Li Wenliang - an ordinary person


Li Wenliang: An ordinary person

Originally published in Portrait(人物) magazine on Feb 07, 2020


He once made a New Year's wish. In the new year, he hoped to be a simple person, to appreciate the complexity of the world without having it contaminate the heart, and to maintain a sufficiently peaceful state of mind. "The unexamined life is not worth living", he also noted, and he hoped we could all encourage each other to realize our values. His WeChat signature was, "All theory is gray, but the tree of life springs evergreen."

Text | Luo, Ting (罗婷); Yang, Zhou (杨宙); Luo, Qian (罗芊)

Edit | Tang, Qi (糖槭)

Translation | Chengji Translation Team

At 11 p.m. last night, when Portrait reporters rushed to the inpatient building of the Central Hospital of Wuhan (CHW), Houhu Branch, two of Dr. Li Wenliang 's university classmates had already been waiting there for half an hour. Both of them were medical doctors in Wuhan as well. They were entrusted by the whole class to come and visit him there. But they could not enter, because it had already passed the visiting hours and the entrance of the building was blocked.

It was late at night, and the building was still very bright. The ICU where Li was being rescued was on the 2^nd^ floor, while a few floors above stayed his parents, who were also infected. The classmates worried about them and called Li's father, hoping that they could go and look after them, though the request was turned down by the hospital staff, who was with Li's father at that time. They then called Li's pregnant wife, who was not in Wuhan, to find her anxious and concerned, yet having no access to the latest updates. They told her, "If there is any news, I will definitely call you as soon as possible."


The main building of the Central Hospital of Wuhan.

The time was just after midnight, and the efforts to rescue Li continued on. But still, one of the nurses in the building, thinly clad, went down to the 1^st^ floor alone and bursted into tears. Leaning against the wall at first, then crouching on the ground, sobbing. The cries, so clearly audible even from ten meters away, echoed in the quiet hospital halls in the dead of the night.


The classmates talked about Li's clinical condition. Although he appeared to be in good spirits when interviewed by the press a few days ago, Li, in fact, had been on the ventilator since more than ten days ago. One of the classmates said, "This was a very bad sign."

Yesterday afternoon, Li was transferred from the CHW's Nanjing Road Branch to the Houhu Branch. According to this classmate of his, this was because Li's condition had required the use of ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation), which the Nanjing Road Branch could no longer offer -- all of their ECMO equipment had already been sent to the Jinyintan Hospital. But there was one left in the Houhu Branch, which could save his life. In another version of the story on the Internet, even this last ventilator was borrowed from another hospital.

Was his condition so severe that he needed to use extracorporeal lungs? "Actually, he should have used it much earlier", said the classmate.

Dr. Wu Yan from the CHW told Portrait late last night that ever since he was transferred to the Houhu Branch yesterday afternoon, Li had been in a terrible condition. " The transfer was not suitable and the risk of this transfer was high. He was brought here in the evening and shortly experienced respiratory failure and needed a breathing tube. Eventually we couldn't save him. Even though both his breathing and heartbeat had stopped and there was no vital sign after three hours of external cardiac compression, he was still put on ECMO. Now we are not allowed to pronounce him dead."

"I know that he's most likely gone, but I still hope that the rumors on the Internet are true, that ECMO can do wonders," this doctor told Portrait at 00:43 this morning.

"My knowledge tells me that it is basically impossible, but I still somehow feel that there may be miracles," the doctor explained with his medical common sense, "Normally, clinical death can be declared if breathing and heartbeat have stopped for 3 hours. But we managed to get an ECMO machine, maintaining the circulation."

According to Caixin, the rescue was still going on at 2 a.m. At 3:48 a.m., the CHW posted a message on their official Weibo account: "Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in our hospital, was unfortunately infected in the battle against the 2019-nCOV pneumonia outbreak. He died after full rescue at 2:58 a.m. on February 7, 2020." Three hours of external cardiac compression, and at least 3 hours of ECMO, did no wonders.

Prior to this, at 11:25 p.m. last night, the World Health Organization had already tweeted(later deleted): "We are deeply saddened by the passing of Dr Li Wenliang. We all need to applaud the work that he did on fighting #2019nCOV."

Dr. Li Wenliang

Li Wenliang's college classmates told Portrait that, on the afternoon of December 30, 2019, it was in their WeChat class group that Li notified everyone: "There were 7 confirmed cases of SARS at Huanan Seafood Market, and they were being quarantined in the emergency department of the Houhu Branch of our hospital." Half an hour later, he added, "The latest news is, it has been confirmed that they are coronavirus infections, but the exact virus is being subtyped. Alert your family and relatives."

As doctors, they believed in Li. He had been practicing for many years and his judgment was unlikely to be wrong. It was also because of Li's warning that they had started to implement protective procedures since then, to stock N95 masks and to wear protective suits at work. Not many people knew about it at the time, and the masks were still easily available. It was this batch of medical supplies that protected some doctors at the beginning of the outbreak and met their urgent needs when the supplies later ran short.

After Li was admonished, the classmates all learned about it. They grew more cautious, and no longer talked about the new virus on WeChat, but only in oral communications. The word got out, and the Post-80s young doctors in particular started to protect themselves. "Therefore he really saved a lot of people," said one classmate.

Before the admonishment, Li was not a well-known doctor in the hospital. Wu Yan, a young doctor in another department, had never heard of his name or met him in person before. "I only knew of him for being accused of spreading rumors. The admonishment aroused our indignation, and later I heard that he was infected... He was infected while being disciplined, and his whole family fell sick too. He was said to be under a great deal of pressure. We were very happy for him when he was eventually vindicated."

Wu sincerely admired Li's courage, "I only know that he told the truth and said things that many people didn't dare to say. But he didn't deserve the punishment he got, and suffered a great deal both physically and psychologically."

This was the night when Dr. Wu's WeChat Moments was flooded with posts of mourning candles. Li Wenliang was still not pronounced dead at the time when Wu was talking with Portrait, although his heartbeat had stopped 3 hours ago. "We all know that when we mourn for Dr. Li, we are just as much mourning for ourselves," said Wu.

At 1 a.m., Li's college classmates were still navigating themselves in the locked-down inpatient building, looking for potentially through pathways. They were hoping to go up to the floor where Li's parents stayed, at least to take a look at them to see if they were okay. They kept trying for 2 hours, with no success.

As they were searching, they passed by walls decorated with the glorious history of the CHW, and a wall with the Hospital's motto: It is the Hospital's bounden duty to save lives and heal wounds. People get ill everyday -- some suffer from pain; some wither and fade away. The most valuable revelation it brings to us are awe and love. To stand in awe of life is to treat the ill as family, to nurture their health, to take people's welfare as the foremost concern, and to treat our staff with genuine sincerity.


Li Wenliang’s profile picture on

Dr. Li Wenliang's Weibo documented his spirited yet ordinary daily life.

He was a foodie, who often joked that his "appetite is fiercer than a tiger". When his craving for oranges arose, he braved heavy rain and winds, running 1,000 meters in his slippers to buy them. At the sight of a vibrant display of assorted ice creams, he resignedly remarked, "Kao (Fuck), it's too much temptation." Izakayas and Haidilao Hot Pot are among the favorites, and he said he loved wasabi and sashimi so very much. He also loved fried chicken. Every time he went to the train station, he'd order a Crispy Drumstick from Dicos (a Chinese fast-food restaurant chain), which, as he described, "a large drumstick attached to the thigh, it was simply satisfying just to look at it. Crispy skin and tender meat, dipped in the signature chili powder, it's absolutely superb fried chicken! A timely glass of coke and I'm in heaven."

He closely followed TV shows, such as Joy of Life (a hit Chinese TV series). He is no stranger to fandom as well. He recently became a fan of Xiao Zhan, for Xiao's handsome looks and gorgeous vocals particularly when performing the song Green Light. When the price of cherries rose to 316 yuan/kg, he jokingly complained that he couldn't afford them; when only a few oranges cost him 30 yuan, he called himself a "Diaosi" (a loser) to joke about the hardship of living. On Weibo, he was a frequent participant in the online lottery games, reposting messages to win a phone, a car, and even cherries. Finally for once, breaking the spell as being shielded from all good fortunes, he won a box of wet wipes, for which he specifically posted another message just to thank the benefactor.

Working as a doctor is very hard. From time to time, he would complain about his work, "I'm tired to death." He would often say "I'm quitting", complaining that he had to work on a three-day shift, "I'm dying", "I hate the clinic", looking forward to eating Double Cooked Pork after work. But should he be asked to leave, he couldn't bear to take off his white coat. He thought to himself, "The patient could abuse me a thousand times, but I'd still treat the patient like my first love."

Scrolling through his Weibo posts, you may find him kind of adorable. This ophthalmologist seems to have a little boy in his heart, teasing and poking fun on social media, casually dropping words like "ni ma", "wo qu", and "kao" (all typical but mild Chinese swear words). He once pondered whether hens would feel pain laying eggs. When one time he saw a butterfly, he deemed it noteworthy enough to merit a picture and a post on social media, with the caption: A butterfly. In his leisure time, he enjoyed taking short walks, going to the canola fields, as well as playing badminton. When referred to as "Uncle" instead of "Brother", he got "mad" and felt "hurt". He also liked to pull pranks; there was one time that before checking out of a hotel, he shaped up the quilt as if someone was still in the bed, to give the cleaning staff a good scare.

If asked which season he liked most, he'd say autumn. He liked the morning on an autumn day, when the sun shone through the green leaves, casting starry shadows on the ground. He once described autumn in Wuhan like this -- "It's got an unyielding tenderness that's neither too warm nor too cold. In this season, you will appreciate the lightest drizzles and the gentlest winds, and can certainly further experience the breathtaking beauty of the scattered fallen leaves crunching and crackling away underfoot."

Dr. Li Wenliang had also shared heartwarming moments of him with his family. When one time the weather was nice, with his wife and child around him, his parents came for a visit, and took the high-speed rail when they left. He made sure to take pictures of the train as memorabilia.

He once made a New Year's wish. In the new year, he wished to be a simple person, to appreciate the complexity of the world without having it contaminate the heart, and to maintain a sufficiently peaceful state of mind. "The unexamined life is not worth living", he also noted, and he hoped that we could all encourage each other to realize our values. His WeChat signature was, "All theory is gray, but the tree of life springs evergreen."


The cover image of Li Wenliang’s WeChat Moments.

But at the same time, he also cared about social issues. He spoke up for the Wang Qinglei, who led the critical reporting on the Wenzhou high-speed train crash accident, and appealed to the public to collect signatures to reinstate Wang. On February 1, he agreed to an interview with Caixin. Even after having been admonished, after both his parents and himself were infected, he still chose to express himself courageously, saying that "A healthy society should not consist of only one voice."

On the same day, his nucleic acid test result came out positive. "The dust has settled," he posted on Weibo, "the diagnosis has finally been confirmed," followed by an emoji of a Husky tilting its head, with its tongue sticking out. In his ward he saw online the encouraging messages from many netizens, and thanked everyone on Weibo, "Thank everyone for your support. My license has not been revoked. Please rest assured that I will actively cooperate with the medical treatment and strive for early discharge."

Prior to this, when doctors in his WeChat work group were summoned to report to the frontline positions, he replied, "I'll sign up when I get better." In another WeChat screenshot circulating online, someone asked him, "What plans do you have after you recover from this?" To which he replied,

"To the frontline right away. The epidemic is still spreading, and I don't want to be a deserter."

(As required by the interviewee, Wu Yan was used as a pseudonym.)


Dear friends,
you may never hear from me henceforth

for I’m leaving to save the planet earth
-- Li Wenliang’s Weibo, December 21, 2012

From WeChat Official Account ZaZheng