Jie Willey was born in Hangzhou, China in 1957. Her parents were professors at Zhejiang University, and she and her older brother grew up on the university’s campus. When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, universities were shut down. Willey’s parents were separated and sent down to the countryside to undergo so-called “re-education.” When Willey was seventeen, she was also sent down to the countryside along with other children of university faculty members. After the death of Mao Zedong in 1977, universities reopened and Willey took the medical school entrance exam, failing by only one point. As a result of her near-passing score, she was permitted to work at the medical school as a teacher’s assistant.
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