疫 情 随 笔
There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them.
The closing section of The Pickwick Papers has been a fixture of my spring term syllabus for more years than I care to or even dare imagine. When friends ask me “how come you never tire of teaching the same literary texts again and again?” my answer is simple: The words on the page may remain the same but the students and the context change every single time.
This statement has never rung truer than in the present semester. With a cup of Pu’er tea in my left hand and my mobile phone in the right I leaned against the safety railings on the balcony. “We are probably thinking the same thing?” I typed into my QQ classroom. “After so long being cooped up doesn’t the blossom look far prettier this spring?” Dickens’ optimistic sentiments took on fresh potency when we the self-isolated looked with longing at the splendour lurking in our courtyards.
Six months or more ago nobody conceived that coronavirus - a name then unknown beyond the clinical circle - would so profoundly alter our lives and working routines.
Teaching courses online, with its mixture of physical distance and quickfire response, yanked my professional activities into almost the same gear as my family life. Since my mother was advised to stay at home and receive no visitors from the end of March onwards, my sister and I made her promise that she e-mail each day to reassure us about her well being. Living alone with her cat for company in a spacious plot in the English countryside placed her in an advantageous position, at least when compared to the occupants of poky ill-ventilated flats and cramped urban terraces. Before very long, it dawned on me that she probably cherished this as an opportunity. Born a year and a half after the end of World War II, the ongoing rationing of meat and bread and sugar during her primary school years left her largely inured to the charms processed food and without a sweet tooth in her head. Giving over some of the flowerbeds to vegetables lest the online delivery service stall and dusting off my father’s old hoes must have revived her faith in georgic toil. What is more, the media at every level had all of a sudden become vigilant as to potential breaches of the lockdown rules. Excoriating words were meted out at violators caught in the act - be they fly-tippers, back garden barbecue hosts or motorists who went the extra mile reconnoitering cheap booze. Where once she alone had cast a Savoranolaean stare through the crack in the net curtains at her lager-swilling, Indian takeaway-addicted young neighbours the whole country was now similarly on the alert.
I must admit that we had rowed fiercely about my decision to return to Xi’an after celebrating New Year together. “It won’t be the same as you are used to. They’ll be none of that gadding about up mountains and around markets. Look at all those wards in Wuhan - patients being wheeled in and out like a production line and there’s no known cure.”
The reality was that throughout January and early February the virus was widely seen as a “Chinese problem” by people in Britain. For weeks the total number of cases on home soil stood steady at nine with no fatalities. Only when I visited Sheffield to attend the Spring Festival Gala at city hall did I notice anyone taking precautions against a large-scale domestic outbreak. Suffice to say these were mostly students and invariably Chinese. In the university quarter pharmacists affixed notices to their doors indicating whether or not face masks were in stock. Try to purchase the same protective gear online and the retailers would slam a 40 or 50 pound surcharge for “express postage” on goods worth barely ten per cent of that amount.
The first flight from Heathrow had to be aborted. Not only did the authorities in Xi’an announce an embargo on foreign nationals entering the city on that very day, but gale-force winds grounded the entire London air fleet. Nonplussed, I stalked my way from King’s Cross to Russell Square via Bloomsbury Square and bedded down in a budget hotel replete with clattering counterpane.
Not a hint of the preceding tumult was evident on the still clear morning that followed. My resolve was sealed - I ought to aim to fly back once foreign entry rights have been restored and as soon as Chang’an District reopens its borders. After all, how long would it be before coronavirus invaded these shores? Health checks were not being conducted on the hundreds of passengers jetting in daily from Europe. Once one country on the continent suffered an outbreak there would be no means of containment. And then not just single epicentre, as in Wuhan, but cases springing up in every city and scattered corner of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The ensuing fortnight wore on with schemes being hatched and rapidly shelved. With little perspicacity my friend in the travel industry suggested avoiding transferring flights in Mainland China for fear I was compelled to quarantine in the city of arrival. Briefly he regaled me with the thought of a night in Seoul - kimchi and fish soup atop a skyscraper with neon lights flickering across the horizon. That was literally a day or two before the news broke of the Shincheonji sect and its suspected role in contaminating thousands of adherents and their families.
A few phone calls to Beijing confirmed that my passage to Xi’an would face no obstacles, providing each rule was obeyed and a mask worn at every minute of the day. Travelling as I was with an almost entirely Chinese contingent, the atmosphere on board was subdued. There was none of the anxiety of fleeing disaster, nor the excitement of impending reunion. Strangers’ faces prove more inscrutable than usual when one has to read the eyes and brow without a mouth for assistance. I suppose, like me, most people hoped to glide straight-spined through customs and immigration without being hauled over by staff or queried on any detail.
And so it was, after setting up an erwaima and a forty-minute ride in a polythene-lined taxi, I reached my apartment just outside Guodu township. The next few days were agitating since jet-lag does not attenuate swiftly when one is deprived of natural light. On the fifth day there was a moment of eureka as the county authorities announced that UK nationals were considered a low-level risk. This meant being free to walk to the office and assist colleagues in the translation of a manual on preventing COVID-19.
After the claustrophobia of the apartment which was not alleviated much by copious coils of jasmine incense, the freedom to tramp face-masked about the empty campus felt surreal. Unless there were a nuclear emergency in the future we would never be likely to see a residential precinct of China so denuded of people. It wasn’t to last. Online infection figures and casualties back home were creeping up and the impact was soon exponential.
Quite out of the blue, two days into the term-time proper four colleagues simultaneously made contact, notifying me that I was now a “Category Red” risk. “There are three days until your half-month quarantine will end. Zuomin will come and seal you in. A guard will be placed outside the door to ensure nothing and nobody passes in or out.” The front door was duly secured with the same adhesive strips used on the entrance to the departmental office and archive during vacations. It was as though contrary to being a public health threat I was some precious commodity that could only be released on the behest of a higher authority.
Having not had time to shop beforehand, supplies dwindled so that by the end of day two all eggs, milk, butter, brown rice, flour and lentils were spent. The fridge contained half a red onion, one tomato, a serviceable cauliflower stalk and several tablespoonfuls of home-fermented kimchi. To look on the bright side, the cupboards had at least three weeks’ worth of grain and dried tree ear mushrooms.
With the benefit of three month’s hindsight, my personal corona experience was ultimately benign. However, even the mildest adversity can be a spur. Within days of my final release I was at last making headway with my next project - an account of the Siege of Xi’an in 1926 from the perspective of the British residents trapped inside the city walls. For almost 200 days (228 if preliminary skirmishes are factored in) the Henan Warlord Liu Zhenhua mercilessly encircled the ancient capital, resulting in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. It is hard to portray these events as anything save for a human tragedy, but the words of the survivors can still teach us a great deal about the power of resilience. One passage by an English teacher is oddly memorable:-
I often look on the mass of the mountains as on a clear evening they stand out to the south of the city reminding us of the things that last, and giving hope of the days when the siege shall be over and we shall be free.
Those same peaks of Qinling described in the 1920s form the backdrop to my life in the 2020s.