Exhibition of Chinese corpses pits science against morality

A fetus lies scrunched inside a jar near the dissected corpse of a woman and an array of human organs. All are from China and all feature in an exhibition that is causing a stir in London.

The organisers of Bodies ... The Exhibition say the use of real specimens provides a unique opportunity for people to learn more about the human anatomy.
Opponents, however, argue that treating anonymous corpses like dummies is wrong and have called for the “freak show” to be shut down.

Adding to the controversy, supporters of the Falun Gong group, a religious sect banned in China, are worried about the identity of the human exhibits, warning that they could have been political prisoners.

Holding a dart, stretching or just sitting down—these are some of the poses struck by 22 cadavers in the display at Earls Court, west London, which opened on Wednesday. Each one is naked, specially preserved and dissected to reveal a specific part of the body, such as the skeleton, nervous system, muscles or circulation.

More than 260 human organs and other body parts are also showcased, including a bladder, a spleen, at least three hearts and a brain.

Roy Glover, the event’s chief medical advisor, said: “We thought the best way to educate people would be to prepare an exhibition of real bodies that they could actually visit and learn from.”

Everything on show—from a five-week old embryo to a man aiming a basketball, his torso sliced open and penis hanging limp—was once alive.

Visitors, for £15, can study the exhibits, which are divided into rooms with different anatomical themes. Bodies stand in the open surrounded by other parts, such as a healthy lung next to a smoker’s blackened one, encased in glass cabinets. Each item has a placard explaining its significance.

“It is amazing, I have learned a lot,” said Stephen Bull (10) as he studied the body of a man poised to kick a football.

The skin on the corpse’s face is still intact, revealing his Chinese origins. The faces of many exhibits are unrecognisable, having been peeled away to show a person’s eyes, nose and even brain.

One room is filled with human embryos, fetuses and even lifeless new-born Chinese babies.

While marvelling at the display, some people were also slightly disturbed.

“We just found out about the bodies being Chinese with no kin, which we have been debating and I am not sure how I feel about that,” said Kate Stevens (21) who was visiting the show with her mother and two sisters.

Premier Exhibitions, the United States firm behind the event, said it obtained the corpses legitimately from the Dalian Medical University in north-east China.

The people had died of natural causes, but their bodies were never claimed, which meant—as in most countries—that they became government property to be used for educational or research purposes, Glover told Agence France-Presse.

Asked why only Chinese bodies were used and not those from elsewhere, Glover said: “That is where the best dissectors in the world live and work.”

Skilled dissectors are vital to ensure a body is properly carved up to make the exhibition more educational for the public, said Glover.

Falun Gong supporters, however, said they feared some of the bodies or parts may have come from members of the sect who they claim have been held at labour camps in China and killed for their organs.

About a dozen members of the European Friends of Falun Gong demonstrated outside the exhibition on Wednesday, calling on the organisers to give them the identities of each body to ensure they had not been political prisoners.

Social commentator Norman Lebrecht took a stronger tone, condemning the exhibition altogether and demanding it to closed. “There is no moral ambivalence to this show. It is utterly and irredeemably wrong from conception to execution,” he wrote in London’s Evening Standard newspaper.

Lebrecht also touched on the mysterious identity of the corpses.

Noting an assurance from Glover that they were not political prisoners, the commentator added: “How does he know? The Chinese government told him so.”

Premier Exhibitions is showing three similar displays of Chinese bodies in the United States and a fourth in Mexico City.

Bodies… The Exhibition mirrors the Body Worlds show created by German professor Gunther von Hagens.—AFP

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