‘Lived in frustration, and died in vain’ — Phrase of the Week

Politics & Current Affairs

A new phrase describes the sentiment in China toward the sudden death of Li Keqiang.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Our Phrase of the Week is: Lived in frustration, and died in vain (活得憋屈,死得窝囊 huó de biēqū, sǐ de wōnang).

The context

The death of former Chinese premier Lǐ Kèqiáng 李克强 has dominated discussions on the internet in China since it was revealed he had suddenly died of a heart attack on October 27 in Shanghai.

China’s powerful censors have tightly controlled all commentary on his death inside the country. Comments on social media have been restricted to “rest in peace” (安息吧 ānxí ba) and other similar formulaic expressions. The official announcement in the People’s Daily is less than 100 characters in length.

Outside of China, discussions on Twitter in Chinese and Chinese-language media outlets have focused on how Li’s departure represents an end to the “golden years” of China’s economic growth.

An article in the New York Times by Yuán Lì 袁莉 captures the sentiment well:

Among many Chinese, Li Keqiang’s death has stirred nostalgia for the era he represented: An era of better economic prospects and more openness to private enterprise.


Zài xǔduō zhōngguórén dāngzhōng, lǐkèqiáng de qùshì jīqǐle duì tāsuǒ dàibiǎo de nàge shídài de huáiniàn: Nà shì yígè jīngjì qiánjǐng gèng hǎo, duì sīyíng qǐyè gèng kāimíng de shídài.

She concludes with a comment shared by a Chinese journalist:

“In life he was miserable, in death he was wronged,” a Chinese journalist told me. “Aren’t we all like that?”


“Huó de yùmèn, sǐ de biēqū,” yī wèi zhōngguó jìzhě gàosù wǒ. “Wǒmen bù dōu zhèyàng ma?”

And with that, we have our Phrase of the Week!

What it means

In life he was miserable, in death he was wronged is adapted from a post widely circulated on Twitter in the last week by Wú Guóguāng 吴国光, a senior research scholar at Stanford University and well known for his work on Chinese politics and current affairs.

The full post is:

In a decade of prudence, he kept himself upright, but lived in frustration;
Being only one step away, he retreated with dignity, yet died in vain.

Title: Resigned in powerlessness



Péi shí nián xiǎoxīn, suī jiéshēn zìhào, dàn huó dé biē qū;
Jù yībù zhī yáo, què jíliú yǒngtuì, jìng sǐ de wōnáng.

Héngpī: Wúnén gwéilì

This is an “elegiac couplet” (挽联 wǎnlián), a poetic form consisting of two lines. It’s thought to be one of the oldest forms of poetry. Originally used for funeral songs by the ancient Greeks, the elegiac couplet is also commonly used in English, Chinese, and other languages. In Chinese, the couplet is often used to mark someone’s death.

The line “In death he was wronged” is drawn from a famous line by Máo Zédōng 毛泽东:

A life of greatness that ends in a glorious death


Shēng de wěidà, sǐ de guāngróng

He wrote it on March 26, 1947, in tribute to the Communist Party martyr Liú Húlán 刘胡兰.

Liu Hulan was a young female spy during the Chinese Civil War between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. She joined the Communist Party after defecting from the Nationalists in 1946.

On January 12, 1947, the Kuomintang army invaded her village. Soldiers rounded up several reputed Communist Party members, including 14-year-old Liu Hulan, and butchered them in the village square. Before Liu was killed, she was given one final chance to renounce her allegiance to the Communist Party. She refused and was beheaded.

Three months later, when Mao visited her village on a tour of Shaanxi Province, he was moved by the story of her bravery, and so inscribed “A life of greatness that ends in a glorious death” in her memory.

Wu Guoguang’s elegiac couplet is a bitter play on words, drawing from the greatness of Liu Hulan’s martyrdom, and giving us our fascinating but tragic phrase of the week in memory of China’s late premier, which we translate as the following eight-character phrase:

Lived in frustration, and died in vain.


Huó de biēqū, sǐ de wōnang.

With thanks to Geremie R. Barmé, editor of China Heritage, who recommended this week’s Phrase of the Week.

Andrew Methven