The Doctor Who Was Followed by Ghosts: The Family Saga of a Chinese Woman Doctor.


296 pages
Contains Photos
ISBN 978-1-55022-781-9
DDC 610.69'5092





Reviewed by Gary Watson

Gary Watson is a former lecturer in Chinese studies at Queen’s University and is now a multimedia developer in Mississauga.


The old Chinese curse that wishes a life to be lived in “interesting times” weighed heavily on Dr. Li Qunying—a stalwart physician whose memoir covers her life during almost 50 years of Chinese revolutionary history. Li came of age politically during the Chinese Civil War that brought Mao and the CCP to power in 1949 and joined the Eighth Route Army (later the Red Army) near the end of the war. Her ambition to work as a doctor quickly led to greater responsibilities beyond her initial work as a clerk in an army hospital. Her descriptions of frontline service during the Korean War offer a rare glimpse of the squalor and neglect Chinese volunteer troops endured, much of it the result of selfishness of ranking officers who bungled transport and horded scarce medical supplies.


Qunying gives ground-level impressions of political tempests and mass movements launched by the CCP, including first-hand experiences of the famines caused by the Great Leap Forward (1958–61) that took millions of lives including one of her children. By far the harshest time of her life came in the Cultural Revolution years, when Red Guard extremism and political persecution cost her a job and drove her husband, a Red Army officer, into despair that likely hastened his death in the 1980s. A tough-minded survivor, Li worked as a barefoot doctor, even though she believed the government’s medical services were sub-par, especially in rural areas. Her beleaguered husband was finally cleared of false accusations of corruption in 1973, but received no compensation or apology. Li carried on with county-level medical service till her retirement in the late 1980s.


Like many other Chinese memoirs of the past decade, Li’s shows how everything in post-1949 China was compromised by politics. No act was without larger—and often dangerous—implications. Li details the brutal social calculus of Chinese life under Mao, where one person’s well-being depended on another’s suffering. Standing up to the state, although brave and principled, was usually a recipe for disaster. Most simply bowed to Party authority rather than risk everything. Li Qunying did not.


Qunying, Li, and Louis Han., “The Doctor Who Was Followed by Ghosts: The Family Saga of a Chinese Woman Doctor.,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 17, 2024,