“Walking a Tightrope: Memories of Wu Jieping, Personal Physician to China’s Leaders” is a new book by Olivia Cox-Fill about Wu Jieping, a physician who served China’s leaders for over seventy years. Olivia interviewed Wu Jieping extensively over the course of three years and subsequently wrote his memoir that provides revealing glimpses of the formation of modern China and the will it took to survive during Cultural Revolution; a time period when most noted intellectuals were expelled to the countryside, imprisoned, or beaten to death.
Olivia Cox-Fill got to know Wu Jieping following the death of leader Zhou En-Lai, a time period in which notorious dictator’s Mao’s wife was still in prison. As the appointed doctor to the leading classes, Wu Jieping provided medical assistance to everyone from Premier Zhou En-Lai, Chairman Mao, Liu Shao Chi and Madame Mao. Yet while Dr. Wu Jieping cooperated publicly, he privately rebelled against the establishment and strongly supported the increasingly open and democratic changes made in Chinese rule between the years of 1949 and 1999. Today China is a country that prides itself on improving prosperity, which is considered a way to show devotion to the motherland. Yet they also have security measure protocols in place that ensure a loss of liberty for the vast majority of citizens. Wu Jieping discussed these topics in depth with Olivia Cox-Fill and she recently discussed her book via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for the writing and why do you gravitate towards memoirs?
Olivia Cox-Fill (OC): In the absence of a counsellor growing up, I got in the habit of writing out my problems and trying to find answers, writing has always helped my peace of mind. I can relate better to memoirs and biographies than to fiction.
MM: What is your connection with China and how exactly did you meet doctor Wu Jieping?
OC: From reading my first book about China, I was hooked by its culture and history. That first book was “Moment in Peking” by Lin Yudang. I had a business interest in China very early on and through my visits, I discovered the appalling state of its health care. My husband and I set up a foundation to help, through which we met Dr. Wu, who was at that time, President of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science.
MM: How did you and Wu Jieping become friends and when did you decide that his life story would be an excellent topic for a book?
OC: We became friends because of the foundation and our genuine interest in helping China. At one time, he repeated a story about Madame Mao. In so doing, it became clear that he wanted to tell his story and when I suggested writing his biography, he readily agreed.
MM: Was it tough to convince Wu Jieping to tell you all his stories?
OC: It was not difficult, but I did feel a certain diffidence at times.
MM: How did he feel about being the subject of a memoir?
OC: When we were doing the interviews, he was very relaxed and knew precisely what he wanted to say; but afterwards, when he saw the memoir, he was anxious and asked me not to publish it until he died.
MM: What were some of the most shocking and memorable stories he told you?
OC: There were stories about the withholding of medicines for Premier Zhou Enlai. Stories about Madame Mao, aka Jiang Qing’s attempt to seize power and her tricks to get rid of the Premier in order to succeed.
MM: You interviewed him over three years, so how did you decide which of his many incredible stories to include in the book?
OC: My initial manuscript had many more pages, but I decided to concentrate the memoir on the 1960’s and 70’s which was probably the darkest time in Chinese history.
MM: How did Wu Jieping feel about modern China compared to the one he grew up in?
OC: He was grateful to have access to modern medicines, antibiotics, etc., but greatly disappointed that they were being denied to the Chinese people because of mindless government policy.
MM: How did you find a publisher and how have you been marketing this book?
OC: Because mainland Chinese publishers had asked to publish it and requested endless changes, I finally realized they were using stalling tactics and had taken a very negative view of the book. Neither Taiwan nor Hong Kong publishers dared to publish it because they told me, “The criticism of the Chinese Communist Party might get them shut down” or prevent their collaboration on other books.
MM: What do you hope audiences take away from the book and remember most about this memoir?
OC: I hope the readers of “Walking a Tightrope” will see that, despite the threats and fear instilled into all Chinese in the 1960’s and 1970’s Dr. Wu honored his Hippocratic Oath and dispensed the best care even to those who undermined him and lied to and about him. By entrusting his story to me, he further honored that oath by revealing a sickness at the core of the Chinese leadership. This is a story from the very heart of Chinese leadership; a tale of lies, corruption and mis-management of the Chinese medical system. Dr Wu Jieping felt this story must be told, but could not be told while he was living as it would have resulted in his death sentence. At this time, Dr Wu was a Vice Chairman of the National People’s Congress. one of the highest organs of state power in China. He therefore entrusted it to the only person he felt would use it correctly, as he had wished.
MM: What other books have you written, what are they about, and what themes might you like to address in future books?
OC: My other published books, one in the US, “For Our Daughters” and one in China, “Nan Ren Neng Zuo de; Nu Ren Zuo de Geng Hao” have been about women who have succeeded in what would be regarded as a man’s career, receiving comparable status and remuneration while raising their children, without divorcing or murdering their husbands. I have written a couple of historical novels about girls growing up in China and would like to publish these.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?
OC: Next project should be writing a memoir of my life while I resided in Beijing as it transitioned from Communism to Capitalism 2006-2011.