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Chinese writers borrow from Western classics to illustrate life in the age of COVID


Angry, depressed or flat-out bored by successive COVID lockdowns, Chinese writers are adapting classic works of Western literature to amuse themselves. NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng brings us the story of these writers who are finding truth in fiction.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Earlier this year, Niki Wang's residential compound in Shanghai was locked down as part of a contact tracing effort. That also meant all residents had to get daily PCR tests.

NIKI WANG: (Through interpreter) I remember that day started pouring rain, which slowed to a drizzle as we were lining up for our tests. Everyone had their umbrellas up and their raincoats on, and I thought, this scene deserves to be recorded.

FENG: Suddenly, a parallel scene sprang into her mind from Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Spanish-language novel "One Hundred Years Of Solitude." In the scene, one of the characters calls up Colonel Buendia, the protagonist, and exclaims sadly, Aureliano, it's raining in Macondo.

WANG: (Through interpreter) He's describing such a mundane occurrence, but as readers, we can feel the oppressive loneliness of it. And if we can take a step back and see through the mist to observe this seemingly routine moment in history, we can see its greater symbolism.

FENG: Sort of like the routine of lining up to get a COVID test, Wang thought. Just imagine how we'll have to try to explain endless PCRs to posterity. So she gave Marquez's passage her own twist, adapting it to Shanghai's modern reality. Here's what she came up with.

WANG: (Through interpreter) At the end, Colonel Gerineldo Marquez looked at a line for PCR tests, the people's faces blurred under their masks, and he found himself lost in solitude. Aureliano, he typed sadly, the compound is doing PCR tests.

FENG: Wang is part of an online writing community that has been posting snippets of their adaptations of Western literature classics to amuse themselves, to vent or to write veiled criticisms of China's zero-tolerance COVID policies. Many of them are writing as the entire city of Shanghai is locked down and struggling with its biggest surge in COVID cases ever. There, authorities said they're sticking to their zero-COVID policies, meaning there is no end in sight. So these writers are trying to use this spate of lockdowns for creative inspiration.

CHEN YIHAI: (Through interpreter) Our experiences of suffering reflect the essence of our existence, and it's in moments of misery that we can appreciate life's abundance.

FENG: That's Chen Yihai, a master's student in Beijing. His hometown in Shenzhen has also had its share of lockdowns, including one in March. Some of his friends wanted to come visit him in Beijing, but their digital health codes suddenly and mysteriously went from a healthy green to a dangerous red, meaning they were not allowed to board flights to Beijing.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) In that moment, it occurred to me that a red health code to them was like an oddity, an amusing surprise, like the experience of falling in love.

FENG: Chen was amused by this unexpected juxtaposition, and he got to writing - his version of "The Heart Of A Broken Story" by American writer J.D. Salinger, about a young man who falls in love with a woman on the bus but doesn't have the courage to approach her. Here's Chen reading his adaptation.

CHEN: (Through interpreter) There are some people who think love is sex and marriage and 6 o'clock kisses and children. And perhaps it is, Miss Lester. But do you know what I think? I think love is a surprising red health code that pops up again and again.

FENG: Some of these writers delight in the lockdowns, such as Thrasybulus Zhu. During the day, she works for the Shanghai government, and she's normally so exhausted she has no energy to write.

THRASYBULUS ZHU: (Through interpreter) It's as Virginia Woolf wrote - for a woman to write, she needs money and a room of one's own. And when I first went into quarantine, I was thrilled because I finally had a room of my own, so to speak, and having a day off to myself is so rare.

FENG: She began writing under lockdown, adapting - what else? - "The Death Of A Government Clerk" by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov - Pardon, Your Excellency, I spattered you accidentally, the clerk in the story famously says. Zhu takes it from here.

ZHU: (Through interpreter) Be off, yelled the general, turning suddenly purple and shaking all over. Be off, you who don't wear a mask.

FENG: For others, adapting their own pandemic literature is a way to blow off steam in a safe way. Jon Zhang, a Beijing-based software engineer, is a writer who falls into this school. He started reading, in his spare time while working from home, "The Baron In The Trees" by Italo Calvino, a philosophical fable extolling liberty.

JON ZHANG: (Through interpreter) And I started thinking that Cosimo the baron is a character who's rebelling against social restrictions and looking for freedom, something particularly meaningful to contemplate in China's current reality. If a character like the baron were to live in China now, what would he do?

FENG: In Calvino's telling, Cosimo manages to create a free life for himself for decades in the treetops of the Italian countryside. He succeeds in breaking free of his aristocratic family. Zhang's story ends a bit differently.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) People told the baron in the tree to come down and do a PCR test. Cosimo refused. He jumped from the cherry tree to the olive tree, then to the chestnut tree and disappeared into the forest far away. So the community officials organized 10,000 volunteers to conduct a search of the forest, and finally, they dragged Cosimo to the test site.

FENG: Zhang says writing pandemic fiction is an act of protest against the dozens of PCR tests the local government's required him to do and the repetitive lockdowns he's endured. Fiction, he believes, is the best way to illustrate the absurdity of life in the age of COVID.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) What I want to satirize are these ossified, bureaucratic COVID-containment policies.

FENG: And he imagines himself during long stretches of boredom by imagining what the writers of yesteryear who he imitates would think if they lived a day in his shoes in China.

ZHANG: (Through interpreter) I think they would find my reality preposterous and the way we do things abnormal.

FENG: However, Jon normally keeps these thoughts to himself. That's why he writes in private - because in fiction, anything is fair game.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.


MARTINEZ: All right. Today, we say goodbye to NPR audio engineer Patrick Boyd. For most of the past two years, Patrick has been the technical director at MORNING EDITION, making sure that we all sound our best while broadcasting from the studio.


Or our basement or a spare bedroom. Patrick is also a kind soul who, even at 3 a.m., brings good humor to our team. We will miss you, Patrick. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.