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July 7, 2014

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Family tradition that challenges old beliefs

RONG Hongzhi, 58, her parents, siblings and in-laws have bucked Chinese tradition in favor of a family tradition. They all donated their bodies to the Red Cross for use in organ transplants and medical research.

In China, a nation where ancestor worship still persists, body bequests are quite rare. They fly in the face of the ancient Chinese belief that a person’s soul won’t be reincarnated unless the body is buried whole — or in more modern times, cremated whole.

Hongzhi is the 13th member of her family to become a body donor. Five of those donors have already died.

“We are not believers of reincarnation,” she told Shanghai Daily. “My mother told me that the dead become nothing more than a box of bone ash after they die, so why shouldn’t we give our bodies to help more people live?”

Hers is a sentiment not widely shared.

Last year, only 1,666 Shanghai residents registered as body donors, while 725 people registered to donate their corneas.

In China, 300,000 patients need organ transplants every year, but only 10,000 are lucky enough to get them. About 20 percent of organs transplanted in 2013 were from close relatives, while more than 50 percent came from voluntary donations, according to Huang Jiefu, chairman of the China Organ Donation Committee.

Only about one person in every 2 million in China donated an organ last year. However, that ratio has doubled since 2010, according to Huang.

 “It is good to see more Chinese people nowadays are abandoning their traditional beliefs and registering as voluntary organ donors, but there is still a long, long way to go,” said Tang Zhaoxiang, associate director of the Organ Donation Office of the Shanghai Red Cross.

Tang said young, educated women are among the most active donors in China.

Rong Hongzhi certainly fits the bill. She comes from a medical family. Her grandfather and parents were doctors or medical researchers.

She is especially proud of her grandfather, Rong Zhaomin, who was born in 1887. He studied advanced medicine in Japan and came home to devote his life to helping the poor. He first set up a private clinic in Beijing and later became a doctor in Shanghai.

“He had miracle skills,” Rong said. “I remember when my brother’s finger was once badly broken and Grandpa did the bone-setting immediately at home. My mom said he treated many figures of his era, including Premier Zhou Enlai and famous actresses Bai Yang and Zhang Ruifang. Most of them were introduced by his friend Guo Moruo, a well-known Chinese author and government official who met Grandpa when they were studying in Japan.

Her own father Rong Zhenyuan was a doctor attached to the Shanghai Machine Tool Works, a large state-owned enterprise. Her mother Jin Anyong worked as an embryology researcher at the Shanghai No. 1 Medical University, which later became the Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University.

“My mother was the most inspirational woman I’ve ever known,” Rong said.

During school holidays, her mother took her to her workplace and showed her the rudiments of medical research.

 “I wasn’t allowed in the lab when she was working, but through a crack in the door I used to watch her attend to bodies wrapped in white cloth, lying on a table,” she said.

“Her colleagues showed me the specimen bottles she labeled and maintained. They made great effort to collect them.”

Indeed, body parts for medical use were rare and had to be shared among many medical institutions at that time.

Despite such an enlightened upbringing, Rong and her five brothers and sisters were initially shocked when their parents announced they had become body donors.

 “We are all small potatoes when we are alive,” Rong remembers her mother telling the children, “and we want to do something bigger and better for society when we die.”

Rong’s father died in 2000 and her mother followed him five years later.

Their bodies were given to the Shanghai Medical College of Fudan University for medical research. A funeral was held in a small room at the university. Instead of a gravestone, the two names were engraved on a monument of donors at the Red Cross.

After the funerals, Rong’s youngest brother proposed they carry on their parents’ spirit by donating their own bodies to science. They all agreed, and were joined by some of their spouses. Every year during the Qingming Festival, a traditional time for ancestor veneration and tending of family graves in China, Rong and her brothers and sisters worship their parents online. The Red Cross provides “online cemeteries” for people to visit deceased donor relatives.

And every March 1, a day honoring body donors in Shanghai, hundreds of medical students take vows of dedication to medicine in front of the donors’ monument.

Family support is key to becoming a body donor, Rong said. “Each body donor requires family understanding and approval,” she said. “I hoped my daughter and her husband would understand the way I had chosen, and they did.”

Will they someday follow the family tradition and bequeath their bodies to science? “That’s up to them,” Rong said.

Rong’s family has inspired others to consider becoming body donors.

“A woman in the chorus where I sing asked one day how to go about donating her body to the Red Cross,” Rong said. “I’m glad that my story has influenced others to join us.”

But donors still remain a tiny minority. “Tradition is hard to change,” rued Rong.


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