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    A Taoist’s Quest to Memorialize China’s COVID-19 Martyrs

    The author, a Taoist priest, has set up over 550 memorial tablets to those killed in the country’s fight against the coronavirus.

    On July 29, I saw in a news report that Wang Younong had died. A Shanghai port executive, Wang collapsed on the job this April after working eight consecutive days and nights to coordinate the safe return of the Royal Caribbean cruise liner Quantum of the Seas and its 353 Chinese crew members. After 75 days in a coma, he died on July 11.

    I decided to make a memorial tablet in his honor. Wang’s was the 546th of 552 such tablets I’ve made in remembrance of the heroes who’ve died in China’s fight against COVID-19.

    I’m a Taoist priest. When China’s COVID-19 epidemic first broke out in Wuhan this January, religious sites and places of worship across the country all shut their doors — and I abruptly found myself with significantly more free time on my hands. Still hoping to contribute, on Jan. 29 I traveled from my mountainside monastery to my residence in Xi’an to pick up my bank card and make a donation.

    That same day, I read an article saying a doctor named Mao Yanghong had died in the line of duty. The deputy dean of a health center in southeastern China, he had been working at a local pandemic checkpoint when he was struck and killed by a vehicle. I was shocked by his death. After a quick online search, I found he was far from the only lost hero.

    In an effort to commemorate and honor those who died for our sakes, I turned to Taoism, setting up memorial tablets for those who had sacrificed their lives in China’s battle against the virus. Taoists make memorial tablets, inscribed with an individual’s name and background, to give souls a place to rest after death. We believe those sanctified in a memorial tablet don’t just linger on; a bit like Catholic saints, they help protect us, too. In a way, those who lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19 are China’s saints.

    On Jan. 29, I set up my first three tablets, one each to honor Mao Yanghong, Jiang Jijun, and He Jianhua. Jiang Jijun was a doctor specializing in infectious diseases at Taizhou People’s Hospital in the eastern Jiangsu province. He suffered a fatal heart attack as a result of rushing back and forth between the inpatient wards and the fever clinic. He Jianhua, a police chief in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, died from a sudden brain hemorrhage while working at the county bus terminal. Once I had set up the three tablets, I took a photo and posted it on microblogging site Weibo, accompanied by the following caption: “We will remember you. I hope that you will continue to protect the people of China from up high in heaven and that no other frontline workers will lose their lives!”

    That last prayer wasn’t answered. Instead, my collection of memorial tablets grew at an alarming pace. On Feb. 7, I inscribed the name of Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital who helped blow the whistle on the emerging pandemic.

    His was my monastery’s 42nd tablet. We originally had prepared just 10 tablets for those who died in the fight against the virus. Over time, this number grew to 30, then 100, 200, 500. By the time the outbreak reached its peak in China, we had run out of wooden tablets and had to resort to yellow cards. When we ran out of those, we used white cards. We wouldn’t be able to start using wooden tablets again until things slowed down.

    Most of those we’ve memorialized are not as famous as Li Wenliang. Some were security guards, others volunteers, teachers, or village doctors. The news of their deaths goes largely unnoticed — it is a mere drop in the ocean of information inundating our screens. In many cases, their obituaries can only be found on the official public accounts of town governments, with only a few dozen views each. It can take us half a month or even longer to confirm the information we need.

    Sometimes, the family and friends of those who died on duty come to us directly. In that case, we have to verify what they tell us. On the final tablet, in addition to these martyrs’ names, we also note details such as their place of residence and employment; their hometown; their gender; and the circumstances and date of their death.

    Getting in touch with the family members of the deceased is by far the most heartbreaking step of the process. Zhou Zongde — our 278th tablet — was a technician at Tianyou Hospital in Wuhan. He died after contracting COVID-19 while working. His family members told me they never had the chance to visit him in the intensive care unit or even see his face one last time before he died. They said their hearts pang every time they think of him being sent for cremation in his old work clothes.

    I’ve enshrined each tablet in the hall of Jiuyang Palace, a monastery in the eastern Shandong province where I am the honorary abbot. Every day, we dust them off, tidy up their surroundings, light candles, lay out fresh fruit as offerings, and recite scriptures that will keep their souls at peace.

    Every time I finish a new tablet, I post a new message on Weibo. While I’ve received a lot of support and encouragement for what I do, there have also been doubts and even accusations. For example, some netizens question whether the sacrifice of these people was worth it. Were their deaths really a price that had to be paid in order to control the outbreak?

    But the question that makes my heart ache the most is: How can there be so many people on my list who died of exhaustion? Why couldn’t they just take a break at some point?

    The fact is, of the more than 500 people for whom I’ve made tablets, only a few died from complications of COVID-19. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the cause of death was overwork. They were absolutely unrelenting in their efforts to protect our country. Only when they couldn’t physically stand up any longer did they surrender to a sleep from which they’d never wake up. It amazes me that some people still don’t understand the stakes, the scope of this tragedy. Don’t they realize China’s fight against the coronavirus is not a job, but a war? Would we blame a deceased soldier for not dodging the bullet that killed them?

    In the past couple of months, as the pandemic has gradually faded from public consciousness in China, many people have suggested I can stop updating the list. I remain stubborn, however. Until the day the coronavirus is completely eliminated, I will neither stop keeping count of the lives lost, nor making tablets in their honor.

    I don’t want to leave anyone out. I don’t want their names to be erased. We should remember them, remember what they did for us, and carry our gratitude forward.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.

    (Header image: Taoists wipe down memorial tablets at Jiuyang Palace, Shandong province, 2020. Courtesy of Liang Xingyang)