Empty streets and no public life. For Maghiel van Crevel, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, it must feel like his very own Groundhog Day. You see, he’s been through all this before, because he was in China in 2003, when the SARS epidemic broke out.
Beijing was “gripped by fear”, he told Mare back then. The “wildest rumours” were circulating (“the CIA are behind the epidemic”, “as long as you smoke enough, you won’t be infected”) and the Chinese government denied the scale of the disaster. 774 people worldwide were to die from SARS. By comparison, COVID-19 deaths had already surpassed that number after only two months.”
The coronavirus is keeping you at home. Can you compare this situation to how SARS impacted your life in China?
“Public life ground to a halt and the streets were empty in an effort to combat the ‘enemy’ back then too, but if felt, and actually was, far more local. The coronavirus crisis is infinitely larger. Besides, in 2003, we weren’t so permanently and pervasively online. I had special permission to cycle round to the students from Leiden (who were at another university in Beijing) so they’d at least still have one class a week.”
How did it affect your research?
“My research is on contemporary Chinese poetry. I don’t just examine texts, I look at the context too: the relationship between poetry and politics, the market, and consumer culture, and so on. That means I do fieldwork: conducting informal talks and interviews, visiting festivals, conferences, book shops, publishers, talking to civil servants and cultural entrepreneurs, etc.
“The poetry scene in China is booming, and besides the official circuits, there is unofficial poetry that’s self-published. It’s a kind of informal industry: full of initiative, conflict and identity formation. When SARS broke out, I couldn’t conduct interviews or attend events but by the time of the lockdown, I’d already done eight of my ten months of fieldwork. So, for me it was more of a luxury problem, compared to the suffering and losses SARS inflicted on its various victims.”
Are SARS and corona reflected in literature?
“In China, any disaster produces large quantities of poetry, both classical and modern, by professional writers and amateurs, through official channels and bottom-up. An impressive example was the 2008 earthquake in Wenchuan, which killed more than 80,000 people. It led to an online explosion of poetry; and within a few weeks, big fat anthologies were sitting on the shelves in the bookstores. So of course there was SARS poetry and now there are corona poems.” (see box below).
Reports from China about the coronavirus are not always reliable. Back then, you told Mare that the propaganda machine was working full blast and that the government only announced the seriousness of the situation quite late. Has this happened again?
“The Chinese state has constructed a powerful and sophisticated apparatus that disseminates, directs, and regulates information in society, including intensive propaganda and censorship. This is not a secret weapon or anything. The government explicitly considers this its duty, thus placing itself inside a long historical tradition.
“There’s no doubt that official information is not invariably reliable (which doesn’t only hold for China, by the way). Independent, investigative journalism had been developing since the end of the twentieth century, on a modest scale but with a clear impact. However, this has been reined in tightly in recent years.”
“Three things happened with this coronavirus crisis. First, alarming information was suppressed and whistle-blowers were silenced. If that hadn’t happened, the outbreak might have remained manageable.
“Next, the machinery of media and government instruction was set in motion to mobilize the population for the lockdown. This included measures with drastic effects on daily life, which were strictly enforced. The measures were widely supported, although residents and activists in Wuhan used social media to call attention to awful things that happened because of insufficient healthcare access.
“Third, that support has grown because the situation in Europe and the US appears to be much worse now than the situation in China, as the governments here didn’t realize the seriousness of the matter and their response was lax. The Chinese media now portray China as leading the global battle against the virus.”
Is it fair to associate the coronavirus with China because of their mistakes, like Trump does?
“No. Of course, it matters where and how a virus breaks out. In this case, that was in Wuhan, and the doctors that sounded the alarm were silenced. On the other hand, a lockdown was soon in place, shutting off tens of millions of people in Hubei Province: draconian but effective.
“But how a virus then spreads is just as important. Remember that Trump closed down the pandemic office in the US, Johnson recently announced he was still shaking hands and Bolsanaro claimed that Brazilians are immune to the virus.”
“Not just the crisis is global, so is its history. Our vulnerability to pandemics is partly due to hypercapitalist globalization. Epidemiologists, economists and anthropologists have researched this. For example: the way the much-discussed Chinese “wet markets” have developed in recent decades is partly due to the expansion of factory farming – which is a global industry. We built this together and we should assume responsibility for it together as well.”
“When an influential news and political commentary magazine like De Groene Amsterdammer describes China as a place where people ‘live in symbiosis with animals’ and ‘hygiene is a word from a different world’ , you wonder how that contributes to the empathy and solidarity we need to deal with this kind of global challenge. There is an ancient tradition of Western racism in which China and Asia are scary “Others” (racism is everywhere, but “the Yellow Peril” is particularly prevalent).
“The result is a dangerous reflex that projects the virus onto the bodies of people who look Chinese or Asian, regardless of their personal history or situation. For instance, the director of the Conservatory in Rome asked their Chinese, Japanese and Korean students not to come to class until they had been tested. But these were local students, not people who’d just come in from a disaster zone. There are countless, shocking examples of that kind of racism in the wake of the coronavirus.”
What must we do then?
“We need xenophobia like a hole in the head. It obstructs the solidarity and cooperation we need right now. When SARS broke out, doctors and administrators from China and the US worked together very closely. But that sort of thing is much harder when the American president and the state secretary for foreign affairs both call corona the ‘Chinese virus’. Nobody is immune from implicit bias against ‘race’ (which science says doesn’t exist), gender, sexuality, age, social class, faith and so on, but the least we can do is advance our awareness of implicit bias, and fight it.
And I hope this will teach us something about the destructive madness of capitalism, but I’m not holding my breath.”
The New Crown Virus Inflames the Lungs
The new crown virus inflames the lungs. Merciless
it pounces on the crowd. No smoke over this battlefield
but war has broken out. This is a devil
and it is hard to handle but we can
beat it for sure. No calamity
has ever frightened us. Love for the nation
and love for the people. I see long lines of
angels clad in white charge to the frontline.
Love for these people, most of all.
Now the angels are here, the devil will flee in no time!
And here comes spring, the beautiful spring
that won’t let this monster stick around for long.
We’ll join forces with spring to chase the bastard out,
this bastard must be chopped to pieces.
By Yu Qiusheng
Published on The China Poetry Web (中国诗歌网) on 27 January 2020
Translated by Maghiel van Crevel
This poem is an example of “amateur” poetry on Corona. That this kind of text appears on a mainstream website shows that in China, poetry is a perfectly normal medium to express oneself in public spaces. It appeared right after Xi Jinping had publicly confirmed the gravity of the situation. Echoes of SARS: doctors and nurses were referred to as “the army clad in white”. This poet turns that into “angels clad in white”.
I have translated the Chinese word for “Corona virus” fairly literally and turned the word for “pneumonia” into a verb, and tried to retain the order of the elements in the source text throughout. A virus “inflaming the lungs” is perhaps not a conventional choice of words—but then again, this is poetry. At any rate, even an occasional poem by an amateur (this is not intended as a disparagement in any sense) shows immediately how hard it is to translate poetry—and how much fun. In this case, the English version was further affected by the fact that I’d just translated this into Dutch. Translating poetry = choosing time and again which rule you want to break.