How are these issues being discussed in China? Do you have any idea of what the Chinese discourse over COVID-19 might be when it comes to food or dietary habits?
This is data from a 2014 paper from a professor at Beijing Normal University, where they did an attitudinal survey of over one thousand people in five different Chinese cities (Zhang and Yin 2014). What was really interesting from that survey was that more than half of the people interviewed said that wildlife should not be consumed, versus some 30 percent of people who said that it’s okay to consume wildlife. I imagine if you redid the survey 2020, you would see an even greater attitudinal shift. People in China are definitely concerned with how to manage wildlife markets, and how to prevent another pandemic from happening again.
What is really interesting about consumption patterns in China is that they are very, very highly regionalized. It’s much more common that people consume wildlife in southern China—it’s just historically been so. In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in the South, when people answered the question, “Have you consumed wildlife in the past year?” 83 percent of the respondents said yes. That’s a quite high percentage. But in Beijing, in the north, less than 5 percent of the people said yes. Likewise, in Beijing, you find the highest level of people who think that wildlife should be entirely protected, versus in Guangzhou, which has the highest level of people who think that you can just use wildlife however you see fit. Wuhan is [geographically] somewhere in the middle between those two places.
We also have to point out the class connection here. It’s not at all the case that Chinese people are so poor that they have to eat bats, as was suggested on Fox News (Rozsa 2020). Quite the opposite. Only people with money and power can consume these expensive creatures: they now have disposable income, and this is a way to flaunt what they can do with it. The contemporary wildlife trade is very much tied up in the political economy of China and its economic development in the post-Mao era.
The closer you get to the wildlife trade, the more you see how complicated it is and how hard it is to regulate. As of February 24, 2020, China banned the wildlife trade for consumption—but only for eating. They didn’t ban its other uses, such as for traditional medicine, clothing, or decorative items. To me, the comparison is like the gun control debate in the United States. For outsiders looking at the US, they think, “How on earth can you tolerate living with all those guns?” But if you live here, you know that it’s complicated, and that there are a lot of powerful forces at work. Likewise in China, different people see the wildlife trade as part of their traditions, and corporate interests, powerful people, and money protect it—all of which make it very difficult to control. If you ban the wildlife trade, it’ll go underground and become an illegal trade. Overall, it’s a huge 73-billion-dollar industry, employing 14 million people (Su 2020). If they can’t work in the wildlife trade, you have to give them another option.
I actually wonder if, on some level, given the many food-related scandals that have occurred in recent years in contemporary China, people in China might be somewhat confused by the non-Chinese fixation with wet markets and the ungrounded assertions of Chinese people eating bats. So much of what we’ve been talking about today cannot be extricated from how the Chinese economy has transformed over the last two to three decades and how such changes have made what Chinese people eat less safe. Chinese people have legitimate concerns about the adulteration and contamination of everyday foods, from ham and pickled vegetables to infant formula. At some level, I would imagine, American focus on the eating of wildlife, or the conflation of wildlife markets and wet markets by the US media, probably feels like a strange Western obsession unrelated to contemporary Chinese concerns.
On Zoonotic Diseases and the Industrial Food Supply
One thing that the media has done horribly wrong, in my opinion, is popularizing this connection between diet and COVID-19 by using images and concepts from wherever they choose to make up a “Chinese diet.” One Business Insider article from February 2020 is about China banning the trade and consumption of wild animals, yet it uses photographs from a wildlife market in Sulawesi, Indonesia, for illustration (Woodward 2020). These sensationalist images are from somewhere totally different in Asia, but they are sold as being from China. I want to get the panelists’ opinions on this assignment of dietary habits from all of Asia to China.
To me, it underscores not being clear about Asia and its geography and diversity, but also it underscores a much bigger issue than just China. These kinds of wildlife markets are all over Southeast Asia and other parts of Asia. This is not a problem that is about China or even about Asia, it’s about anywhere that humans interact closely with animals, including, for example, the American pork industry or cattle in Britain. There is a great book called Spillover (2012) by David Quammen, a science writer. He describes how certain animals, such as Australian racehorses, or primates in Africa eaten as bushmeat, become vectors for zoonotic spillover of viral disease. It is not something that can only occur in China in a wet market; it can happen anywhere that there are close interactions between humans and animals. And in our globalizing world, as we cut down the Amazon rainforests or people encroach on wild spaces, that’s just going to happen more and more. It is true that Chinese wet markets, with live animals and crowded conditions, are places where zoonotic disease can emerge, but it can also emerge from your factory farm in Kansas.
This also underscores the way that only certain kinds of human-animal interactions are envisioned as “dangerous.” From what I’ve learned about climate change, the best thing you can do to cut down on your carbon emissions is to not eat beef, but we don’t really think about that as a human food choice with profound, long-term impacts in quite the same way as shutting down the Chinese wet markets.
We have a huge amount of research showing that industrial farming can be linked to an increase in zoonotic spillover (Davis 2005; Wallace 2009). Poultry farms, for example, have been a hotbed for the emergence of various kinds of avian flu. If we fixate only on wet markets and Chinese eating habits, we do so at the expense of a more comprehensive understanding of the broader system of social and economic relationships entailed in our modern industrial food production system. In fact, what we are looking at is a certain set of economic and social entanglements of humans and animals that has appeared really quite recently. These entanglements are not specific to China, but nonetheless include China. It’s actually really important that we hold these things altogether and look at them together. Otherwise, it’ll just become a bad-mouthing game.
Texas senator John Cornyn recently claimed that “SARS, MERS, and swine flu all come from China,” but it’s a narrative that is just patently false (Shepherd 2020). MERS stands for Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, and was first detected in camels in the Middle East, and swine flu originated in North America—scientists still aren’t sure whether it first emerged in the United States or Mexico—but the blame just tends to gravitate towards China. What’s the deal with the origin stories? Why do you think that we are so obsessed with the idea of “Where exactly did it come from?” Do you think that plays into how these narratives have developed over the course of the past few months?
I think the origins focus is a cheap way of making people feel better, because if you can just ban the wet market, you’ll never see any more of those zoonotic diseases, supposedly. And, we don’t have to think about how to mitigate the risks involved in this kind of issue. Somehow, it moves the responsibility away from governments and, to some extent, citizens, for managing these kinds of crises.
The origins focus also foregrounds the possibility of human will triumphing over nature, as if our ability to suss out the origin sets the path for our ability to eliminate or eradicate these viruses, so that they are no longer a threat to humanity, whereas what we are actually confronting are the very complicated entanglements between humans and animals in multiple spheres. Eradication may not be the best frame or paradigm to use when thinking about those relationships.
On Broader Chinese-Foreign Geopolitical Contexts
Current reactions to the coronavirus are part of a long and storied history of food, diet, hygiene, morality, and disease in Chinese contexts. What have been your main impressions of the intersection of rumor, Chinese diets, and COVID-19 over the past few months?
What’s really interesting to me is the way that what is being said about Chinese food today echoes much older stories that have been told about Chinese food ever since Westerners have come into extensive contact with Chinese people. This is such a familiar tale. In March, a Fox News anchor made the comment: “They have these markets where they were eating raw bats and snakes…They are very hungry people. The Chinese Communist government cannot feed the people, and they are desperate. This food is uncooked, it is unsafe and that is why scientists believe that’s where it originated from” (Rozsa 2020). There are a lot of bogus claims in this.
Now compare it to a page from Punch Magazine from Britain in 1858. It includes a caricature of a Mandarin with his long queue and a little boy holding it, and a poem with the stanza, “With their little pig-eyes and their large pig-tails, / And their diet of rats, dogs, slugs, and snails, / All seems to be game in the frying-pan / Of that nasty feeder, JOHN CHINAMAN” (“Chanson for Canton” 1858). So, this is nothing new to say that Chinese people eat everything, they don’t have any discernment, and will put anything in their mouths. I also want to point out that this particular magazine is from a period of conflict between China and the West during the Second Opium War [1856–60], which China fought against the British and the French. There is a lot more to be said about the larger political climate, because it really shapes how people think about Chinese food.
There was a very prominent Christian missionary in the early nineteenth century, Walter Medhurst, who played an important role in shaping Western understanding of Chinese people and their customs and habits. In Medhurst’s words, the Chinese had “the most unscrupulous stomachs imaginable,” because they would eat everything of an animal “from hide to entrails” (Medhurst 1938: 37). The fact that they also ate various kinds of meat from animals that were unfamiliar and exotic or repulsive was very much a central theme that you see repeated in nineteenth-century writings by Westerners, particularly Anglo-Americans who were in China either for business or for missionary purposes.
That we should again see so much popular and political attention, especially during the initial outbreak period, directed towards the “nastiness” of Chinese eating habits means that this idea of the “unscrupulous stomach” has never gone away. It is a very old story. In the nineteenth century, interest in what Chinese people ate became more than simply a discussion of their eating habits: it was rather an index of their moral character—unscrupulousness in the sense of being unprincipled. These were people who didn’t follow the right kinds of rules. And I think we see that again today.
Of course, all of these discourses are embedded in systems of power. I think much of what we’re seeing reflects at some basic level the fact that the Cold War hasn’t actually ended, at least not in East Asia. In East Asia, the Cold War persists in real, metaphoric, and institutional ways. Much of the rumormongering is actually coming from our governments, both American and Chinese. Take, for example, the Chinese rumor that the virus actually came from American military personnel who were in Wuhan participating in the Military World Games [or the American conspiracy theory that the virus was accidentally released, or perhaps even intentionally created, by a virology lab in Wuhan] (Myers 2020; Cyranoski 2020). We have the invocation of both nineteenth-century tropes of unscrupulous stomachs and 1950s Cold War rhetoric about political influence and domination.
It’s not just about the old Cold War. I am also reminded of an op-ed by Marco Rubio talking about China “ruining” capitalism (Barboza 2020). In the media there is a lot of concern about Chinese eating their fill and dealing with the dragon that’s awakening. It’s about the Chinese eating meat or drinking milk, and this is going to destroy the earth, because there’s nothing worse than a billion people getting enough to eat (Yaffe-Bellany 2020; Lawrence 2019). They should just go back to starving themselves. If this is part of the Cold War, it’s the nightmare part of it. It’s when the formerly Communist place becomes this really wealthy, capitalist system.
The prevailing logic had been that once China became capitalist and allowed the market to determine social and political relations, China would become democratic like us. But instead of capitalism changing China and conforming to a predetermined set pattern, China’s economic development seems to challenge Western expectations of modernization.
On Combatting Negative Stereotypes about Chinese Food
Is there anything that we can do in order to combat these negative stereotypes? How have Asian American communities in the United States been feeling the effects of this conflation of rumors, Chinese diets, and COVID-19?
Part of what has to get out there is just that you treat Chinese food as a pedestrian thing. It’s not the fear or fascination, but it’s what I ate for dinner last night, or what grandma made for me, or what ordinary urban residents or rural residents in China eat on an everyday basis. If people know more about that kind of ordinary, everyday consumption, then the bats become a much smaller part of that bigger picture of what Chinese food is. For someone who just wants to learn about Chinese food, an easy and great place to start is the CCTV documentary series A Bite of China, which has now run three seasons (2012, 2014, 2018). There are a lot of issues and critiques we can make as academics about that series, certainly, but it offers a different picture of Chinese food than what we commonly see here.
My understanding is that 50 percent of Chinese takeout restaurants have [closed during these weeks of quarantine] in the United States [compared with only 19 percent of takeout restaurants overall] (Romeo 2020). Part of this was already changing because a lot of immigrant cooks have had children who have moved into different professions, but COVID-19 has definitely changed the eating landscape of this country. It’s worth mentioning that these closures are in part due to racism expressed towards Chinese mom-and-pop operations around the country.
If you want to take concrete action, order food from your local Chinese takeout place. Support their business. Restaurants are suffering, and I am not surprised that Chinese restaurants are suffering disproportionately, due to fears that you can get COVID from eating Chinese food. I want to dispel that notion. That’s a total myth and absolutely untrue.
On a more positive note, I read a story about Lucas Sin, the chef of a chain in New York called Junzi. After hearing about all the negative press about Chinese food, he developed a distance dining delivery service, and the first meal was called “Chinese Food is Good for You” (Junzi n.d.). If you look at the menu, it’s chicken broth, lion’s head meatballs, yam, and osmanthus. I love that Asian American chefs are pushing back. They’re saying this is what Chinese food is, and it’s wonderful. There are ways that you can change the narrative so it’s not just about bat soup. If you want to show people what good Chinese food is, cook a meal and invite someone to share it. Take a picture of the next meal that your grandmother makes for you and post it on social media.