From the Stain of Reproduction to the Chimaeracene I

Beginning with Childbed Fever

Reproduction is never clean. The woman in childbirth, the newborn that passes out of her, the filth passing through her; she is the site of bloodshed in the dark, but also the stage for the first cry of new life. At the moment of delivery, she is in a universe where yin and yang meet and heaven and earth merge, and in a human world where the dead and the living wander.

In 1846, in the maternity clinic of the Vienna General Hospital, the Hungarian obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis encountered the “mother and child killer” that had frightened mothers throughout Europe since the 17th century: the mysterious childbed fever that could kill even at the very moment of birth. Fear spread as women died one after the other in the maternity ward;  there was evil in the delivery room, it was said, and many women declared they would rather give birth in the street. Shouldn’t a delivery room be filled with a feeling of freshness and the joy of birth? Instead, it was shrouded in the mystery of decay and death. The spirits of the deceased mothers led Semmelweis to the darkest and most hidden moments of confluence, where he discovered cadaveric particles that had entered the birth canal were to blame. The obstetrician who walked into the delivery room right after performing an autopsy infected the birth canal with his hand; in effect, he had allowed a corpse to enter the generative body.

His discovery was not well understood at the time, as germ theory had not yet been developed by Louis Pasteur. Semmelweis required all obstetricians to wash their hands with chlorinated lime solution and disinfect their equipment. As a result the death rate dramatically dropped. In 1858, when Semmelweis published his findings in a paper entitled “The Etiology, Concept and Prophylaxis of Childbed Fever,” leading obstetricians, who were used to being seen as angels, were still reluctant to admit that they were responsible. They even considered the requirement to disinfect their hands as a moral offense, ridiculing Semmelweis as "the idiot from Budapest." Semmelweis eventually went insane. He drank heavily and consorted with prostitutes, until his confinement to a mental asylum. He himself had become filth to be cleansed. In 1865, he died of septicemia (childbed fever itself is a form of septicemia)—a mysterious evil that had haunted him all his life.1Semmelweis and Childbed Fever, by Zhu Shisheng. New Star Press, January 2020.​ Today, he is known in medical history as the “savior of mothers.”

In the history of Chinese medicine, the particularities of biological sex were most thoroughly examined during the Song Dynasty, when gynecology became an independent clinical discipline for the first time. Gynecology in the Song dynasty distinguished the female body from the classical Chinese “androgynous body of yin and yang” established in the Yellow Emperors Classic of Internal Medicine, and constructed it as a set of “blood and qi” models with significant gender differences. At the same time, through a set of cosmological views on gestation and the highly religious ritual of childbirth, women and their pregnant bodies were placed in an unprecedented state of defilement.

In the “blood and qi” model, pollution is first and foremost in regards to the blood in women’s bodies. Chen Ziming, a lauded doctor of the Southern Song dynasty, advocated in his founding work of Chinese gynecology, All-Inclusive Good Prescriptions for Women, that “in women blood is leader,” and regarded “blood” as a unique sign of women’s bodies, especially related to women’s fertility: “When a girl’s blood is ample, she becomes pregnant.” If there is little blood, women will have weak internal organs and low immunity. Another Southern Song physician, Qi Zhongfu, author of One Hundred Questions on Medicine for Females, even believed that women with little blood were prone to invasion by evil spirits and dream intercourse with ghosts, resulting in so-called “ghost pregnancies.” In the view of gestation, Chen Ziming regarded "ten months of pregnancy" as a microcosmic pattern, in which the Primordial Qi moved from yin to yang poles and worked through all the Five Phases, running through the cardinal channels around the fetus. Therefore, the time and direction of delivery were crucial. Song dynasty gynecology viewed childbirth as a dangerous and easily contaminated process, and thus integrated it into the complex cosmological number of heavenly, earthly, and human sympathies, requiring religious ritual intervention and purification. For example, the orbits of the Chinese zodiac, including the “thirteen malevolent star spirits that kill” (such as the Thunder Lord, the Heavenly Dog, and the White Tiger, who all dwell in turn in the lunar palace), were triggered by irregularities in the zodiac. In addition, the “wandering fetus killer” was caused by the grievances of wronged spirits (especially those who suffered miscarriages, difficult births, and babies killed at birth); these grievances could contaminate and endanger a mother during childbirth.2A Flourishing Yin: Gender in Chinas Medical History: 960–1665, by Charlotte Furth, translated by Zhen Cheng and edited by Wu Chaoxia. Jiangsu People’s Publishing House, 2006.​ In order to control the whole process of childbirth, formulae needed to be combined with talismans and spells. Medicine and magic needed to work together.

Reproduction is never an event that happens in isolation, nor is defilement. Both the religious ethical concept of defilement and the modern hygienic concept of the unclean are related to the metabolism of a system itself. Mary Douglas, the British anthropologist, in her important work on the origins of the concept of defilement, Purity and Danger, states that “[d]efilement is never an isolated event. It cannot occur except in view of a systematic ordering of ideas.”3Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, by Mary Douglas. Commercial Press, 2018 edition, p. 54.​ The system is the process of imposing order, and imposing order necessarily produces the remainders of disorder, and filth is that residue that is excluded from the normal systemic classification system.

Reproduction can also be understood as the body expelling residue from its own system. To expel is both to pollute and to purify. It is new, but also dirty. Reproduction carries with it its own paradoxical duality, always clinging to the edge of its system.

Frankenstein’s Ghost

The year 1816 was a historically rare “year without a summer.” The previous year’s eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia had caused abnormal weather throughout the northern hemisphere, and the European continent was in the throes of famine and plague at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Mary Shelley, an English girl of just 19, had experienced the pain of losing a daughter, and gave birth to the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein, on the shores of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, in the summer’s abnormally bitter rain.

Frankenstein is the story of how one man creates a living creature without a woman, and a parable of how reproduction can become a foul force when in human hands. From the moment the monster in the novel is successfully created, man begins the process of freeing himself from the natural mother, and reproduction is liberated from the logic of natural evolution. When Frankenstein was first published in 1818, Mary Shelley gave it the subtitle The Modern Prometheus —rather than fire, he steals instead the heavenly mystery of reproduction.

Question 1: What is a Human?

The creature created by the main character, Victor Frankenstein, is considered a monster: motherless, he was created in a laboratory and thereafter abandoned by humans. Yet he has humanity, and is touched by the humanity in humans. He yearns for friendship with humans, but is considered dirty and terrible because he was made crippled and ugly, and is thus expelled by human society. In the 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner, future humans have created Nexus replicants whose appearance and intelligence are the same as humans. They also have humanity, but after being enslaved by humans they are considered “illegal creatures” and hunted down. The film’s protagonist encounters the warmth and humanity of replicants even in the process of hunting and killing them. The inversion of humanity between actual human beings and replicants thus constitutes the core ethical dilemma of the film, and also leaves us with a question to ponder: Do reproduction methods a human being make, or is man defined by his humanity?

Blade Runner 2049, released in 2017, is disappointing in this respect. Instead of responding to and deepening these thematic explorations, the film regresses to the worship of human reproduction. The stigma and inferiority complex of being a “skin-job” stays with the main character, K. He wonders if he has a soul, like a real person, and his hunt for the previous generation of replicants becomes a journey to verify his identity as the offspring of a human and a replicant. In October of the same year that this film was released, Sophia, a humanoid robot made by Hanson Robotics, was granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia, becoming the world’s first robot to have a nationality.

From the repudiation of the monster created by Frankenstein, to the hunt for replicants, to the acquisition of citizenship by a robot in 2017, the stigma of things reproduced outside of natural reproduction is gradually being removed. The Pandora’s box, once opened, can never be closed. In unlocking the forbidden zone of reproduction, humans are not simply stopping there, but pressing beyond boundaries and placing themselves in increasingly difficult ethical dilemmas often accompanied by stigma.

Question 2: How to Reproduce?

On the day she was expelled from the Garden of Eden, the wind blew bitterly on Eve’s naked body, and in the wind was the curse of the Creator: “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing.” The womb, the cursed and shameful mark on woman, has tested the ethical code of humankind since the beginning.

In the naturally evolved womb, she fights the life she conceives in blood. In War in the Womb, evolutionary biologist Suzanne Sadedinis argues that the process of embryonic implantation is a bloody battle between fetus and mother: primate placental cells are fierce invaders, invading all the way to the endometrial surface, piercing the mother’s arteries and remodeling them into a suitable site for embryonic growth. The uterus, in turn, evolves accordingly into a tough defensive fortress, with a portion of the endometrium isolated from maternal blood to defend against placental cells which she has not yet decided whether to accept. Menstruation allows her to dispose of those embryos she does not want. This is the reason why it is rather difficult for human gestation to succeed. The romantic view that the naturally evolved maternal uterine lining is the optimal environment for nurturing the embryo has long been questioned by modern physiology.4Suzanne Sadedin, “War in the Womb,” Aeon, August 4, 2014. Link to original article:

In April 2017, Alan Flake’s research team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia announced that their “artificial womb” had passed the animal test phase for the first time, with eight premature lambs dissected from their mothers and placed in plastic bags filled with artificial amniotic fluid that simulated the sheep’s womb; all developed normally. In January 2021, while Chinese netizens were still battling over the surrogacy controversy of actress Zheng Shuang, the ECMO team of the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhengzhou University had already announced a month earlier that it had successfully conducted the first in vitro breeding experiment of an artificial uterus in China. One of the technical intentions of the artificial uterus is to save premature babies who have difficulty surviving natural childbirth, and to offer new possibilities for women with infertility. At the same time, however, it has significantly challenged traditional perceptions of the gestational process, and feminists have begun to debate the new ethical issues of reproduction that it may raise.

British scholar Suki Finn notes that the ethical definition of the gestation model stems from two basic differences in the perception of the fetal-maternal relationship during gestation.5Suki Finn, “Bun or Bump?,” Aeon, July 27, 2017, original link: the-foetus-or-is-it-part-of-her; Suki Finn’s article was awarded a Horizon 2020 Innovation and Research Award by the European Research Council. This article is part of the project “Better Understanding the Metaphysics of Pregnancy” (BUMP) funded by the European Research Council’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.​ The “parthood model” considers the fetus as an integral part of the maternal organism, like an inseparable organ or limb; the “container model” considers the mother as a mere container for the fetus, and the fetus residing in it as a separate entity. The fetus-gestator relationship is like that between the tenant and the house, and between the bread and the oven. Finn’s clarification of the mother-fetus relationship during the gestation process raises many new questions with regard to the ethical values of reproduction that the female body naturally carries: for example, is the container replaceable? Is surrogacy simply a matter of changing containers? Is the fetus a human being or a nonhuman being? If the fetus is a human being, can a human being be conceived in a nonhuman container? If the fetus is nonhuman, in what sense does the human mother constitute a whole with it? The consideration of and answers to these questions will become the epistemological cornerstone for future human beings as they face a series of reproductive ethics issues, such as abortion, miscarriage, and surrogacy.

To be continued. Translated from the Chinese by Matt Turner and Haiying Weng.

Asea Zhanglun Dai is a writer and curator currently based in Shanghai.

Matt Turner is a freelance writer and translator based in New York City. He is author of three collections of poetry, and translator of Lu Xun‘s Weeds. His essays and reviews can be found in Hyperallergic WeekendChaLARB China ChannelMusic & Literature, and other journals.

Haiying Weng is co-translator, with Matt Turner, of works by Yan Jun, Hu Jiujiu, Ou Ning, Wu Jinglian, and others. She is from Beijing, but lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with her dog Xiao Chou (小臭). She works at the Tang Center for Early China, at Columbia University.

Google Doodle for March 20, 2020, honoring Semmelweis' contribution to modern hygiene by promoting handwashing and germ elimination

Spiritual talismans and formulae for promoting birth in Chen Ziming’s All-Inclusive Good Prescriptions for Women. Image from the 2019 exhibition Longevity and Health at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Link

Frankenstein with the monster he created, in the 1931 film Frankenstein. Photo credit: Universal Studios

The monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film Frankenstein. Photo credit: Universal Studios

Left: Sophia, the world's first humanoid robot to have a nationality, speaking at the GOOD Global Summit in 2018, photo: ITU Pictures from Geneva, Switzerland - link, CC BY 2.0, from Wikipedia;
right: Sophia speaking to the public in 2017, photo: ITU Pictures from Geneva, Switzerland; AI for GOOD Global Summit, CC BY 2.0, from Wikipedia.

A premature lamb dissected from its mother’s body and placed in an artificial womb. Photo credit: Emily A Partridge / Nature communications/CHOP handout/EPA

Published: 2021.09.16