Hu Fayun’s Such Is This World@sars.come

Ruyan@sars.come is the original Chinese title of this novel, a beautifully written book that got wide attention when it was published online in China a couple years ago, and a book that has since been “banned” by the Chinese government, for whatever that’s worth.

Hu Fayun has written the book I’ve dreamed of: historical fiction that truly captures what China was like during the time of SARS, and that in doing so opens a panoramic historiographical window on modern China.

Just as impressive as the book is its translation by A. E. Clark, who has annotated the text with more than 400 footnotes, rather unusual for a novel, and these notes provide nothing less than a primer on modern Chinese history and politics. References to Chinese literature and poetry, slogans from throughout the Mao era, the names of the various purges Mao initiated and their victims, the songs of revolution, euphemisms for the Great Famine and the TSM, hundreds of colloquial expressions and lines with veiled meanings…. These painstaking notes help hold together a book that, to most Western readers (and probably most contemporary Chinese readers), would often be mystifying, or at least incomplete.

Before I go on about the book, let me mention that the breakout of SARS in 2003 defined my outlook on China for years to come. It was my first face-to-face encounter with the government’s capacity for deceit and flat-out dishonesty and I wasn’t at all ready for it. If you dig back into my posts in April of 2003, you’ll find it was all I wrote about. I was obsessed — just like everyone else in Beijing. It was SARS that made me take blogging seriously, and it was SARS that turned this into a “real blog,” as opposed to a place for me to jot personal notes. For several months, it was SARS that caused me to look on the CCP with nothing but contempt and loathing.

That explains why this book resonated with me, why I read it with such fascination, though even had I not been in China at the time I’d still find it invaluable.

Set in “City X,” Such Is This World tells the story of a 40-something widow, Ru Yan, whose son gives her a PC and a little dog before he leaves to study in France. Ru Yan discovers the Internet, and new doors open for her everywhere, universes she never knew existed, tools for talking with her son via video, and forums that allow her to express herself, and that allow her creative talents to blossom. Describing a video chat with her son:

In the video frame he waved to Ru Yan, and then the window closed. His voice, too, disappeared in the darkness. Ru Yan thought of fairy tales she had read when she was little, with their mirrors and crystal balls and genies’ lamps haloed in the light, where supernatural beings appeared and disappeared without a trace.

She joins the Empty Nest forum for parents whose children are studying abroad, and her life takes on a whole new dimension. Under the screen name Such Is This World, her essays are picked up and published on other sites, and her life has a new purpose. Through the forum she becomes friends with a brilliant essayist, Damo, and through him Damo’s mentor, Teacher Wei, once a renowned party official and theoretician, a victim of Mao’s purges and later of the Cultural Revolution. By telling Damo’s and Teacher Wei’s past, the author immerses us in the horrors of Mao’s China, an irrational world in which one day you are purging people under you, and the next day they are purging you, where words innocently uttered years ago can put you at terrible risk today,where no one is safe, where guilt by association can instantly ruin the lives of individuals and families whose sole crime was having known the wrong person.Teacher Wei’s family is ripped apart, partly by his association with the disgraced writer Hu Feng, who criticized Mao’s writings, with disastrous consequences for Wei. Later his wife and children’s lives are all but ruined when it’s discovered that decades ago Wei’s brother emigrated to Taiwan.

Tales of guilt by association and never-ending persecutions is a recurring theme in the book. Banishment to the countryside, condemnation during the Cultural Revolution, getting swept up in this purge or that — most of the characters have been traumatized. The most eloquent voice on the sufferings China has gone through is Teacher Wei’s.

In a few decades we lost the ability to express pain and grief. We lost the ability to express love. What we got instead was something paltry and preposterous….When the revolution came full circle and hit me on the head; when I was cast down so low, with almost no hope of ever being rehabilitated, only then did certain questions occur to me. But by then the cataract of revolution was unstoppable, and thousands upon thousands of intellectuals were engulfed in the flood and washed away.

Ru Yan’s Internet essays come back to haunt her when she writes too honestly, especially about a strange new disease that soon creates dread throughout the country. It is with the introduction of SARS about half-way through the book that it takes on a new and page-turning intensity. Her essays destroy a promising romance between Ru Yan and a highly regarded deputy mayor and subject her to hateful abuse in the Empty Nest forum.

Three incidents converge at once. The hysteria over SARS, the US invasion of Iraq, and the murder by the police of the young graduate student Sun Zhigang. Again, this resonated with me because it was SARS and Sun Zhigang that most molded my view of China that same year. Yes, there was much more than that to China, but in 2003 I was there, alone, and these disasters became a big part of my world. Hu Fayun reminds us of the outrage the murder generated, and all that it said about the government and its vile “vagrancy” law, that was soon after eliminated. Hu recreates the terrifying scenes of yellow tape covering houses and buildings that housed SARS victims. It brought back to me the day when SARS was discovered in my own office building. I can still hear the shouts in my office, the panic. The book also brings back the insanity I witnessed every day, the huge snaking lines at the supermarket, the face masks everywhere, the empty streets, the taxis that refused to pick me up — Such Is This World @sars.come brought it all back as if it were yesterday. (If you’re new to this blog you may want to visit my April 2003 archives to understand just how much my life revolved around SARS.)

But SARS is really a small part of this book. The book is about freedom, about artistic liberty, about integrity, and of how even the most ardent of reformers can be bought and paid for by a government dangling goodies and perqs. It’s also all about Mao and the fear he incited. It’s about the intellectual vacuum that Mao ushered in. One of the most poignant moments comes when Teacher Wei cries out that no great author or artist captured first-hand the horrors of Mao’s China. Russia in WWII had the great Vassily Grossman, who chronicled both Stalingrad and Treblinka, and Victor Klemperer who documented the day-to-day sufferings of Germany’s Jews as the noose tightened. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon chronicling the miseries of the Western Front of WWI. And on and on. But no one, Teacher Wei despairs, was there to capture the pain and misery of post-revolutionary China. Terror. The book is really all about terror, for terror was what life under Mao was all about, terror of being informed on, of being attacked by Red Guards, terror of saying just about anything that might be perceived as critical of Mao or the party. Terror, and cynicism, too, as sincere believers in reform become disillusioned and powerless.

According to pieces I’ve read, Ru Yan has become something of a hero to many Chinese, which makes sense. She expresses herself freely and, though by nature unpolitical, she stands up to authority, especially in one of the most grueling scenes of the book, when security guards butcher pet dogs on the streets, literally pulling them apart, another idiotic government decree to fight SARS. But this leads me to my one issue with the book, namely a stretching of one’s credibility. Ru Yan’s essays on both the massacres of pet dogs and the spread of SARS to her northern Chinese city get picked up by bloggers and news sites around the world. This leads to companies canceling their plans to hold conventions in China, and makes the entire world afraid of the country. This is a bit much, as China-based foreign correspondents were pumping these stories out on a daily basis, and the idea that one Chinese woman posting essays in an obscure chat room ignited the international attention that isolated China is hard to swallow.

Doesn’t matter. This is a great novel and an unequaled look into contemporary China and how/why it is what it is today. I don’t know if it’s for sale yet in the West, but when it is, buy a copy. It has everything — suspense, intrigue, history, pathos, romance, sex (briefly), philosophy and politics. A great novel with a great translation.

A note on the somewhat awkward title, Such Is This World @sars.come. From the translator’s footnotes:

The Chinese title ruyan@sars.come involved an untranslatable pun on a phrase and a name, both pronounced Ru Yan… The spelling “.come,” though emended by many a journalist, is not a typographical error but rather a punning experience to the coming of the SARS epidemic which shapes Ru Yan’s experience both on the Internet and off.

For excerpts of the book, go here. For a biography of Hu Fayun go here.

Update: You can order the book here. Your order will help ensure that great Chinese books like this will continue to be translated and distributed.

The Discussion: 28 Comments

Dear Richard,

Thank you for that post. The events you describe also correspond very well to the ones which helped form my views of the Chinese government.

In 2003 I was still several years away from using the internet from anything but checking my email and the news – I didn’t even comment on a blog until 2006. I spent the months between my arrival in early 2003 and the cancelled May holiday simply assuming that whatever SARS was, it was no concern of mine, since I knew no-one (or at least, thought I knew no-one) with chlamydia (what they originally said SARS was).

The cancellation of the holiday (or shortening, I forget which) was very shortly followed by me getting thrown out of my hotel, since the hotel was designated to be used as a quarantine area. I was given the choice of staying at the university I was working at (by which I mean IN the university, and not leaving) or leaving, but in doing so losing my job and thus any right I had to stay in the country. It was a choice between staying, and leaving the country. I chose to leave, with the offer of a job in Taiwan. Unfortunately the Taiwanese government cancelled all visas from mainland China and HK on the same day I made this decision.

Being someone who thought himself rather clever, I looked at the map and chose the country closest to Taiwan – the Philippines. I flew into Manila a few day later. Unfortunately for me, the Taiwanese government decided to cancel all visas from the Philippines the day I arrived there.

I was stuck. Having no job in the PRC I could not go back there. I could not go on to Taiwan to take up my job there. I could not stay in the Philippines. Happily I had a bit of money handy and ended up working in a hospital in the UK for a few months – in which they had a suspected SARS case. In due time I went back to finish what I felt was my unfinished business in Nanjing.

Just like you, though, my impression of the CCP was fixed at that point. Far from being “brainwashed” by the westernmedia (hell, I’m writing this as one word from now on), I was “brainwashed” by the CCP into hating them by direct evidence of their venality, corruption, and incompetence.

The bizarre scenes in the middle of Nanjing, where not a person was to be seen. People wearing and adjusting their masks continuously. An empty Xinjiekou, the usually bustling heart of a city of more than 6 million people. The suspicion of foreigners, and of even fellow countrymen. The disinfection. The pointlessness of a campaign which probably had little to no impact on the spread of the disease.

Damn, but I was 22 then,and it seems a long time ago . . . .

May 13, 2011 @ 6:42 am | Comment

Thanks for the great comment, FOARP. What made it especially dramatic for me was that I was working for a multinational company and we made our money mainly through big media events for our overseas clients. With SARS, of course, all these events were canceled, and for two months my life was surreal, sitting in the office with no work to speak of, wondering just how bad things were going to get. All we talked about was SARS, 24/7. Most foreigners left. Seeing much of Beijing deserted is an image I’ll never forget.

May 13, 2011 @ 6:48 am | Comment

Thank you, Richard, for that eloquent and evocative review. You identified the multiple dimensions of the book which make it so appealing. I am struck that it resonated so strongly with your own personal memories of that fateful year: it seems the SARS crisis shaped your outlook as much as it did that of the fictional Ru Yan!

Two trifling corrections: the online forum where Ru Yan blossoms and then gets into trouble is called the Empty Nest; “Lonely Goose” is the screen name of the senior moderator of that forum. And my footnote about the title refers to “a punning reference to the coming of the SARS epidemic,” not “a punning experience to the combining of the SARS epidemic.”

You are right that since many journalists were energetically on the case, Ru Yan’s posts cannot plausibly be credited with breaking the news of SARS. But I don’t think the novel says that her posts shook up China or the world, only that they shook up City X. The foreigners slated to attend the conventions for which the municipal government had high hopes were aware of SARS, but Ru Yan’s posts made them aware of the extent to which the infection was rampant in City X, and of the repellent way the city was dealing with it. This is what leads them to back out of attending the conventions, and it seems to me that imputing this local impact to Ru Yan’s outspokenness falls within the limits of dramatic license.

Readers wanting to sample the text can read Chapter 25 in its entirety on the Ragged Banner website, where they can also purchase hardcover or electronic editions of the book.

Again, my deepest thanks for your thoughtful response to Hu Fayun’s work and your kind words about the English edition.

May 13, 2011 @ 9:04 am | Comment

Thanks so much for the comment, and for the corrections, which I’ve corrected in the post. They were typos, caused by writing way too fast, as usual.

May 13, 2011 @ 9:12 am | Comment

So…is there a link to buy the book? I guess I will try The Google for Ragged Banner.

Richard, your passion for this story comes across so clearly. A. E. Clark, I’m thanking you in advance for your fine work. I really want to read this.

May 13, 2011 @ 12:30 pm | Comment

Lisa, to the best of my knowledge the book hasn’t been released yet. I’m hoping A. E. can let us know how to order it.

May 13, 2011 @ 12:46 pm | Comment

Yes, the book has been released and can be ordered at:

May 13, 2011 @ 7:29 pm | Comment

The response to SARS was a mixture of hysteria, incompetence and suppression of information. This was typified in HK, where the health department head Dr Margaret Chan did everything she could to follow the Beijing script. She is now, thanks to China’s backing, the compliant head of the World Health Organisation. She repeated the incompetent but pliant act in her panicky over-reaction to the mild worldwide outbreak of swine flu. Remember all the face masks and the biohazard temperature monitors boarding incoming flights to put hundreds of visitors into quarantine for weeks on end? All this for a virus that proved to be more benign than a usual flu season.

May 13, 2011 @ 9:20 pm | Comment

The reason SARS was so hyped was because it was new, and it was not understood or defined. Like Mad Cow Disease and the ebola virus. Several of the early SARS patients died, and died quickly. In terms of its gross death rate, it was a very minor affliction. It would have had far less impact on China if the government had simply addressed it earlier instead of denying it.

May 13, 2011 @ 11:55 pm | Comment

I have a different recollection of the SARS thingy having arrived in Fujian a few months previously after years working in medical education (notifiable infectious diseases) and having a reasonable understanding of epidemiology and similar.My overwhelming impression was that of just about every world expert rolling out their computer models and predictions of deaths in the high six figures. Bit like AIDS CDC types flying into Africa with their wild predictions simply to get their CV punched. End result: 1 death in Fujian and 400 plus on the Mainland.

The work front was a hoot. Admin provided all staff with a bottle of vinegar to sprinkle around our apartments. Some po faced Party type advised us at a staff meeting that the local military hospital had developed a vaccine. Eye rolls and smirks all round. Forbidden to take buses, but best of all I got to play nurse, and take temperatures twice a day of some really hot work colleagues.

The whole episode did not breed cynicism, since that was already well developed after a couple of months of watching different sections of the admin trying to shaft each other.

Crikey Richard. Talking about SARS 24/7. God, you must have been working with uninteresting drones. My work place of 12 people of all nationalities had an anarchic time, mucho jokes, impersonations etc.

All your earnestness above is at odds with our expereince.

May 14, 2011 @ 12:13 am | Comment

Tubby, it was different in Beijing, where the government’s lies created a panic because no one knew what to believe. When it was learned via a whistleblower that more than 3,000 citizens were infected everything went crazy. Most of the foreigners (at least in the business community) fled. Everything was closed, supermarkets were sold out, the streets were empty. Beijing was hit hardest, psychologically, because the Party Congress was being held there and the party wanted the world to see a happy, healthy Beijing and thus lied their heads off about it. When the lie was discovered the government lost all credibility. A great public relations case study on how to screw up a crisis and make it much worse than it had to be.

May 14, 2011 @ 12:23 am | Comment

@KT – Have to back Richard here, the way SARS came down in Nanjing was a clusterfuck and a half. I literally came back from the pub to find that a notice had been fixed on the door of the room I was staying in in the hotel to find that I had to be out by the next morning, then we got told that we had a choice between staying under quarantine in the university or leaving the country.

May 14, 2011 @ 1:51 am | Comment

Sure. We knew the government was lying like a flat fish, but that was our experience and I did get to play nurse. Since we all had our own digs, lifestyles simply became more home based for a couple of weeks.I laughed at the western predictions and I was right after the fog lifted.

May 14, 2011 @ 4:25 am | Comment

Rather typical. You describe the book as “banned”… when, in reality, it’s widely available just about everywhere.

Online for free, for that matter:

Of course, only if the book is banned does it fit properly in the context of your heroic struggle against the oppressive “Man” (or Party, in this case).

May 14, 2011 @ 6:26 am | Comment

Did you really not notice that I put the word BANNED in quotation marks, followed by the phrase “for whatever that’s worth”?? In other words I am saying it’s technically banned but in truth is not banned at all. Try reading carefully and try to look for nuance.

May 14, 2011 @ 6:46 am | Comment

Of all the things to talk about on this thread, CC gets his knickers in a twist about “banned”? Are you kidding me?

Maybe Richard should’ve included a video clip of himself flashing air quotes, or a sarcasm disclaimer, to help out those who seriously need it.

May 14, 2011 @ 8:39 am | Comment

50 Centers don’t do nuance.

May 14, 2011 @ 1:35 pm | Comment

How about buying the book from Amazon – I take it will get there eventually.

May 15, 2011 @ 8:43 pm | Comment

S.K. Cheung, people like CC only read this blog in the hope of finding something to criticise Richard about.

May 15, 2011 @ 8:44 pm | Comment

How much do you think these guys get paid per post? Must be more than 50 cents.

A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an “online persona management service” that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world….

The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries”.

May 15, 2011 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

Raj, the same commenter wrote a series of incredibly nasty comments that have been removed. You’re right, his sole purpose is to try t make me look bad. Too bad his comments, like the one that remains, were patently ridiculous and written solely to be insulting.

May 16, 2011 @ 1:03 am | Comment

To Richard and Raj:
legitimate criticism puts the focus on the subject. Mindless criticism just makes the writer look stupid. But prospects of the latter have never stopped CC and his ilk before.

To Red Star:
I agree. To try to win hearts and minds under false pretenses is a pointless endeavour that might procure short term hollow victories, but is more likely to backfire in the long-run. And even those short term hollow victories are not a foregone conclusion, if the CCP overseas experience is any indication.

May 16, 2011 @ 3:31 am | Comment

@Raj: Some bricks-and-mortar shops will have this book, but to purchase it online, go to Ragged Banner Press. (It will not be distributed through Amazon.)

May 16, 2011 @ 10:21 am | Comment

Why won’t it be distributed through amazon?

May 17, 2011 @ 5:53 am | Comment

The Yangzhe river is running low, to the point that it is down to 50 meters width in some places, and so shallow at points that river traffic has had to be stopped.

Half way around the world, the Mississippi has more than she can handle, and to a lesser extent, the Assiniboine River in southern Manitoba as well. Weird times.

May 17, 2011 @ 6:05 am | Comment

Weird times

Not really. Scientists have been warning us about this for years.

May 17, 2011 @ 8:57 am | Comment

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July 12, 2011 @ 9:20 am | Pingback

[…] misfortunes that have afflicted Hu Fayun’s 2004 dissident novel Such Is This World@sars.come have therefore been nothing out of the ordinary. The manuscript was posted on a website in 2005; […]

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