The Essential Pandemic Language Guide

How the epidemic has reshaped life, and how Chinese talk about it

Nearly two-and-a-half years since Covid-19 was detected at a seafood market in Wuhan, the pandemic has touched nearly every aspect of life worldwide—changing people’s attitudes toward food safety, public health, travel, and socializing, as well as popularizing phrases in English like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.”

In China, which continues to maintain a “zero-Covid” policy, stringent lockdown measures and widespread testing of affected neighborhoods have also made people utterly at home with terms like 清零 (qīnglíng, zero-Covid); 消杀 (xiāoshā, disinfection); 大白 (dàbái, “big white”), a nickname for community workers outfitted in white-colored protective suits; and 核酸 (hésuān), short for 核酸检测 (hésuān jiǎncè, nucleic acid test). When Beijing saw a cluster outbreak in the summer of 2020, it was joked that “您核酸了吗 (Nín hésuān le ma, Have you taken a nucleic acid test)?” had replaced “吃了吗 (Chī le ma, Have you eaten)?” as a standard greeting among residents of the capital.

At the time of writing, Shanghai is nearing the end of the first month of a battle against an outbreak of the highly contagious omicron variant, which has led to China’s strictest lockdown measures to date. With an estimated 400 million people experiencing restrictions due to pandemic control in Shanghai and other parts of China, the pandemic has reshaped how they speak, act, and even eat.

Stockpiling supplies

In the early days of Shanghai’s city-wide lockdown, the shutdown of businesses and delivery channels inside and outside the city made food and other basic necessities into scarce commodities for those who did not stock up beforehand. Across the city, tech-savvy residents got used to setting their alarm at odd hours—say, 5:45 a.m.—to get ready to “snatch” fresh produce from online delivery platforms before they run out.

It is a test of both swiftness and perseverance. Cycling through up to 12 apps on their phone, the Shanghai resident might repeatedly smash the “checkout” button, only to have supplies run out or the app crash due to too many people attempting to order simultaneously. Those who missed out might exclaim:

Vegetables are even harder to buy than a ticket to a Jay Chou concert.

Qiǎng cài bǐ qiǎng Zhōu Jiélún yǎnchànghuì ménpiào hái xūyào yònglì.


As supply struggles to meet demand, vegetables have become the new luxuries in China’s biggest city, previously known for being the country’s hub of finance and high-end consumption. When a single cabbage set one back by 80 yuan in the panicked early days of the lockdown, Shanghai residents developed their own spin on the ol’ chi le ma, asking one another:

Have you snatched up your green luxuries?

Nǐ de lǜsè shēchǐpǐn qiǎngdào le ma??


Lockdown living

Life in isolation and social distancing can take a toll on one’s mental health. In Shanghai, as in Wuhan in early 2020, locked-down residents turned to activities like building an obstacle course in the living room, watching viral workout videos, or singing with their neighbors on the balcony to pass the time.

But there is only so much exercise one can do. The rest of the time, there might be nothing to stave off boredom except gaze out the window and record one’s observations, as one online meme demonstrates:

The leaves outside my window trembled 1,682 times. Birds chirped 168 times. A package of sunflower seeds contains 1,846 pieces.

Chuāngwài shùyè huàngdòngle yìqiān liùbǎi bāshí'èr cì, xiǎoniǎo jiàole yìbǎi liùshíbā shēng, yí dài guāzi yígòng yìqiān bābǎi sìshíliù lì.


Other locked-down netizens have turned their ponderings to a more intellectual direction: by producing “pandemic literature (疫情文学 yìqíng wénxué),” a meme involving making parodies of lines of famous literature in the context of Covid-19, such as Albert Camus’s The Stranger or Lu Xun’s “Autumn Night”:

My green health code turned red today. Or maybe it was yesterday, I don’t know.

Jīntiān, lǜmǎ hóng le, yòu huòzhě shì zuótiān, wǒ yě bù qīngchǔ.


There are two buildings in my community. One is locked down. The other is also locked down.

Xiǎoqū li yǒu liǎng dòng lóu, yí dòng fēng le, lìng yí dòng yě fēng le.


For those stranded at home, perhaps the color of their 健康码 (jiànkāngmǎ, health code), a QR code that changes color and restricts a person’s movements if they’ve been in close contact with Covid cases or traveled to an affected area, does not matter that much after all, as they can’t go out anyway. Those getting itchy feet to tour exhibitions, museums, and famous sights can take the virtual tours many museums and tourist sites in China have offered since the pandemic began:

Calling for online travel buddies to join me for a virtual tour of the Yellow Crane Tower in Wuhan!

Zàixiàn chéngzhāo xiǎohuǒbàn yìqǐ yúnyóu Wǔhàn Huánghè Lóu!


Learning under lockdown

Some of the people most affected by the pandemic are students of all ages, who have had to stay either at home or on their campuses for most of the last two years. For college students especially, the bustle of campus life might seem like a distant memory—if they got to experience it at all, unlike entering students after 2020:

Due to the pandemic, I’ve been at home for over a hundred days in total. My college education has become a distance learning course.

Yīnwèi yìqíng, zàijiā yǐjīng dāile yìbǎi duō tiān, huóshēngshēng bǎ quánrìzhì dàxué dúchéngle hánshòu.


They’ve gotten used to dealing with technical glitches during online lessons and seeing their teachers’ heads talking on a screen:

Can everyone hear me? Am I frozen? Did you all take out the green book? Write in the comment section if you did.

Néng tīng qīngchǔ wǒ shēngyīn ma? Kǎ ma? Lǜ shū ná chūlái méiyǒu? Ná chūlái zài pínglùnqū jiǎng yíxià.

能听清楚我声音吗?卡吗?绿书拿出来没有? 拿出来在评论区讲一下.

Many students have had to postpone plans to study abroad or take standardized exams, like the IELTS:

My examination was postponed again due to the outbreak. My stress has been successfully extended to October.

Kǎoshì yīnwèi yìqíng yòu yánqí le, wǒ de yālì chénggōng tuīdàole Shíyuèfèn.


Office workers, too, have had to periodically work from home when their cities see a surge in infection. They’ve become familiar with children and pets interrupting online meetings, as well as the embarrassment of having made an excellent point…only to hear their colleagues frantically shouting:

Mr. Zhang, your microphone is muted!

Xiǎo Zhāng, nǐ de màikèfēng méi dǎkāi!



The most highly anticipated event for any locked-down community is, of course, 解封 (jiěfēng, lifting of the lockdown). When it happens, it’s time to celebrate the exciting news on social media:

I’m lucky to have made it as a finalist in the current outbreak.

Hěn xìngyùn zìjǐ zài běn lún yìqíng zhōngyú jìnrù juésàiquān.


My travel code finally lost its asterisk.

Xíngchéngmǎ xǐtí zhāixīng.


An asterisk-free travel code in one’s mobile phone, meaning that one has not been to a medium or high-risk area in the past fourteen days, is uplifting, but it is not immune to change. Community officials will keep up with the strict contact-tracing protocols, checking in with every household by phone or WeChat:

Please check whether you crossed paths with these confirmed cases. If so, please report to the community.

Qǐng dàjiā zìchá yǔ bìnglì yǒu méiyǒu shíkōng jiāojí, rú yǒu qǐng shàngbào shèqū.


To keep up with contact tracing requirements, public buildings and businesses in most cities require all visitors to scan a QR code so the system can keep track of who has been where:

Please wear your mask and scan the health code. Thank you for your cooperation.

Qǐng nín pèidài hǎo kǒuzhào, sǎo jiànkāngmǎ, xièxiè pèihé.


Nucleic acid tests have become routine especially for those who travel, as trains and flights require passengers to present a recent negative test result before boarding, and communities may require it for those who come back from travel:

The nasal swab today instantly turned my face into a mask of pain.

Jīntiān tǒng bízi zhíjiē gěi wǒ tǒngchū tòngkǔ miànjù lái le.


Which type of swab will we have tomorrow? Nasal or throat?

Míngtiān zuò shénme hésuān a? Shì bíshìzǐ huán shì yānshìzǐ a?


Before taking off, travelers need to check carefully that they won’t end up in mandatory quarantine, as policies could vary city to city, or even town to town.

If we travel from a low-risk area of Shanghai to Shenzhen for two days by high-speed train, do we need to quarantine upon return? Do we need to do nucleic acid tests?

Xiǎng wèn cóng Shànghǎi dīfēngxiǎn dìqū zuò gāotiě qù Shēnzhèn liǎng tiān, huílái xūyào gélí ma? Xūyào zuò hésuān ma?


Will we be taken to centralized quarantine or allowed to quarantine at home?

Zài chēzhàn zhíjiē lāzǒu jízhōng gélí háishì zìjǐ huíjiā gélí a?


But those currently stuck in a strict lockdown might feel they won’t even have to travel far to enjoy their newfound freedom:

The first thing I will do when the lockdown is over is to eat all the delicious food in Shanghai!

Jiěfēng zhīhòu dì yī jiàn shì jiùshì chībiàn Shànghǎi suǒyǒu měishí!


The Essential Pandemic Language Guide is a story from our issue, “Lessons For Life.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.



Yang Tingting is a Chinese editor at The World of Chinese. Interested in telling Chinese stories, she writes mainly about culture, language, and society.

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