Illustration by Zuhui Ghang
“April is the cruelest month,” so goes the opening line to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” And so it is that April has been exceptionally cruel this year. Yangyang Cheng tries to make sense of it through words, through poetry and art — even as narrative fails.
My mother hates the month of April. Almost two decades later, I can still picture the dark clouds gathering on her face when one day after school, I recited to her a composition written by a classmate and praised by our teacher. It was an ode to spring, warming weather and fluttering hearts. The title read, “Remembering April.”
“It’s unpleasant and I do not want to hear it,” my mother said. Staring at my confusion as if I were the most thoughtless child in the world, she added, “Qingming is in April.”
Qīngmíng 清明, clear and bright, is the fifth of 24 solar terms that make up a year in traditional Chinese culture. Falling on the fourth or fifth of April in the Gregorian calendar, the date marks the awakening of soil and its many creatures, birth and renewal. It is also a day to pay respect to the dead. The living eat plain, avoid meat, and visit their ancestors’ graves.
Before I moved to the U.S. in 2009, my mother and I observed the solemn festival every spring with a visit to my father. His ashes are kept at the city mortuary. The period of remembrance, according to custom, is from 10 days before Qingming to eight days after. My mother always picks a weekday: She will take time off work, and I will skip half a day of class. Together we hail a taxi, one of the few occasions my mother avoids public transit.
We purchase incense and ghost money from street vendors outside the mortuary, and head to the building where the urns are stored. The halls are named after symbols of longevity and eternal blessing: pines and cranes, gods and benevolent spirits. The air inside smells like old books and memories. The closely stacked shelves are segmented into spaces several inches high, just over a foot wide. One of them belongs to my father.
With the lightest of touch, my mother opens the glass pane and takes out the wooden box. It is the heaviest thing in the world. She dusts it and calls out my father’s name.
“We are here to see you,” my mother whispers. “Please bless us. Please do not miss us.”
I repeat after her. Nothing else is said. In the eerie silence, when discretion gives way to adolescent curiosity, I will peek at neighboring segments on the shelf. I imagine the lives behind the black and white portraits. I wonder if they are lonely, or if they have all become friends, chatting at a frequency undetectable to earthly ears.
My mother puts the urn back on the shelf, and rearranges the plastic flowers laid in front. Gently she closes the glass and we exit the building.
There is an open space in the back for the burning of ghost money, where the sky is always gray, the air thick. Among a circle of identical stone pits, there is one my mother always uses. If there are sparks remaining from the last offering, we wait. When the time is right, she picks up a piece of chalk, writes my father’s name on the top of the pit, and places the incense next to it. Then she strikes a match.
“We are here to bring you money,” my mother says. “Please buy what you need. Please bless us. Please do not miss us.”
I repeat after her again. I toss folds of paper into the open flame. I know I should do it more slowly, like my mother does, with more care, but I am afraid of getting scorched. The orange blaze retreats beneath the weight for a brief second and jumps up again, higher and brighter. I take a step back and watch it dance. Flakes of ash land in my hair. I hold my breath.
After the last speck of fire has dimmed, it is time to head back. We do not speak. We avert the eyes of neighbors. The first thing to do upon returning home is to take off our clothes. We place the smoke-stained fabrics in a designated wash basin and step into the shower. Nothing else can be touched before we are clean. All traces of the dead must be scrubbed away before we resume activities of the living.
The Chinese government designated this year’s Qingming, the fourth of April, as a National Day of Mourning. To commemorate “the martyrs and the kinsmen who lost their lives in the fight against COVID-19,” all entertainment activities were suspended for the day. Flags flew at half-mast. At 10 a.m., the country observed three minutes of silence. Traffic paused. Drivers pressed their horns. Sirens pierced the sky.
China Central Television (CCTV) aired a 40-minute special for the occasion, including live coverage from Beijing to Wuhan. One polished segment recounted the timeline of the outbreak. It started with January 7, when “Xi Jinping expressed demands for the work of epidemic control.” The first known cases were reported in December, and the information was censored for weeks; Wuhan residents were notified they would go under lockdown mere hours before it happened, on January 23. Nevertheless, in CCTV’s version of events, January 7 is the beginning that matters.
The program went on to highlight doctors and nurses, drivers and delivery men, factory workers racing to produce medical equipment. The mass mobilization was a “people’s war.” The healthcare workers were “soldiers in white.” The effort to contain the coronavirus was a “defensive battle.”
“It’s really like being in combat,” a doctor said. I frowned. I should not judge him, for I can not possibly imagine what his work has been like. But I suspect he also has no idea what combat is like. He used the vocabulary he’s attuned to.
“Every morning is like combat!” my mother used to complain, referring to the daily scramble of getting ready as a single, working parent. I never understood the expression: What were we fighting against? If time is the opponent, time always wins. The college entrance exam in China is routinely portrayed as “a battlefield without gunpowder”: When resources for higher education are scarce and unevenly distributed, students are taught to make enemies of each other.
As COVID-19 spread from China to more than 200 countries, so has the metaphor of war. It is easy to understand why states resort to such rhetoric, regardless of the governing system: After all, war is politics by violent means. War is what the state is good at, is designed for, is often born out of. It is in times of war that a state seizes the most power, using the existence of a foreign threat to demand obedience. War is the default narrative of the state.
When a state names a virus an enemy combatant, it has also made any questioning of its response an act of treason.
What I find more interesting is why the analogy is so easily adopted by the people, civilians who have never been to war. Military verbiage has become a part of everyday speech, corrupting the language and normalizing violence. Soldiers kill. Doctors save lives. The two vocations cannot be more different: What they do share in common is the omnipresence of physical danger, and the inevitable confrontation with death.
War offers an explanation, or even justification, for the loss of life. The narrative is seductive, because it is empowering: It gives meaning to something as meaningless as dying of an infectious disease. The greater the casualty, the more noble the cause.
It is usually people who only know war through stories that readily accept war as metaphor. Like saying “Thank you for your service” upon encountering military personnel in uniform, the impulse is sincere; it is also self-serving, an assertion of one’s own virtues, patriotism, and loyalty, and all those associated with good citizenship. If the country happens to be at war, the gesture of gratitude and utmost respect also assuages a burdened conscience. A citizenry that worships its armed forces is less likely to protest against war, lest it sullies the sanctity of martyrdom. When a state names a virus an enemy combatant, it has also made any questioning of its response an act of treason.
In mid-February, at the height of the outbreak in Wuhan, a patient named Xiào Xiányǒu 肖贤友 left a handwritten note before succumbing to the virus. Initial reports from state media described Xiao’s dying wish as “a will in seven characters”: “Donate my body to the country.” But there were two lines, 11 characters on the sheet. The four words in the second sentence, omitted in the beginning because they did not fit into a moral lesson of selfless sacrifice, read, “Where is my wife?”
In the official narrative on this National Day of Mourning, the dead are little more than a statistic, a prop for the sermon. A special guest was in the studio, answering the host’s question on what “spiritual power” the pandemic has drawn out of the Chinese people. What the cameras did not show were the long lines outside funeral homes in Wuhan in the days prior, and the security guards keeping watch, in case any outburst of grief disrupted the carefully constructed script. When the clock struck 10, a young woman filmed herself running along the streets of her battered city. As cars and pedestrians stood still, the only sounds in the video were howling sirens and her incessant sobbing. It was the most eloquent pronouncement I saw from that day.
Fourteen names were announced by Beijing as the first group of “martyrs” in the country’s fight against COVID-19. Among them was Dr. Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮. The 33-year-old opthamologist tried to warn his colleagues about a mysterious new illness appearing in Wuhan in late December. A few days later, he was summoned by the police, becoming one of eight “rumormongers,” all of them medical professionals who told the truth before the state did.
Hospitalized in mid-January, Li died of complications from the coronavirus on February 7. His last post on Weibo was from six days before: “Today the nucleic acid test came back positive. The dust has finally settled.”
The day Li Wenliang died, I was at my alma mater, the University of Chicago, for its annual U.S.-China forum. This year’s theme was “The Matter of Art,” the day-long event packed with presentations and performances by artists and scholars from both countries. The Wi-Fi in the auditorium was spotty, but I kept checking my phone. Something was happening.
Reports of Li’s death, including ones from state media, started appearing in the morning, which would be the evening of February 6 in China. The posts were quickly deleted. The hospital issued a statement that Li was in critical condition and they were doing their best to save him. Several hours later, at about 3 a.m. local time, the hospital announced that their efforts had failed. This time it was official.
That the whistleblower died of a disease the authorities had tried to hide was the wrong plotline for the state. The confusion around the final moments of Li’s life felt like another cover-up, a botched attempt to deceive the public and rewrite the story. The people were rightfully angry. As I scrolled through Chinese social media during lunch break, the timelines were filled with expressions of grief and outrage. Variations of the hashtag “I want free speech” were trending. It was a virtual protest in motion.
The forum provided boxed lunch, but I had little appetite. I sat in a corner of the building and wept. I missed the first part of the afternoon’s panel. Listening to an academic discussion on art suddenly felt unimportant. My eyes were glued to the screen. I wanted to inhale every post.
Several China specialists commented on Twitter that they had never seen a reaction like this on the Chinese internet. Would this be the spark that lights the fire, the catalyst to a new political awakening?
Each time there is a crisis in China, speculations abound about the government’s ability to survive. The predictions and predilections come primarily from the outside, among professionals and hobbyists known as “China watchers.” I have always disliked the term, as if the world’s most populous country were some rare bird. The exoticizing gaze is primed for a spectacle — Uprising! Turmoil! Regime change! — though its most ardent advocates never manage to articulate what the revolution is expected to achieve, and at what cost. They will not be the ones paying the price. They are only watching.
The people who appropriate Li Wenliang’s name never cared about him as a person. They only want a narrative that is the most convenient, the most useful.
It is not only the Chinese government that has labeled Li Wenliang a martyr, flattening a person into a political token. In the aftermath of his death, several members of the U.S. Congress, who have made being “tough on China” a personal brand and a career ladder, introduced bills and resolutions bearing Li’s name. To honor his bravery and to hold the Chinese government accountable, they say. They also call the pathogen that causes COVID-19 the “Wuhan virus.”
I do not know if the self-righteous politicians are aware that the good doctor was a member of the Chinese Communist Party, the “evil” organization they seize every opportunity to denounce. Li Wenliang was not the rebel they wished him to be: He was a decent young man who tried to make a living in an authoritarian state, who liked soda and fried chicken, who was devoted to his profession and occasionally bemoaned the stress of his job; who made his compromises, who remembered the basic tenets of right and wrong, who chose to do the right thing at a critical juncture, who lost his life to a viral infection, not for a political cause.
But the people who appropriate his name never cared about Li as a person. They only want a narrative that is the most convenient, the most useful.
That afternoon of Li’s death, I let myself linger in a sea of teardrop and candle emojis. In another day or two the outpouring would slow to a trickle, and disappear under a fresh wave of news. People would continue to live their lives of small joys and mundane worries, swallowing the indignities of bureaucracy and censorship. But for the millions who followed the developments of that day, who shared a post, wiped a tear, sensed a heartache, the moment would stay with them, a flicker of light, an affirmation of hope.
After what was a couple of hours that felt like an eternity, I returned to the auditorium. The program concluded with a keynote address by the art historian Wu Hung. An exhibition titled “The Allure of Matter,” co-curated by Wu, was opening on campus later that week, featuring a diverse array of contemporary Chinese artists.
I visited the show in early March with a dear friend, just before the museum closed due to COVID-19. It was the last time I went outside for leisure. Walking through the tightly curated space segmented by pristine white walls, we saw cigarettes arranged into the shape of a tiger, flags of nations made from human hair; a painting drawn with gunpowder, a self-portrait of the artist suspended by spuns of silk; yellowed pulps of books after rigorous washing, and the dark residue from burning 127 tons of Coca-Cola. Scraps and sheets of molded plastic hung in a room: Their colors and texture reminded me of the bottom of an ocean.
The exhibition, organized around the choice of materials, is the first of its kind. Instead of pursuing a singular story, the focus is on the language used to tell the story. The displays required slow viewing, as they explore complex relationships between humans and the environment, consumerism and its impact, everyday objects and their reactions to time. There is a giddy subversion of commodity, and a deep reverence for the elemental forces. The work is political in its social consciousness, but it is not one that conforms to an agenda.
“Spring is almost over. Soon, so will summer.”
This was the first message I saw when I clicked on the comment section to Li Wenliang’s Weibo account. In the two and a half months since his passing, people have been leaving notes in this virtual space, a “digital Wailing Wall” for a grieving nation, over 900,000 posts and counting.
They update him on the recovery in his city. They share their favorite recipes, and invite him to dinner. They grumble about difficult bosses and arguments at home. They ask for relationship advice. They write to him when they cannot sleep at night, when they wake up in the morning, when there is a thunderstorm outside.
They tell him about flowers in the garden, the changing of seasons. The message on a fleeting spring is accompanied by an image of a green maple leaf. I stare at the contour, imagining filling it with shades of a flame, but I catch myself midway: I dare not picture the state of the world come fall; I can barely look forward to summer.
In this time of quarantine, I have been paying extra attention to the weather. A few rays of sunshine lift my mood. I sigh beneath an overcast sky. It snowed three times this month, which I took as another sign that the planet is doomed, but my photo album reminds me that it snowed last April as well. I look to the universe for cues, however irrational, for a suggestion, a warning, some divine intervention, but all I have seen is its gentle indifference: Nature proceeds on its own schedule, flourishing in the absence of human activity.
Every day I read and think about death. I have gained no new insight and encountered no revelations. I think I keep with this fruitless endeavor out of guilt, a feeble atonement for being alive while so many have died.
COVID-19 has claimed a member of our experiment. He was 36 years old, an accomplished skier. I log on Facebook for updates from friends: In a happy chorus of baby photos and kitchen adventures, there is always a jarring note, a fresh loss, the end of a song.
I glance into the shuttered doors of the corner cafe each time I go downstairs to pick up delivery. A large drip coffee from their machines was how I started every morning, accompanied by a crisp croissant. I do not know if lights will turn on again in that beautiful space I had considered an extension of my home, or if I will find the same smiling faces to whom I never got a chance to say goodbye.
One of my favorite bookstores is holding a fundraiser online. Like so many small businesses, it is struggling with rent. I donate. I share on Twitter. I go to its website and add titles to my shopping cart. Then I check my bank account and put a few back. I feel completely useless. I cannot save anyone or anything. I can barely save myself.
I must appear crazy, or drunk, but the only poison I have been consuming is the news.
The relationship between my birth country and my adopted home is at its lowest point in decades and continues to deteriorate. The number of hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. skyrockets, partly fueled by policies and rhetoric from opportunistic politicians. Two days in a row, the president singled out Chinese-looking journalists at the White House briefing, asking if they “work for China.”
I watch the videos and notice a familiar face. The Taiwanese reporter, now working for a TV station in Shanghai, interviewed me in 2012 when he was with a Hong Kong-based network. It was the evening of Barack Obama’s reelection. I was studying at the University of Chicago, and had spent the preceding weeks volunteering at a local phone bank, calling up voters in neighboring swing states. The diligent hours earned me a ticket to Obama’s victory speech at McCormick Place, where I ran into the reporter and his cameraman, who were excited to find a Chinese person among the jubilant crowd.
In the news segment that ran the next day, I was beaming from ear to ear: “I remember four years ago I was still back in China, and watching on TV and online, wishing that one day I could be there. And four years later here I am.” I also said I hope one day the people of China will have free and democratic elections, though I knew that part could not be aired. Under a gray blazer, I wore a t-shirt that read, “We are young but it’s real.”
That evening, I thought America had given me all the answers I was looking for. In retrospect, my faith was naive and ill-informed. Seven and a half years later, the jacket was given to Goodwill, the t-shirt lost between one of many apartments. The building that housed the campaign field office was demolished, and a Whole Foods Market stands in its place. The convention hall at McCormick Place has been converted to a makeshift hospital, with 3,000 beds for COVID-19 patients. I see a photo of a coyote running in the middle of Michigan Avenue. Without a car or person in sight, the wild animal has claimed the luxury shopping district as its own kingdom.
The president tweets that he’s suspending immigration to protect jobs for American workers. In the same late hour, rumors are swirling about the North Korean dictator’s health. Concerned friends reach out to ask if I’m worried about my visa status. “Who cares THE FUCKING WORLD IS ENDING,” I respond, pausing to steady myself from laughing too hard. I must appear crazy, or drunk, but the only poison I have been consuming is the news.
I tell the editor I have no idea what to write for this month’s column. I am overwhelmed by fragments of information with no discernible narrative. Whoever is directing has lost the plot. I no longer know if my opinions are of any value. I no longer know if any opinion is of value in these times.
Write a poem? the editor suggests. April is National Poetry Month. The editor is a poet himself, though at first, my insecurity took his kind counsel as saying that he would like to suffer through fewer of my words.
I have been reading a lot of poetry lately. When the lines cut and bruise, I know the cruelty of this world has not yet robbed me of feelings. When the sorrow gets unbearable, I curl back into the warm embrace of sentences. What is language, this magical thing, that can simultaneously wound and heal?
My mother would tell you that I wrote my first poem at age five. The handful of Chinese characters I had learned in first grade were complemented by stretches of pinyin. It was about the earth as a crowded building with broken stairs, the residents falling all over each other. Encouraged by my parents, the second attempt came soon after, when I opened a bottle of my mother’s perfume and made up four lines about the fragrance. I wrote and ghost-wrote a bunch of love poems in school, and that concludes my resume as a poet.
When I started writing for the public three years ago, there was no question I would use English, my adopted tongue. My grasp of the Chinese language is forever tainted by propaganda and crippled by censorship. I want a vocabulary whose limit is only that of my abilities.
Maybe I experience fewer inhibitions when writing in English because I am less attached to it. English is a muscle I have trained; Chinese is in my bones. If a thought or emotion, expressed in English, sends a quiver down my spine, voicing it in Chinese would have reduced me to pieces.
Yet I cannot compose a verse in English. Even the idea sounds ludicrous. “When I break a sentence, people will just assume I have not learned my grammar!” I reply to the editor.
“Poetry has its own grammar anyway,” the editor says. Of course he is right, and I was only making excuses. I do not feel licensed to invent a grammar for a language I was not born with and raised in. For all that I have written and published in English, I am still trying to earn its permission. I am an immigrant to this country and to its language: I am always compelled to prove my worth, that I am deserving of the place I lay no birthright claim to.
Language always fails: It breaks at the edge of our knowledge and imagination; what lands on the page is always an approximation.
Several years ago when I was still in graduate school and new to the U.S., I had a vivid dream about the day after everything had burned. The sky was purple and crimson. The ground was seared. I walked past skeletons of bridges and skyscrapers, and arrived at what remained of Yankee Stadium. Standing alone in the pitcher’s spot, a professor of mine was delivering an impassioned lecture on quantum field theory.
The dream made no sense. I was living in Chicago, and had never watched baseball. But perhaps it contained a kernel of truth, as I joked with labmates the next day: Cockroaches and physics will survive the apocalypse.
Physics is a language for describing the universe. At its best, physics reveals and clarifies; it interprets; it dispels illusions. But like any physicist or writer will admit, language always fails: It breaks at the edge of our knowledge and imagination; what lands on the page is always an approximation.
Language’s greatest weakness is also its enduring strength. Language remains after the body is gone: It is a living thing; it learns and grows. Any attempt to nail language to a script is an attempt to obscure the truth. The end of the world will not arrive through fire or plague: It begins with the slow death of language, when words become stale and complacent, when sentences bend to the lure of capital or buckle under the will of the authorities.
The pandemic has ruptured the narratives we once held dear. We are exiles in our own homes, suspended between here and another here. An avalanche of loss has rendered us speechless. We stagger and stammer to find the right phrases. The old world is clinging to its last breaths; a new order is in the making. We summon through our grief an ancient wisdom. We arrange teardrops into new letters. The ground is fertile after we bury the dead. As the earth revolves around the sun, we will reap what we sow.
Yangyang Cheng and the Science and China Column will return on the final Wednesday of every month. Last month: