2003: Instant Messaging at the Time of SARS — Sarcasm and the Leadership

Instant Messages at the Time of SARS —  Sarcasm and the Leadership

Cell phone messaging relayed much information and misinformation throughout China during the 2002 – 2003 SARS epidemic . The government found that sarcastic attacks on government officials spread very quickly through cellphone instant messaging.   Up to that time, instant messaging  and the information services on it seemed much less controlled then the Internet was in China.  The Party and government learned its lesson from the SARS epidemic. Afterwards the media watchdogs turned their attention to cell phone messaging, adding monitoring, filtering and even at times “cool it” warnings and informative messages sent out by the local government or police to the populace.

Cell phone messaging had already become a big business in China. The cell phone companies even employed staff poets to create elegant sayings that people can exchange with one another. Incurring telecommunications charges, of course. This early cellphone poetry may have inspired others to turn their hand to it. The poem spread virally as many people waited anxiously at home.  Their distrust of official news media made the messages all the more credible.

Criticizing the regime is one thing, but laughing at it is probably even more serious.

Here are some examples of popular poetry/doggerel that circulated in China during SARS.

Beijing Voices on SARS: Instant Messages Translated

A translation of a collection of cell phone instant messages transcribed on emails now circulating in China.  Some of these class messages can be found in Chinese at http://chinese.wooster.edu/files/jokefolder/sars.gb.html


Beijing has already become an area that has “fallen” to SARS. The cell phone tribe doesn’t feel lonely for it exchanges instant messages of friendship, to please themselves and others, which reflect the feelings of Beijing people these days.

The Instant Message Closest to the Masses:

Until we met SARS we didn’t realize how valuable breathing free really is!
Until we wore a face mask, we didn’t realize how valuable our true face is!
Our thoughts during the emergency period show just how valuable friendship really is!

The Simplest Instant Message

White radish, tangerine skin, ginger, scallion bulb, and coriander stir out spirit. To help protect everyone’s respiratory passages, we resort to fire and water. We suggest everyone drink hot soup.

Most Classic Short Message (Lost Something in Translation):

A web citizen who buries himself in the classics discovered that China’s first reference to SARS [abbreviated feidian for “atypical” — literally not classic] is in the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Cao Cao was suddenly attacked, but Dian Wei gave his life to save Cao Cao. After Cao Cao was out of danger, he realized that Dian Wei had no weapon. Cao Cao cried out. “Dian was awesome! If I had not Dian [feidian — SARS abbreviation] I would certainly have died!”

[For more on Dian Wei see http://www.kongming.net/novel/sgyy/dianwei.php ]

Most Melodious Rhyme [but not a melodious translation]

SARS is so very dangerous
Some are already afflicted
To avoid harm
We must wear a mask
But only by maintaining a calm state of mind
Can we avoid being harmed by SARS
Finally I wish you happiness each and every day.

Moonlight thick as wine
The colors of spring, the wind in the willows
The peach blossoms opened some time ago
Don’t know if you noticed
A virus very rare arose
Now chaos is everywhere!
Never mind. Just disinfect by washing your hands.

The Instant Message Most Like a Story:

The old lady who has heard so much about SARS [ pronounced feidian, the same pronunciation as “waste electricity” in Mandarin Chinese], said “If you don’t want to waste electricity, then don’t turn on the lights!” Beijing citizens, politically aware as they are, would not forget to look out for political trends even in the middle of the SARS epidemic. Here are a few examples:
Idealism chapter

[A parody of former Chinese Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” philosophy — that the Chinese Communist Party represents advanced productive forces, advanced culture and the interests of the vast majority of the Chinese people.  For background on the Three Represents see http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/jzmt.html ]

The “Three Represents” of SARS

SARS represents the demand of a special virus for development.
SARS represents the advancement of a culture of terror
SARS represents the basic interests of the broad masses of wild animals

Political Chapter

The Center is so troubled
This has already brought some officials low
Too bad about the Minister of Health
His numbers were a bit too low
That Party Secretary Xuenong
Didn’t do his job well.
The core of the fourth generation leadership, Chairman Hu Jintao
Only wants the efforts to halt the epidemic to bear some fruit
But it is late! News of more cases arrives, with still more to come!

[Note: The reference Xuenong is to Meng Xuenong, the Beijing mayor who was fired along with the Health Minister to take the blame for the SARS cover up.]

Bureaucratic Chapter

The Party can’t stop officials from eating and drinking at public expense
but SARS did!
The Party can’t stop junketeering officials,
but SARS did!
The Party can’t stop endless futile meetings,
but SARS did!
The Party can’t stop the deception of superiors and the cheating of subordinates,
but SARS did!
The Party can’t stop prostitution,
but SARS did!

“党治不了的, 非典都治”

Epidemic Situation Message

Guandong got SARS then Beijing caught it
The government isn’t so strict now, so the media dares to speak up
Many people have SARS now, the hospitals are full
The doctors and nurses are having a tough time,
the front line shock troops confronting danger
The masses are scared out of their wits,
wearing masks to cover their faces
International organizations have come to take charge,
SARS will soon be brought under control
Take your Chinese medicine boiled in the pot,
be sure to get some exercise.

PRC National anthem [“Marching Song of the Volunteers” parody message]

Arise, you people who don’t want to get SARS, make our contributions an anti-SARS Great Wall. The Chinese nation is at the moment of its greatest peril, everyone must yell their loudest yell, Close our doors!, Close our buildings!, Seal off our city!

[The real “Marching Song of the Volunteers” a song of popular resistance to Japanese invaders that became the PRC national anthem.  A elderly Taiwanese man told me that some residents of Taipei sang it to welcome the KMT coming to Taiwan in late 1945 — only to discover later that it wasn’t a song the KMT liked to hear!]

Arise, Ye who refuse to be slaves!
With our very flesh and blood,
Let us build our new Great Wall!
The peoples of China are in the most critical time,
From each one the urgent call for action comes forth.
Millions of souls with one heart,
Braving the enemy’s gunfire, March on!
Braving the enemy’s gunfire, March on!
March on!
March on!
On!    ]

Poetry Chapter

In the capital city Beijing
Sickness for one thousand li all round
The virus now spreads ten thousand li
Both within the city wall and without
People’s hearts are trembling
About the City wall there is a great clamor
People eat isastis root to fortify themselves
They eat their vitamins
The will to health and SARS test one another
No peaceful days
As I watch the gloves and the face masks
selling out so very quickly

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

After retirement translated,with wife Jessie, Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and have been studying things 格物致知. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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