Where do the bodies come from?


The Guardian reports that “the bodies of 20 Chinese people featured in a U.K. museum exhibition could be those of prisoners once detained in labor camps, and victims of the death penalty in China, according to a leading doctor.”

  • The exhibition is called Real Bodies, and runs until August 19 at a large event and exhibition venue in Birmingham.
  • “The bodies were provided to the event organizers, Imagine Exhibitions, through the Dalian Medical University” (大连医疗大学 dàlián yīliáo dàxué), according to the Guardian.
  • “The university’s facilities in the city of Dalian were within driving distance of labor and prison camps” is the reason given by campaigner Dr. David Nicholl for his suspicion. That is a very flimsy reason, but the Guardian adds, “Coupled with the large number of bodies of the same age and gender, and the lack of any identity information, Nicholl suspects the bodies could be those of executed inmates.”

All of which reminded me of earlier exhibitions of human bodies that also stirred up controversies and also had a Dalian connection. In 2006, NPR reported:

For two years now, exhibitions of human cadavers have been traveling the country, shown in science museums and other spaces. The shows, featuring corpses that have been preserved and solidified through a process called plastination, have been wildly successful. But they also have been dogged by criticism.

One delicate ethical concern stands out above all the others: whether the bodies were legitimately obtained. Dr. Gunther von Hagens, the inventor of plastination and the impresario behind the Body Worlds exhibitions, says that every whole body exhibited in North America comes from fully informed European and American donors, who gave permission, in writing, for their bodies to be displayed.

Dr. Gunther von Hagens, according to Wikipedia, “has been visiting professor in Dalian, China, since 1996, where he runs a plastination center, and also directs a plastination center at the State Medical Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.”

  • Bo Xilai 薄熙来 was mayor of Dalian in 1998 when the doctor registered his Von Hagens Plastination company, as noted by Chinese Wikipedia.
  • “When appearing in public, even when performing anatomical dissections, von Hagens always wears a black fedora” — a reference to the hat in Rembrandt’s painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, says Wikipedia. There is more about von Hagen on his own website.
  • Chinese and Western journalists have been questioning the source of the corpses shown at exhibitions around the world organized by von Hagen since as early as 2003. If you are curious, see this 2012 post on ChinaSmack (includes photos of von Hagen and his plastinated corpses) for some of the history in China, or do a Google search for Dalian corpse or 大连尸体 dàlián shītǐ. There’s also this piece on the Weekly Standard: Bodies at an exhibition.

I could not find evidence online that Von Hagens Plastination provided the corpses for the Real Bodies exhibition currently under way in Birmingham, but whether the doctor is involved or not, the questions asked about earlier such exhibitions remain:

Whose bodies are being put on display in a museum for profit, and how did they get there?