November/December 2010
Ed Lin

Vile Bodies

Why Are the Corpses of Executed Chinese Prisoners Such a Hit?

There’s at least one good reason to take your grade-schooler to see a standing halved cadaver high-fiving itself.

“By understanding how the body works, you can better take care of it and keep it healthy,” says Premier Exhibitions, which operates the multicity blockbuster Bodies: The Exhibition. Real bodies beat plastic models in our age of reality obsession, and nothing tops the stark reality of death.

The human remains are preserved in a way that renders the soft tissue rubbery with the color and texture of fatty corned beef, the ligaments looking like thinly sliced prosciutto draped over spaghetti.

This November, the show is concurrently running in six other American cities, as well as Winnipeg, MB, and Brasilia, Brazil. Premier noted that in the fiscal year ending February 28, 2009, “The market in the U.S. for Bodies: The Exhibition has been saturated and the company has been forced into secondary and tertiary markets for its self-run opportunities.” This means that everybody likely to see Bodies in America’s biggest cities has gone.

Most New Yorkers have grown numb to the once-shocking outdoor Bodies ads that render the cadavers as nearly edible, but close inspection of the posters reveals a disclaimer, added two years ago: “Premier cannot independently verify the provenance of the human remains in this exhibit.” The exhibition’s website is more direct—the remains could “belong to persons executed while incarcerated in Chinese prisons.”

China doesn’t provide figures on executed prisoners, but Amnesty International estimates that the country executed at least 1,718 people and sentenced 7,003 to death in 2008. Capital crimes in China include murder and rape, in addition to open-definition offenses such as instigating to split the country, and prisoners blur the lines between criminals and dissidents. Instigation to “split” the country is a capital crime in China, and that corpse about to throw a football could have been an activist seeking an independent Tibet, or a PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award finalist.

The fact that the bodies are Chinese hasn’t discouraged visitors from coming to the show, nor has the fact that the corpses could be executed dissidents. Millions have seen the exhibit, though the exact number is fuzzy. The Premier website says that 15 million visitors have buddied up with Bodies, but in September the company’s chief medical director, Roy Glover, declared that the number stood at 16 million.

In recent years, with China eating up American blue-collar jobs and making practically everything we use in our daily lives—in addition to propping up our economy by owning $847 billion in U.S. Treasury holdings—it’s no wonder that China-bashing is in fashion. Massive fuckups by Chinese companies (melamine, lead paint, and tainted drywall) have only exacerbated American ire.

Japan-bashing peaked in the 1980s, when that country became an economic competitor. Now that China’s gross domestic product has surpassed Japan’s, making China the world’s second-largest economy, it’s possible that Americans may derive a measure of satisfaction from seeing mutilated bodies of Chinese people.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Ed Lin is the author of Waylaid, This Is a Bust, and Snakes Can’t Run. He lives in New York City with his wife, actress Cindy Cheung.

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