Thursday, 30 June 2011

"Holding A Body For Ransom"

The McClatchy-Tribune article may have reminded readers of Zhang Yi's award-winning photograph, "Holding a Body for Ransom," which quickly went viral on the Internet after it was taken last October. The photo appears to show a corpse fisher refusing to hand over the body of one of three university students who lost their lives while helping to rescue drowning children in the Yangtze River in Hubei province. The fisherman reportedly collected more than $5,000 - and heaps of media abuse - before finally turning over the bodies of the students. 

This image has been haunting me. Such an incredible indictment of the logic of commodification. It may be old news to some, but I've never claimed to be omniscient. Anyway, "corpse fishing" is only a few steps removed from the nineteenth century Burke and Hare murders; a reminder of capitalism's "back to the future" logic. Sometimes though a picture truly is worth a thousand words....

HONG KONG - Of all those around the world whose trades and professions are misunderstood and unfairly maligned, surely China's corpse fishers rank near the top. Since ancient times, these villagers have taken on the macabre task of salvaging human cadavers - victims of drowning, suicide and murder - from China's rivers and returning them to their families. For this lurid public service, they were traditionally thanked and appreciated.

Now that China has become the second-largest economy in the world, however, what once was considered largely a service has turned into a booming commercial business for some body fishers, provoking increasing anger among relatives who must pay exorbitant fees for the retrieval of their loved ones and prompting 
alarmed articles in the Western media about this gruesome practice. Admittedly, the rhetorical temptation is irresistible. Here, surely, is the perfect symbol of the dark side of China's embrace of capitalism: Even anonymous corpses floating in the country's rivers have become a pricey commodity. 

These are grisly tales of greed and the base exploitation of grief. It is tempting to find in them a dark morality play about China's lost soul in which the corpse fishers represent the sick new avarice of the nation. But these stories are only part of a much broader narrative about what has been lost and gained during China's 30-year economic boom.
The villain of this bigger piece is not Wei or any of his fellow body fishers, whose services are still very much required on the country's rivers. After all, if they don't pull the dead out of the national current, who will? Forget the local police, who want nothing to do with water-logged casualties of 21st-century China. Provincial authorities are even more averse to the stench of death. And the central government would only choose to act if a river became choked and toxic with human cadavers.

With an increasing number of bodies to fish, China's much-maligned river undertakers are thriving in their business. Organized crime has been one of the big beneficiaries of China's economic rise, and the country's rivers testify to that: bodies bound and gagged are an important part of the average corpse fisher's trade. 

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