Remembering Li Wenliang
From China Digital Space
Jìniàn Lǐ Wénliàng | 纪念李文亮
On February 7, 2020, Dr. Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist at the Central Hospital of Wuhan, passed away from a new disease he had warned his colleagues about in a WeChat group just six weeks earlier. His warning leaked to the internet, alerting the public for the first time to the novel coronavirus spreading in Wuhan. Authorities reacted quickly, branding Li a rumormonger. His death sparked an outpouring of anger, grief, and demands for free speech from Chinese internet users that continues more than one year after his death.
In this CDS exhibit, you can explore the memes, tributes, and artwork inspired by the life and death of Dr. Li Wenliang.
Who Was Li Wenliang?
Dr. Li Wenliang (October 12, 1986 - February 7, 2020) was one of the first physicians to sound the alarm about the novel coronavirus that is now known as COVID-19.
Dr. Li Wenliang practiced ophthalmology at Wuhan Central Hospital. In late December 2019, Dr. Li posted to a closed WeChat group about a "SARS-like" illness originating in a wet market in the city. On January 3, two officers from the local Public Security Bureau forced Dr. Li to fingerprint a notice as agreement to cease from "publishing untrue discourse on the internet." He was also likely one of the "eight rumormongers" who were chastised on national TV. Dr. Li continued working at the hospital as the virus raged through Wuhan, and eventually contracted the disease, probably from one of his patients. From an isolation ward, Dr. Li took interviews from the press, famously telling Caixin that "I believe there should be more than one voice in a healthy society."
Dr. Li died of COVID-19 on February 7, sending waves of grief and anger through the Chinese-speaking world that were amplified by the state's initial reports that he was still undergoing treatment. A leaked photo of Dr. Li's "admonishment notice" triggered an online campaign to demand the truth from the authorities. His Weibo page has become known as China's wailing wall for the hundreds of thousands of messages posted there, beginning at the time of his death and continuing through the many months and years of the pandemic.
Memes of Resistance
Dr. Li Wenliang's warning about the novel coronavirus, his punishment for "illegal behavior," and his call for "more than one voice" in society all inspired internet memes that questioned the official response to the epidemic.
- Can you do it? Do you understand?
- I can't, I don't understand
- There should be more than one voice in a healthy society
- we want free speech
China's Wailing Wall
Li Wenliang wrote his final Weibo post on February 1, 2020, revealing his positive antigen test. So many comments have been left on this post that Weibo is no longer tallying them—there are over 100,000, with dozens still being posted daily.
For a few hours on June 19, 2020, the comments were disappeared, but they were later returned to their place in China's wailing wall. Netizens continue to check in on Dr. Li and tell him about their joys and sorrows. Some post every day, acting as "tomb keepers," while others "visit" Dr. Li more occasionally. People come because Dr. Li "listens," and their strength in numbers has largely kept the censors at bay.
Selected comments from the "wailing wall" are available in translation below. CDT will add selections while the wall continues to be updated. You can read even more comments, updated weekly, at CDT Chinese.
April 7, 2020 Sixty days after Dr. Li's death
@不开心的苏肥肥i: Another sleepless night. Been feeling a lot of pressure lately. The company has already laid off many of my co-workers, and I don’t know how much longer I can keep my job.
@刘北席yu: Remember to exercise, like you did in college. Take care of your health on the other side. Good night, my brother.
August 6, 2020 Six months after Dr. Li's death
@起个昵称都被抢完了: Dr. Li, I had a little to drink tonight, and I noticed it's already been six months since you've been gone. I've shared a lot on your comments page. Thank you so much. There's a girl I like, but I don't know how to talk to her. All I can do is admire her here. I hope you don't mind. Dr. Li, I wish the best to you and your family.
@独行侠lonewarrior: Today my criminal law professor said there was no justification for reprimanding you, because your WeChat group post about a SARS-like virus was not fundamentally inaccurate, and there was no legal basis for punishing you...
@dongzhidabao: It's been almost two weeks since my daughter's dad died. I still can't believe it's true. When I open my eyes, I feel like you're still right in front of me. You must be lonely over there, but I can't join you yet. My parents and our daughter still need me. When you have the time, you can go talk to Wenliang. I miss you so much
@李家凡: It’s now the first anniversary since your last Weibo post. Dr. Li, on Saturday I’ll buy some fried chicken and drink a toast to you.
@喳喳出: Dr. Li, the whole world is watching the investigation of the origin of the coronavirus. Who could have guessed that our nightmare would become the world’s nightmare. Dr. Li, even after you left us the world is still in stifling, suffocating darkness.
@像向日葵般温暖的杨姑娘: Brother Li, I saw this yesterday when I was proctoring an exam. Everyone remembers This hero, who sounded the alarm for us all, was himself felled by the pandemic. We must quickly vanquish this virus, the best result that can come from Dr. Li's early warning! Thank you for your time on this earth!
@傻了八極: Good afternoon, Dr. Li. Compared to them, you are the true hero. The people will never forget you.
@长岛冰茶_ice: Dr. Li, this morning I learned that someone in leadership is leaving my company. He was the best I have ever met at my workplace, bar none. I’m very sad to see him go and can’t help but cry. Farewells always come too soon.
@Grouge: Good morning, Dr. Li. I arrived safely at home. The feeling of coming home was really great. When I saw my grandparents still waiting for me at such a late hour, I was brought to tears. A sense of belonging is so important. I hope that everyone who is about to set off on the road home can arrive safely and smoothly.
Translations by CDT staff.
One of several poems written in honor of Li Wenliang is translated below. Read more at CDT Chinese.
Mourning Li Wenliang
by Yu Xiuhua
There’s no virus worse than “punishment for speech”
There’s no world uglier than one that mixes right with wrong
The Yangtze River’s waters carry boats and capsize boats
The Yellow River’s waves ferry people and ferry ghosts
Now let me live my shameful life
And let me sing my angry dirge
We are not afraid to die
We are afraid to die before our time
You died, and my time died before its time
If there are viruses in heaven
If you speak up again
Then where will you go?
I hope wherever they take you in
There are still people
Who speak Chinese [Chinese]
Translated by Anne Henochowicz.
In September 2020, the WeChat public account of poet and folk singer Zhou Yunpeng's studio published a song by artist Dafang written in remembrance of Dr. Li Wenliang. Read an English translation of the lyrics and more about the song from CDT.
👋 On Clubhouse, users set up a silent room to commemorate Dr. Li Wenliang around the date of the first anniversary of his death.
- John Sudworth, 新冠肺炎：一場影響中國每個角落的疫情, BBC, Feb. 13, 2020
- John Chan, Translation: Clubhouse Blocked in China; Anticipation and Reactions, CDT, Feb. 8, 2021
- Translation: "Spring Blossoms, Autumn Winds"—Analysis of Weibo Replies to Li Wenliang, CDT, May 27, 2021
- Li Wei'ao, 纪念李文亮医生去世一周年 (On the anniversary of Dr. Li Wenliang's death), WeChat public account @资浅记者, February 5, 2021, archived at CDT Chinese