Chinese philosopher’s brain frozen for science, causing stir among scholars

This means that Li’s brain has been in cold storage for over two years.

The revelation has caused a stir among Chinese intellectuals over the past week, with many scholars expressing shock at Li’s unconventional last wishes.

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Li graduated from Peking University in 1954 with a degree in philosophy and later joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a senior researcher and the College International de Philosophie in Paris as a fellow.

Li’s work had a major impact on Chinese academia in the 1980s, and he was widely regarded as a leading figure in Chinese aesthetics and philosophy.

During the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing, Li and 11 other scholars published an open letter sympathetic to the student protesters, and as a result, his books were banned in the mainland in the wake of the bloody crackdown on June 4.

Li moved to the US in 1992, where he taught at Colorado College until his retirement in 1999.

Li died in Colorado in November 2021 at the age of 91.

According to friend Ma Qunlin, Li’s brain has been frozen by the Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation, which specialises in cryonic preservation of human remains. Photo: Handout

Li first revealed his surprising last wishes in a 2010 interview with Southern People Weekly, a liberal magazine based in Guangzhou, shortly before his 80th birthday.

“I won’t have an epitaph. But I will leave my brain frozen. Take it out after 300 or 500 years,” he told the publication.

“I have told my wife and child. Some people want to resurrect in this way, but I don’t think resurrection is possible.”

“I am trying to prove whether culture affects the brain, and whether it is possible to find remnants of Chinese culture in my brain after a few hundred years, to prove my ji dian (sedimentation) theory,” Li added.

Ji dian is an aesthetic theory Li developed in the 1960s that argues that a person’s exposure to history and culture could leave its mark on the physical structure of the brain.

In 2020, before his 90th birthday, Li mentioned his last wishes again in a second interview with the magazine, , saying he had donated US$80,000 to a foundation that freezes human remains.

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Li said that he wanted his brain “preserved as long as possible until brain science is advanced enough” to study it.

But Li said there was a “95 per cent chance that his wish will not be fulfilled”.

Mainland media reported that many people, including Li’s friends, were also sceptical about whether Li’s unusual request would be fulfilled because it went against traditional Chinese culture, which tends to emphasise preserving the integrity of corpses.

Li’s brain was frozen by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in the US, according to Ma. The Arizona-based organisation specialises in cryonic preservation of human remains.

Ma added that Li had followed developments in brain science throughout his later life and hoped that advances in the discipline would help philosophical research.

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