UCLA Spotlight


Virginia Li, School of Public Health

  • By Dan Gordon, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published Nov 1, 2003 8:00 AM

Virginia Li’s life has been full of journeys and stories. The public health professor and medical doctor was born in China, came to the U.S. as a teenager, and rediscovered her native country beginning with a study trip in 1974.

These stories and others are told in Li’s book, From One Root Many Flowers: A Century of Family Life in China and America (2003: Prometheus Books).

Her memoir portrays a life that has been anything but dull. Li has vivid childhood memories of bombings, enemy attacks and retreats. Her father, Li Hanhun, was “torn between two conflicting sets of values”: The born leader with a strong sense of loyalty and duty to country “also had the heart of a poet who abhorred killing and believed in the nonviolent teachings of Buddhism.”

Li’s mother, Wu Chifang, was only 14 months old when her own mother committed suicide. Wu grew up to direct a rescue operation that saved 30,000 newly orphaned refugee children from occupied territory, organizing a massive housing and educational effort. Several years earlier, when Li’s father had asked Wu what she most hoped for after their marriage, she replied, “a university education.” After bearing three children, Wu got one.

Like mother, like daughter – when Virginia Li was the mother of three young children, she returned to school and earned her M.P.H. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. She decided on public health as a way to provide technical assistance to developing nations. “From a very young age, I felt I had a responsibility,” Li says. She also learned that there was much work to be done in her adopted country. As a doctoral student studying the anti-poverty program, Li says, “I saw the other America, and acquired a passion for community development.”

On the faculty at the University of Maryland, the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health, and, since 1982, the UCLA School of Public Health, Li has made community development a constant theme. She conducted her first community-development demonstration project in the early 1970s, training community organizers in Baltimore to engage high-risk inner-city teens in recreational activities as way to interest them in health issues.

Nearly two decades later, Li was contacted by the Ford Foundation to help design a women’s reproductive health program in an impoverished section of rural Yunnan, China. She argued that the clinical component was not enough – that developing the women’s sense of self-worth and capacity-building were even more important. The funding agency agreed, and the result was a multi-faceted program in which the village women were partners at every step. Among other things, 63 semi-literate village women were given cameras and asked to document local conditions over a 12-month period.

Currently, Li is working with Dr. Roger Detels, professor of epidemiology, to pilot-test a reproductive health Web site for rural health workers and teachers in remote villages of Yunnan Province. “This is about giving an agency one computer and teaching the people who work there how to use it and get information,” Li explains. “They’re quite excited, because they see this new world opening up through access to our Web site as well as others.”

Li returned to her country of birth in 1974 as part of a study group looking at China’s cooperative medical system and its prevention-focused “barefoot doctors,” a system that had dramatically increased life expectancy over a relatively short period of time. Since 1981, she has been a frequent traveler to China.

“I went as an educator and as a scientist, not to go back and rediscover my roots,” she says. “But in the process, as I saw China firsthand over an extended period of time, the teacher became the learner.”

“Americans have long been fascinated with China,” Li says. “I wanted to tell the story of China from the latter part of the 19th century to the present, through the story of my family, in the hope that it will enhance public understanding of China during a period of war, foreign imperialism, revolutions, and rapid social change.”