New Voices: “Work, First” by Catherine Kim

May 13, 2024

In “Work, First” Catherine Kim imagines the life of Tu Youyou, a Chinese scientist who discovered a cure for malaria through her research during the Cultural Revolution, and Youyou’s relationships with her husband and her children. Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for her research and was the first female Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize in any category.


I. Ningbo.

Youyou is ten when she, her four brothers, and her parents move into her grandparents’ home. Ningbo has fallen to the Japanese, and the families cannot afford to live apart. Despite the troubles, her parents insist that Youyou continue school.

The decision seems strange. As strange as their decision to educate a girl in the first place.

You are so noisy, they tell her. We need our peace.

Youyou intuits that this is not the reason. It is true that her brothers squabble at meals and wrestle everywhere, even on the flat paving stones in the courtyard. Their snores permeate the thin paper screens separating the rooms. But Youyou herself is the quietest of children.

In warm weather, she sketches the maple leafing over the compound’s entrance. She proudly shows the drawings to her mother, who grunts approvingly. Or she displays them to her father, who scrutinizes each as carefully as a legal document. I like this, he says, pointing to the branches’ baroque diagonals with the tip of his pencil.

In cold weather, her mother bundles Youyou in her brothers’ cast-off jackets. Youyou resembles a fat gray dumpling. Movement is difficult. However, she can read. For hours, she sits on the heated floor. Solemnly, she turns the pages of her book of fairy tales.

Innocent carp fall prey to cormorants and only escape after filling their barrel with tears. An arrogant stone statue disintegrates, its fragments assembled into a humble road. A kindly but powerless scarecrow bears witness to suffering.

Reluctantly, Youyou attends her new school. Its location requires that she and her brothers traverse the city’s wide avenues. Each morning and afternoon, the children hurry past people fleeing from the northern cities and western countryside. Refugees, with dust-streaked clothing and gaunt cheeks.

After Youyou is delivered within the school’s gray brick walls, the hubbub of other children surrounds her. Boys like her brothers, who shout and jostle. At lunchtime, they snatch grains of rice with their chopsticks. On the playground, they charge at each other as they Force the City Gates. They whoop in triumph when they topple their enemies to the ground. They chase each other during Cat and Mouse, until the mouse is eaten or the cat pants with exhaustion.

The few schoolgirls sometimes play these games, but they prefer to enact operas ending in marriage, or death. Dramatically, they contort their bodies in throes of ecstasy, or pain.

None of this appeals to Youyou, who prefers to read in the playground corner. After several weeks, the other students no longer bother to greet her. They look past her, deliberately, then habitually.

Youyou does not mind this, exactly; she is both lonely and relieved.

The school is the best in the city, with subjects she has never studied before. The other students groan when presented with the miniscule distinctions of botany. But Youyou thrills to the elaborate taxonomy of plants. Monocotyledon, stigma, style, anther, filament. The classification is ordered and contained, much like herself.

The library contains leather-bound books. Youyou pours over the Illustrated Book of Trees. She inspects the feathery leaves of the dawn redwoods, the handkerchief flowers of the dove trees, and the five-meter spans of the monkey tree ferns. When she is not thinking about the quiet precision of plants, she dutifully studies chemistry and perfects her calligraphy. Her teacher circles her well-written characters in approving red ink.

When Youyou falls ill, her parents insist that her brothers bring her homework from school. As Youyou lies on her thin pallet, a fine sheen of sweat on her forehead, her mother reads the assignments aloud. When Youyou can concentrate through her fever, she responds. Her mother pauses only when Youyou coughs. She covers her mouth to contain the fine sprays of blood.

What’s the point? her brothers ask. She’s too sick to learn, anyway.

Her father snorts. No one is too sick to learn.

The pungent aroma of medicinal herbs fills the compound. Several concoctions have the funk of her brothers’ unwashed socks, while others have the sour reek of cat urine. Youyou especially detests the sulfurous black tar that coats her mouth and throat and oozes from her pores for hours.

She does not understand how her mother manages to find the plants. After the fighting began, the starving devoured the weeds that previously flourished on the roadsides and in drainage ditches. Even after the war’s end, medicine is still scarce. At the apothecaries, the glass jars stand emptied of their contents.

She daydreams about health as it recedes from memory. She can just remember crossing the courtyard without stopping for breath, or speaking a full sentence without coughing. Each minute of her life has begun to feel interchangeable with the next, as if each moment was uncoupled from the previous one. She feels herself diminish, even as her brothers’ cheery laughter fills the compound with life.

The fevers loosen Youyou’s tongue. She asks her mother questions that she has never asked before.

Am I going to die?

Her mother scoffs. We’re all going to die, someday. But we have wasted too much money on your education for you to die now.

She spoons the bitter broth into Youyou’s mouth. To avoid gagging, Youyou holds her breath as she swallows.

A year elapses before Youyou is well enough to return. Her previous classmates have advanced to higher grades or graduated. New faces surround her. Their chatter, jokes, spats, and games envelop her, once again.

Yet Youyou discovers that the commotion no longer disturbs her. She even welcomes the human noise, which propels time forward. At some point, in her absence, she has come to accept school and work for the acts of faith they are. The importance of routine, even as the world falls apart.


II. Beijing, Part 1.

Youyou applies to Peking University. When she is accepted, misgivings immediately follow her joy. The journey from Ningbo to Beijing takes over a week. Even the main roads are dirt and prone to washing out in the spring rains. The railways have been dismantled in the fighting between nationalists and communists. If she attends Peking, years will pass before she can see her parents again.

Of course you will go, her mother says, as if reading her thoughts. What good is it for you to stay here, just to stare at our old faces?

It will have a library, her father points out.

The university does have a library. Surrounded by books, and scrolls, and soft murmuring, Youyou feels more kinship here than at other gatherings, where students passionately discuss the evils of capitalism. Her more vocal comrades select new offerings such as metallurgy and western medicine. They study public health, economics, law, and politics. All essential fields for modern China, finally freed from its feudal past.

Like the libraries, the laboratories have a hushed intensity. Youyou is comforted by the quiet and dazzled by the microscopes, the chromatographs and multi-colored reagents. The glassware is spherical, or coiled, or perfectly flat, the better to distill or condense or measure. As if performing a magic trick, her phytochemistry teacher neatly separates an herbal tincture into several components. Youyou recognizes the harsh odor of the broth she was forced to drink as a child.

Professor Lou grew up in the north, in Anji county. He waxes rhapsodically about the bamboo and waterfalls which cover the hills. He has recently returned from London, where he developed bioassays for botanical extracts. Like other patriots, he has declined generous salaries overseas in order to build a new China.

Over the low whirr of the centrifuge, he reminisces about his time in England. Although he labored over his experiments, he also attended the cinema. He became especially fond of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. Lou has implemented a mid-afternoon pause for snacks, which he says the English call tea. He tells her of the acres of gardens there, painstakingly cultivated to appear semi-wild.

When she graduates, he advises her, You should experience life. A little creativity can stimulate research.

Youyou knows that experiencing life means time away from the laboratory, which means trips to the cinema, or parks, or the other places where people enjoy congregating. But overseas movies have been replaced with fervid exhortations of sacrifice for the party. The villains are often families like hers. Traitorous, because uncles and aunts have fled to Taiwan or Hong Kong, or because they were capitalist bankers like her grandfather.

She enjoys the parks and takes professional interest in the botanical gardens. Like the other citizens of Beijing, she gazes at the cherry blossoms surrounding the glimmering waters of Jade Lake. But her contemplation is inevitably displaced by the low thrum of anxiety. Why stare at the flowers when another gel could be run?

Periodically, she forces herself to attend small gatherings of young people. Parties.

I study traditional Chinese herbs at the Ministry of Health, she shyly explains to the young man.

You are also from Ningbo? he exclaims, upon hearing her speak. He peers intently at her face, and she blushes.

You were the girl who sat in the playground corner!

You remember me? she asks, startled.

There were only four girls in our class, Tinzhao reminds her. And I was fourteen. He laughs. Like a young Zhou Enlai, he parts his thick hair on the side, so it sweeps across his head. After studying Russian and engineering in Beijing, he spent five years learning metallurgy from the Soviets.

I should stop smoking, he complains. He puffs his Russian cigarette with the world-weariness of a jaded diplomat. But it reminds me of Leningrad.

Fortresses built along the sea, and palaces with domes shaped like onions. Crowds of laowai, their skin pale like the flesh of a potato.

Youyou wishes she could say something interesting. For the first time, she regrets studying the pharmacology of plants.

She can only talk about her work. Mao has declared that Chinese medicine is a great treasure house. The ministry has been tasked to reveal its secrets. Youyou has traveled to gather information from traditional practitioners, then trained modern doctors in these practices.

In doing so, Youyou has endured what she likes the least: crowds. She sat patiently in trains stuffed with people, their baggage, and their livestock as the cars lurch along the newly laid tracks. Yet in this official role, her reticence dropped away. She recorded the practitioners’ experiences in her fine calligraphy. In fact, she tells Tinzhao, she has compiled a book on the subject.

As soon as she says this immodest statement, she pauses. One of the main compilers, she corrects.

Tinzhao only nods, impressed.

Given her solitary nature, Youyou never thought that courtship could be pleasurable, particularly with someone as extroverted as Tinzhao. To her surprise, he thinks she is wonderful, her preoccupation evidence of her attention to important problems. They also share a pragmatism and dislike of the strident declamations in the Beijing Daily.

They return to Ningbo, together. Youyou starts at her father’s now-grayed temples, her mother’s diminished height. But her parents’ delight overwhelms any age-related fatigue, for they had dismissed Youyou’s chances of marriage at the age of thirty-three. Joyfully, they disparage her to Tinzhao’s family, with thinly disguised pride.

She will make a terrible wife, her father says bluntly. Work, work, only work.

She cannot cook, her mother joins in. Useless at home.

Together her parents exclaim, Supposedly brilliant, but what kind of scientist loses her identity card?

Tinzhao’s parents listen carefully and respond in kind. His mother says, Better than my not-so-bright son. He learns metallurgy not in Chinese, but in Russian. Why make it so hard for yourself? I asked. He also comes back from the Soviet Union with Gogol. Did you really study engineering for five years? I asked. Or Russian poetry?

His father corrects, Not poetry. Novels. Worse, because they are longer.

Their parents shake their heads in satisfied hopelessness.

Later that evening, while celebrating with the German beer, Youyou’s father confesses to Tinzhao’s father.

I named her after a poem. My only daughter.


III. Beijing, Part 2.

As Youyou and Tinzhao lie in the dark, they whisper to avoid waking their baby. Perhaps Youyou should stay home today. She had planned to consult Professor Lou about a distillation process that has stymied her, but the campus of Peking University is no longer secure.

Youyou reasons that if she leaves early enough, she will be safe. At this hour, the youth still sleep. In the gloom, Youyou can hurry through the city without drawing their gaze. She knows that the professor has already begun to prepare the day’s experiments in his laboratory. If she meets him before the Red Guard rises, it will be all right.

Humiliation can only occur when witnessed, so the danger is in daytime. The sun illuminates the playgrounds and classrooms and lecture halls and streets. Children grasp the limbs and hair of the Stinking Old Ninth and drag the intellectuals, screaming, into the light. The degenerates are then beaten with sticks, whipped with belts, and kicked unconscious.

To avoid such displays, Youyou has become accustomed to leaving home early, then returning after dusk. She has become crepuscular and secretive, like a bourgeoisie rat.

Tinzhao is not convinced that her measures will be enough. Surely, the visit can wait until the troubles pass? He places his hand upon her swollen abdomen. Not long now.

Also: Youyou and her teacher are such obvious intellectuals. No one could mistake you for anything but.

Unlike you? With your advanced degree from Mother Russia?

Oh, I can fake it, he grins. Still lying in bed, he raises his clenched fist. See? But you are incapable of pretending.

This is China, she reminds him. There is always trouble. If I wait for peace, I’ll wait forever.

As the city stirs, Youyou threads through the twisting hutong. She joins the silent who have begun to trickle from the small apartments into the shared courtyards, and from the courtyards into the narrow passages, and the passages into the alleys, and alleys to the boulevards.

She hears the megaphone before she sees the caravan, its headlights blinding. A woman stands in the truck bed. Harsh floodlights have rubbed out her features, but a tall white paper cone sits atop her stooped head, and a placard hangs around her neck. The dunce cap and sign are covered with red lettering, which declares her crossed-out name. Below that: Cow Demon. Counter-revolutionary.

A boy, his face pimpled with acne, broadcasts the woman’s crimes. Through the bullhorn’s tinny distortion, Youyou hears his voice crack: in his zeal, the teen’s voice unintentionally travels an octave.

Behind the truck, rows of Red Guards march, their arms swinging in unison. Bright red armbands adorn their clothing, which is otherwise a motley assortment of khaki. Their chubby cheeks flush pink with exertion as they chant:

“Dare to criticize, dare to struggle,
Revolution, our declaration!
Smash the old world
Keep our state red
For ten thousand generations!”

Youyou keeps her eyes averted as the truck rolls past. The horizon has lightened, and she can see the scuffed tips of her shoes. The blood pulses in her ears.

She can return home, or go to the ministry, or continue to the university. Home is the closest, but not necessarily the safest. Other roving bands of youth could drag her family onto the street and ransack their small dwelling. The couple have parted with anything incriminatory. Her fairytale book and his Gogol have long since burned in the stove. Red-backed portraits of Mao hang on every wall. But Youyou and Tinzhao cannot burn their histories as easily. Others have been beaten and humiliated for less.

She could go to the ministry. This is the best option, if not completely safe. Tinzhao believes that Youyou’s specialization in traditional medicine has shielded her. But even the most famous practitioner has been forced to clean toilets.

The university is the most reckless choice. Although classes have not been held for months, students still roam the campus like wolves. But today, Mao speaks at one of his rallies at Tiananmen, the opposite direction from Professor Lou’s laboratory. These speeches attract Red Guards like flies to feces. She knows her old teacher has made the same calculation.

Yearning tempers her fear. She longs to see her mentor, who will advise her stalled attempts. Who will offer comforting words on how the chaos shall pass. He will speak soothingly of emerald forests, the configuration of sesquiterpene lactones that lend their bitter taste. He will prepare them green tea.

The baby kicks. Youyou takes this as a sign.

The West Gate obscures her view of the medical school’s quadrangle until she steps past it. A crowd has amassed. Youyou hesitates and tries to turn back, but students have gathered behind her and sweep her through the bottleneck.

Professor Lou kneels on the ground, next to other teachers. Their arms are stretched behind them, their necks bent with signs. Blackboards ripped from classroom walls, denunciations scrawled across them in chalk. Youyou recognizes her biology professor, the western medicine instructor, and an English professor, whose name she cannot remember. What are you doing here, she wonders at him. English, of all subjects. You never should have come to work today.

As she stands amidst the restless students, who have begun to hurl insults at the kneeling men, a woman steps forward. Red ribbon ties her hair into pigtails. Her eyes shine, in the gleeful crazed triumph that Youyou now recognizes well.

Reactionary bastards! the medical student shouts. She holds her fist aloft. In it, she grasps a snake-like object.

She lunges forward with practiced fluidity. The snake–a bicycle chain–whips across each face. Lou’s head snaps back, and his round spectacles clatter to the paving stones. The woman stomps on them. A thin red line appears on his face. Blood oozes down his cheek.

That is for making us memorize useless information, she declares. Mao says studying is useless. We will learn all we need from the people.

The people! The people! chants the crowd.

Youyou’s stomach heaves. As she doubles over, she realizes that others in the crowd regard her. Her middle-aged face attracts unwanted attention. But when the students register her pregnant belly, her stained jacket, and her indifferent haircut, they lose interest.

Clearly, this woman has no power. They return to the more exciting spectacle in front of them.

Youyou manages to push her way to the group’s edge, then scurry back through the gate.

At home, Tinzhao holds her as she trembles. They may kill him, she cries.

Her husband does not contradict her. Yes, he says. But more likely, they will send him to be re-educated in the countryside. He will dig wells and guard vegetable patches and tend pigs. Rest for now. The students roam the streets.

She wipes her eyes. She and Tinzhao discuss the possibilities dispassionately.

If Youyou is taken away or killed because of her capitalist family, Tinzhao will care for their daughter. His parents might help, but this may not be an option, because his parents are also intellectuals.

If Tinzhao is taken away or killed because of his foreign education, Youyou will care for their daughter and the baby. Her parents might help, but this may not be an option, because her parents are also capitalists.

If both of them are taken away or killed because they are intellectuals, their daughter can be placed in a boarding nursery. The little girl will learn that her parents are enemies of the state. She will denounce them. But she will live.

In the meantime, they will work quietly until the world lurches in another direction.

It is Tinzhao who leaves first, without warning. Youyou learns only after coming home to their empty apartment. Your husband, the neighbors inform her, will learn how to be a good citizen in the country. If he can scavenge enough food to stay alive.

Several say this sympathetically, for Youyou now has an infant as well as a toddler. Others gloat: Finally, they say. Why should Youyou’s family be spared the suffering that has touched them all?

Baba will come home soon, Youyou tells Min. He learns to be better, from the people.

But there are people in Beijing, protests Min.

People are wiser in the country, Youyou explains half-heartedly.

It is now Youyou who takes both children to the nursery. There, Min learns songs, crafted for the modern era. Grow Up to Be a Good Member of the Commune. Lin Biao and Confucius Are Both Bad Things. I love Beijing’s Tiananmen.

As Min enthusiastically belts the song’s refrain, Youyou restrains herself from wincing.


IV. Hainan, Part 1.

When Youyou is summoned to the academy, she prepares herself for the assault. She will be dignified. She will distance herself mentally. As her body suffers, she will protect her mind.

Instead of the violence she expects, she is led to the director’s laboratory and introduced to a group of men, who have the self-assurance of the powerful.

China and the U.S. have escalated the war in Vietnam, they explain. Over half of the troops are infected with drug-resistant malaria. Thousands of compounds have been tested, but none are effective.

We have arranged a laboratory due east of Vietnam. Hainan Island is the southernmost part of China. In the tropics. A very beautiful place, although overrun with mosquitoes. Anopheles.

We have heard many favorable reports about you, Tu Youyou. Your work ethic, your unique expertise in traditional medicine and pharmacology. We will overlook your undesirable qualities, such as your family. You will lead a team of scientists to find a cure. You accept this charge?

Several moments pass before Youyou comprehends. So she is not going to be beaten, or re-educated.

Of course, she replies. For China.

Her new baby is allowed to live with her parents, and Min boards at the nursery. Youyou and the other Beijing scientists travel south. For secrecy, the research facility is set deep in the rainforest. This is it? the scientists ask her as they eye the dilapidated building, a repurposed house.

Practical, comments Youyou drily. She tries to sound confident, like a project leader. We can live in it and conduct experiments in it as well. No commute.

The scientists inventory the equipment and reagents, leftovers scavenged from cities further north. It’s worse than before the war, they frown. Better suited for an apothecary than a modern laboratory. Only the simplest of glassware. Household water vats for the toxic chemicals. No ventilation system for the fumes. How are we supposed to distill and condense and extract?

Each day we are here, Youyou reminds them, is an extra day of life.

Not only an extra day of life, but an extra day in a laboratory, conducting science. Youyou claims the counter nearest the sink to screen the medicinal herbs, while Yagang sets up under the window to test the mineral sources. Linfu commandeers the former living room for his parasite-infected rats, whose musk and urine soon permeate the building. To ventilate, the scientists open the windows and cover them with nets.

They use water, alcohol, and ether to extract the active ingredients. After each chemical is painstakingly isolated, Linfu injects each rat. There now, he soothes the wriggling creature. This will be the one. A day later, he samples their blood and scans it under the microscope; do parasites swarm?

Her team can test two compounds a week. More, if they labor twelve hours per day. Without success, the Americans have already tested over two-hundred thousand compounds. We can do that, Yagang says cheerfully. If we work for two thousand years.

Youyou pours over her compendium and selects the substances which contain the most promise. Six-hundred forty prescriptions. Six years, if they are unlucky. The list includes the remedies most often endorsed by the ancients: pepper, chili, alum, mugwort, sagebrush, tarragon, wormwood varieties. She nails the testing schedule to the dining room wall, its paint bubbling in the humidity.

In the poorly ventilated laboratory, the ether softens their gums and poisons their livers. Over the ensuing months, then years, Youyou loses her teeth. The whites of her eyes turn the yellow of wormwood flowers, which cover the hillsides in weedy abundance.

Perhaps out of pity, Zhou Enlai himself sends encouraging telegrams, although no extra funds. Incredible progress, he says. Keep up the good work.

The ministry sends dentures.


V. Hainan, Part 2.

Despite the conditions, the scientists work relentlessly. Gray streaks appear in Youyou’s hair. Rat bites pock Linfu’s hands. Yagang’s shoulders stoop from the hours at the bench. An urgency informs all of their efforts, an urgency informed by deprivation. Each day is an extra day of life, but also an extra day away from home. Time away from the familiar surroundings of the city, the dry air of the northern climate. Time away from their families.

In the evenings, on the scuffed dining room table, Youyou writes letters to Tinzhao and Min. This proves almost more challenging than her experiments. She can ask questions, but her questions must be innocuous. What can they say that a censor would not redact? What will a responsible teacher read aloud?

Youyou cannot tell them about her work, long the main focus of her concentration. Since her posting is secret, she also cannot tell them of Hainan. The monsoons that sweep across the forest, rattling the broad palms like the hail of gunfire. The screeches of monkeys, high in the trees. The liana that twists emerald around the trunks. The earthy aroma of the decaying forest floor, the chilly mists that drift through the open windows after dark.

Instead, she can only talk about how she loves them. This feels maudlin and forced, but there is nothing else to say, and it seems important to say something. I think of you all of the time, she writes. Your smile, your laugh. One day feels like three autumns long. But then she crosses this out, the poetry likely too reactionary for the censors.

Instead, she writes: I saw somebody today, and I was reminded of you.

During her bout of chemical hepatitis, Youyou pauses to allow her liver to recover. She has already read extensively about malaria’s symptoms, but she visits the island’s clinics to observe the patients directly. The babies have the most rapid declines. At first, they wail irritably. As the parasites multiply in their brains, their small bodies shudder, then convulse with fever.

The first time she observes this, Youyou steps outside. The early morning sun shines brightly upon the small clearing in front of the white-washed building. Jewel-colored birds flit through the trees like moving ornaments. The partridges call cheerfully to one another.

She stands in the sunshine, until the baby’s mother stops shrieking inside.

I saw somebody today, and I was reminded of you.

Youyou is particularly discouraged at the failure of sweet wormwood, which the ancient texts promote enthusiastically for intermittent fever. But the qinghao extracts perform poorly against the malaria plasmodia. The rats, like the babies, die while convulsing.

Disconsolately, she flips through the classic books, their edges ragged with perusal. The Synopsis of Prescriptions from the Golden Chamber. The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor. The Malignant Malaria Guide. Prescription for Universal Relief: Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve. All useless.

Unless. Youyou stares again at the spidery characters of Preparations for Malarial Fever, which do not mention a steaming tea. Rather, a tepid brew, after an overnight soak. Unusual.

Youyou prepares the qinghao again, without heat. Linfu injects the rat. Unlike its predecessors, the creature scampers happily around its cage. It squeals vigorously as Linfu withdraws its blood. They take turns peering through the microscope’s eyepiece.

The plasmodium has disappeared.

Three years have passed since she arrived in Hainan.

Youyou will be able to see her family again. Her mother and father, who were already frail when she departed. Tinzhao, who has been released from hard labor and awaits her in Beijing. Her daughters.

Jun will not remember her. But Min may. Youyou hopes that her teacher has allowed Min to see her mother’s photograph. Youyou hopes that the teacher has read her letters aloud. Min may not remember the details of face or even the inflections of her voice, but perhaps she will remember the impression of her mother. Min, who cried and clung to Youyou like a monkey when they parted.

When Youyou returns from Hainan, her daughters don’t recognize her. Jun encircles her grandmother’s neck with her chubby arms and buries her face in the old woman’s bony shoulder. Min hides behind her teacher’s baggy trousers.

Don’t you remember your mother? the teacher cajoles, shooing Min forward. During Youyou’s absence, her daughter’s cheekbones have emerged from her baby jowls. She has her father’s eyes. It is Tinzhao’s gaze which stares apprehensively at Youyou.

Youyou drops her outstretched arms. It’s all right, she says, even as something twists inside her.

Reluctantly and under duress, the little girl finally departs the boarding school with her mother. Why are you back, asks her daughter, eventually.

But what she really means is, Why did you leave?

For the briefest of moments, Youyou considers telling her daughter about the jungle. The secret laboratory containing open vats of ether and malarial rats. The importance of routine, when the world is falling apart.

Of course, Youyou does not tell her daughter about these things.

You had to be in school, she says simply. And I had to work.


VI. The Return.

During the past three years, both Youyou and Tinzhao have developed a preference for the peace of the childless. Both wife and husband have become accustomed to hours of labor followed by quiet evenings. Tinzhao makes the adjustment to small children more easily than Youyou. He likes to stroll through the hutong with the little girls, sampling rice buns.

Amazing, he tells them. To be able to eat, at will.

Although Tinzhao is more patient with their daughters’ requests for attention, Youyou tries. She forces herself to read the Little Red Book to her younger daughter. Dutifully, she edits her older daughter’s laudatory essays about Mao. She peers at their sketches of him. I like this, she says perfunctorily, pointing to the beloved chairman’s beatific smile.

Tinzhao was right; Youyou cannot lie, even to children. Perhaps her daughters suspect, for they no longer show her their sketches.

Youyou feels truly tranquil only after she crosses her laboratory’s threshold. (She does not confess this to her family.) The ministry has delegated the entire floor to her, the size of the entire facility in Hainan. Youyou now leads a team of twenty researchers, each eager to participate in the burgeoning, well-funded effort to cure malaria.

The fumigation hoods, centrifuges, and vacuums hum contentedly as Youyou’s colleagues and staff listen to the story of qinghao. Artemisinin to the laowei. Youyou relays the story in one sentence, as if it were an assignment completed in a day.

She made a list, tested the compounds, the plasmodium disappeared.

Fate, says one young woman reverently. Predicted in the Chinese Book of Odes. Deer bleat Youyou while they are eating qinghao.

My father’s favorite poem, replies Youyou. But I do not believe in fate, as a scientist.

Of course, blushes the woman.

Secretly, Youyou prefers the company of these intelligent people to her daughters. Unlike her daughters, the researchers do not announce sudden needs to defecate or collapse in tears. They do not require supervision to ensure they avoid open flames, or the streams of bicycles that careen through the streets.

Youyou has trouble concealing her exasperation at her daughters’ unpredictable nature. How did her parents have five children, she wonders. Without a cross word to any of them.

When Youyou’s parents die, her daughters gape openly at Youyou’s tears. Does their stern and stoic mother cry? Perhaps she does have feelings, after all.


VII. Work, First.

Youyou’s daughters are now mothers who clutch at their own children. The babies dig their pudgy toes into their mothers’ thighs and stomachs. Dimpled hands grasp at their glasses and hair. With a maternal joy she had forgotten, Youyou kisses her grandchildren’s chubby cheeks.

Her daughters watch her, expressionlessly. With adulthood, their faces have become guarded and inscrutable to her.

When we were small, they ask her suddenly, why did you abandon us?

The question startles Youyou. I did not abandon you, she protests.

In those days, work came first.

Work came first? persists Jun. Research is more important than your daughters?

This question is disrespectful, reprimands Tinzhao.

Min is more conciliatory. We have learned, she says, that Mao was seventy percent good, thirty percent bad. She looks hopefully at her mother.

Youyou sees her daughter’s smooth cheeks, so like the youth of the Red Guard. She could tell her children of the struggles and her fear of those times. How she dreams, even now, of the bicycle chain’s lash through the air, the vivid red streak across her teacher’s face.

Of course, she shares none of this.

She answers only, It was a thirty percent time.

After the calls come from Stockholm, then the prime minister, her daughters do help her prepare. They fuss when she tells them of her planned dress. Neat and comfortable and in dignified silver, to match her hair. Her daughters blacken her graying strands, and for the first time in years, Youyou purchases new clothing. Silks in jeweled colors, like the birds of Hainan. She wears emerald for Xi Jinping, purple and blue for the Swedes. Unexpectedly, the bright colors please her.

Tinzhao dresses in full white tie. He complains good-naturedly. Mao never would have allowed such uncomfortable clothes, he tells Youyou. Seventy-percent good.

Proudly, her daughters sit next to her on the sofa and pose for photographs. Do they forgive her for leaving? Youyou would never ask.

Reporters queue to interview her. With old age, she speaks more freely, with an expansiveness that eluded her as a young woman. After all, what can anyone do to her now?

I had to leave my children, she tells the reporters. Three years later, my younger daughter couldn’t recognize me. My elder daughter hid behind her teacher.

In those times, work came first.

To herself, she muses, what is forgiveness, anyway?

If it is understanding without bitterness, perhaps it is impossible.

Author’s note: In 2015, Tu Youyou won the Nobel Prize for discovering that artemisinin, derived from sweet wormwood, could effectively treat malaria. She did so during the Cultural Revolution, after her husband was sent for re-education, and her children raised by others. She lost all of her teeth and developed hepatitis. The account of her and her family’s suffering is speculative.


Gross, Miriam. 2018. “Between Party, People, and Profession: The Many Faces of the ‘Doctor’ during the Cultural Revolution.” Med Hist 333-359.

Hsu, Elizabeth. 2008. “The History of Chinese Medicine in the People’s Republic of China and Its Globalization.” East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal 465-484.

Liyi, He. 1993. Mr. China’s Son: A Villager’s Life.

Spence, Jonathan. n.d. The Search for Modern China.

The Nobel Prize. 2015. Tu Youyou Biographical.

Yi Rao, Runhong Li, Daqing Zhang. n.d. New Drugs from Ancient Chinese Remedies: Unsung heroes in Unusual Times.

Youyou, Tu. 2015. Nobel Prize speech.

Zhiqiang Hu, Dan Li, Manyuan Wang, Lan Yang, Yansong Li, Yiran Shao, Zhenhu Sun, Wenhu Zhang. 2018. Tu Youyou’s Journey in the Search for Artemisinin. New Jersey: Chemical Industry Press.

Catherine Kim is a primary care physician at the University of Michigan where she conducts research in women’s health, teaches, and sees patients. She began writing fiction during the pandemic. In 2022, she won the
Ploughshares Emerging Fiction Writer contest. She’s currently working on a story collection and a novel and is represented by Janet Silver at Aevitas.


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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