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In 1919, Davidson Black—today chiefly remembered as a colleague of Teilhard de Chardin—was made a professor in the Peking Union Medical College, an institution principally endowed by the Rockefeller Foundation. His American benefactors had given him his post with the strict stipulation that he dedicate his energies to creating a respectable department of human anatomy, which he did as scrupulously and as tirelessly as he could. But his real interests lay elsewhere. He had wanted to come to China in order to pursue his interests in human evolutionary history, and in particular to search for fossil remains of earlier hominids in the limestone caves near the village of Zhoukoudian in the hill country outside the capital. It was there that the German naturalist K. A. Haberer had discovered, among the bones of various extinct animals, a tooth that almost certainly had come from a precursor of Homo sapiens, and there also that the Swedish paleontologist Johan Gunnar Andersson wanted to institute a systematic search for traces of humanity’s phylogenic forebears.

The administrators of the Rockefeller Foundation, however, had no intention of subsidizing quixotic expeditions into China’s asperous hinterlands, or investigations in the new and recondite field of paleoanthropology, and so did everything they could to discourage Black’s whims. To keep his employers happy, Black was obliged to devote most of his official working hours to anatomical study and to save his evolutionary research for his private lucubrations. And his daily labors necessarily entailed spending a great deal of time dissecting human cadavers. Of these, fortunately, there was a ready supply available from the municipal constabulary, which was responsible not only for arresting and detaining suspects but also for executing convicts; and the police were all too happy to be relieved of the task of disposing of the corpses themselves, and gladly heaped them into the beds of trucks to send along to the college.

It was a convenient arrangement on the whole, but not ideal. In those days, Chinese criminals were executed by decapitation, and so the cadavers that arrived in Black’s operating theater were for the most part headless. One can see the problem. Even if the police remembered to send the severed heads along with the corpses—and the record is unclear here—Black was still working with damaged specimens: The cervical connective tissues, muscles, nerves, and vertebrae were all too mangled for accurate study. And then, one assumes, there would have been the difficulty of determining which head belonged to which body, and so the near impossibility of reconstructing the natural liaison between them or of establishing whether there were any discernible rules governing correlations between cephalomorphism and somatomorphism (and so on).

Finally, pleased though he was with the abundance and freshness of his inventory, but frustrated by this single persistent defect, Black sent an inquiry along to the city’s police prefecture, asking whether it might be possible to procure cadavers that were still intact. Once again, the police were entirely willing to oblige. The very next day a consignment of condemned prisoners, in chains and under guard, arrived at the college, accompanied by a letter graciously inviting Black to put them to death in any manner he thought might best suit his purposes.

It was a generous offer, I think we would all agree; but Black was scandalized all the same. He refused the gift and sent the prisoners back to the police (and to their deaths, of course). Thereafter, he took no further deliveries of convicts, dead or alive, and chose instead to avail himself only of the more irregular supply of corpses he could obtain from the city morgue.

Well, I imagine something similar has happened to all of us now and then while traveling abroad. Awkward moments of this sort are more or less inevitable when one ventures any appreciable distance from native harbors. Sooner or later one is all but certain to dismay a French hostess by delicately sipping from the finger bowl, or to perplex a Greek interlocutor with one’s Anglo-Saxon reserve by continually backing away from his amiably insistent propinquity, or to alarm an Italian by making the impertinent suggestion that one might actually come to dine at his home one evening, or to disgust a mir-shikar by failing to deliver a competent coup de grâce during a wild boar hunt in the Punjab, or to wound a central Asian tribesman’s pride by accepting the hospitality of his yak-hide yurt but refusing the offer of his youngest wife for the night. Tact can go only so far in such circumstances.

So I think we can all comprehend Black’s plight, even as we enjoy the special piquancy of his story: There the hapless fellow was, after all, squandering his nights striving to fathom the deep inscrutabilities of evolutionary anthropology, trying to pierce the heavily accumulated veils of geological time and to reach down into the long-hidden past in the hope of laying hold of the mystery of humanity’s origins, suddenly awakened from his reveries by a startling encounter with the even more impenetrable mysteries of profound cultural difference. How could he hope, in that appalling instant, to respond in a way at once in keeping with his own principles and also sufficiently decorous to show that he was sensible of the courtesy he had been extended?

By the same token, however, we can certainly spare a moment’s sympathetic chagrin for the poor police official who sent those chained convicts to Black. The gesture had such a quality of demonstrative generosity to it, of guileless gallantry—something of the Gascon’s exuberant display of spontaneous largesse or of the Cavalier’s sonorous “Your servant, sir!” and deep bow from the waist and sweeping flourish of the doffed panache. To have his gift so unceremoniously returned must have been at least a little humiliating. And, really, he was doing nothing obviously unreasonable. From his vantage, it was probably the case that these wretches, having been duly condemned, were for all intents and purposes already only so much rubbish to be disposed of. It may well have been that, as far as he was concerned, the difference between sending Black a freight of carcasses before they had actually been executed rather than after was little more than a technical detail. It really is all a matter of cultural perspective.

After all, what made Black recoil from the killing of those prisoners may have been in part some vague superstition regarding the unique legitimacy of properly exercised jurisprudential violence, but it was almost certainly in greater part an intuition inscribed on his soul by a long process of cultural formation, both personal and historical. He was in the moral habit, so to speak, of believing that an individual human life is never wholly devoid of moral significance, no matter what its legal status, and that therefore any violence he might commit against any person would have some sort of determinate consequence for his own moral identity. That intuition—that particular way of understanding the meaning of each human being—is not a universal property of human society; it is a result of a particular cultural and (inevitably) religious tradition.

It is worth recalling, however, that Black hardly occupied any position of moral superiority in this matter. By all accounts he was a decent man, but he seems also to have been strangely inattentive to the reality of his situation, in the supremely abstracted manner that men of clinical temperament often are. Surely he ought to have been aware, simply from the quantities of corpses he had been receiving from the police, that a great many of the convicts whose bodies he was examining had been sentenced and executed for crimes that in his own country would have carried no graver penalty than imprisonment or perhaps a fine, and that the Peking magistracy probably operated with a far looser sense of evidentiary procedure than a Western court would have done. He may not have had much occasion to consider the matter before being confronted by a consignment of convicts still in a not-quite-postmortem state, but it is hard not to think he should have reflected before then upon the moral ambiguities of the college’s pact with local law enforcement.

Really, though, it is hard to judge him very harshly, given the far more conscious compromise our government and (more broadly and deeply) our culture of insatiable consumption has reached with the current government of the People’s Republic. Decade upon decade, we hear of the arrest, imprisonment, torture, and murder of China’s religious minorities (house-church Christians, Tibetan Buddhist monks, and so on), of the cruel measures taken to enforce the nation’s one-child policy, and of countless other chronic atrocities, but our response consists in little more than a sporadic susurrus of disapproval, just loud enough to flatter ourselves that we have principles but not so loud as to allow those principles to interfere with fiscal or trade policy. We try to shame the ruling party with pious panegyrics on “human rights,” as though the concept had any appreciable weight outside the cultural context that makes it intelligible, but we buy and borrow from the party, and profit from its policies, without hesitation or embarrassment. I think the government of the PRC might be pardoned for concluding that our actions, and not our words, indicate where our true values lie.

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