latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
Editor's note: This is a response to Jesse Rodenbiker’s Essay “China's Global Reach: Urban Social Lives of the More-than-Human" published on April 8, 2020. You can find that essay here.
n my World Regional Geography’s discussion sections pre COVID-19 lockdown, I used an article from the New York Times to discuss how media organizations, regardless of their political leanings, can reproduce exoticized imaginative geographies of “other” places and peoples, and why it is important to practice critical reading and consumption of news especially during this period of time. As time went on and this public health crisis began to escalate around the world, the active and on-going construction of the exoticized Other also appeared among Anglophone geographers. A recent example of this is Jesse Rodenbiker’s (2020) essay “China's Global Reach: Urban Social Lives of the More-than-Human” published in the online edition of Society and Space. In his article, Rodenbiker argues that the novel coronavirus calls attention to “the need to consider China’s global reach in new ways.” In this case, the way is how, through global interconnectivity, Chinese cities’ “urban tastes” are drastically altering human and nonhuman life elsewhere. Specifically, Rodenbiker uses the COVID-19 pandemic and global seafood networks to illustrate the influence that Chinese people’s “wild tastes" have on urban and non-urban ecologies.
Although Rodenbiker has made important contributions to the work on the geography of China’s conservation policies, my concern with this article, along with other forms of fast geographic scholarship on COVID-19 produced in a time of crisis, is the potential (re)entanglement of geography with Orientalist discourses. Even if his intentions might have been otherwise, Rodenbiker’s essay exemplifies what historians John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats (2014) refer to as yellow perilism. They describe yellow perilism as the systemization of Yellow Peril fears (i.e., Orientalist constructions of Asians as the unknown, threatening Other) when it becomes “a part of the political culture of daily life” (Tchen & Yeats, 2014: 16). Yellow perilism is epistemological, ontological, and axiological at the same time. Despite being an age-old concept, yellow perilism nevertheless still haunts us today.
One of the most iconic and recurring images of yellow perilism in the West is the yellow octopus. Although the particular meaning of the octopus in the West has varied across time and space, the image of yellow octopus has commonly resurfaced during periods of anti-Asian racism (Tchen and Yeats, 2014). During the late 19th century, the octopus symbolized Chinese coolies who stole jobs away from White Americans (Tchen and Yeats, 2014: 351). During World War II, the scorching of the yellow octopus was used to symbolize the US victory against Japanese expansionism (Tchen and Yeats, 2014: 15). In both cases, the imagery of yellow octopus is used to legitimize racism and disguise the operation of different forms of power. In the former case, White workers’ rage is directed at Chinese migrants rather than capital’s need for cheap labor. In the latter case, the yellow octopus legitimizes the internment of Japanese Americans since they represent the reach of the yellow octopus’s arms.
Tchen and Yeats (2014: 15) point out that yellow perilism has become increasingly harder to detect due to the anxiety of getting sued for racism post-civil rights. Yet, the discourse of the yellow octopus is nevertheless alive and well. For instance, the New York Times and other news organizations have published both progressive articles documenting increasing hate crimes against Chinese Americans and, paradoxically, articles that reinforce yellow perilism. Rodenbiker ‘s article is no exception. Despite its critical edge, Rodenbiker’s essay, even if unintentionally, reproduces the age-old ideology of yellow perilism which frames Chinese people as exotic others who consume beyond-normal-animals.
Animals That We (Don’t) Eat
The essay begins with an effort to trace the origin of COVID-19 in order to demonstrate one of the ways in which China’s taste has immense influence beyond its borders. He cites the zoonotic transfer from pangolins to humans as “a leading theory” of the disease’s origin. This is done without presenting other theories which becomes especially troubling since the scientific research behind the origin of the disease is nowhere near settled. After bringing up pangolins, Rodenbiker follows it up with a discussion about other exotic animals:
Huanan market was a node of circulation and consumption for "wild" animals from the land and sea: bushmeat, koalas, venomous snakes, wolf puppies, shark fins, and fish maw (dried swim bladders), to list a few.
In taking this track, Rodenbiker’s analysis echoes and reinforces the exoticizing discourses of animal consumption in China that have been circulated by multiple popular media sites. Together, these repeated accounts documenting the supposedly unusual appetites of Chinese people intensifies and legitimizes anti-Asian racism.
I am particularly interested in the choice of animals that are selected to represent the market here. I will focus on the first three: bushmeat, koalas, and venomous snakes. First, anthropologists such as Adia Benton and Mike McGovern (2014) have already written about the deployment of the term “bushmeat” in relation to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. They point out that despite its scientific and locally specific meanings, the deployment of the term “bushmeat” by media often performs “the semiotics of denigration:” it conjures tropes that imagine an Africa and African peoples as uncivilized, and disgusting so that they can be classified as sub-humans outside of a politics of respect (McGovern 2014). Indeed, when Chinese food was first introduced in the US, the American public were mystified and anxious about what kinds of meat were used in Chinese food especially since images of Chinese people snacking on rats were prominent then (Tchen and Yeats 2014: 342-343). In both cases, bushmeat and Chinese food serve to delimit the boundary between Chinese/American through categorizing animals into those that are okay to consume and those that are not.
Second, the author’s choice of venomous snake seems to reproduce the notion of that Chinese people are irrational consumers. To my knowledge, vendors at wet markets usually use the common name of the snakes they sell (such as rattlesnake) rather than the general language of “venomous snakes.” This choice to attach the adjectival modifier of “venomous” adds another layer of mystery and fear to the already-exoticized consumption practices of the Chinese. Not only do Chinese people eat snakes, they eat poisonous snakes that can potentially poison and kill them.
Third, the choice of listing koalas implicitly supports the assumed outrage of a Western audience at the consumption of a beloved animal. Various sensationalist news organizations have also cited the koala bear as one of the unacceptable varieties of animals being sold at the market, even though an article has pointed out that koala is a mistranslation of the meat sold at the market (most likely a species in the Rhizomyinae subfamily commonly known as bamboo rats). However, this mistranslation has gained a life of own and traversed national boundaries; in several news sources, all of the letters —“KOALA”— are capitalized to express astonishment at the consumption of such a presumably innocent creature. The passive transmission of such information reinforces the stereotype that the Chinese eat not only the most uncommon animals, but also adorable ones that are vulnerable to extinction.
Inadvertent as these choices of listing may have been, they play into the yellow peril fear and racialization of Asians as threatening and abnormal subjects. As de Goede, Leander and Sullivan (2016) have pointed out, lists are deeply political techniques. They engage knowledge practices and forms of governance that reflect certain ways of ordering the world. The listing of “exotic” animals in Rodenbiker’s case thus serves to entrench yellow perilism as the dominant mode of discourse through which China and the Chinese are understood by their strangeness (in their tastes and other habits) in relation to the presumed normality of the West. What is often absent (or mentioned in passing) in wet market lists associated with the emergence of the coronavirus are the crab, shrimp, striped bass, and the myriad of “normal” grocery items that are the staples of Chinese markets. Such selective highlighting tokenizes and turns the taste of some Chinese people into the taste of all Chinese people. More importantly, such highlighting presents a reductive conception of culture as a clearly defined set of tenets (i.e., Chinese people eat X, Y, Z) instead of trying to understand culture in all its complexity (e.g., the cultural logic, history, and geography behind the consumption of particular animals in certain regions of China).
Approaching Cultural Politics of Tastes Critically
My principal critique of Rodenbiker’s account of cultural politics in his essay is that the cultural politics of China’s urban tastes does not explain the spread of virus and it shifts our attention away from other critical issues that are being heightened because of the coronavirus. Furthermore, even in operationalizing this idea for other issues such as wildlife and marine conservation, geographers (and other social scientists) must carefully historicize China’s cultural politics of tastes to avoid summoning the ghost of yellow perilism.
In his introduction, Rodenbiker claims that “[t]he current pandemic makes clear a crucial need for new forms of engaging China's reach, particularly the ways that China's urban tastes shapes the fabric of social life beyond national borders.” In suggesting that there is a link between “China’s urban tastes” and the pandemic, Rodenbiker falls into the trap of reifying yellow perilism. Again, the linking of culture to disease in Rodenbiker’s essay is neither an isolated incident nor a novel claim. Such linkage has historic precedents and the focus on “cultural politics” often draws attention away from more important issues and public health efforts.
Historically, late 19th century Chinese immigrants in San Francisco were often the default scapegoat for a variety of diseases including malaria, smallpox, and leprosy (Trauner 1978). During the smallpox epidemics, rather than focusing on the infrastructural conditions of San Francisco’s sewer system, government officials, public health experts, and media organizations linked the etiology of smallpox to the “dirty” habits of Chinese immigrants in order to justify degradation and punitive actions against Chinese people (Craddock 1995). During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the focus on the consumption of bushmeat in West Africa left bad policies (e.g. the defunding of healthcare from post-civil war militarization) and US imperialism and its role in the civil wars in the region largely unquestioned (McGovern 2014). Today, the focus is again on consumption/culture. Various US government officials have argued for the closing of all wet markets in China. And again, the focus on regulating consumption is drawing attention away from the structural racism in the US coronavirus response that disproportionately impacts Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of color.
Whether it is habit or taste, cultural politics have often been pinpointed as the explanation for various emerging infectious diseases. What is often invisible is the pathogenic role of structural factors such as poverty and social inequalities (Farmer 1996). This is disappointing since Rodenbiker does recognize the role that capital circuits play in his essay. Yet, as an ideology, yellow perilism shapes the ways in which we perceive the COVID-19 pandemic and its cause. Put simply, yellow perilism frames the pandemic as the product of “tastes” and “wet markets” rather than the everyday functioning of (racial) capitalism, colonial intimacies, neoliberal restructuring, poverty, health inequalities, and social inequalities.
Operationalizing the cultural politics of tastes in analysis is possible, but it requires careful contextualization and historicization. Anthropologist Mei Zhan (2005: 39) notes the privileging of vision in various Western intellectual traditions and the undervaluing of other senses that “have often been relegated to archaic or non-Western modes of knowledge production and subject.” In the context of the SARS outbreak in China, Zhan iterates the value of thinking about taste critically. Contrary to Rodenbiker who emphasizes the global reach of China’s urban taste, Zhan argues that taste more aptly illustrates the juxtapositions between neoliberal subjectivities (e.g. China’s rising and expanding middle class) and Orientalist discourses (e.g. China as archaic and backward), and how such juxtapositions challenge the way we think about “nature and culture, human and nonhuman, tradition and modernity, local and global” (Zhan, 2005: 33).
The difference between Zhan and Rodenbiker is an issue of directionality. Directionality points to a central feature of yellow perilism and how social scientists might be able to productively engage with the cultural politics of tastes without relying on yellow perilism. Whether it is in the case of eating “wild” animals and spreading diseases internationally or eating animals to extinction, Chinese people’s tastes are always marked by their otherness, threat, and excess in Rodenbiker’s essay and elsewhere. For instance, in discussion of China’s search for resources, Robert Kaplan (2010) constructs a China that is always “hungry” for more resources abroad. Here again, this idea of the insatiable China is constructed as a threat to the geopolitical interests of the US. Because the threat must be taken care of, such construction justifies US intervention in East and Southeast Asia.
As a sociopolitical project, yellow perilism requires the conceptualization of the Other as a threat in order to justify racism and imperialism. Hence, the directionality of yellow perilism often flows from the Orient to the Occident. As discourses of China’s threat have intensified since the coronavirus’ emergence, they depict a yellow octopus that is again trying to influence and destroy the world. However, as Zhan’s article points out, once historicized and placed in context, the cultural politics of taste and consumption in China reveals much more about the mutual constitution between places and emergent socialites in China. The directionality emphasized in Zhan’s works present a different way to conceptualize China that does not fall back on yellow peril tropes. Hence, to operationalize China’s cultural politics of urban tastes, geographers must carefully contextualize and historicize “taste” and engage in reflexivity to resist yellow peril framing.
To be clear, I believe it is possible to talk about the issues that Rodenbiker brings up—including the geography of COVID-19, its relation to circuits of capital, and wildlife trade networks—without resorting to Orientalist tropes and Yellow Perilism. In fact, the deployment of yellow peril language in Rodenbiker’s essay, even if unintentional, makes it difficult to appreciate Rodenbiker’s critiques. Resisting the reproduction of yellow perilism is not an easy task since we are deeply embedded in these ideological apparatuses, but historicizing and reflexivity are critical initial steps that scholars can take to denaturalize yellow perilism. Natalie Oswin (2019) reminds us that geographers are very much complicit in projects of imperialism, colonialism, and the othering of other geographies. Tchen and Yeats (2014: 31) argue that to decolonize scholarship, one must also be “[d]ecolonizing oneself and recognizing one’s relation to Yellow Peril practices is the beginning of a liberatory shift vital to navigating a less divisive, less war-torn future.” Perhaps we do need a cultural politics of urban tastes. But perhaps what is more urgent right now is for geographers to engage in an anti-racist cultural politics against yellow perilism and all other forms structural racism that the pandemic heightens.
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Kristin Sziarto, Anne Bonds, and the editors of Society and Space for their feedback on the response.
Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI et al (2020) The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine. Epub 17 March 2020. DOI: 10.1038/s41591-020-0820-9
Craddock S (1995) Sewers and scapegoats: Spatial metaphors of smallpox in nineteenth century San Francisco. Social Science & Medicine. 41(7): 957-968.
De Goede, M, Leander, A, and Sullivan G (2016). “Introduction: The Politics of the List” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 34(1): 3-13.
Ethnographic Emergency (2014) “It don’t take a semiotician…” Or, what we talk about when we talk about bush meat. Available here. (accessed April 9, 2020).
Farmer, P (1996) Social Inequalities and emerging infectious diseases. Perspectives. 2(4): 259-269.
Kaplan RD (2010) The geography of Chinese power: How far can Beijing reach on land and at sea? Foreign Affairs. 89(3): 22-41.
Karp C and Moore C (2020) Chinese food market at the epicentre of deadly virus outbreak was selling KOALAS along with snakes, rats and wolf pups for locals to eat - as experts warn the threat it will spread to Australia is VERY real. The Daily Mail, 22 January. Available here (accessed April 9, 2020).
Mann R (2020) Coronavirus ground zero food market was selling KOALAS, snakes and wolf pups before deadly virus outbreak.The Sun, 23. Available here (accessed January 9, 2020).
Mekelburg M (2020) Fact check: Is Chinese culture to blame for the coronavirus? Austin American-Statesman, 26 March. Available here (accessed April 25, 2020).
McGovern M (2014) Bushmeat and the Politics of Disgust. Cultural Anthropology, 7 October. Available here (accessed April 24, 2020).
Myers SL and Rubin AJ (2020) Its coronavirus cases dwindling, China turns focus outward. New York Times, 18 March. Available here (accessed April 9, 2020).
Nagle R (2020) Native Americans being left out of US coronavirus data and labelled as 'other' The Guardian, 24 April. Available here (accessed April 24, 2020)
Neuman S (2020) U.S. pressures China to close wet markets thought to be source of COVID-19. National Public Radio, 23 April. Available here (accessed April 25, 2020).
Oswin N (2019) An other geography. Dialogues in Human Geography (10)1: 9-18.
Rodenbiker J (2020) China's Global Reach: Urban Social Lives of the More-than-Human. Society and Space, 8 April. Available here (accessed April 9, 2020).
Tavernise S and Oppel RA Jr (2020) Spit on, yelled At, attacked: Chinese-Americans fear for their safety. New York Times, 23 March. Available here (accessed April 9, 2020).
Taylor KY (2020) The Black Plague. The New Yorker, April 16. Available here (Accessed April 25, 2020).
Tchen JKW and Yeats D (2014) Yellow Peril! An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear. New York: Verso.
Trauner JB (1978) The Chinese as Medical Scapegoats in San Francisco, 1870-1905. California History 57(1): 70-87.
Wikipedia (2020) List of incidents of xenophobia and racism related to the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic. Available here.
Zhan M (2005) Civet cats, fried grasshoppers, and David Beckham’s pajamas: unruly bodies after SARS. American Anthropologist 107(1): 31-42.
Zheng Z and Thiagarajan (2020) Outrageous menu from Wuhan's market shows live deer, peacocks, wolf pups & over 100 wild animals on sale. Mothership, 23 January. Available here(accessed April 9, 2020).
Chuchen Pan is a master’s student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Department of Geography. Their current research interests intersect at the critical geographies of race and education.