Totalitarian Ordinariness:
The Chinese Epidemic Novel as World Literature

By Belinda Kong

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 30, no.1  (Spring 2018), pp. 136-62

This essay examines contemporary global pandemic discourse and its implications for reading practices around the Chinese epidemic novel.  In 2003, this pandemic discourse focused on China during the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak, producing a contemporary form of pandemic orientalism that portrays China as the exceptional site of the world’s disease ground zero.  In opposition to this pandemic orientalism, the essay advocates reading contemporary Chinese literature—particularly the Chinese epidemic novel—as “world literature.” Following Pheng Cheah’s formulation, it argues that the Chinese epidemic novel may be analyzed with dual geopolitical emphases, with attention to not only the role of geopolitics in the production of world literature but also the capacity of literature to rewrite prevailing accounts of worldness.  From this perspective, Chinese literature can serve to tactically intervene on world-claiming orientalist discourses in other arenas such as global public health and biosecurity.  If post-SARS pandemic discourse advances one powerful description of the world today by constructing China as a kind of dystopic text, a virtual epidemic novel that requires constant scrutiny for signs of outbreak or deviance, this essay turns to Chinese epidemic novels as fortuitous countertexts that offer alternative narratives of global infectious disease while destabilizing the universal claims of pandemic discourse.  The essay couples attention to this transdisciplinary dimension of world literature with a method of geopolitical close reading, spotlighting textual moments of “totalitarian ordinariness”—scenes of quiet or unexceptional everyday life under totalitarian rule that supplement and unfold alongside scenes of crisis or emergency.