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How Netizens Adapt Classic Literature to the Covid Age

Literary-minded social media posters are adapting famous works for the Covid-19 era

Famous literary lines have been taking on curious twists recently on Chinese social media. On one Douban post, Franz Kafka’s famous opening to The Metamorphosis now reads: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found his residential community was locked down (一天早晨,格里高尔·萨姆沙从不安的睡梦中醒来,发现自己小区被封了 Yì tiān zǎochén, Gélǐgāo’ěr Sàmǔshā cóng bù’ān de shuìmèng zhōng xǐnglái, fāxiàn zìjǐ xiǎoqū bèi fēng le),” rather than “he found himself changed into a monstrous vermin.”

The post describes what many Chinese have been experiencing over the last month or so as the latest wave of Covid-19 infections sweeps across the country. In early March, cases began rising in several regions, including Shandong, Guangdong, Jilin, and Shanghai. In the latter, China’s largest city, officials recorded 914 symptomatic and 25,173 asymptomatic Covid-19 cases on Monday.

This has spawned a new online trend: “pandemic literature (疫情文学 yìqíng wénxué),” where netizens copy and rewrite well-known literary works or lines from classic films to tell pandemic stories.

Along with Kafka, Chinese writers also get the pandemic literature treatment. The famously redundant opening line to Lu Xun’s (鲁迅) “Autumn Night (《秋夜》),” which originally read “In my backyard, I can see two trees beyond the wall. One is a jujube tree. The other is also a jujube tree. (在我的后园,可以看见墙外有两株树,一株是枣树,还有一株也是枣树。Zài wǒ de hòuyuán, kěyǐ kànjiàn qiángwài yǒu liǎng zhū shù, yì zhū shì zǎoshù, háiyǒu yì zhū yěshì zǎoshù),” has now become: “There are two buildings in the community. One is locked down. The other is also locked down (小区里有两栋楼,一栋封了,另一栋也封了 Xiǎoqū li yǒu liǎng dòng lóu, yí dòng fēng le, lìng yí dòng yě fēng le.)”

Similarly, a famous paragraph in Lu’s short story “Hometown (《故乡》)” has been changed to: “Hanging high up in the deep, blue sky was a full golden moon, and down below at a newly locked down community was an endless line for the Covid test. In the middle of all this was a 20-year-old youngster wearing a face shield and holding a swab in his hand. He was stabbing hard at an open mouth (深蓝的天空中挂着一轮金黄的圆月,下面是新封的小区,都排着一望无际的长队,其间有一个二十来岁的青年,头戴防护罩,手捏一柄棉签,向一张嘴尽力的刺去 Shēnlán de tiānkōng zhōng guàzhe yì lún jīnhuáng de yuányuè, xiàmiàn shì xīnfēng de xiǎoqū, dōu páizhe yíwàng wújì de chángduì, qíjiān yǒu yí gè èrshí lái suì de qīngnián, tóu dài fánghùzhào, shǒu niē yì bǐng miánqiān, xiàng yì zhāng zuǐ jìnlì de cìqù).”

The original described the youngster Run Tu in a field of endless watermelons, wearing a silver ring, holding a pitchfork, and stabbing at a cha (猹, a fictional wild badger-like animal).

Covid testing has become a miserable routine, and the butt of many jokes for residents in areas with outbreaks. They are satirized with a new version of a line in White Deer Plain (《白鹿原》), the 1993 novel by writer Chen Zhongshi (陈忠实), which originally went: “Bai Jiaxuan took pride later in life on having married seven different women in one lifetime (白嘉轩后来引以为豪壮的是一生里娶过七房女人 Bái Jiāxuān hòulái yǐn yǐwéi háozhuàng de shì yìshēng li qǔguò qī fáng nǚrén).” Now, however, it’s: “Bai Jiaxuan took pride later in life on having had seven Covid-19 tests within one week (白嘉轩后来引以为豪壮的是他一周里测了七次核酸 Bái Jiāxuān hòulái yǐn yǐwéi háozhuàng de shì tā yì zhōu li cèle qī cì hésuān).”

To someone wanting to move around freely in many Chinese cities today, perhaps the only thing more important than the Covid-19 test is the health code. These digital codes are displayed in green, yellow, or red, based on a person’s travel history and infection risk, with only the green color indicating the user should be able to enter a venue without issue.

The health code’s importance is exemplified by the revised “Covid version” of the opening to Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita: “Health code, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Heal-th-code: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Health. Code. (健康码是我的生命之光,欲望之火,同时也是我的自由,我的灵魂。健一康一码;双唇微启,再略略张大,最后完全打开:健一康一码。Jiànkāngmǎ shì wǒ de shēngmìng zhī guāng, yùwàng zhī huǒ, tóngshí yěshì wǒ de zìyóu, wǒ de línghún. Jiàn一Kāng一Mǎ; shuāngchún wēiqǐ, zài lüèlüè zhāngdà, zuìhòu wánquán dǎkāi: Jiàn一Kāng一Mǎ.)”

While days or even weeks stuck at home and taking dozens of Covid-19 tests are taking a serious toll on many Chinese, at least the trend of “pandemic literature” proves the creative juices of many are still flowing, and there’s still space left to mock. With so much time on their hands while locked down to read great literary works and make parodies at their leisure, netizens will no doubt be offering countless more examples soon.

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Zhang Wenjie is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese. She loves to share the lifestyles, voices, and concerns of China’s Gen Z. She is also fond of collecting and displaying the flourishing slang expressions in the Chinese language.

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