The new coronavirus disease has a name now: COVID-19. That took a while. The virus’s genome was sequenced within two weeks or so of its appearance, but for many weeks more, we didn’t know what to call it or the disease it causes.
For a time, in some quarters, the disease went by “Wuhan pneumonia,” after the city in central China where the first human infections were detected. But guidelines from the World Health Organization, which christened COVID-19 recently, discourage naming diseases after locations or people, among other things, to avoid “unintended negative impacts by stigmatizing certain communities.”
Indeed. On Jan. 29, an Australian tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch featured on its front page a red face mask stamped with “Chinese Virus Pandamonium”: The emphasis on “panda” was the paper’s doing, so the misspelling it highlighted presumably was deliberate, too. A Chinese student in Melbourne protested in an op-ed in another paper, “This virus is not ‘Chinese.’”
Of course, the virus isn’t Chinese, even if its origin eventually is traced back to a cave in China; nor is the disease that it causes.
Epidemics, on the other hand, are often societal or political — much like famines are usually man-made, even though droughts occur naturally.
As far as the current outbreak goes, two cultural factors help explain how the natural occurrence of a single virus infecting a single mammal could have cascaded into a global health crisis. And now for the controversial aspect of this argument: Both of those factors are quintessentially, though not uniquely, Chinese.
The first is China’s long, long history of punishing the messenger.
Eight medical doctors were detained by the police in Wuhan in early January on charges of spreading rumors after they flagged on social media the risks of a possible viral outbreak. One of them died recently after being infected with COVID-19.
Similarly, the epidemic of SARS — which is caused by another coronavirus — that broke out in southern China in late 2002 was covered up by local authorities for more than a month, and the surgeon who first sounded the alarm was held in military detention for 45 days.
In 2008, a scandal erupted over tainted baby formula, after major Chinese producers were found to have added melamine to milk powder. (Six infants died; 54,000 had to be hospitalized). Four years later the whistle-blower credited with first exposing the problem was stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances.
These are recent examples, but that doesn’t mean they should be pinned solely on the Chinese Communist Party: The practice of punishing whoever brings embarrassing truths has been the order of the day since at least the time of Confucius, in the sixth century B.C.
The sage took a page from an even more ancient tract, “The Classic of Poetry” (also known as “The Book of Songs”), a collection of songs and poems dating to the 10th century B.C. or before, and adopted a rule from it: “To Manifest the Way, First Keep Your Body Safe.” (明哲保身) That may sound innocuous enough, until you consider the fate of one of Confucius’s beloved students, Zi Lu (子路), also known as Zhong You (仲由), after he ran afoul of the precept: For trying to rebuke a usurper in a power struggle between feudal lords, he was killed and his body was minced. (It is said that Confucius never ate ground meat again.)
In the third century, the maxim took on some literary flair and a cynical didactic twist in an essay on fate by the philosopher Li Kang (李康): “The tree that grows taller than the forest will be truncated by gales” (木秀于林，風必催之). This, in turn, eventually gave rise to the more familiar modern adage, “The shot hits the bird that pokes its head out” (槍打出頭鳥).
Admittedly, China’s rulers occasionally solicit honest views from their subjects — but only of a certain kind or usually for a limited time. Mao Zedong, in his “Hundred Flowers” or “Big Voices, Big Gripes” (大鳴大放) campaign of late 1956 and early 1957, called for the facts and critical opinions to be freely proffered. A few months later came the Anti-Rightist Movement (反右運動) — during which hundreds of thousands of educated people who had spoken out were sent to jail, forced into exile or subjected to years of mistreatment, their careers and families destroyed.
Punishing people who speak the truth has been a standard practice of China’s ruling elite for more than two millenniums and is an established means of coercing stability. It is not an invention of modern China under the Communists — although the party, true to form, has perfected the practice. And now, muzzling the messenger has helped spread the deadly COVID-19, which has infected some 75,000 people.
A second cultural factor behind the epidemic are traditional Chinese beliefs about the powers of certain foods, which have encouraged some hazardous habits. There is, in particular, the aspect of Chinese eating culture known as “jinbu,” (進補) meaning, roughly, to fill the void. Some of its practices are folklorish or esoteric, but even among Chinese people who don’t follow them, the concept is pervasive.
It is better to cure a disease with food than medicine, so starts the holistic theory. Illnesses result when the body is depleted of blood and energy — though not the kind of blood and energy studied in biology and physics, but a mystic version.
For men, it is most important to fill the energy void, which is related to virility and sexual prowess; for women, the stress is on replacing blood, which improves beauty and fertility. Rare plants and animals from the wild are thought to bring the best replenishment, especially when eaten fresh or raw. Winter is said to be the season when the body needs more “jinbu” foods. (Could that help explain why both SARS and the current epidemic broke out during that time of year?)
Hard-core believers in “jinbu” seem to buy into this notion, too: “Like-shapes eaten strengthen like-shapes” (以形補形), with the word “shapes” sometimes referring to human organs and their functions. Adherents count as favorites a long list of exotic foods — whose methods of procurement or preparation can be outright cruel, with some simply too revolting to describe here.
I’ve seen snakes and the penises of bulls or horses — great for men, the theory goes — on offer at restaurants in many cities in southern China. Bats, which are thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, are said to be good for restoring eyesight — especially the animals’ granular feces, called “sands of nocturnal shine” (夜明砂). Gallbladders and bile harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone is for erections.
Less wealthy people might turn to dog meat — preferably a dog that has been chased around before being slaughtered, because some people believe that more “jinbu” benefits are reaped from eating an animal whose blood and energy ran high. Similarly, it is thought that animals killed just before serving are more “jinbu” potent, which is one reason the more exotic offerings in wet markets tend to be sold alive — also making them more potent vectors for any virus they might carry.
Eating exotic wildlife has long been endorsed by scholars and elevated to mystical heights, including in the medical treatise “The Inner Bible of the Yellow Emperor” (黃帝内經), written some 2,000 years ago and still revered by many health-conscious Chinese today. Beliefs surrounding the health benefits of certain wildlife foods — which are discussed in newspaper columns and on numerous dedicated internet sites, as well as taught in China’s medical schools — permeate the culture.
True, these practices are not legion across China. Nor are they uniquely Chinese: Many peoples in many other countries eat exotic foods, too. But what is notable about China is that these beliefs about the special powers of some foods have been accepted, are now a given, even among people who do not put them into practice. They have become firmly embedded in the Chinese collective consciousness.
And so there are strong reasons to say that the current outbreak of COVID-19 has been aided by two fundamentally Chinese cultural practices. This may be discomfiting to hear; the notion might even strike some people as offensive. But it is necessary to investigate all the causes behind this deadly epidemic, whatever their nature — because if we don’t, we will only be inviting the next one.
Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan and a contributing Opinion writer.