November 29, 2009

One Elder Caring for Three Mental Patients: The Desolate Old Age of a Chinese Nuclear Research Scientist

The first time I saw this post was in October. The second time I went back, the blue portion had been added (translated in the "follow-up" section).

Translation (2009-10-03):

Looking down from my balcony, I always see a lonely 70-year-old man walking by, hands occupied by plastic bags that hold pots and bowls. I have been told that the old man is delivering meals to his schizophrenic daughter. Once I began to pay attention, I noticed that he makes the trips as regularly as the sun rising and falling. Came rain or sunshine, he never skipped a day.

Old man walking by

Shortly after, I learned this white-haired man's surname is Wei. Here at Huangdao District, he is one of the more famous residents because of two reasons. First, he used to research atomic bombs. Second, his family circumstances are tragic. Of the four people in his household, three have mental disorders. His spouse and one of his two children have been diagnosed with schizophrenia; the other child is afflicted with mental retardation. The children are approaching forty, yet they are neither married not have a regular job.

Both the spouse and children are sickly. Many believe that their ill health was caused by nuclear radiation, though no one could prove this theory. The old man remains close-mouthed about the reason(s) for their illness. His days are like the flowing water or the blowing wind, proceeding in silence.

I personally know the old man's retarded son, who sold cassettes once by the side of the street. He never talked to the customers, preferring to keep head bowed. The cassettes sold out quickly. Sometimes mean people bully and beat up the son when he ventures out of home. Probably because of his mental condition, the son never minds the mistreatment and has a smile for everybody. The old man's schizophrenic daughter, as mentioned previously, is a victim of insomnia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Her living quarters are covered by dust, because cleaning and moving things around agitate her. One time I saw the old man and daughter on their way to the hospital. He was holding her arm to support her, who looked gaunt (about 30kg or 66lb) and was slow to react. Pity for her made people on the road avert their eyes. The year before last, both the old man's spouse and the daughter committed suicide: one swallowed sleeping pills and was discovered after 20 hours; the other cut her wrist, blood pooling on the ground. Luckily, both were rescued in time. Despite of these personal tragedies, the old man remains calm and kind, as if these stormy events never happened. Day after day, he makes his trips back and forth, looking after his unfortunate family.

I find it hard to believe that the heavy task to taking care of this family fell solely on the short old man. He goes to the store daily to buy groceries. On occasions, he takes his wife outside for a walk. The two would be sweating profusely, but he always attended to the old lady first. It is no secret that he is very considerate to his family. All the neighbors sigh: "What will happen to them if the old man falls sick?" The old man is no longer young and taking care of 3 patients can be too much for anyone.

I went to the old man's apartment once as student volunteer. It was a very narrow, shabby place, able to accommodate only a few people (standing). The furniture consisted of one ancient computer and a swiveling chair that long stopped rotating. In this undecorated, 50 square meter room, we saw only books and medicine. The old man spent the entire morning giving his wife massages and making sure she took her prescription. During this time he still remembered to chat with us. This kind, amiable elder possessed such breadth and depth of knowledge. His laugh was hearty and his attitude optimistic. It seems the word "melancholy" did not exist in his dictionary.

We gradually found out more about this elder after the visit. His full name is Shijie Wei (魏世杰) and was a nuclear scientist for 26 years. He helped to develop and test the China's first atomic bomb, first H-bomb, and first nuclear missile. In addition, Shijie Wei is a renowned writer, publishing over 10 books. The walls and bookcases in his tiny apartment are covered by trophies and certificates. In addition, he holds numerous honorary titles: "Medal of Honor" from Division of Nuclear Technology (核工业部荣誉奖章) , "Outstanding Scientific and Technological Worker(优秀科技工作者)," "New Long March Red Flag Carrier (新长征红旗手)"," Qingdao City Excellent Party Member (青岛市优秀共产党员), "... ...

The old man takes these honors and awards lightly. Instead of bragging about his achievements, he appeared more interested in our welfare and asked many questions. I was puzzled. Isn't his family burden already trouble enough? Where does he find energy and enthusiasm to care about us? How I wish to be a river snail girl (alluding to a Chinese fairy tale), to cook, wash cloth and take care of his family. Even just for a day, an hour, a minute, or a second. But I know this is just a wishful thinking.

Reality is harsh. Family misfortunes have exhausted the old man's reserves. His hair is no longer white, and his gait faltering. Persistence and inner peace cannot replenish the energy sapped away by overexertion. Many people are moved by his plight, some even cried, but in this difficult time, will they be practical and help him through actions? "What will happen to his family if the old man becomes incapacitated?"

Frankly I don't know how long this elder can hold up. Aging is a scary process, taking away our health and our strength. I do not want to contemplate what lies in the future.

The Old Person's Day (Double Ninth Festival) is almost upon us. We shouldn't let the elders who bled and sweated for our country cry. I hope that [after reading this post] everybody will start taking actions. Let's take better care of this legendary scientist and the old people around us!

I wish happy and healthy lives to all the old people around the globe!

Old man's son

Follow-Up (2009-10-16)
Note: The tone of this portion is very formal. I am guessing some government official wrote it.
  • In the Tianya post, Many people expressed their concern for Shijie Wei and his family.
  • Quite a number of Netizens tried to donate money or gifts, but Mr. Wei declined: While he is grateful to all the warmhearted Netizens, his financial situation is still bearable.
  • Qingdao Seventh People's Hospital promised to provide in-home care to Mr. Wei's family.
  • The government decided to give him a 60 square meter new apartment. The new apartment is a lot closer to his daughter's place.
  • Mr. Wei wants to express his sincere gratitude to all those who tried to help.

Shijie Wei's story is by no means an isolated incident in China, though I can't judge how common it is for famous scientists to fall into such dire straits. Jingrun Chen, which some of us learn about in elementary school, is probably another tragic example. While it is moving to see Netizens show support, the incident is also strange, that the government needs prodding to care for one of its accomplished, nationally-known, and patriotic scientists.

Finally, several articles online mentioned that Shijie Wei had 17 inventions to his name. This might make people wonder, why he is not filthy rich yet? The most likely reason is that since China is a communist nation, patents used to belong to the state and not to individuals, particularly in areas such as national defense. The government particularly liked to encourage "self-sacrifice" and "selfless devotion" to the country, as though there is honor in being immensely talented and starving for the sake of one's country (family members starving alongside). Many old scientists therefore didn't receive economical compensations for their labors. Now is better/more materialistic, I think.


  1. The story of the old man is very crazy, as his family. There are some genetic issues that can't be known til it's too late. Nowadays, there are many people with mental illness and some of them don't even know it.

  2. Thnkx 4 sharing!


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