‘My Epitaph Only Needs One Phrase: He Spoke up Once for People.’

A Letter Written as Though by Li Wenliang, Translated by Dave Yin

Translator’s Introduction

On February 7, the day Li Wenliang died from coronavirus, a piece of farewell prose written in the first person emerged online. Li was a Chinese doctor whose efforts as early as December 30 to warn colleagues of the outbreak of respiratory illness in Wuhan were shut down by local police. The letter was penned in simple, almost conversational Chinese and bore no names. But to Chinese Internet users, well versed in allusions and already too familiar with China’s silencing of early spotters of what would become the worldwide coronavirus epidemic, it was easy to connect the dots.

In the following days, different versions of the piece flooded Chinese social media. Rumors flew that parts of the letter were written by Li himself prior to his death, that his wife, Fu Xuejie, had helped him complete a draft after his passing, and that perhaps a writer who goes by the name “Ping” expanded upon it prior to publishing. Before the week was up, the letter had surpassed the number of views WeChat displays, for fear of showing that items have gone viral, and just after that, it was deleted.

There is, perhaps, a case to be made that Li Wenliang touched the lives of so many because he was not a whistleblower, though he saw the signs, and that maybe he wasn’t a hero, though he did good. He was no dissident who chose to act out, knowing the cost. His legacy is one of a model citizen of the People’s Republic whose life it squandered, a word of caution for those still trying to live in the system. To me, the piece’s power comes from its superimposition of both a hopeless desire to know Li and the weight of the knowledge that he is, in fact, all of us.

—Dave Yin

I Left, Letter of Reprimand in Hand
By Ping

The sun isn’t up yet. I left.

When I left, the ferry crossing was pitch black. No one saw me off, but for a few flakes of snow that landed in my eyes.

When I reminisced, they rolled down my cheeks.

The night was dark. So dark I couldn’t remember the city ablaze.

I sought enlightenment my whole life—I flaunted my supposed brilliance, but despite it all, I illuminated not a single thing.

Thank you, all who braved wind and snow to call on me! Thank you to those who forewent sleep and, as one might watch over family, watched over me. It’s just that, there are no miracles on this earth.

I used to be unimportant. But one day I was entrusted by God to pass on his words.

I only said it softly, but someone urged me to not disturb the peace. They said: Can’t you see, the city is bustling, it’s peaking with splendor!

So to let the world continue to believe, I held my tongue. I even used scarlet fingerprints to pledge—everything I said was a fairy tale. Something so absurd could not befall mankind.

And so, the people continued in their clamor, none the wiser that this tragedy would soon seal the city gates.

In his wrath, God turned ashen the mountains and rivers.

I fell ill.

Then, my whole family fell ill.

Like tens of millions of snowflakes, one by one, we drifted and fell.

I used to think that, just as soon as spring came and warmth returned to the river, I might see my family again. When the time came, we would sit in the golden rapeseed fields, counting each and every flower, dragging out minutes of our lives into seconds.

I bided my time, but all that arrived was snow in the night. God patted me on the head and said tenderly: Be good. Come now.

Mankind isn’t worth it.

Upon hearing this, I burst into tears.

Yes, life was bitter cold and God was warmth, but I feared that once I crossed that mortal ambit and turned to look back on my home, I’d never again set eyes on my family, with all its young and old.

But, my integrity had already been struck down, slapped onto a certificate. I kept on living in the sunshine, admiring pines and cypresses and singing life’s praises—it’s because I loved this land too deeply.

And today, my flesh has also died.

Before I became a grain of dust, I thought once more of the black soil and white clouds of my hometown. How I wanted to go back to childhood when the winds fluttered as they pleased and the snow was white and flawless.

To live is wonderful. But I’m dead.

I’ll never again stroke the faces of my loved ones, never again get to take my child to watch the sunrise by East Lake in the spring, go with my parents to see cherry blossoms at Wuhan University, or place a kite deep among the clouds.

I thought I had dreamt of my unborn child. Upon birth (s)he had eyes full of hot tears, searching for me among a sea of people.

I’m sorry, kid.

I know you only wanted an ordinary father.

But I became an ordinary hero.

The sun is almost up. I have to go. My pledge is in hand, it’s the only thing I carry from this life.

Thank you, all those that understood me, pitied me, loved me. I know you waited for me at daybreak, for me to overcome this bluff. But I am too tired.

In this life, I didn’t care to be grandiose. I wasn’t afraid to be unimportant. My only wish is that when the ice and snow have melted, that people still love this earth, that they still believe in this country.

If when spring’s thunder rolls in, someone still wishes to remember me, please, erect a little tombstone. Nothing imposing; just proof that I was once a part of this world, with a name, ignorant and fearless.

My epitaph only needs one phrase:

He spoke up once for people.