Chinese lung cancer poeticizes in English

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For several days I've been aware of a strange poem that has gone viral in China:

"Read The Smog-Inspired Poem That China Can't Stop Talking About" (NPR, 1/12/17)

The strangeness of the poem is due to its being written from the perspective of lung cancer and addressed to the patient.  You judge for yourself — here's the complete poem:

I Long To Be King

I am ground glass opacity (GGO)* in the lung,
A vague figure shrouded in mystery and strangeness,
Like looking at the moon through clouds,
Like seeing beautiful flowers in the fog.

I long to be king,
With my fellows swimming in every vessel.
My people crawl in your organs and body,
Holding the rights for life or death, I tremble with excitement.

When young you called me "atypical adenomatous hyperplasia",
Then when I had matured, you declared me "adenocarcinoma in situ",
When fully developed, your fearful denomination: "invasive adenocarcinoma".
You forgot my strenuous journey to become the king.

From tiny to strong,
From humble to arrogant.
None cared when I was young,
But all fear me we when full grown.

I've been nourished on the delicious mist and haze,
That sweetly warmed my heart,
Always loving when you were heavy drunk and smoking,
Creating me a cozy home.

When I was less than eight millimeters, I was so fragile,
Waiting for a chance to grow up.
Now, more than eight millimeters,** I am more mature,
And considered worthy of notice.

My continuous growth gives me a chance to be king,
As I break through layers of obstacles,
Spanning the mountains and waters.
My fellows march to every corner and occupy every region.

My quest to become king was full of obstacles,
I was cut until almost dead in childhood,
Burned once I'd matured,
And poisoned when older.

Happiness after sorrow, rainbow after rain.
I faced surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy,
But continued to chase my dream,
Some would have given up, but I will be the king.

I long to be king, with fellows and subordinates,
I long to be king, to have people's fear and respect
I long to be king, to dominate my domain,
I long to be king, to direct your fate.

*CT scan image showing fluid in the lungs, an early indicator of lung cancer.
**8 mm nodules seem to be the cutoff point for lung cancer diagnosis.

Because the poem is so bizarre, I didn't pay too much attention to it, other than to observe that it had, so to speak, taken China by storm.  But then a correspondent in Shenzhen, Alex Wang, began to ask questions about the composition of the poem, and that led to a consideration of some fundamental issues about the language of the poem and, beyond that, the nature of language in China today.

Since Alex had first encountered the poem in English, as had I, he wondered what the "original" Chinese was like and whether the English "translation" was accurate.

It didn't take long for us to find out that the poem had actually been written in English by a Chinese doctor, Zhao Xiaogang, deputy chief of thoracic surgery at the Shanghai Pulmonary Hospital of Tongji University.  That really troubled Alex.  Why would a Chinese cancer specialist write a highly imaginative poem in the voice of lung cancer in English instead of in Chinese?

This article in Quartz provides a partial explanation, "A doctor’s poem is going viral in China and raising awareness that smog (surprise!) is a cause of cancer" (Joanna Chiu, 1/8/17)

The poem originally ran in English in the American medical journal Chest in October. Zhao then allowed the publication of a Chinese translation of the poem in The Paper (link in Chinese), a Chinese state-funded news website, last week. He said he has long enjoyed writing poetry and finds it is a way to express his emotions.

VHM:  emphasis added

On Tongji University School of Medicine's website, it says that Dr. Zhao received his M.D. degree from Shanghai Jiaotong University.  There is no indication that he studied abroad.  All the more, one wonders why he chose to compose and publish his poem in English, especially since he is fond of writing poetry.  Does he prefer English over Chinese?  Was he afraid that the Chinese censors would give him trouble for writing a poem that hinted broadly at the role of smog in carcinogenesis?

Alex's quandary over Dr. Zhao's preference for English over Chinese (a topic we have discussed in several recent post [see here and here]) caused him to muse upon the state of Chinese writing now and in the near future:

I have been doing a lot more man on the street field research and I would have to say sooner or later a tipping point will arise for the use of Chinese characters.  I believe it will arrive sooner than later due to technology.  Often technology is the catalyst for exponential collapse of things such as film industry for personal use cameras.  I talk with around 80% of the taxi drivers I use.  I would have to say, judging from their answers to my questions, that the increasing written illiteracy is accelerating, and even on an elementary school level the ability to write characters is falling due to lack of time devoted to memorizing them.  20 years ago children didn’t have as many art or music lessons or English lessons to participate in.  They didn’t have videos and TV shows to watch, so they read or wrote and studied more.  Voice messaging via WeChat is also growing, so the use of text messages is falling.

Time will tell.  I wish the government could understand that moving to pinyin would actually protect the culture rather than destroy it.  Kids could have more time to study history, and learn traditional dance or art.  My suggestion would be to not take away points for using pinyin, but to give bonus points for use of Chinese characters on exams.  This way those who value the characters could choose to devote more time to them, while those who wish to devote more time to beneficial activities other than memorizing characters would not be penalized for doing so.  Teachers don’t actually spend too much on telling the students how to write characters. They leave it to brute muscle memory at home.

That said, I think perhaps only 10% of modern parents would opt to make their children write the characters if they would not be penalized for using pinyin when they forget the characters.

And that leads me right back to the point we were pondering about Dr. Zhao:  why did an outstanding cancer specialist trained in China and holding an important position at a major hospital in the metropolis of Shanghai choose to write his notable poem in English rather than in Chinese?


  1. Christel said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 10:29 pm

    "I long to be king" could easily sound like "I lung to be king" when the poem is read to others.

  2. Bob Crossley said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 10:46 pm

    I don't know about China, but writing from an unusual point of view seems to be a pretty standard creative writing exercise in England. This is at the adventurous end of what you'd get from a 15 year old, but hardly "bizarre". But would it be perceived as "bizarre" in China? If so the Doctor may be choosing his language to suit the conceit of his poem.

  3. Lurker said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 11:03 pm

    I though he wrote the poem in English because it was published in an English medical journal.

  4. Lurker said,

    January 13, 2017 @ 11:06 pm

    Sorry, I mean he *wanted* it to be published in an English journal.

  5. msH said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 3:35 am

    I think it is a very good English poem. English with Chinese characteristics in the thought and imagery. Certainly not bizarre, but imaginative and perhaps with an educational purpose both for medical students and the public, as well as expressing the writer's deep respect for his regular adversary. Perhaps English is the usual business language for the writer's advanced study and publications on this topic. I suppose he also wanted the broadest possible international audience. What an elegant, memorable poem.

  6. msH said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 3:40 am

    Clicking through, I see that above the title in the journal is a heading "pectoriloquy". Perhaps the journal has a regular poetry feature that inspired the work? In which case of course it would have to be in English.

  7. msH said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 3:42 am

    To answer my own question, apparently it does.

  8. B.Ma said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 6:19 am

    "Why did an outstanding cancer specialist trained in China and holding an important position at a major hospital in the metropolis of Shanghai choose to write his notable poem in English rather than in Chinese?"

    … is the wrong question to ask.

    If he had chosen to write a poem in Chinese, it would probably not have gone viral and we would not have heard of it.

    We have no idea how many Chinese cancer specialists have dabbled in poetry in Chinese which has never gone any further than private circulation.

  9. cliff arroyo said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

    I'm wondering if the technological pressure on characters might have a different result than expanded use of pinyin, esp since it doesn't have much emotional resonance (yet).

    Chinese people are used to not having much connection between writing and speech (and aren't bothered by high rates of illiteracy) I wonder if they might switch to written sort-of-English for most official purposes (while still speaking various Chinese languages).

    They certainly show enthusiasm for written English that is lacking in pinyin and they have the (sort of) model of Singapore….

  10. Victor Mair said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 2:24 pm

    @cliff arroyo

    You may be on to something there. By and large, the English ability of my students from Singapore, both spoken and written, is remarkably good, despite Lee Kuan Yew's promotion of Mandarin. Conversely, they are not very keen on Chinese of any stripe. I got the same impression from the population in general when I stayed in the island city-state for a couple of extended periods.

  11. Emily said,

    January 14, 2017 @ 10:35 pm

    How appropriate that this follows the high-spot-smoke-joy two-fisted-man-tobacco ad post!

  12. Victor Mair said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 12:44 am


    I was just waiting for someone to say that!

  13. Dave Cragin said,

    January 15, 2017 @ 1:01 pm

    @Cliff – I think the question as to whether technology will inhibit or promote the use of characters is a mixed bag. Certainly, technology can reduce skills in handwriting characters.

    However, as a Westerner who has been learning Chinese, I’m pleasantly shocked on almost a daily basis about how sophisticated the embedded character typing artificial intelligence has become. That is, when I’m typing pinyin in Word or Wechat, the software is remarkably effective in picking the right characters for the sentence I’m writing.

    This was emphasized to me early last year when I had computer problems and I temporarily couldn’t use Microsoft’s enhanced pinyin input. The older version would only do a few characters at a time and doesn’t reorder characters based on rate of use. Suddenly, I realized how “smart” Microsoft’s technology made me appear. Without it, typing was a painful process.

    In contrast, the enhanced version dynamically makes commonly used characters more easily accessible and picks characters more effectively when a phrase or sentence is typed.

    Also, google has an amazing ability to read characters. I can even use it to read characters from subtitles in movies (when I’m trying to determine what words the actors are using). I find technology a superb teaching tool for Chinese, particularly regarding characters.

    A strange dichotomy arises based on the above, i.e., I’m much better at writing than reading, because when I type a note, I know what I want to say and the software helps greatly. When typing, I can usually pick the right characters, whereas reading notes from friends is far more difficult.

    Considering China’s deep pride in its history, moving away from characters doesn’t seem likely. As has been noted previously on this blog, the US maintains its use of English measuring units, despite that going metric would ultimately make the economy more efficient and would avoid lots of wasted time in the classroom.

  14. Alex said,

    January 16, 2017 @ 11:40 am

    "the US maintains its use of English measuring units, despite that going metric would ultimately make the economy more efficient and would avoid lots of wasted time in the classroom."

    I also tell my older son the English Measuring systems or United States customary units is a ridiculous system for a modern country but I also tell him the time cost to benefit of "fitting in" is worth it as it is our intent for him to study in the US at some future point. So he learns metric here and he also learned mainly via workbooks US system. It didn't take long for him to memorize things like inches per foot, feet per yard etc. Nor did it take very long to know relative conversions between the 2 systems. Perhaps a week.

    In China he has to learn pinyin and learn how to read Chinese characters and most importantly how to write Chinese characters. As you point out reading is bearable but writing takes magnitudes more time. Furthermore reading can be reinforced by relatively fun tasks such as reading books. Day to day looking at news, looking at menu's, street signs, advertisements help reading. To learn writing however to the vast majority of kids is "brutal". It is writing characters both frequently used and infrequently used over and over again. It destroys the "fun" of learning.

    "Considering China’s deep pride in its history, moving away from characters doesn’t seem likely." sure as a conscious choice of the government but technology and change into modern life such as lack of time to deeply study will be the driving factor.

    Now many kids just practice for the exam then move on. This is the same in the US for example in courses like Calculus or Chemistry in high school. Many forget. No harm no foul and perhaps it taught the kids how to think.

    With writing Chinese characters in my opinion there is harm. Young children are yelled at. Children are humiliated. Children are stressed due to worry about poor grades. Children sleep less etc. This is over a period of at least 6 years in elementary school.

    Adults especially those from poorer regions feel self conscious being "illiterate"

    So the point is the amount of time wasted and the damage to self is magnitudes greater than the time wasted by having to learn the English measuring unit system.

  15. Eidolon said,

    January 17, 2017 @ 7:09 pm

    "As you point out reading is bearable but writing takes magnitudes more time."

    But writing is also the most likely to be replaced by technology. Last year, I could count the amount of times I've had to physically write on one hand, and I write primarily in English, not in Chinese. A writing system with as much of a burden on the physical task of writing as Chinese is likely to encourage the transition to all electronics input that much sooner. It is already happening, in fact, though the education system in China has yet to catch on, which is why your son is still being forced to practice writing by hand.

    Reading, on the other hand, will probably remain the way it is, because while character memorization is also a burden, vocabulary learning in general is a burden, and characters provide certain semantic guidance not otherwise available in pinyin, making it, perhaps, a suitable compromise in required cognitive load.

    Thus, in the future, Chinese children may not have any need to learn how to *write* most characters. But I think they'll still be expected to know how to *read* most characters. Electronic input devices can vastly simplify or remove the task of writing; but they cannot remove the need for reading comprehension, since spoken communication tend to be both slower, and not appropriate for many environments.

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