British Association for American Studies


Covid-19 Triumphalism in China’s 2020 Docudramas

Just as Trump vociferated throughout 2020 regarding the “Chinese Virus” and “Kung Flu,” China was slowly turning international bad publicity to its advantage. Weiji, or crisis in the Chinese language, comprises two words: danger and opportunity. Flipping the former into the latter, Chinese propaganda for domestic consumption does not help Asian minorities in the United States; rather, they exacerbate Sinophobia within U.S. conservative media and the echo chamber of nearly half of U.S. voters favouring Trumpism in the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. From the perspective of an Asian immigrant in the United States, one who had pledged the unnatural “Naturalization Oath” of renouncing “all [former] allegiance and fidelity,” Covid-19 encapsulates a quandary, sharpening one’s identity, shall we say, neither here nor there. (“Former” implied in the oath may as well be “formal,” as informal—affective and psychic—filaments linger long after overt political acts.) In the eyes of the fatherland, those of Chinese descent are well nigh ingrates lest they rally to the feel-good, self-congratulating discourse of Covid-19 triumphalism. In the eyes of the step-fatherland, Asian Americans, native and foreign-born alike, are the proverbial “perennial aliens,” conspiratorial carriers, serving foreign interests. Both delusions, Beijing’s rosy, Pollyannish and Trump’s bleak, paranoiac scenarios over the pandemic, unfold in denial of the reality of the origin of the coronavirus and the metastasis of the Trump virus.

Streamed online free of charge via ondemandchina.com or even YouTube in 2020 are numerous docudramas of China’s victory over containing and defeating Covid-19. Apparent from their titles, many docudramas converge on the city of Wuhan, where the pandemic first began at Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and where the first city-wide lockdown was instituted for seventy-six days. These shows include Wuhan Virus Diary, Wuhan ICU: Between Life and Death, 24 Hours in Wuhan, Witness: Doctors Fight Against COVID-19, and even a Japanese filmmaker’s Long Time No See, Wuhan. These shows expand to the entirety of China in China’s Battle Against COVID-19 and Together Against COVID-19 and many more.

The first and the last two shows mentioned above play on the homonym of yi for epidemic (疫) and battle (役). The radical chuang (疒) for disease in epidemic is replaced by the radical chi (彳) to form battle. 彳suggests little steps like those taken by soldiers at the guard post holding a weapon or lance inherent in the radical shu (殳). 彳also denotes two persons or a group in combat readiness. Broadly speaking, yi (役) means military service, forced labour, and duty. Seemingly an academic exercise, any wordplay purchases discursive and conceptual control. The fight against the epidemic, by word association and emotional affiliation, comes to acquire a sense of military urgency and even honour.

By contrast, the American war on the virus is decentralised and feckless, mutating into party and tribal feuds. As someone who came of age under Taiwan’s nearly four-decade-long martial law and draconian restrictions on personal freedom, safety measures of masking up, social distancing, exercising self-discipline and self-quarantine, and surgical lockdown are uncomfortable, yet fall well within tolerable limits for the sake of personal and public health. American defiance of sound medical advice is tantamount to subconscious endocannibalism, if not suicidal; anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and reckless partygoers devour the non-feral, rule-abiding half of the population, in the name of individual rights.

In China, the state apparatus of propaganda, particularly China Central Television (CCTV) which produced most of the docudramas, mobilises Chinese viewers as though it were wartime, combating an invisible, silent, yet perniciously viral enemy. The lockdown is implemented in the manner of a city besieged, under assault. Such defensive measures inform not only medical procedures but media productions. The city shutdown and the media showdown focus on self-preservation, pitting all Chinese against incursion of a deadly foe. Both approaches elide the fact that Covid-19 originated from within, in Wuhan, where the zoonotic transmission from animals to humans most likely occurred. Of course, Chinese propaganda increasingly points elsewhere for the genesis of Covid-19: “food packages” from Italy, “pork from Germany, shrimp from Ecuador, salmon from Norway,” as Javier C. Hernández reports in “China Peddles Falsehoods to Obscure Origin of Covid Pandemic” in The New York Times on December 6, 2020. Ironically, the “godsend” from Wuhan inaugurating President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Century” is displaced onto Italy’s end, Germany’s end, and the like. A prominent wolf warrior diplomat, Zhao Lijian, deputy director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department, tweeted, among other things, that U.S. military personnel brought the coronavirus to Wuhan in October 2019—hence, America’s end. Such obfuscation would lead not only to the impossibility of identifying the index patient where the virus first jumped species, but also to the possibility of déjà vu for another pandemic outbreak in the wake of trailblazing comrade bugs of SARS, Avian Flu, and COVID finding their way into a Chinese or non-Chinese mouth. China’s despotic secrecy ensures international suspicion and, heaven forbid, another round of “China’s end” in the coming century.

To leave aside a host of nationalist, self-flattering docudramas, one TV series, Together (在一起), stands out in demonstrating the concerted effort of the Chinese government and the media industry, blending political message with artistic value. Together leans to the fictional rather than documentary genre, but its closing credits not only update patients’ and medical workers’ conditions as if they were real people but also emphasises the real stories from which it extracts the plot. Far better than documentaries, it serves the state agenda as well as boosts performing arts in showcasing Covid-19 Triumphalism. First broadcast on 29 September 2020, Together consists of twenty episodes on ten independent stories each divided into two halves, starting from Wuhan, branching out to other cities, and circling back to Wuhan in closure. With a stellar cast from current TV serial dramas, Together reprises the key theme of shared sacrifice for the common good. Running throughout the series is the elevating of one’s big family of the community and the nation over one’s small, nuclear family and, certainly, oneself. Hence, it features not so much conflicted characters since any personal choice has already been made in favour of the public. Like all good communist propaganda or Trumpian demagoguery, repetition is the key to turning fiction into (alternative) fact, or at least into an article of faith among the converted. Reiterating the motif twenty times in ten stories through dozens of well-liked, even revered, actors drives home the message of China’s Triumphalism over Covid-19.

To illustrate, the first two episodes of Together entitled “Life’s Turning Point” map out the playbook for the entire series. All ten stories are told from the point of view of frontline doctors, nurses, and essential workers coping with the outbreak of a new virus suspected to be linked to SARS and Avian Flu. By featuring the frontline combatants against Covid-19, Together privileges active agents over helpless recipients of medical treatment and their family. Even the worst-case scenario of patients succumbing to Covid, shown in “Life’s Turning Point”, is turned into a postmortem fighter of sorts, as the grieving elderly mother donates her son’s body for autopsy to help find the pathogen and ultimately the cure.

In the opening two episodes, Zhang Jiayi, the paragon of “good father” on TV, plays the out-going Director Zhang of Jianghan Infectious Disease Hospital, in semi-retirement due to failing health. The in-coming Director Tan calls Zhang “Shifu,” master, apparently trained by Zhang. The close-knit hospital staff members form a big family under the father figure Zhang. The show opens with Zhang and a female doctor on vacation cheering for her son in his fencing match. Both are summarily called back by Director Tan into a gathering yet unknown vortex. Self-sacrifice and forgoing the individual family seem a matter of course. Tan and his nurse wife also begin eating and sleeping in their car to prevent returning home to contaminate their son under the care of the paternal grandmother. Tan in fact contracts the virus and wishes to donate his body for autopsy since no family of the deceased had yet agreed to do so. The team of nurses, likewise, cut off their long hair, a symbol of traditional femininity, to save time combing it. Duty over family and the self constitutes the melodramatic, tear jerking highlights in the struggle of life and death.

In this battle against the pandemic, leadership experience and decisiveness shine, an instinctual gravitation to power typical of autocratic systems. Zhang, Tan, and their hospital team meet with the party officials at the early stages of the outbreak. Party officials instruct that this is a “war of annihilation”. The leader of the officials even addresses Zhang with the endearment of “Lao Zhang”, indicating a camaraderie forged from previous campaigns against infectious diseases. If it were “a war of annihilation”, Lao Zhang rejoins, “then we need to have ammunition, provisions”. Such warfare metaphors trickle down from the Party leader and the hospital head to the floor of each ward, from TV celebrities to the heart of viewers, all witnesses and survivors of China’s recent onslaughts of SARS and other pandemics. This is the fundamental sleight of hand of propaganda; a trickle down of the top leadership’s ideology veils itself as a bottom-up welling of self-sacrifice.

“Life’s Turning Point” times itself around Chinese Lunar New Year that fell on 25 January 2020. It opens around 30 December 2019, and proceeds incrementally to 6, 10, 16, 22, and 23 January when the eponymous turning point of Wuhan lockdown began, two days before Lunar New Year; a decidedly traumatic experience that cancelled out the annual family and communal gathering no different from Christmas. It ends on 4 February 2020, when the corner is clearly turned. As characters whisk off their masks in the closing moments, returning to normal again, the viewer is surprised to find the masked deliveryman, an extra who appears twice in long shots delivering food ordered online, each cameo with a single line or two, is none other than Lei Jiayin with numerous films and TV series to his name. Lei crystalises the theme of self-effacement by remaining a nobody throughout, but the final unmasking endows him with even more stature. Taken to the extreme, martyrdom inhabits such irony; martyrs give up their lives for the greater glory of an afterlife.

Lei’s masquerade is shared by all characters. Much of the ICU scenes are a blur, quick cuts and fragments of medical jargons, captured by jolting, dizzying hand-held cameras to simulate the rush of events. Not much nuanced performance with faces and bodies is even possible since all wear masks and bulky full-body suits. Be that as it may, Zhang manages to perform despite the personal protection equipment. Barely able to stand after an emergency resuscitation, Zhang plops down on a nearby chair. The concerned team, led by his disciple Tan, moves toward Zhang in slow motion. Also in slow motion, Zhang waves them away, back to the patient.

Dr. Zhang waves concerned colleagues away from himself and back to the patient in Together (2020)

This is the minimalist hand gesture that characterises the father’s last wish in the Korean thriller The Host (2006) as well, when the father perceives his imminent end, signalling to his children to run for their lives. The counterintuitive move of forfeiting himself to protect the brood—children or hospital staff—epitomises or perhaps usurps the maternal instinct. Coincidentally, both father figures battling Wuhan’s infinitesimal and Seoul’s gargantuan monsters gesture with their left hand, secondary to a right-handed Asian patriarchy, as though making light of their own sacrifice. Maudlin or moving, art serves the interest of the State, the invisible father of the collective family. By turning away any help, the father helps himself to greater heights, transcending physical pain and individual loss, a role model of Covid-19 Triumphalism. China exploits the traditional emphasis on self-effacement, whereas the Divided States of America disintegrates, courtesy of state and individual rights, particularly Trumpian white privilege.

Chinese propaganda aside, did China actually win in the fight against Covid-19, in comparison to the American carnage left by Trump’s brash dismissal of the pandemic as a “democratic hoax,” a “flu” that was to vanish magically, and his example of flouting safety measures? In the waning days of the Trump presidency, the U.S. had suffered the highest number of Covid-related fatalities in the world, a bungled rollout of vaccines in the absence of any federal planning, and a Trump-instigated insurrection full of Yeatsian “passionate intensity” against the U.S. Capitol. China has no need for self-inflation in docudramas. America has managed to implode on its own, a spontaneous combustion fusing racial and socioeconomic injustice, conveniently blamed on the scapegoat of the “CHINESE” bug.


Works Cited:

Hernández, Javier C. “China Peddles Falsehoods to Obscure Origin of Covid Pandemic.” The New York Times, December 6, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/06/world/asia/china-covid-origin-falsehoods.html. Accessed December 6, 2020.

The Host. Directed by Bong Joon-ho, performances by Kang-ho Song, Hie-bong Byeon, and Hae-il Park. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2006.

Together (在一起). 20-episode TV docudramas broadcast April-June 27, 2020 on TV stations and online across China. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bWxRp4XGFY. Accessed July 2020.

About the Author

Sheng-mei Ma is Professor of English at Michigan State University in Michigan, USA, specialising in Asian Diaspora and East-West comparative studies. He is the author of ten books: On East-West (2021); Off-White (2019); Sinophone-Anglophone Cultural Duet (2017); The Last Isle (2015); Alienglish (2014); Asian Diaspora and East-West Modernity (2012); Diaspora Literature and Visual Culture (2011); East-West Montage (2007); The Deathly Embrace (2000); and Immigrant Subjectivities in Asian American and Asian Diaspora Literatures (1998). He is also the co-editor of four books, including Transnational Narratives in Englishes of Exile (2018), and the author of a collection of poetry in Chinese.