One of the most bizarre and haunting touring exhibitions in America is both the “Bodies World” and “Bodies…the Exhibition” shows displaying cadavers of unknown identity but said to come from China. The controversy is that there’s emerging evidence these people (now having their stripped-down corpses in demonstrative poses they may not have ever done in life) could have been unknown prisoners in China who were tortured. Having the cadavers as completely unknown entities might make the exhibition more tolerable for some who may not want to put a name–or even familiarity–to a cadaver, especially if you know what that person did in their life. For others, it’s the prospect of not knowing where these cadavers came from that’s disturbing and forcing the imagination to work overtime if not giving the exhibit an aura of a macabre mystery in the minds of a few.
The corporations who put this show on may have to worry a little now when the “Bodies…the Exhibition” show admitted recently that they didn’t really know for sure if these cadavers were tortured prisoners from China. Now that these shows have profited exponentially in the last few years, it has to make you wonder why they’re just now revealing this. Despite the unsure statement from its producer, Premier Exhibitions, people who are offended by the new prospects will be able to get refunds if they so choose. Of course, there will be counterchallenges to that statement, probably from the man who came up with the idea for the show and preserved the bodies through his own innovative plastination process: Dr. Gunther von Hagens.
Beyond that, though, we may start hearing from China, particularly during the Beijing Olympics, who may use this exhibit as a counterargument against America who’s accusing them of human rights abuse against Tibetans. That may end up being a given, especially when the “Bodies” exhibits will now be forced to put a disclaimer on their shows that they aren’t sure whether the bodies you’ll see were tortured in Chinese prisons. The shows say that they check for any signs of torture on the bodies, but usually can’t find the evidence that there was any.
For many people, that won’t eliminate the possibility of torture, particularly because you can’t always see evidence of that physically on a cadaver. There could have been mental torture for all we know–and that makes it disturbing seeing the skinless body of that person in a position that makes them appear to be playing some kind of physical sport. While I’ve never gone to see the exhibit (even when it came to Portland, Oregon in the summer of 2007), seeing those bodies now and wondering whether they were brutally tortured through a psychological process would make it worse than knowing they were physically tortured.
With these shows now in a completely different philosophical zone from what it was before, it may be difficult now to negotiate with China on human rights abuse when we’ll be accused of doing the same thing–to bodies of their own people.
Of course, that depends on how you view death and whether a dead body should be exhibited in entertaining positions that the person may not have done when alive.
The view of Catholics and Jews on the matter…
In rare solidarity on an issue, the Catholic Church and many Jewish rabbis have condemned these shows in recent years for demeaning the human body. That argument will get some strength now when visitors start seeing more humanity in those plasticized individuals, preserving all of the body’s internal organs without deterioration. The curiosity factor may end up bringing even more money, though. Unfortunately, that means the show will start getting visitors who get their kicks looking at the macabre rather than students coming in from school trips learning something as the exhibit was originally intended to be. Then again, I’ve talked to very intelligent people who went to see the exhibit and found it absolutely fascinating.
Then you have Dr. von Hagens’ consistent argument that all the cadavers are donated by consent through a special program that allows for body donations. The only mystery is how the people who donated the bodies received the bodies in the first place. Many say that they’re unclaimed from China (with some from mental hospitals in Kyrgyzstan) and were bought by individuals who figured they could profit off selling them. This kind of process falls within the law because the seller basically owns the body. Or, it’s a possibility that it may have been family members who wanted to sell the tortured body of their relative to science. But the donators being family has never really been proven.
If China starts accusing America of human rights abuse against the dead, then we’ll know their own stance. It isn’t really known, though, how they feel about displaying cadavers of their own people. Likely, they would never do such a thing themselves since their most common religions of Taoism and Buddhism treat the body with respect and with a burial or cremation in death. If they spin it to make us look like we’re abusing their former unknown prisoners in death, the counterargument may be that what they did was ultimately worse before America acquired the bodies. Then it’ll boil down to the fundamentals of what you believe is worse via your own faith: Torture in life or exploitation in death.
It could be that those strongly protesting China’s treatment of those in Tibet will wish that the “Bodies” exhibit find out who those cadavers are. That way, if there could be a name placed with the body, it would give validation to the “Bodies” exhibit for giving an identity to those who may have been tortured prisoners in China and place some sobering realities to the show.