By Ling Woo Liu Monday, Sept. 21, 2009
My great-grandfather, Dr. Wu Lien-teh, was sitting down to dinner in Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, when he received a telegram. It was Dec. 19, 1910, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had alerted him to an outbreak of deadly pneumonic plague near the Russian border. A Cambridge-educated vice director of the Imperial Army Medical College, Wu, then just 31, was to report immediately to Beijing before heading to Harbin in China’s remote northeast.
After a three-day train ride, he arrived in the frigid city to lead an international team of plague fighters. “As [we] entered the town, [we] could sense an air of tenseness and foreboding among the inhabitants,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Everywhere there were guarded talks and whispers of fever, blood-spitting and sudden deaths, of corpses abandoned by roadsides and open fields.” He introduced the practices of wearing face masks, cremating infected corpses and observing strict quarantine — methods used today to fight pandemics such as SARS and swine flu and even a small outbreak of pneumonic plague in Qinghai province in July. My great-grandfather implemented these measures despite -22�F (-30�C) temperatures, decrepit facilities, traditional preferences for land burials and — what he found most worrisome — the fatalism of local residents. His initiatives worked. Within four months, the outbreak was stamped out, but not before it took 60,000 lives.
In 1937, with Japan’s full invasion of China, Wu returned to his native Malaysia and, since then, most of that side of my family has scattered to Singapore, Australia and the U.S., where I was born and raised. Yet last month, almost a full century later, I found myself making the same journey my great-grandfather made that winter. After flying to Beijing from my current home in Hong Kong, I headed to Harbin to attend the opening of the Wu Lien-teh Memorial Hospital and the 60th anniversary of another hospital affiliated with Harbin Medical University, one of several medical institutions founded by Wu. Some 700 government officials as well as doctors from China and abroad attended the elaborate, televised event. Walking around the Wu Lien-teh hospital and associated museum, and listening to trained docents shed light on my own family history, I was deeply moved. But I also wondered: Why, after so long, is China honoring my great-grandfather?
The answer, on reflection, lies as much with how China has changed since the People’s Republic was founded 60 years ago as with Wu’s vital work. Over the decades China has lurched from serial revolutions to social experiments to, now, the wildly successful pursuit of wealth. In the process, hundreds of millions of lives have been both upended and uplifted. My great-grandfather and his family were buffeted by some of those forces too (though with nowhere near the terrible consequences experienced by countless other Chinese). While his achievements have long been recognized by epidemiologists worldwide, they were largely forgotten in China after the communists took over. In the aftermath of “liberation,” foreign links and laurels, once celebrated, became perilous liabilities. Wu’s relatives, including my father, fled in 1949, in part because they feared that their overseas ties might hurt them in the new China.
Yet as the nation continually transforms itself, so does its idea of what is acceptable and what, indeed, constitutes a hero. At first, those touted as model citizens were chosen for their political pedigrees and correctness, and used as propaganda tools by the Communist Party. Of all the comrades who were lionized, a young soldier named Lei Feng, utterly loyal to the Party, came to epitomize the ultimate hero.
The Lei Fengs of yesterday are no longer relevant, however, to the vast majority of Chinese today. As China modernizes at speed, its icons are resembling those of other developed nations: athletes, pop stars, entrepreneurs. To some extent, that represents a normalization of Chinese society. But it also exposes, worry some of the country’s leaders, a growing obsession with frivolity and materialism. Enter my great-grandfather — a nonpolitical, service-oriented figure with no history whatsoever with the Party and whose life’s work transcends any ideology. “In today’s society, people’s outlook and values have big problems; people are focused on their individual interests and, frankly, on making money,” said Gu Yingqi, China’s former Vice Minister of Health, who attended the Harbin ceremonies. “Not only can we in the health field learn from Wu Lien-teh, everyone can learn from his international spirit and his care for others.”
In Harbin, upon meeting me, one nursing student gushed, “She resembles Dr. Wu!” I didn’t mind being recognized for being someone’s relation rather than for being myself. Chinese authorities have resurrected my great-grandfather because they think his memory can help create a kinder, gentler society. That gives me profound happiness — and gives China, I believe, reason for hope.