I’m translating the essay of Igor Kopytoff for a Hungarian journal: The cultural biography of things: commodization as a process. A really good, reasoned anthropological analysis on how things become commodities or, on the contrary, how they lose their commodity character for a given culture.

One of his important propositions is that modern Western culture – on the basis of Judeo-Christian and Classical traditions – draws a sharp conceptual distinction between persons and things, and considers only the latter category as commodizable. True, actually persons too have been made commodities in the history of modern Western culture, but the cultural force of this distinction is attested exactly by the fact that slavery has always presented an intellectual and moral problem for the West, in contrast to every other culture.

Kopytoff illustrates this peculiarity of Western approach with an unexpected example, the culturally different relations to abortion:

The cultural clash over abortion was phrased by both sides in terms of the precise location of the line that divides persons from things and the point at which “personhood” begins. For both anti-abortion and pro-abortion forces agree on the point: that “things” but not “persons” can be aborted. (…) In terms of underlying conceptions, both sides here stand together in striking cultural contrast to the Japanese. The latter have few misgivings about abortion but acknowledge the personhood of aborted children, giving them the special status of misogo, lost souls, and commemorating them by special shrines.

This cross-cultural comparison makes me wonder how the Chinese regard this. On the one hand we know that traditional Chinese culture also considered the fetus somehow as a person. The monograph by Bai Limin, Shaping the Ideal Child: Children and Their Primers in Late Imperial China (2005) describes how great importance was attributed to “foetal education” in traditional Chinese thought, and we read the same in the analysis by Rosie Roberts (2005) on Lu Xing’er’s The Sun is Not Out Today (1991), the key novel on Chinese abortion. On the other hand, it seems that – in contrast to the Japanese – after the abortion they deny any ritual relation with and last honors to the fetus that are due to the dead in Chinese culture. They regard it as a kind of raw material, just like the bodies of those executed and died in labor camps, as it was highlighted by the scandals around Bodies the Exhibition.

The Guardian covers the use of aborted Chinese embryos for medical preparations and beauty products. That hospital staff consume and sell them as tonifying and beautifying food was reported in detail in the April 12, 1995 edition of Hong Kong-based Eastern Express from the hospital of Shenzhen (the article that was originally published only in print is fully quoted on a number of sites, although its authenticity has been questioned), and here you can check an illustrated report in Chinese about the practice allegedly widespread in Guangdong (for the strong-nerved only). The fetus was already mentioned among the materia medica of Chinese traditional medicine in the monumental classical medical encyclopedia Bencao gangmu (1587) by Li Shizhen, and when I asked my Chinese doctor friend about it, he just laconically answered “it is rich in nutritive content”.

What is the reason of this contradiction? Perhaps traditional approach was different, and it was only transformed by sixty years of obligatory materialism? It is possible. Or perhaps one is considered as an actual person only after the rite of reception – the cutting of the foetal hair one month after the birth –, and he or she can be deprived of this status at any time with the sentence of the community or of the superiors, as it is attested by a large number of remembrances on the period of the Cultural Revolution? This is also possible. In any case, I will try to make inquiries with my Chinese friends.

But it is also possible that the explanation is rooted in the universalistic thought of Chinese culture, in the world view formulated like this by my friend in the first phrase of his manual of traditional Chinese medicine, translated by me into Hungarian:

Traditional Chinese medicine considers mankind and each person as an organic part of a larger whole, the complete universe. We are ruled by the same laws governing the whole nature: we are companions of the stars, the planets, the animals, the trees, the ocean and the earth.

And if we are part of such a universal system, and we are separated not by sharp borders, but only by gradual differences from the gods on the one hand and from the animals on the other, then the treatment due to various persons also moves on a large scale between the god-like emperor and the animal-like lowest human categories. Of course, in this view the term “animal” is absolutely not derogatory, just like the term “human” does not involve any dignity, for these are not dichotomous and contrasting concepts as in the West, but only grades that follow each other. In such a system a man does not possess an inherent “dignity” arising from his human existence like the Greeks, the Stoics or the Christians say, a dignity that does not depend on his actual place in the hierarchy and of which neither poverty nor defencelesness can deprive him, but only a “face” (面 miàn) that is attributed to him exclusively from his place on this scale, and that he can at any time “lose”, “increase”, “get” or “give”.

I think it is the fascination of this formidable ladder that prevents the Chinese from thinking in equal relations rather than subordination and superiority. (Our friends have made enormous and very honest efforts for twenty years to understand the essence of Western “friendship”, but thus far they have only arrived to a concept of “alternating super- and subordination”.) And this is why all their life is focused on getting higher on this ladder, thus obtaining a “greater face”, the only source of their self-esteem.

“Such was the glory of being a mandarin official. Whenever he went out, a gong sounded announcing his coming, and yamen servants cleared the way, brushing the passers-by away like so much dirt. The yamen servants had always been invested with part of their master’s power and glory. What though they accidentally maimed or killed a man or two! The yamen servants’ only worry was that they might come across another train belonging to an official of higher rank, which would dampen their “fire” a little, or that they might unknowingly kill or maim a man who belonged to that higher official’s household. Then they would cry, “I ought to die! I ought to die!” and actually they might be handed over to the higher official for whatever punishment that official deemed fit, including flogging and imprisonment, law or no law.” (Lin Yutang: My country and my people)

7 comentarios:

Julia dijo...

¿Pero no se dan entre los chinos relaciones de amistad tal como las conocemos en occidente? Tema de especial incidencia en este blog que debe su nombre a la correspondencia de dos amigos chinos, ¿no?

La mutua incomprensión entre las dos posturas sobre el aborto es notable. El otro día una amiga se escandalizaba y horrorizaba sinceramente porque se había enterado de que uno de los posibles juramentos de quienes recibían aquí el título de médico incluía jurar protección "a la vida por nacer"... Creo que le parecía algo sólo adjudicable a oscuras posiciones retrógradas.

Studiolum dijo...

I think the Chinese do have an idea of friendship of their own, but it does not seem to be exactly like ours.

In fact, the “four kinds of possible relationships between person and person” distinguished by Confucius include the relationships between 1. ruler and ruled, 2. father and son, 3. husband to wife, and 4. elder brother and younger brother. All these are unequal relationships. In this scheme there is no place for the egalitarian “amicus alter ego”, “the friend is another I” type friendship defined by Plato and Erasmus.

The existing friendships between Chinese people that I had occasion to observe usually resemble the fourth kind, the relationship between elder and younger brother. In a Chinese friendship there is always one who stands higher and one who stands lower. Traditionally these roles do not change. The most we could achieve in our friendship with Chinese people, however deep and affectionate our relationship was by the way, was the occasional change of these roles according to who was more “at home” in a certain situation.

But modern, post-Cultural Revolution Chinese culture is a deeply destroyed one. I wonder what was the real content of traditional Chinese friendships like that of Wang Wei and Pei Di.

Julia dijo...

Thank you, that was clarifying.
One more doubt: you say Confucius says "husband TO wife"... It's not husband AND wife like the others. So there's another asymmetry in that relationship?

Studiolum dijo...

No, no. That was my mistake. I should have correctly written “husband AND wife”, like in the other three.

Anónimo dijo...

I'm afraid Kopytoff has been taken in by an urban legend, and so, it seems has the translator. I refer to the illustrated report regarding the consumption of aborted fetuses, said to be widespread in Guangdong. Those photos were made by a performance artist named Zhu Yu and were part of a project he presented in 2000.
I would also direct you to this account, which quite correctly places this urban legend in the long history of blood libel. I would hope you would not want to take part in that ugly history.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you for your comment and the links. I will insert the ones questioning the authenticity of the Express article in the post as a caveat.

However, if you check the illustrated report linked above, you will see that is not about Zhu Yu’s performance which I also know and which I obviously regard as false. The report, as its Chinese text explains, was made in Guangdong by Shen Mingfang and Li Side, special correspondents of The story, as I have just checked, has been taken over by a number of Chinese online journals and blogs (see for example or, and I have not yet found any confutation of it. Of course, none of these facts guarantees its authenticity. I just want to point out that this one and Zhu Yu’s one are two different reports.

On the other hand, the two, apparently well-documented articles quoted from Guardian on the Chinese use of fetuses for medical and beauty products seem to never have been either questioned or refuted.

I consider the use of “blood libel” for these stories, whether they are true or false, a misleading term that is just as hype as the use of the same stories for pseudo-Christian and truly racist purposes. “Blood libel”, as it has been historically used against early Christians and later against Jews throughout the past two thousand years refers to the killing of children with the purpose of consuming their blood or flesh. There the main crime is killing a human being; consuming him/her is “just” an additional perversity. In the above stories, however, the case is totally different: here people allegedly consume (either as food, or as medical and beauty products) something that has already ceased to be living and human in a legally permitted (or even prescribed) way, and that would be a waste not to turn subsequently to useful purposes (as it was encouraged for example in ancient Chinese handbooks on materia medica).

Thus the basic question of this post has been whether there is a difference between the anthropological constitution of the West and of China, a difference that makes acceptable there what is unacceptable here (and of course the eventual post-mortal consumption of fetuses is but a sub-case here that could be omitted without making the basic question void). This question has been explicitly left open in this post, as I sincerely do not know the definitive answer. But if such difference exists, then the use of the term “blood libel” in these cases is not only too vaguely applied, but also a gross Western ethnocentrism that denies and thus prevents the examination of such differences.

Thank you once more for your comment that gave me occasion to rethink and to clarify these points.

Studiolum dijo...

P.S. By speaking of “anthropological constitution” in the last paragraph, I obviously refer to cultural and not any kind of physical anthropology.