Remembering Li Wen, gentleman editor
Li Wen, the founding business editor of China Daily, China’s national English-language newspaper, died following a short illness in Saratoga, California, on Jan 13, less than three weeks shy of his 93rd birthday.
Li was born on Feb 1, 1924, in Dali, Yunnan province. A member of the Bai minority nationality, he came from a family of modest means. He was the first in his family to attend college and studied journalism at National Chengchi University in Nanjing.
After graduation, he began his career as a Chinese-language radio broadcaster at All India Radio in New Delhi. In June 1954, he became vice-chairman and director of the Delhi Overseas Chinese Federation and was on hand to welcome Premier Zhou Enlai on his visit to India that month.
In 1962, Li returned to China and was assigned by the government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission to teach English in the Foreign Languages Department of Yunnan University. During the turmoil of the “cultural revolution” (1966-1976), Li was accused of being a spy for the Indian government and was locked in solitary confinement for eight months.
At the end of the “cultural revolution”, Li returned to teaching at Yunnan University, until 1980, when he was recruited by the late journalist Guan Zaihan to help launch China Daily.
When China Daily began publication the following year, Li was put in charge of Page Two, the business page. Already in his late 50s, he oversaw a group of young reporters whom he mentored with a gentle hand. One of them was Zhu Ling, the current publisher and editor-in-chief of China Daily.
With his carefully slickedback hair and impeccable dress, even in the drab cotton blues and grays of those spartan days, Li cut a gentlemanly figure.
“Treat people with respect and you will receive respect in return. Notice more of other people’s strong points than pick at their weak points,” he once wrote.
Li practiced what he preached. Even in questioning or criticizing, he was unfailingly polite and calm.
Qin Xiaoli, one of his young reporters, recalled that in 1983, when she had just returned to China Daily after obtaining a master’s degree in Journalism from Stanford University, she was assigned a story about the increase in taxi fares in Beijing.
After interviewing government officials and taxi drivers, she turned in her story.
Li read it and asked her gently: “You have just returned from ( journalism school in) the United States. Why would you write a story that is lopsided? Why did you not ask passengers what they think about the fare increase?”
Li was equally meticulous with the “foreign experts” – journalists from abroad who helped in the editorial process.
John B. Wood, who was responsible for editing and “polishing” stories for the business page, recalled that Li often asked esoteric, grammatical questions, such as: the use of the past subjunctive or pluperfect verb tenses. An English major from Yale University, Wood was unfazed; however, some of his British colleagues were not and called Li “pedantic” behind his back.
Another hallmark of Li was his work ethic. Huo Zhongyi, another young Page Two staffer, recalled that after putting in a full day of work, Li would spend extra hours at night in the pasteup room, proofreading the page before it went to print.
“He spent hours checking and double-checking the page for many nights running until one night he passed out from exhaustion. Being a conscientious and responsible editor, he just could not let any mistakes go, no matter how small,” Huo said.
“Finally, (managing editor) Feng Xiliang ordered him to go home to rest. To ensure that he did, Feng assigned two of us to keep an eye on him until he recuperated fully,” he added.
Li’s dedication extended even to holidays, according to Li Baokuan, a China Daily colleague who went on a holiday to Hangzhou with Li in 1984.
Every day, Li Wen would file a report, which Li Baokuan would type up on a typewriter. They would then take the hard copy to the post office to send back to the paper by Telex.
“We didn’t have smartphones or computers, so it wasn’t so easy to file a story back then. We were on holiday for 10 days, and Li Wen wrote 10 reports,” Li Baokuan recalled.
In 1989, Li retired from China Daily and moved to the United States to be with his family.
As dedicated as he was to his work, Li was equally devoted to a healthy lifestyle. He was well into his 80s when he wrote: “My present physical condition is worthy of singing a song: I have no heart trouble, nor does my blood pressure go beyond the near-perfect range: high normally around 120 and low seldom over 80.
“I can stand straight like a lamppost and can walk as fast as a whirlwind. I have no aches or pains anywhere on or in my body. What else do you want for your old age? But all this can be achieved only if you choose to have a healthy lifestyle”, which he defined as a healthy diet, daily exercise and a relaxed mental attitude.
Being a “weakling” in childhood and underweight his entire life, Li developed a lifelong exercise regimen, one he practiced daily. He ran rain or shine, holding an umbrella on the rainy days. When his solitary confinement during the “cultural revolution” precluded him from his daily run, he performed calisthenics twice a day in his cell.
His health regime stood him in good stead. In 2002, when a fall caused a hematoma in his brain, he underwent two brain surgeries and made a full recovery. Even after suffering a stroke in 2009, Li continued to exercise, doing standing pushups against his walker.
“Li Wen embodied the meaning of his name “wen”. He was a refined, literary and courtly gentleman,” recalled Dai Beihua, who worked on the copy desk in China Daily’s early days.
“For those of us who were young and green starting out at China Daily, he was like a cool drink of water – calming, steady and uplifting,” Dai said.
Editor-in- Chief Zhu Ling praised Li “as one of the first generation of China Daily forerunners who laid a solid foundation for the country’s first English-language newspaper”.
“China Daily has grown into a global newspaper in tandem with China’s development. It owes what it is today to the high standards that Li Wen and his colleagues set early on,” he said.
Li is survived by his children: son Li Gan and daughter Li Mei of Vancouver, Washington, son Li Yi of Vienna, Austria, daughter Li Wei of Los Gatos, California, and six grandchildren.
John B. Wood and Ho Manli worked as foreign editors at the founding of China Daily and have done so intermittently since then.
Left: Li Wen, China Daily’s founding business, died on Jan 13 in Saratoga, California, three weeks before his 93rd birthday, after a short former China Daily colleagues and friends, Feb. 1, 2014, at his 90th birthday. illness. Right: Li Wen (third from left) with family and