As the COVID-19 pandemic approached the 1-year mark I became interested in the history of Wuhan China, particularly from a medical standpoint. For more of this historical reflection in detail feel free to refer to my post “Lessons from Wuhan’s Past and Present“. As part of this effort, I came across the work Walking a Tightrope: Memories of Wu Jieping, personal physician to China’s leaders. The book explores the long and eventful life of Dr. Wu Jeiping as he lives through the Chinese Republican era, the Shanghai decade, the Japanese occupation and the first several decades of the Communist era. With regards to this latter timespan, he offers a unique perspective given his eponymous role as personal physician to Jiang Qing, the wife of Chairman Mao, as well as several other early communist leaders.
In Walking a Tightrope, we are exposed to a number of narratives that I have rarely seen considered in explorations of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the cultural revolution. The first of these is how conventional allopathic medicine functioned in this era. Often when considering mid-20th century China, a conception of the organized medical establishment collapsing and being replaced with community health workers and “barefoot” doctors is envisioned. In Dr. Jeiping’s life we see that, while hardly free from challenges, medical infrastructure did persist. Part of the reason for the misconception is in fact addressed, as despite his several remarkable surgical innovations, Dr. Jeiping was limited in being able to publish largely only in China and the USSR, limiting global comprehension of Chinese innovation. Another fascinating aspect I had not previously been aware of was how China deployed its most expert physicians to foster international relationships. Dr. Jeiping was, for example, responsible for performing surgery on Indonesian president Sukarno; a duty which had him out of the country and out of the loop when his wife suffered a debilitating stroke. Beyond these similar strokes to our conceptions of modern allopathic medicine, we are also faced with the unique pressures of being an intellectual during the cultural revolution, when one’s education singled one out as an enemy of the revolution. Here, while he has to undergo the standard verbal abuse, Jeiping’s closeness with his students and personal incorruptibility protect him from the worst abuses of the red guard, a fate that friends and even his own father cannot escape.
Beyond the beats of the narrative, interesting from a medical historians’ perspective, the work is also a fascinating exploration of how one comes to embrace a system also entirely designed in contrast to your upbringing and identity and the long-standing consequences this can yield. Dr. Jeiping, despite being raised as the son of a factory owner and having trained both at elite Chinese institutions and the University of Chicago, is determined to adhere to the egalitarianism of communist rhetoric. He even tried to diminish his own achievements as individual excellence to feed the collective. So deeply rooted was this impulse that he took no steps to assist his children through his connections and status. Consequently, now, while his biological children live in obscurity, his step-daughter has obscured her origins to present herself as wholly his daughter and taken over the foundation that bears his name. The cognitive dissonance needed to silence his concerns and doubts also had a profound psychological impact on the doctor as well.
Walking a Tightrope is an informative and beautifully written look into some of the most pivotal events of the 20th century as China moved from its century of humiliation to the one of dominance it now appears to be moving towards. For any person interested in East Asian or medical history or even simply in human drama this book is a worthwhile read.