- Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body by Ari Larissa Heinrich
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 [End Page 423] 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...