Ling Woo Liu: A Family Journey

Time Magazine’s Ling Woo Liu writes a personal essay about her great-grandfather, Dr. Wu Lien-teh, who helped suppress an epidemic of pneumonic plague in China and revolutionized the treatment of pandemics, yet has been forgotten by Chinese history until recently:

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? Read “China’s Medical Boom.”

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.

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