Life Lessons from China’s Response to the Coronavirus

Volunteers thank members of a medical assistance team at a ceremony marking their departure after helping with the coronavirus recovery effort, in Wuhan, China, on March 19, 2020. Stringer/AFP via Getty Images

By William N. Brown

Today I’d like to share with you some ideas about important life lessons we can learn from China’s response to the coronavirus. And at the end, I’d like to share some encouraging insights from foreigners who lived in China over a century ago. If you understand the spirit of ancient China, and why foreigners had such great respect for both China’s government and people, you’ll also understand why Chinese today are able to tackle such formidable foes as poverty, hunger, and the borderless battle with the coronavirus.

An American asked his friend, “Did you quit shaking hands because of the virus?”

“No,” he said, “I quit because everyone is out of toilet paper.”

I’m glad people still have a sense of humor! But what is not at all funny is that some of the wealthiest nations not only lack toilet paper but also still don’t have virus test kits even 10 weeks after China shared the virus’ genome with the world. Why on earth are these nations so unprepared?

Even a little logic should have suggested the virus was coming, but they not only did not prepare but also went to great lengths to explain why their “democracies” could not take China’s lead. Even a week ago, Western media was writing of how China’s draconian measures such as quarantines and restrictions on travel deprived people of their basic rights of freedom of movement. But fast forward to today and the news is trumpeting that the epidemic is now a pandemic and governments are falling over themselves to take many of China’s measures. Places like San Francisco are of course careful to avoid the word “quarantine,” which violates people’s inalienable right of movement, but they ordered people to “shelter in place”, which may sound kinder and more “democratic” but violations are a “misdemeanor punishable by fine, imprisonment, or both.” Sounds to me like, however you word it, it is still restricting people’s movement—and these restrictions are needed, so why pretend they are not?

The only logical reason that nations could spend months criticizing China while doing nothing themselves is that they naively felt they were in no danger. But this is understandable, given our immersion today in an artificial world of social media. We are bombarded daily with so much bad news that tragedies afar off are no more real than a reality TV show or a movie.

It also seems that people living in comfort in the wealthier nations have a sense of entitlement, and believe that their wealth will continue to shield them from some far off virus even as for decades their wealth and militaries have insulated them from the wars, crimes and political unrest that kill tens of millions each year in poor nations. As the younger President Bush once declared, “Nothing will change our American way of life!” But it appears the coronavirus never got Mr. Bush’s message.

In 1990, I thought it ironic that a Japanese strategist, Kenichi Ohmae, would write a book entitled, “The Borderless World.” He claimed that trade was open and free for all nations, even though his own home of Japan has some of the most rigid cultural, political and economic barriers in the world. Even today, trade is not borderless, and probably never will be—but the coronavirus truly knows no borders. Rich and poor alike fall before it—though the elderly, the weak and the poor are hardest hit.

Fortunately for the world, while the West protected people’s “rights” by doing nothing, China acted immediately, without excuse or apology or mincing words, to protect peoples’ most fundamental right—the right to life. And only yesterday, China began testing a vaccine and has already promised that, if successful, they will share it freely with the world.

And even as the Chinese government resolutely sacrificed its economy to tackle the problem head-on, the Chinese people also rose to the occasion and cooperated because, quite frankly, they well know they are mortal. Chinese value comfort and convenience as much as any other people, but they remember all too vividly the poverty and sickness that haunted their nation only decades earlier. Chinese agree with their government that if they lose that most fundamental right of life, all other rights are useless. And to preserve that most precious gift of life, Chinese have always been able to tighten their belt and endure hardship like no other people in history.

In closing, I will share foreigners’ comments about China and Chinese from some of my hundreds of 19th and 20th century books. You will be as astonished as I was at how much the Westerners admired the Chinese nation and people over the centuries. And if you understand the spirit of China through the ages, then you’ll also understand how and why the world’s most populous nation today dared to tackle and defeat this epidemic head on. Chinese today, like their ancestors, embrace lifeand just as importantly, they embrace life with those they love, and this is why Confucian society over the ages has been built on family and relationships. 

Dying people around the world have been asked what they most regret in life, and they never lament that they did not make more millions or spend more time in the office. Consistently, their greatest regret is that they did not spend enough quality time with the people they loved.

So if you’ve survived the coronavirus (if you didn’t, I’m impressed you’re reading this), celebrate life and “seize the day”! 爱拼才会赢! But when you seize life, don’t let go of those you love because life is too short to not live fully.



Amoy Zest For Life (Mackenzie-Grieves, 1959; English lady lived in Xiamen in the 1920s)

“In this, our first year in China, an astonished excitement possessed us…

I had felt the impact of this immense vitality the moment I first set foot in Amoy. I came upon it by no rational process, no social studies. I met the tide of lusty and abundant life full in the face, with all its primitive urges undiluted. It was a life, at times, frightening in its force. It needed to be strong to survive such human miseries as it daily faced.

厦门人的生活激情   (麦肯兹•格瑞芙,1959年)




Philosophical People (Rose Talman, Amoy Missionary, 1916-1930, unpublished memoirs)

To their conditions they have developed responses–frugality (nothing wasted in China), patience, industriousness, sense of humour–a philosophical approach to the realities of life. These are the qualities that make the Chinese tough and persevering and give them the will to love and fight against poverty. The Chinese enjoy few luxuries in material things. They are not an acquisitive society. The people yearn more for peace and stability–a climate for work rather than affluence or wealth for the sake of pleasure. There is a great difference in the psychology of Eastern and Western society.

达观的民族 (罗斯•塔尔曼,厦门传教士,1916-1930年,摘自其未公开的笔记)



Right Attitude to Life (Ch’en Sze-ching, Fukien Christian University graduate, 1926)

“Fukien has taught me how to live. Material things can be acquired anywhere in this material world, but an attitude to life can only be mastered in the right environment. Fukien provided such an environment for me.”  

对待生活的正确态度   (陈哲清,福建协和大学毕业生,1926年)



Oriental Spartans (John Macgowan, British Missionary in Xiamen, 1907)

Take the matter of pain. He [a Chinese] bears it with the composure of a saint. The heroic never seems to come out so grandly in him, as when he is bearing some awful suffering that only a martyr could endure.

…It is this same absence of nerves that enables the Chinese to bear suffering of any kind with a patience and fortitude that is perfectly Spartan. He will live from one year’s end to another on food that seems utterly inadequate for human use; he will slave at the severest toil, with no Sunday to break its wearisome monotony, and no change to give the mind rest; and he will go on with the duties of life with a sturdy tread and with a meditative mystic look on his face, that reminds one of those images of Buddha that one sees so frequently in the Chinese monasteries or temples… The staying power of the Chinese seems unlimited. The strong, square frames with which nature has endowed them are models of strength.

东方的斯巴坦人   (麦嘉湖,1907年)




The Adaptable Chinese  ( John Macgowan, English missionary in Xiamen, 1907)

The strength of the Chinaman lies in his power to adapt himself to the circumstances in which he may be situated. Place him in a northern climate where the sun’s rays have lost their fire, and where the snow falls thickly and the ice lays its wintry hand upon the forces of nature, and he will thrive as though he had descended from an ancestry that had always lived in a frozen region. Transport him to the torrid zone, where the sun is a great ball of molten flame, where the air is as hot as though it had crossed a volcano, and where the one thought is how to get cool in this intolerable maddening heat, and he will move about with an ease and a comfort just as if a sultry climate was the very thing that his system demanded.

He is so cosmopolitan in his nature that it seems to be a matter of indifference where he may be or what his environment. He will travel along lofty peaks, where the snows of successive winters lie unmelted, or he will sleep in a grass hut where the fever-bearing mosquitoes will feast upon him the livelong night to the sound of their own music, and he will emerge from it next morning with a face that shows that the clouds of anopheles have left him a victor on the field. He will descend into the sultry tin mines of Siam, and at night he will stretch himself on the hard, uneven ground, with a clod for his pillow, and he will rise as refreshed as though he had slept on a bed of down.

适应能力强的中国人   (麦嘉湖,1907年)




Timeless People   (John MacGowan, English missionary in Xiamen, 1907)

One advantage the Celestial has over the Occidental is what may be called his absence of nerves. The rush and race and competition of the West have never yet touched the East. The Orient is sober and measured, and never in a hurry. An Englishman, were all other signs wanting, could easily be distinguished, as he walks along the road, by his rapid stride, the jerky movements of his arms, and the nervous poise of his head, all so different from the unemotional crowd around him, who seem to think that they have an eternity before them in which to finish their walk, and so they need not hurry.

缺少时间观念   (麦嘉湖,1907年)



Ancient People of the Future (Mary Gamewell, 1919)

China is not like ancient Egypt, whose greatness has departed though she still lives on. China is a vital force whose largest possibilities of development lie before and not behind her. A new fresh life is beginning to course through the nation’s veins….

一个古老民族的未来   (甘威尔,1919年)



Eternal China (Maclay, 1861)

It is a noteworthy fact that of all those ancient empires founded immediately subsequent to the deluge China alone remains. The Assyrians, Egyptians, and, in later times, the Grecians, have severally attained to a comparatively high degree of intelligence and refinement; but their star soon culminated and sank into utter darkness. China, however, has never been wrecked, her civilization has never retrograded; paradoxical though it seems, her star has remained in its zenith for at least three thousand years. Through all this long lapse of centuries the Chinese have kept up, fairly and steadily, to their original civilization; and to-day they present all the essential elements of those social, literary, and political traits which characterized them in those early epochs when the Assyrians built their magnificent cities, the Egyptians developed their subtle theory of the metempsychosis, or the Greeks were thundering at the gates of Troy.

The permanence of Chinese institutions is worthy of notice in this connection. It is a significant and singular fact that, from the earliest period of their authentic history to the present time, the Chinese have preserved intact and inviolate every important feature and principle of their government and civilization. The successive irruptions of northern barbarians have neither abrogated nor essentially modified Chinese institutions. The conquering races who have overrun those fertile plains have stood abashed in the presence of a superior civilization; and after subduing the empire, they have invariably adopted its government, laws, civilization, and language.


(If the above insights on China don’t make you proud, nothing will! 爱拼才会赢!)  

永恒的中国 (麦考利,1861年)





The quotes are all taken from my books, “Old Gulangyu in Foreigners’ Eyes,” 《老外看老鼓浪屿》, Xiamen University Press, and 《商业老厦门》, also XMU Press. The Chinese translations are from those two books, which were both bilingual.

Averil Mackenzie-Grieves Mackenzie-Grieve, Averil, “A Race of Green Ginger,” Putnam, London, 1959

Rose Talman   Talman, Rose H., “Our China Years, 1916-1930,” unpublished notes, provided by Sarah Koeppe.

MacGowan   Macgowan, Rev. John, “Men and Manners of Modern China,” T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1912. use, 43 Gerrard Street, W. 1907

Ch’en Sze-ching, 1926 quoted in Scott, Roderick, “Fukien Christian University,” United Board for Christian Colleges in China, NY, 1954.

Maclay   Maclay, Rev. R. S., “Life Among the Chinese: With Characteristic Sketches and incidents of Missionary Operations and Prospects in China,” Carlton & Porter, New York, 1861.


About the Author

William N. Brown is a professor at the Xiamen University MBA Center and Academic Director of its OneMBA program. His latest book is “Off the Wall: How we Fell for China”.

The article was first published via

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of All China Review.


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