Déjà Vu: Revisiting Hu Fayun’s
SARS Novel during the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic

By Haiyan Lee

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May 2020)

In the summer of 2016, I visited the Wuhan-based author Hu Fayun in his home to interview him on the subject of his animal-themed writings and animal welfare activism. I had written about his claim-to-fame Internet novel Such Is This World@SARS.Come (2006)[1] as well as his environmentalist novel The Disappearance of Lao Hai (2001),[2] and am an admirer of his political astuteness and outspokenness. When Wuhan went into lockdown more than three months ago, I thought often about him and his SARS novel. Hu set the novel in an unnamed city in central China during the 2003 SARS epidemic, though few Chinese readers would fail to recognize the setting as Wuhan—this time the original epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. The novel was first serialized online and, I shudder to say, went viral. The print edition became a bestseller and was subsequently banned by the government.[3]

In these surreal times of shelter-in-place orders and grim forecasts, I can’t help but marvel at the star turn that Wuhan has perforce rendered in the two epidemics that have bookended the first two decades of the 21st century. Although SARS originated in south China, its full horror unfolds most viscerally in Hu Fayun’s Wuhan. There is even a Fang Fang-like character in Such Is This World@SARS.Come whose blogging lands her in hot water.[4] For those who have not read the novel or whose memory has faded, here’s a quick refresher:

The main character is a middle-aged botanist named Ru Yan who lives alone with a dog. She finds solace on the Internet and becomes the host of a chatroom for empty-nesters. She meets a variety of quirky personages online including a mechanic and autodidact who introduces her to a philosophical reading group led by a charismatic professor. She experiences an intellectual awakening and begins blogging about wider subjects. Her trouble begins after she posts a blog about a strange disease that is stalking south China and has caused her brother-in-law there to be quarantined. In no time the epidemic reaches her city, but the government refuses to acknowledge it. Instead it imposes a media blackout while trying to contain the spread in a whack-a-mole fashion, carting off infected individuals to ERs and putting their families under virtual house arrest. The government also launches an extermination campaign against the city’s cats and dogs, wrongly regarded as carriers of the pathogen. Shocked by the brutality of the animal squads and fearing for her own dog, Ru Yan speaks out again and becomes a target of censorship and online flaming. Soon both she and her dog resign to a quivering, anguished silence. Winding through all this upheaval is a slow-burning romance between Ru Yan and a deputy mayor that ends badly but gives the novel an absorbing sideshow.

Now that we are neck-deep in a new, far deadlier pandemic, politicians around the world have attempted to exculpate themselves by claiming to have been caught off guard. “Nobody saw this coming,” as Trump likes to say. Yet epidemiologists and public health experts have long predicted another pandemic likely caused by an infectious zoonotic disease. They have told us that it’s not a matter of if, but when and where. That it’s a Chinese city that again stepped into the void is perhaps not so coincidental, for the basic conditions that gave rise to SARS have changed little

If the experts are correct in their conjectures about the likely origin of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, then we need to shine a harsh light on the quasi-legal trafficking and consumption of wildlife in China. Enough has been written about the dangerous commingling of wild animals, livestock, and humans in China’s poorly regulated wet markets.[5] Even more has been written about the bureaucratic structure that disincentivizes the reporting of bad news up the bureaucratic hierarchy.[6] Above all, since regime legitimacy rests so heavily on economic growth and GDP numbers, a reckless developmentalism and an eagerness to remove any roadblocks to growth have taken hold in officialdom. A contagious disease is an ultimate unwelcome party-crasher.

There are microbiological reasons why COVID is so much deadlier than SARS, but there are also unprecedented political-economic factors why a third of humanity is now hunkering down at home and civilization as we know it has ground to a halt. The biggest of these new factors is China’s deepening integration into the global capitalist order since its entry into the WTO in 2001 and the accompanying exponential expansion of trade, tourism, and travel between China and the rest of the world. Among all the statistics one can cite, one number speaks volumes: in 2020 Wuhan is served by more than 500 direct international flights a day, a dramatic rise from a negligible number in 2003 (direct flights started in 2000).[7] Even more importantly, as “the thoroughfare of China,” Wuhan is the nerve central of domestic air, rail, road, and river transportation networks.[8] Together these old and new factors have conspired to convert an epidemic into a global pandemic in a matter of weeks.

I have been interested in human-animal relations for many years and wrote about Hu Fayun’s novel from an animal studies perspective.[9] I was interested in how the novel foregrounds the fate of animals during a public health crisis by juxtaposing the brutalization of animals with a population’s descent into the state of bare life. The animal angle is still very relevant today, though thankfully this time there’s no pet massacre.

According to some experts, the novel coronavirus is, like SARS, zoonotic in origin. It may have jumped from bats to livestock and/or humans directly or via an intermediate species. The ground zero of this outbreak appears to be a seafood market in Wuhan where wild animals and livestock are slaughtered on the spot and sold to customers who prize unadulterated freshness of their meat. A few years ago, I wrote a blog about the cultural logic and contemporary implications of the Chinese practice of consuming exotic animals.[10] In brief, in traditional Chinese medicine, exotic flora and fauna are believed to have potent healing (and sometimes aphrodisiac) powers. Today with the ever-greater enmeshment of global markets and the ballooning of China’s middle class, what was once a luxury has exploded into a bottomless pit of daily consumer demand. It has fueled transborder trafficking in wildlife, leading to the decimation and endangerment of many species, and making zoonotic disease outbreaks a constant threat and now and then a deadly reality.

But infectious zoonoses are not confined to China. The HIV virus is said to have jumped species at mining campsites where African laborers were forced to live off bushmeat. Then there are Ebola, zika, avian flu, and so on, diseases with global ramifications. Although most consumers in post-industrial societies get their cellophane-wrapped meat from antiseptic supermarkets, conditions in factory farms are by no means watertight against zoonoses—think “mad cow” disease. Our encroachment into wildlife habitats and our unsustainable meat/dairy industries have made us increasingly vulnerable to zoonotic spillovers. It’s time that we rethink how we live with animals and the non-human world at large. We should be able to wrestle with this question without going off the deep end, to join in the ecofascist chorus of schadenfreude spread by an Internet meme that jauntily elevates coronavirus to nature’s vaccine and demeans humanity as the virus. This is wrongheaded because it pits humanity against (and thus takes us outside of) nature. And the “we are the virus” refrain barely conceals a eugenicist racism that deems only some of “us” as unclean, prone to contagion, and unfit to live.[11]

In the 2010s, Hu Fayun’s novel attracted some attention abroad for its daring criticism of the state’s habitual suppression of information and censorship practices.[12] Unfortunately, the fact that it’s a banned book is part of the now familiar story of how the lessons of SARS are not learned in China as compared with other SARS ravaged regions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea. As I noted above, the conditions that obtained seventeen years ago in China have remained more or less in place, with new developments thrown in to make a new outbreak both inevitable and manifold more devastating.

Also unfortunately, it seems that even as humanity is facing a historic peril, some people are still more interested in fighting tribal and partisan battles, especially in China and the U.S. With China’s success in flattening the curve within its borders, there are those who are openly voicing admiration for authoritarianism and doubting the viability of democracy in coping with a crisis of this magnitude. I imagine that this fight will be a big part of the COVID-19 post-mortem.

Nonetheless, there is one thing I think we can all agree on: our fates are inexorably interlinked not just by globalization, but also by microbes. While the scientists are the ones who will hopefully save humanity from perishing, the rest of us, especially those of us in the human sciences, will have to figure out how to survive as members of a community of fate.

Haiyan Lee
Stanford University


[1] Hu Fayun 胡發雲, Ruyan如焉@sars.come (Such is this world@sars.come) (Beijing: Zhongguo guoji guangbo, 2006) and (Hong Kong: Wenhua yishu, 2007). English translation: Such Is This World@sars.come. Tr. by Andrew Clark (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Ragged Banner Press, 2011).

[2] Hu Fayun 胡发云, Lao Hai shizong 老海失踪 (The disappearance of Lao Hai) (Wuhan: Changjiang wenyi, 2001).

[3] Hu Ping 胡平, “Du Hu Fayun xiaoshuo Ruyan” 读胡发云小说《如焉》(Reading Hu Fayun’s novel Ru Yan). Banbooks.org, 2007.

[4] On Fang Fang, see Marco Fumian, “To Serve the People or the Party: Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary and Chinese Writers at the Time of Coronavirus.” MCLC Resource Center Publication (April 2020).

[5] David Benatar, “Our Cruel Treatment of Animals Led to the Coronavirus.” The New York Times (April 13, 2020). Jackie Northam, “Calls to Ban Wildlife Markets Worldwide Gain Steam amid Pandemic.” NPR (April 19, 2020). Eva Illouz, “Coronavirus Reveals What Really Makes the World Go Round, and It’s Not Money.” Haaretz (April 4, 2020).

[6] Ho-fung Hung, “Holding Beijing Accountable for the Coronavirus Is Not Racist.” Journal of Political Risk 8, no. 3 (March 2020).

[7] Zeynep Tufekci, “It Wasn’t Just Trump Who Got It Wrong: America’s coronavirus response failed because we didn’t understand the complexity of the problem.” The Atlantic (March 24, 2020).

[8] He Huifeng, “Why Wuhan is so important to China’s economy and the potential impact of the coronavirus.” South China Morning Post (January 24, 2020).

[9] Haiyan Lee, “Animals Are Us.” In Lee, The Stranger and the Chinese Moral Imagination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014), 71-116.

[10] Haiyan Lee, “Chinese Paw-litics, Anyone?” China Policy Institute Blog (July 7, 2016).

[11] Sierra Garcia, “‘We’re the Virus’: The Pandemic Is Bringing out Environmentalism’s Dark Side.” Grist (March 30, 2020).

[12]Hu Fayun and His Internet Novel.” BBC interview with Jie Li. BBC News: The Strand Archive (September 27, 2011).