Why You Should Read
Bi Shumin’s Novel Coronavirus

By Yu Xiaomei

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March 2020)

Cover of the 2012 edition of Coronavirus

“It’s 20NN, and humans and viruses must be at war. . .”

This quote, which appears on the cover of Bi Shumin’s 毕淑敏 novel Coronavirus (花冠病毒), has clearly become a prophecy for today.[1]

Debuted in 2012, Coronavirus is one of physician-turned-writer Bi Shumin’s most stunning works. Set during the struggle of a Chinese city combatting a coronavirus in the year 20NN, the novel is filled with philosophical reflections on life and death, on the relationship between viruses and humanity, and on dignity and meanness. The prelude to the novel progresses at an intense pace to highlight the precariousness of human life by presenting a series of meetings by officials in unusual places, such as underwater and on a camp site at an altitude of 5242 meters on Mount Everest, with much more description of an emergency meeting held on March 3, 20NN in which all the participants wear special anti-epidemic helmets and heatedly discuss pressing problems related to the viral invasion.

The plot is structured around the anti-coronavirus battle and the title character Luo Weizhi 罗纬芝, who is depicted as a brave, rational, and truth-pursuing woman with independent thought, in contrast to other characters from different professions who participate in different phases of the battle. The narrative sticks to a straightforward chronology, the anti-coronavirus fight proceeding tidily to the end.

Set in Yan City 燕市, the novel begins with the versatile heroine Luo Weizhi in her thirties receiving an emergency call from her work unit, the Municipal Association of Writers and Artists, which asks her if she is willing to enter the viral epicenter in order to gain firsthand experience for future writing about the fight against the coronavirus. Her mother, who is weak and suffering from cancer, nonetheless persuades her to join the Special Visiting Group to accomplish the mission. Before leaving, an unexpected chemist named Li Yuan 李元 makes an appointment with her downstairs. Li gives her two kinds of powder: one is to help her overcome insomnia and the other is supposed to cure her if she gets attacked by the virus. In turn, Li requires that she bring back some coronavirus samples to assist his research into medicines for those already infected.

The Special Visiting Group members from various sectors of the city attend several meetings in the Command Center of the anti-coronavirus fight. It is here that Luo Weizhi has a daily chance to talk with the commander Yuan Zaichun 袁再春, a veteran doctor in charge of the battle against the virus, from which more and more people are dying every day. He has to consider how to develop effective therapies and vaccines, finding proper ways to break confirmed cases, and where to store the mounting corpses, etc.

As a psychology graduate, Luo Weizhi is attuned to reading people’s body language. Her psychological analysis of the commander’s body language lays an increasingly solid foundation of trust between them. She demands repeatedly to be allowed the opportunity to interview Yu Zengfeng 于增风, an expert pathologist who is working in the most heavily infected area. At first, Yuan Zaichun only gives her some autopsy reports left by Yu Zengfeng, but due to her persistence, Yuan finally informs her that the respected Yu Zengfeng, who is one of Yuan’s students, died after doing a postmortem on a heavily-infected boy, though he is still recorded as “alive” on the list of experts so as not to erode public confidence.

Yu Zengfeng’s autopsy reports are so beautifully and professionally written that every detail shocks Luo Weizhi’s soul. During her study of his reports, she gets infected by the coronavirus carefully conserved in the paper of the reports. Noticing Luo’s abnormal behavior, Yuan Zaichun has her to take a blood test and stay indoors. Within a day, her body temperature rises quickly, and she shows other symptoms caused by the virus. On the brink of death, she decides to take five doses of the powder given to her by Li Yuan earlier in the novel.

After nearly twenty hours of slumber, she surprisingly recovers. What’s more, a second blood test shows the presence of a very powerful antibody that will prevent her from being infected again.

To get some virus samples for Li Yuan’s research, she ventures into a hospital. To her disappointment, Li Yuan later tells her that the samples she has gathered are dead, probably killed by an ultraviolet scanning machine when she left the hospital.

Since she already has antibodies in her immune system, she makes the bold decision to enter a makeshift morgue—once a cave, now renovated as a wine cellar with an elegant Italian-designed spiral staircase—so that she can collect coronavirus samples from several generations of the dead. With permission from the commander, she walks among the piles of corpses in the cave, gathering virus samples from people of different genders and ages. Quite coincidentally, she encounters Yu Zengfeng’s corpse frozen stiff inside a transparent plastic bag. Besides his coronavirus samples, she also finds a letter in his pocket. As she prepares to leave the cave, she senses the presence of someone else staring at her. She nearly faints with fear and is on the verge of pushing the button of the warning siren in her hand, when a man in foreign protective clothing appears in front of her, warning her not to do so and to let him go, which she does.

Later, out on the streets, Luo Weizhi is in a daze and a car crashes into her. Hao Zhe, a member of the Special Visiting Group, gets out of the car, apologizes, and takes her to a clinic where two nurses give her an injection and extract a lot of her blood. After leaving the hospital in a weakened state, she manages to make her way home, where Li Yuan is waiting for her. They figure out that Hao Zhe must have been the man in the cave and that he was stealing virus samples, which he would take, along with her blood sample, to other countries for research on coronavirus. Hao Zhe has betrayed his colleagues and country.

Li Yuan and Luo Weizhi fall in love. In the stalemate of the battle against the virus, Yuan Zaichun falls ill, though he attempts to conceal his illness. One night in his sleep, his heart vessel bursts, and he dies. The mayor takes his place as commander of the war against the virus. The mayor’s grandson falls seriously ill from the virus. In order to get the government’s permission to carry out clinical tests on the effectiveness of his powder, Li Yuan visits the mayor and gives his grandson a dose. However, the powder takes effect very slowly on the child, so he asks Luo Weizhi to donate her blood to save him. Later, with the help of the powder, the mayor’s infected daughter-in-law (the sick child’s mother) recovers from very critical condition. Thanks to this, the mayor decides to dispatch Li Yuan to join the anti-coronavirus fight in the hospital. Weeks later, Luo Weizhi is told that Li Yuan has died of the virus, which deals her a heavy emotional blow. She nearly collapses when a call comes for her: it is Hao Zhe boasting of his enormous wealth and comfortable life abroad. At this point, Luo Weizhi stops crying; she determines to fight back and to complete Li Yuan’s unfinished mission. When the municipal government posts a public notice calling on talented people to step up to stop the spread of the coronavirus, Luo Weizhi and Li Yuan’s supervisor rise to the occasion; they agree to test the powder on more patients. On their way back from the mayor’s office, Li Yuan’s supervisor reveals to Luo her true identity—she is Li Yuan’s mother and Yu Zengfeng’s wife—and that it is Li Yuan’s twin brother Ling Nian 凌念 who has died, not Li Yuan. In the end, Luo Weizhi and Li Yuan, who were brought together by the “match-maker” of the coronavirus, reunite. Together they read his father Yu Zengfeng’s last words—from a copy of the letter Luo had found on his corpse in the makeshift morgue—his final ravings on coronavirus: “Snipe. Stun. Tremble. War. Impossible. Fight again. Victory. Rebirth. Celebration. Demons. Drifting away. Floating. Flooding. Goodbye, adieu, return . . .” (狙击。惊愕。哆嗦。交战。无能。再战。再胜。再生。欢宴。魔鬼。飘逸。飘移。泛滥。再见再会再来) (352).

The title Coronavirus and much of the novel’s source material came from Bi Shumin’s own observations during the anti-SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) battle of 2003 in China. That pandemic provided her a good chance for both personal and national reflection. After eight years of painstaking and meticulous writing, she completed the novel as a kind of testament to the historical lesson of SARS. But the novel is also a parable for the present moment when all nations are confronted with the increased friction between human activities and natural conservation and when the world is waging a war against the aggressive invasion of a new coronavirus. Her experience as a witness to SARS, as well as her degrees in both medicine and psychology, contribute to Bi’s realistic writing style and help her deftly depict both the fight against diseases and the thoughts and feelings of the characters involved in that fight. In her view, “The most important thing is to take a scientific point of view toward the epidemic. The battle between humans and viruses has been waged throughout the whole of human history and probably will continue for eternity.”[2] In her description, coronaviruses are actually beautifully-shaped-and-colorful life forms, though deadly to many humans; they have been around on earth much longer than humans. A unique work on the human struggle against coronavirus, the novel looks into the relationship among viruses, humans, and the universe. But like her other works, such as Saving the Breast (拯救乳房), Red Prescription (红处方), Exquisite Blood (血玲珑), Endless Reincarnation (生生不已), it also reflects her contemporary concerns about life and death, past and future, fear and hope.

Bi Shumin once said that “The nature of writing is also to talk about people, about the connections between people and nature, people and the universe. Literature is the study of people.”[3] Therefore, in a true-to-life story like Coronavirus, it is easy to distinguish the good characters from the bad. The majority of the characters in the novel—Luo Weizhi and her mother, Yuan Zaichun, Li Yuan, Li Yuan’s mother, and medical engineer Dou Jinhuan, etc.—are all positive, and one can easily find their prototypes in real life, specifically from the time of the SARS fight when people displayed the dedication and self-sacrificing spirit only possessed by humans. This further reflects Bi Shumin’s idea that writing should convey the strength of life and present an objective view of the world. In her novel, humans, viruses, death are all equal and natural parts of the universe, co-existing eternally. But humans are not just victims of virus outbreaks; we are a self-conscious species capable of discriminating between what is good and what is bad, what is humanity and what is inhumanity, and capable of love and sacrifice for our fellows. Through her disaster writing, Bi develops a genuine hope for mankind and passes along a promising message about the human world: we are all here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.

In the novel, Bi Shumin writes that “Man’s life is but an insignificant wisp of cloud..  . . . When it disperses, it is not a real disappearance, but the Great Return . . . finally integrating into the infinite universe” (人的个体,不过是微不足道的一缕轻烟  . . . 无论她何时消散化灰,都不是真正的消失,只是一种回归。. . . 融入到无边无沿的宇宙。) (294). With these lines, the author expresses the briefness of life. She also writes: “It is true that Luo Weizhi is made of atoms, so is Li Yuan. Every human being and object, the dying Su Ya and the rampant virus, are all composed of atoms. . . . What do we have to fear when our basic elements are the same ? Atoms never perish.” (是的,罗纬芝是原子构成的李元也是原子构成的。所有的人和物,包括奄奄一息的苏雅和横行猖獗的病毒,都是元素构成的。既然我们的基本组成都是一样,那我们还有什么可以惧怕和畏缩的呢?原子是不灭的。 (296) and “What is death? It is just a return of elements to nature, what a perfect recycling of life!” (人类死亡,自身的元素又还给地球,多么完美的循环啊)(295). When a life is lost, it may not necessarily be a sorrowful thing, because perhaps it was meant to be alive in another way. In these sorts of accounts, we find a modern version of philosopher Zhuangzi’s view on life and death: “Having been transformed, things find themselves alive”; “Man’s life is a coming-together of breath. If it comes together, there is life; if it scatters, there is death. And if life and death are companions to each other, then what is there for us to be anxious about?” Or of philosopher Mozi’s declaration of “no mourning in death.”[4]

Coronavirus is also noticeable both for its treatment of concepts from traditional Chinese medicine and for highlighting the elements theory in chemistry through the character Li Yuan, whose given name “yuan” 元 in Chinese means elements, origin, or the very beginning. This echoes the ancient Chinese philosophical conception that the universe and even the human body are made of five basic elements—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water—the use of which is supposed to help correct imbalances that lead to particular physical, emotional, and spiritual disorders. According to the principle of traditional Chinese medicine, to boost yuan involves restoring the balance of body and mind. Li Yuan not only has profound understanding about the Chinese way of restoring health by taking needed elements stored in various foods, but also demonstrates his professional knowledge as a chemist who researches the use of the element germanium to fight coronavirus. Therefore, as a character, Li Yuan embodies the writer’s efforts to bridge traditional Chinese medicine and western medical science, the past and the future.

Coronavirus concludes with the last virus-infected patient leaving the hospital on September 1, 20NN, a sign of victory in the battle against the virus, a heartening message to the human world. Now that humanity is again being challenged by the common enemy of a coronavirus invasion, this 2012 novel obviously has prophetic significance to all nations, providing both important insights into and enlightenment on the nature of viral disaster and humanity’s response to it.

Yu Xiaomei 余小梅 (School of Foreign Languages, Anqing Normal University)


[1] Bi Shumin 毕淑敏. Huaguan bingdu 花冠病毒 (Coronavirus). (Changsha: Hunan wenyi, 2012).

[2]Epidemic Offers Good Chance for National Reflection.” China Daily (May 14, 2003).

[3]Beijing Writers Face a Dilemma.” China Daily (April 2, 2004).

[4] Zhuangzi. The Complete Works of Zhuangzi. Tr. Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), pp. 181, 177, 290.