In faraway Wuhan, the springtime has clothed the banks of the Han River in green. But it is a springtime that many people will not see. It is a springtime when the dying could not receive a last kiss from their loved ones. A springtime that passed thirteen million Wuhanese by.
While my heart has been in Wuhan, I have been in Berlin, in self-imposed captivity behind the iron railings of my courtyard. I too have missed the coming of spring. The wildflowers are already out, most recently the forget-me-nots, a swathe of tiny blue flowers, tranquil, a touch melancholy, as if well aware that “forget me not” is a vain hope, given how fickle and forgetful we humans are. How could we not forget? If our people cultivated a good memory, good enough to remember past catastrophes, our memory storage disks would long since have burst.
For my family, this is our third week of confinement. I feel that we’re all in this together, with the people of Wuhan, and Hubei, and my self-isolating friends and compatriots scattered around the world, and with the Wuhan blogger Fang Fang too. Last Saturday, at the Olympic Stadium half a kilometre from our home, there was the usual rowdy football match. I watched from behind the railings as hordes of Berliners clad in their supporters’ shirts swept along the street, shouting and laughing and discarding beer bottles and empty crisp packets, along with their usual good manners. But no one minds―especially as this turns out to have been their last outing until the autumn. All public events have since been cancelled in Berlin. I feel sorry for them. The Germans are so reserved and quiet that it is only at times like these that they can really let off steam.
At the end of December last year, a friend in China sent me the first news of coronavirus, in the form of a screenshot of a doctor warning some young nurses about it. I passed the news on to my Wuhanese girlfriend in Berlin, because her mother and siblings are still in Wuhan. However I suspect that she may not have relayed my fears to her family immediately. Whenever anything bad happens, the Chinese instinctively cover it up. We’ve all been guilty of it, you, me, everyone… No one wants to be the bringer of bad tidings. This is sometimes out of kindness, but also because we want to steer clear of trouble. The recipients of bad news react with fear, panic, grief, even hysteria, and it’s all extremely tiresome for the messenger. The only people willing to speak out are those whose sense of responsibility is stronger than their desire to avoid trouble. But still there is something about our propensity to cover up that continues to puzzle me.
Let’s cover up the bad news, so we don’t spoil a nice dinner. Let’s celebrate the New Year and talk about it afterwards. Why not let everyone have a good time, let’s leave them in blissful ignorance. All in good time. If we hide bad things for long enough, then maybe they’ll go away. Big problems will get smaller. So let’s carry on covering up. But this virus is only three microns, and fiendishly fast, you can’t cover it up by slapping your hand down on it, it’ll simply slip out from underneath. All those people who have died from the cover-up are telling us by their deaths that the truth simply cannot be covered up.
When Dr. Li Wenliang, the coronavirus whistle-blower, was dying, my Wuhan girlfriend put me in touch with her friends and I was able to follow his last hours. During those hours, I sent up silent prayers for the doctor. I even promised that if he survived, I’d give up drinking red wine, which I love. However, we later learned that even those few hours were a cover-up. Dr. Li had died long before his death was announced. The truth was hidden from people all over the world who were angry at the injustice he had suffered. It was hidden from his mother, his son, from his beloved wife and the baby she will carry in her womb for another few months. When, next spring or early summer, that child says his or her first words, one of them should have been “Papa!” But not now. Dr. Li’s mother, the baby’s grandmother, was devastated at the thought. “What will I tell our baby?” she wailed. The head of the hospital not only covered up the actual time of Dr. Li’s death, he ordered that Dr. Li’s heart be kept going with a resuscitation machine, pumping his chest for hours and hours, even though he knew it was useless. Just imagine what that pressure on his chest did to his ribs? Ribs are not made of reinforced concrete! Dr. Li’s were shattered in a vain attempt to revive a heart that had long gone cold. First death, then mutilation. Clearly, the hospital authorities were seriously worried. They feared their wrath of the authorities, and losing their jobs, and they feared being slammed by public opinion. And indeed, during those two days, the Chinese people swore that they would never forget the whistle-blower Li Wenliang. But how long will their memories last? Will they still remember when the forget-me-nots are over?
Doctor Li was treated abominably before he died. He was wronged at every turn: first by his bosses, then by the police, and finally when the rebuke handed out to him was aired on national TV. However, his death demonstrated to all those who wronged him that he had spoken nothing but the truth. And that is a very painful fact to acknowledge. He only spoke out for our own good, but we have become a people who no longer care about the truth. After his death, the people of Wuhan and all over China blew whistles as a tribute to him, and to set their own souls free. Li Wenliang was a very ordinary man. He loved his wife and his child, and he loved his food. When the ban on having a second child was lifted, he was delighted, just like many other fathers, that finally, they could give his son a playmate. And yet there is something saintly about his death: he gave his life so that others could live. The martyrdom of saints both inspires us, and redeems our sins. And there have been a multitude of sins. Countless people have lost their lives, countless families have been destroyed. From the top to the very bottom of society, an awful lot of people did things that were very wrong, one wrongdoing compounded by another. People were sealed into their homes. A toddler starved to death. A family group playing cards to while away the time was brutally dispersed, and each of them beaten up. Will we forget all this? Who knows?
I find it hard to imagine what it is like to die of pneumonia myself, but doctors and nurses have talked of the cries for help from critically ill patients. “Help me, doctor, help me!” Their description reminds me of how my ex-mother-in-law and my father died. Both were in their eighties, their hearts were failing, and so their lungs were failing too. I remember my ex-mother-in-law crying to her daughter for help. At the time, her blood oxygen level must have been below 60. That’s like someone drowning and unable to call for help from those on the shore. But pneumonia is much worse. Drowning only lasts a minute or two, whereas patients with this kind of pneumonia can suffocate for days on end, and every second is agony. They feel like they are being strangled, smothered, choked. Every breath is a gigantic struggle. It is too horrible to think about. I try to banish the image from my mind but it keeps coming back: my father’s face under the oxygen mask, his mouth gaping wide, as he struggled mightily to take in air. But no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get oxygen into his lungs. He was a pitiful sight, gasping like a stranded fish. In the end, he died when his brain was starved of oxygen. The process was pure torture. It lasted for a day and night, during which he slowly suffocated, as the invisible noose around his neck tightened. I could turn the clock back, if I had a choice, I would want my father to have his life shortened by a day rather than endure the last twenty-four hours in which he slowly decayed from a human being into a fish. True, he was going to die, but I wish I could have spared him this slow suffocation, one which I am quite sure was also inflicted on all the patients who died in Wuhan, Dr. Li Wenliang included.
Worse still, the coronavirus victims dying in agony had no one with them, not a single familiar face to give them courage, to say how much they would be missed in this life, to hold their hand and warm it one last time. They died completely alone, unreconciled, and terrified, and were shoved into a body bag. The most precious promise that can be given to someone in their dying moments is, Go, we love you and we will never forget you. And this promise was denied to the dead of Wuhan.
Dr. Li Wenliang did not die surrounded by his weeping mother, wife and children. However, his last words were recorded on his Weibo account, and this has given him new life in another dimension. People don’t want to forget him, they want him to live on in their imagination. As the blogger Fang Fang said, his account has become China’s wailing wall. I checked the messages people have left for Dr. Li; they talk about everything, bits and bobs about this and that, about food and about love, just as if Dr. Li was their counsellor, or a friendly next-door neighbour. Many of them say they will never forget Dr. Li. I sincerely hope that this invisible wailing wall is never taken down. May it stay with the survivors, and may they truly never forget.
I live in Berlin, a city that refuses to forget. Many streets are paved with Stolpersteine stones, brass plaques interspersed among the cobblestones, engraved with the words “Such-and-such a Jew (or their family) was taken away from such-and-such building on this street ...” The plaques also say where these Jews were taken, most of them to concentration camps, where they died. Flatowallee, a street leading to the main entrance of the Olympic Stadium, and not far from my home, is named after two Jewish athletes, Alfred and Gustav Felix Flatow. They were cousins, and took part in the Athens Olympics where they won gold for Germany, but were deported and died in Theresienstadt. According to our old next-door neighbour, the first person to own my house was also a Jew, but no one came to claim it back after the war. It was subsequently taken into state ownership, then auctioned and returned to private hands. My house dates from 1922, and is a fine, solid-looking building. It was no doubt designed to last for generations, but none of the family survived. No one has ever found a trace of even a distant relative. The library of Humboldt University in Germany once had all its books burned by the Nazis. Those bookshelves are now left empty, so that the outrage should never be forgotten. This is one way in which the Germans have repaid their debts to the Jews and humanity. It is of course painful to keep these memories alive, but if they do not, they will not be able to preserve their sense of national shame. Honour and shame are two sides of the same coin. One does not exist without the other. The German people would rather suffer than lose their honour. They believe that only by remembering their shame can they prevent it from happening again.
After Li Wenliang died, another whistle blower, Dr. Ai Fen emerged. Dr. Ai has said that she regrets not having blown her whistle more loudly. Perhaps if she had, she says, the situation would not have deteriorated the way it did. Dr. Ai is a brave woman, a true hero. That’s the way the Wuhanese are. To suffer in silence is noble, but heroism is even nobler. Wuhan is full of such heroes, always ready to shout, “Fake!” when they spot a fake. Now they are suffering the consequences of the coronavirus cover-up. In the past, catastrophes have been hidden from future generations, but we are perpetrating the cover-up on ourselves. It’s preposterous. As a result, only seventeen years after the SARS epidemic, the Chinese people are having to battle with Covid19. If you cover something up, you can avoid holding anyone accountable, which would mean blaming those who covered it up. And yet how can we expect to remember if we do not hold anyone accountable? What are we remembering if we do not get to the core of the tragedy? We have become an amnesiac people. The Nanjing Massacre, the Three Years of Famine, and the Cultural Revolution, we do everything in our power to hide them from ourselves. Bringing things out into the open is regarded as negative. We don’t bother with distinguishing right from wrong, we don’t bear grudges, and we present this as a sign of how tolerant we are, as a people, and how ready to forgive. But we are also a people who cover things up. We cannot conceal the truth from the next generation of Chinese people. We owe them an honest explanation, we need to tell them why Doctor Li Wenliang was publically disgraced and how he died, why so many innocent people from Wuhan and Hubei, and the rest of the country, were locked down, left to die, and tossed into coffins. We cannot cover up the figure of one hundred and seventy deaths yesterday in Italy. We must ask ourselves, why are we covering up for those who have harmed us? Why are we covering up their shame? Many times throughout history, we should have made them acknowledge their shame and apologize to the people whose deaths they caused. But we let it drop. These tragedies always come to an end with no real conclusion. And not long afterwards, they are re-enacted. The plot is plagiarised. The cover-up continues.
The reason our people suffer is because for two thousand years we have never given ourselves time to grieve. To paraphrase the Tang dynasty poet Du Mu, we have left it to those who come after to grieve, and when those who come after grieve but do not reflect, then their successors will grieve in their turn. I wonder if Du Mu also foresaw a society which suffers from enforced amnesia, with fewer and fewer descendants willing to grieve for the suffering of their parents’ generation.
Published with special permission from Geling Yan and Peony Literary Agency. All rights reserved.
For the title of this piece, Yan Geling has taken the last line of the poem by Tang Wan 唐婉, 1130-1156, in which she laments to her ex-husband that they have to hide their love. For the tragic love story of Tang Wang and Lu You, see Brigitte Duzan’s article here.*