Post-Mao China has seen the embrace of a neoliberal market logic that has brought the objectification and commodification of human bodies and body parts to its logical conclusion—kidneys, livers, and even hearts and corneas are now available within weeks for anyone able to pay. The rejection of the collective values and morality of the Maoist period, combined with the defunding of military, police, and health care institutions and the encouragement for these agencies to find their own revenue streams, has coincided exactly with a global revolution in transplant surgery and immunosuppressive drugs that make transplant surgery a miracle cure when suitable organs are available. Chinese people have long had a strong cultural preference to preserve their bodies intact to the grave, and this, combined with a lack of faith that organ distribution systems are fair, has meant that donation rates among the general population in 2015 were a mere 0.6 per million. Yet according to Chinese government officials, death row prisoners determined to make right their debt to society donate their organs at extremely high rates. Wealthy transplant patients in China and from foreign countries have taken advantage of this situation. Transplant tourism to China has been illegal since just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and harvesting of organs from prisoners was made illegal in all cases in 2015, but even Huang Jiefu, the official in charge of compliance, has acknowledged that the practice “probably” continues and that ninety percent of an acknowledged 13,000 annual transplants continue to be sourced from prisoners.
In a particularly sensational fictional story recounted in Ari Larissa Heinrich’s new book Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body, the prominent writer Yu Hua explores the very real issue of organ commodification in China by having a urologist take his character Shangang’s testes to “transplant them onto a young man whose own testicles were crushed in a car accident” (59). Meanwhile, artists from the “Cadaver Group” rent human specimens from medical hospitals in Beijing for use in “artistic experiments” (67), and anatomists legally take hundreds of Chinese cadavers, inject them with plastic, and transport them around the world in various poses to shopping malls and museums where they are exhibited to tens of millions of viewers.
How can scholars come to terms with the commodification of bodies in the twenty-first century? A social scientist might attempt to investigate Chinese transplants quantitatively or through interviews. A historian may trace the biopolitical connection between dissection, racial science, and the state from its origins in the early twentieth century. But a scholar of Chinese literature and cultural studies may leave the counting and describing of bodies and their legal status to other scholars and instead question the ideology of realist aesthetics of the body. In Chinese Surplus, Ari Larissa Heinrich has continued where he left off in The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West (2008) to examine how aesthetics, “all those things that describe how something looks, feels, sounds, or acts on the senses” (7), not only reflect the physicality of bodies but also become “the precondition for, or agent of, cultural and scientific change” (14). Realist aesthetics assumes that what we see is what is real, that “it is always the body that is accorded substantiality,” as Heinrich quotes Marston Anderson. But Heinrich asks, what if a realist view of the body is not an objective and neutral one, but is rather an aesthetic that produces and reproduces hierarchies of power that allow the very horrors of commodification? In other words, Heinrich is interested not in specific cases of bodies abused in China’s authoritarian market economy, but rather how various representations of bodies—in film, sculpture, painting, and the plastinated corpses of Bodyworlds—not only reflect “real” bodies but also determine how we understand and engage with those “real” bodies.
To analyze these hierarchies of power over the medically commodified body, Heinrich employs the useful concept of biopolitics deployed by Michel Foucault. Foucault described how various technologies of power were developed since 1800 to comprehend and control biological life at both the individual and the species level. Heinrich here joins other recent scholarship in applying the biopolitical to aesthetics. For example, Heinrich argues that the practice of dissection and literary realist accounts of dissection appeared simultaneously in China in the early twentieth century, thus shaping one another. “The introduction of microscopes, anatomical illustrations, photography”—the technologies of mimesis or representation—determine or verify what is real. The question Heinrich asks is what happens when a body becomes diasporic, by which he means cut up and transplanted into one or more other bodies. The book is thus about the aesthetics of the biopolitics of the diasporic body described and manipulated in art across many mediums, and argues that “the ability not only to surgically remove but to transport, maintain, and negotiate biomaterials across various kinds of borders is as important to contemporary biopolitics as the biotechnology itself” (28).
There are two major sections to the book: chapters 1 through 3, which discuss the representations of diasporic bodies in literature, visual art, and film; and chapter 4 and the epilogue, which focus on cadaver exhibitions in Bodyworlds. Chapter 1 begins with the image of the sleeping lion that became an ambiguous stand-in for China itself and confused with the as yet untranslated story of Frankenstein. Heinrich traces this lion to a real museum piece called Tipu’s Tiger in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, witnessed by Chinese writers for whom Frankenstein and Tipu’s Tiger became symbolic of China as a sleeping giant, ready to take on imperialist powers. For Heinrich, the stitched-together body parts of Frankenstein and the mechanical nature of Tipu’s Tiger become emblematic of how the diasporic body in contemporary China has become desacralized and commodified.
Chapter 2 starts with Yu Hua’s commodification of bodies in his various works, but especially in the novella “One Kind of Reality,” which describes in slow motion the autodestruction of a poor extended family as accident leads to physical abuse and murder, and finally ends with one of two brothers being cut up for parts to feed the transplant market, ending only “when there is no more of [his] body left to dissect” (59). Heinrich sees this as an allegory of the threat under capitalist commodification of becoming “profoundly disenfranchised—of losing ownership over one’s body, of becoming alienated from oneself” (61).
From here, Heinrich takes the reader through a gallery of cadaver art, where he argues that “the most shocking thing about the body in contemporary representations [in both literature and art is] how accessible it has become” (62). Beginning around 2000, artists like Zhu Yu, Qin Ga, and Peng Yu paid a rental fee to a hospital’s department of anatomy to use “materials” they would exhibit for only a few hours in a kind of “guerrilla approach” to avoid censorship. Zhu’s Pocket Theology was a severed arm hanging from the ceiling on a meat hook and grasping a long rope uncoiled all over the floor of the room. Qin Ga’s Freeze was created by placing the corpse of an adolescent girl on crutches onto a floor of ice inlaid with rose petals. Peng Yu feeds what appears to be liquid human fat into a preserved corpse of a small child in a kind of “parody of maternal love” (64). The artists justified their use of these preserved human remains on the grounds that they were no different from the specimens used for art lessons in art school, no different than Michelangelo using corpses for his own art. They were “experimenting” with the use of “the human body directly as art material” (67). Ultimately, Heinrich argues that we cannot understand cadaver art with realism. We need to approach it with the “biopolitical aesthetics” of the subtitle: “Stories by Yu Hua and pieces by the artists of the Cadaver Group offer valuable benchmarks to compare shifting conceptions of self and physicality over the last two decades of the twentieth century” (82).
The Chinese Frankenstein comes alive in chapter 3 where Heinrich takes the reader through a comparative reading of the biopolitical aesthetics of films about organ transplant, selecting two American-made and two Hong Kong–made films that attempt to “transform passive audiences into agents rather than subjects of vision” when witnessing the implications of a cornea, kidney, or a heart being transplanted from one human into another (110). Class relations within Hong Kong pale next to the possibility of even working-class families popping over to China to purchase a kidney (96).
But Heinrich, for better or worse, is not particularly interested in the problem of the source of bodies for transplants, plastinated cadavers, and other commodified uses: “I do not directly address the truth or falsehood of claims about the use of Chinese prisoners as ‘sources’ for the plastinated human body exhibits” (118). The reader may judge this to be a dodge of a key issue, one to which even Chinese authorities have admitted. Chapter 4 nonetheless aims to examine commodification theoretically through an examination of discussions of Bodyworlds and other similar exhibitions of plastinated cadavers in the popular press in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and around the world. Heinrich may not be interested in the details of the source of bodies, but he is interested in how these discussions “can clarify our understanding of both the nature of the ‘human’ and the nature of ‘Chineseness’ in contemporary biopolitical life” (118).
In the 1990s, the German anatomist Gunter von Hagens invented a system by which liquid plastics could be injected into cadavers to replace decomposing fluids and firm up the remaining body tissue. The timing was fortuitous to developments in the medical field in China where state institutions such as medical schools and hospitals lost government funding and were forced to find new revenue streams on the open market. At the same time, post-Tian’anmen cynicism and the profit motive had set in and budding capitalist enterprises like von Hagen’s Bodyworlds were looking for cheap skilled labor and an easy source of commodified human cadavers. Because the bodies subjected to this process are no longer fully organic, they now bridge the gap between “real” bodies and the aesthetic representation of the human form.
Heinrich moves beyond the familiar English language debates about Bodyworlds and its imitators and reminds us that these cadaver shows also toured China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. These translated sinophone discussions are a welcome addition to the dialogue about plastinated corpses. While most published reports in China about ethical concerns fall into one of three categories—Falun Gong critiques, “party line” defenses, and personal critique, Heinrich appears most interested in comments like those of Zhang Dali who remarked in 2010 that when he sees the flesh of the plastinated bodies being processed, “I feel like from birth until death people are just a commodity, perhaps slightly cheaper when alive and slightly more costly when dead due to needing to be processed yet again as part of production” (132). In a long epilogue, Heinrich uses a series of copyright lawsuits in Taiwan between Bodyworlds and a competitor, Body Exploration, to draw out the crux of the issue of the commodification of Chinese bodies and the debate over whether these cadaver exhibits were art, science, or merely edutainment.
This is a book dense in cultural studies jargon that is nonetheless worth the effort of the reader who travels with Heinrich from Tipu’s Tiger in London to Yu Hua’s transplanted testes to the anonymous Chinese cadavers now touring the world. The book aims to perform the function of the pair of sunglasses in the 1980s cult classic They Live—a pair of glasses that reveal the true ideological messages of the everyday world we inhabit. The book is ultimately convincing that to understand the objectification and commodification of “real” human bodies in China today, we must also pay attention to the ways in which biopolitical aesthetics condition both those bodies and the representations of bodies.