Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics
and the Medically Commodified Body

By Ari Larissa Heinrich

Reviewed by Howard Y. F. Choy
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright April, 2020)

Ari Larissa Heinrich, Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. xi + 246 pgs. ISBN: 978-0-8223-7053-6 (Paper) / ISBN: 978-0-8223-7041-3 (Cloth).

Seven months after Ari Larissa Heinrich’s Chinese Surplus: Biopolitical Aesthetics and the Medically Commodified Body was published by Duke University Press in March 2018, the BBC’s health correspondent Matthew Hill followed up his earlier news report titled “China’s Questionable Organ Transplant Trade.”[1] Although organ harvesting from executed Falun Gong 法轮功 sectarians and political prisoners of conscience is not Heinrich’s main concern (briefly mentioned, p. 127), the appearance of Heinrich’s book, which addresses representations of the medically commercialized body in contemporary Chinese literature, art, and film, is timely. The monograph is a sequel to the author’s The Afterlife of Images: Translating the Pathological Body between China and the West (Duke UP, 2008), which investigated how the modern Chinese body and identity were defined by the languages of medicine, science, and realism through literary and cultural translations in the early twentieth century. Crossing the boundaries between biotech and culture, Heinrich continues to explore how the Chinese body is narrated, displayed, and visualized in the postcolonial context with “the emergences of new medical technologies designed to map, quantify, and ultimately aestheticize hard knowledge of the body” (p. 9).

The book is comprised of an introduction, four chapters, and an epilogue. Inspired by Melinda Cooper’s development of Marx’s theory of surplus value in her Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era,[2] Heinrich examines the body as commodity and “the valuation of some lives over others” under global capitalism (p. 6). In the introduction, the author defines “biopolitical aesthetics” in terms of formal “hierarchies of race, class, gender, and even species” and “the medically commodified body” as “a body that can now be taken apart, assigned market value, and distributed to wealthier consumer bodies” (pp. 14-15). Heinrich’s “aesthetics” refers to a method of biopolitical critique that describes the (corpo)realities in the literary, artistic, and filmic forms in the age of advanced biotech.

Chapter 1 traces the biopolitical aesthetics of the controversial Chinese cadaver art (玩尸体的艺术) in the new millennium back to the nineteenth-century Frankenstein automaton referenced by late-Qing thinker Liang Qichao 梁启超 (1873-1929). Heinrich finds Frankenstein “a fascinating key to the conceptual origins of contemporary biopolitical aesthetics” (p. 35), a genealogical link to the performance art of the Cadaver Group in contemporary China. Recalling that, when Liang’s fellow Chinese ambassador to London, Zeng Jize 曾纪泽 (1839-90), saw the exhibit of Tipu’s Tiger at the Victoria and Albert Museum, he correlated it to an image of the Chinese nation as a sleeping lion. Heinrich argues that the romance of Frankenstein in China, unlike Mary Shelley’s (1797-1851) novelistic monster, is a divergent history of the Chinese resistance to colonial imperatives.

The second chapter foregrounds the diasporic body in contemporary Chinese literature and art, including Yu Hua’s 余华 short story “One Kind of Reality” (现实一种, 1988) and novel Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (许三观卖血记, 1995). as well as the experimental art exhibits Post-Sense Sensibility: Distorted Bodies and Delusion (Jan. 1999), Infatuated with Injury: Open Studio Exhibition No. 2 (Apr. 2000) and Fuck Off (Nov. 2000). Although blood selling is self-commodification and transfusion is social allegory, Heinrich suggests that the apathetic distribution of body parts to many patients in “One Kind of Reality” actually “marks a transition in Chinese biopolitical aesthetics from the Frankenstein-esque ‘composite’ body of the past to the more ‘diasporic’ body of the present day,” when one “lose[s] ownership over one’s body,… becoming alienated from oneself” (pp. 57, 61). As a continuum with Yu’s avant-garde story that questions the conceptions of self and the fragmentary “transplantability” of identity, the cadaver artists discussed in this chapter expose and market the Chinese body as material for art to Western audiences.

Chapter 3 examines organ economics found in two Chinese films: Fruit Chan’s 陈果 Made in Hong Kong (香港制造, 1997) and Danny Pang’s 彭发 and Oxide Pang’s 彭顺 The Eye (见鬼, 2002), both interpreted as expressions of anxieties about economic inequality and local identity. The author analyzes the kidney transplant in Made in Hong Kong as an allegory both of being and of becoming on the eve of the transference of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty, while the cornea transplant in The Eye is seen as a takeover of the host and replacement of the individual vision with a collective one. Near the end of the chapter, Heinrich parses the two Chinese characters in the title of The Eye, 见鬼  jiangui (lit. “seeing ghosts,” fig. “go to hell,” p. 100), observing that the first character, 见, is part of the Chinese “resultative” compound verb kanjian 看见 ‘to look and see’, in which it functions to indicate “what is 见 after having been 看; what it really means to see, actively, and having done so, to act upon that vision” (p. 113). I wonder, though, if the author’s linguistic interpretation should be the opposite: although the compound word features jian as a resultative complement, the character kan actually signifies an active sight catching while jian conversely refers more often to a passive seeing—what is jian ‘seen’ after having kan ‘looked’—and therefore jian gui should suggest a passive haunting by ghosts rather than an active search for specters, which is in fact the fate or hauntology of Hong Kong.

The fourth chapter covers the traveling Body Worlds exhibits brought forth by advancements in biotech, whose biopolitical aesthetics showcases plastinated cadavers that “collapse the boundaries between what counts as real and what counts as representation” in the suppressed discourses of Chinese identity and culture in global biopolitics (p. 118). Surveying approximately two hundred English, French, and German journalistic accounts and more than four hundred Sinophone sources from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Heinrich shifts the focus from Western human rights critiques of exhibition ethics to ideas about race and ethnicity against the production and reception of the Chinese corpses as “universal humans.” This is highlighted on the book cover and page 131 with the 2003 installation art Chinese Offspring (种族) by Zhang Dali 张大力. The author points out that, contrary to Western discourse about the exhibits, both Chinese and Taiwanese media present them from the viewpoints of nationalism, public health, and science education.

Having discussed the Frankenstein allegory, Yu Hua’s fiction, experimental art, Hong Kong films, and cadaver exhibits, the book ends in an epilogue about the issue of intellectual property and the anonymously commodified human bodies that raise questions such as: “Were they art or science? Were they educational or entertainment?” (p. 140) The concerns about Chinese “copy culture” and cultural citizenship in the age of globalization are further related to the Dafen 大芬 Oil Painting Village in Shenzhen and the worldwide displays of terracotta warriors. The author poses a key humanistic question about medical subjectivity: “exactly how many body parts one can replace and still remain oneself?” (p. 150). In response, the reviewer wonders whether the Marxian concept of surplus value would aesthetically and psychologically yield (to) the Lacanian “surplus-jouissance,” a kind of excessive painful pleasure caused by objet petit a—in this case, the body parts as objects of desire that divide and split the subject, especially when one reads (a literary piece) or sees (a film, an artwork)?

With devilish details in describing foreign objects like Frankenstein and Tipu’s Tiger, Heinrich’s interdisciplinary approach to the subject is further reflected in the book’s numerous notes and bibliography, which includes not only academic publications but also an array of news reports, online materials, personal interviews, government and NGO sources (e.g., Center for Health Protection, Hong Kong) as well as medical journals (Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation, etc.) in both Chinese and Western languages that facilitate a comparative discourse analysis. With sixty-eight pages of lengthy notes (pp. 159-226), i.e., thirty percent of the book, the excessive endnotes, many of which run over a page per note, also denote a “surplus” of the research body per se. Despite a few careless errors like placing the Cadaver Group “at the beginning of the twentieth century” (p. 5), mistakenly identifying author Karen Fang as “editor” of Arresting Cinema: Surveillance in Hong Kong Film (p. 203n37), and typos of Chinese characters (e.g., pp. 210-216, 224), Chinese Surplus is definitely cutting-edge research on the biopolitical aesthetics of the highly commodified form of the human body as a biomaterial in contemporary global cultural and medical markets. Its surplus value overflows from conventional literary, art, and film studies into medical humanities.

Howard Y. F. Choy
Hong Kong Baptist University


[1] Matthew Hill, “China’s Organ Transplants,” two episodes (15 and 22 Oct. 2018), BBC, (last accessed 8 Mar. 2020).

[2] Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008.