Chinese coronavirus linguistic war

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From a Taiwanese colleague:

In the struggle against Wǔhàn fèiyán 武漢肺炎 ("Wuhan pneumonia"), Taiwan has to fight the war on three fronts: (1) trying to stop the virus at its borders; (2) trying to join the WHO for world-wide collaboration and disease information; and (3) fighting against the Communist Chinese dictatorial linguistic policies.  The linguistic policy on disease terminology is really weird; it smacks of George Orwell's 1984.

He cites this article in Chinese and this facebook page (also in Chinese).  Here's another article in Chinese from Taiwan that sticks to "Wuhan pneumonia" despite the pressure from WHO and the PRC government to adopt a name that is not transparent with regard to the origin of the disease.

The epidemic is currently called "coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)" in English, but was formerly known as 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease and a swiftly shifting series of other names, including the informal "Wuflu", since it has as its epicenter the sprawling city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province.  See also 2019–20 coronavirus outbreak

Yet, the disease began in Wuhan, Wuhan remains the epicenter of the disease, and — despite spreading to all the other provinces of the PRC and to dozens of countries around the world and cruise ships on the ocean — 97% of the deaths from the novel coronavirus and 80% of confirmed cases are in Wuhan and surrounding cities of Hubei Province.  Calling it Wǔhàn fèiyán 武漢肺炎 ("Wuhan pneumonia") makes a lot of sense.



"'Crisis = danger + opportunity' redux" (2/19/20)

"Triple topolectal reprimand" (5/29/16)

"The PRC censors its own national anthem" (2/9/20)


  1. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 9:00 am

    Reminds me of the so-called "Spanish flu".

  2. Thaomas said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 9:10 am

    Wuflu does make sense but what's wrong with a convention of not naming according to the incidental "source?" "Avian" flue and "Swine" flu must have originated somewhere, too and it avoids mis-identification of origin as in "Spanish" flu.

  3. RP said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 10:32 am

    @Thaomas Isn't part of the problem that nobody knows how exactly the disease originated. There are suspicions relating to snakes and bats, but nothing certain. And attaching a name might shift the panic to an animal (or some other factor) that is not actually a vector of disease.

  4. John Shutt said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 10:36 am

    Based on a variety of past bad examples, WHO has a guideline for naming diseases. (Wikinews published an article; does html markup work in this comments system? link)

  5. mg said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 1:36 pm

    @John Shutt – thank you for the link to the Wikinews article on the WHO guidelines for naming. I found it very helpful.

  6. AntC said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 7:54 pm

    TaiwanNews, the English language website is insisting on calling the disease 'Wuhan flu' as protest against PRC refusing to repatriate Taiwan citizens from Hubei, as every other nation has done. Of course it's not "refusing" exactly refusing, just putting continual bureaucratic blocks.

  7. Chips Mackinolty said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 11:00 pm

    There is a very good reason for the WHO adopting this process of naming new diseases. Quite apart from the fact that "Spanish Flu" was quite likely brought to France and the rest of the world from the USA, naming diseases after "places of origin" can lead to widespread racist responses. Chinese businesses throughout Australia, for example, are seeing massive reductions in customers for restaurants, racist taunts in major newspapers and social media [where some have urged people not to go to suburbs with high Australian Chinese populations].

    The Taiwanese may well identify it as some sort of Orwellian attack in their linguistic battles with the mainland, but it is hurting their compatriots across the world. [].

    Australian activist group, Get Up!, has instigated a campaign to go to Chinese restaurants in solidarity with Chinese Australians.

  8. Chips Mackinolty said,

    February 22, 2020 @ 11:02 pm

    See also:

  9. AntC said,

    February 23, 2020 @ 12:09 am

    some sort of Orwellian attack, um no. TaiwanNews is part of Taiwan's free press, so of course the government doesn't control what it says or what its readers think.

    PRC's behaviour is causing very real public health threats for Taiwan.

    PRC continues to block Taiwan from becoming a member of WHO. This would mean Taiwan getting delayed information/research sharing from WHO — that is, if Taiwan didn't have friends 'on the inside' (although PRC is continually trying to erode relationships). Note Taiwan researchers have in the past few days independently reproduced a retroviral.

    One flight out of Hubei was allowed to Taiwan. PRC refused to health-check people getting on it, and refused to allow Taiwan medical staff to do so. There was someone who'd been in contact with those known to be infected; PRC knew this but kept stum. They were found to be infected on arrival in Taiwan. Very luckily it seems they didn't infect anyone else on the flight (although everyone is still in quarantine currently).

    Now PRC wants to send all-or-none Taiwaners back from Hubei — some 900 people on several flights on the same day. They know Taiwan doesn't have sufficient isolation resources for that many people. Again PRC are refusing to allow adequate infection testing before boarding. Again, PRC has not treated any other nationals like this. Of course WHO can't intervene, because Taiwan is not a member.

  10. Ella F. said,

    February 23, 2020 @ 3:46 am

    One beer brand must have a preference to avoid certain name-calling. Brands have disappeared because of new diseases… "Ayds candy" being one.

  11. Rose Eneri said,

    February 23, 2020 @ 9:47 am

    Regardless of what we call a pathogen/disease, the fact remains that the life style of many people in China creates the perfect Petri dish for development of new pathogens. Most new human pathogens begin in other species. When different species come in close contact, the pathogens infecting one species can more easily jump to another as host. The Chinese open-air food markets provide this pivotal proximity.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    February 23, 2020 @ 11:01 am

    Well spoken, Rose Eneri:


    VHM: Especially about bats.

    Bat (fu 蝠) The bat is a symbol of happiness and joy. The Chinese for bat (fu 蝠) sounds identical to the word for good fortune (fu 福) making bats a popular Chinese rebus. Five bats together represent the 'Five Blessings' (wufu 五福): long life, wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death. › pdf › chinese_symbols_1109

    Eating bats or their feces is a part of Chinese dietary practice known as jìnbǔ 進補 ("to have nutritious food or take herbal tonic to enhance one's health and strength — e.g., during winter, times of illness, etc.)".

    Why Did the Coronavirus Outbreak Start in China?

    Let’s talk about the cultural causes of this epidemic.

    By Yi-Zheng Lian

    Mr. Lian is a former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal and a contributing Opinion writer.

    · Feb. 20, 2020

    · Hard-core believers in “jinbu” seem to buy into this notion, too: “Like-shapes eaten strengthen like-shapes” (以形補形), with the word “shapes” sometimes referring to human organs and their functions. Adherents count as favorites a long list of exotic foods — whose methods of procurement or preparation can be outright cruel, with some simply too revolting to describe here.

    I’ve seen snakes and the penises of bulls or horses — great for men, the theory goes — on offer at restaurants in many cities in southern China. Bats, which are thought to be the original source of both the current coronavirus and the SARS virus, are said to be good for restoring eyesight — especially the animals’ granular feces, called “sands of nocturnal shine” (夜明砂). Gallbladders and bile harvested from live bears are good for treating jaundice; tiger bone is for erections.

    More mundane yet no less popular is the palm civet (果子狸), a small, wild quadruped suspected of having passed on the SARS virus to humans. When stewed with snake meat, it is said to cure insomnia.

    Less wealthy people might turn to dog meat — preferably a dog that has been chased around before being slaughtered, because some people believe that more “jinbu” benefits are reaped from eating an animal whose blood and energy ran high. Similarly, it is thought that animals killed just before serving are more “jinbu” potent, which is one reason the more exotic offerings in wet markets tend to be sold alive — also making them more potent vectors for any virus they might carry.

    Eating exotic wildlife has long been endorsed by scholars and elevated to mystical heights, including in the medical treatise “The Inner Bible of the Yellow Emperor” (黃帝内經), written some 2,000 years ago and still revered by many health-conscious Chinese today. Beliefs surrounding the health benefits of certain wildlife foods — which are discussed in newspaper columns and on numerous dedicated internet sites, as well as taught in China’s medical schools — permeate the culture.

    And so there are strong reasons to say that the current outbreak of COVID-19 has been aided by two fundamentally Chinese cultural practices. This may be discomfiting to hear; the notion might even strike some people as offensive. But it is necessary to investigate all the causes behind this deadly epidemic, whatever their nature — because if we don’t, we will only be inviting the next one.

    Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University in Japan and a contributing Opinion writer.

  13. AntC said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 2:58 am

    Thank you Rose and Victor, well said.

    Nobody (not even WHO) seems to be so precious about naming Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome [WHO: MERS-CoV] aka 'Camel flu'. Which is equally associated with cultural practices: to avoid it, don't kiss your camel, and don't drink its urine, no matter what's claimed for its health benefits [source wikipedia].

    If I were prone to cynicism, I'd suspect PRC's behaviour towards Taiwan and reluctance to close the border to HK and complaints about other countries restricting travellers from China were an attempt to export Wuflu, so as to make it the world's problem rather than China's specifically.

  14. DMT said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 6:11 am

    The name "Middle East Respiratory Syndrome" was adopted before the WHO issued its current naming guidelines (May 2015). These naming guidelines were developed in part to avoid the problems arising from names such as MERS, but they were not applied retrospectively (for reasons that should be obvious).

  15. DMT said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 6:41 am

    Sorry, screwed up the link in my previous comment.

    Naming of MERS-CoV (May 2013)

    Adoption of current naming guidelines (May 2015)

  16. Zhou Fang said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 9:55 am

    I don't think you can simultaneously argue that "this is a perfectly reasonable name, why the big deal" and also "we are calling it this provocative name as a protest against chinese government policies".

  17. ajay said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 10:37 am

    An etymological point: "Wuflu" or similar are misleading names because influenza viruses are very definitely not coronaviruses.

  18. Victor Mair said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 11:32 am

    Thank you very much for pointing out that influenza viruses are not coronaviruses.

  19. Jenny Chu said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

    DMT is right to point out that the naming guidelines were adopted before this virus emerged. They are based on very rational principles.

    Let's say …

    The next disease is identified in Bangladesh*
    Its WHO-given name is SEFLUD-21 (for "serious flu disease")
    Lots of people call it the Dhaka Pox
    News editors remind their reporters to call it Seflud and not the Dhaka Pox

    … will we then say that the Bangladesh government is exerting Orwellian influences?

    *I attended a talk by a Hong Kong based epidemiologist about 5-6 years ago, who showed us a series of maps with hot spots identified based on climate, cultural practices, human-animal contact, population density, number and type of various wild species, etc. I noticed at the time that Bangladesh was red in almost every map.

  20. Jenny Chu said,

    February 24, 2020 @ 8:43 pm

    @Ella F. – Now, a medium-sized company which sells cables and wall plates is suffering along with the beer company. Or – who knows? Maybe Covid, Inc. is enjoying their newfound fame.

  21. John Swindle said,

    February 25, 2020 @ 1:11 am

    I had a recall notice for my Toyota Corolla.

  22. ajay said,

    February 25, 2020 @ 6:19 am

    DMT is right to point out that the naming guidelines were adopted before this virus emerged. They are based on very rational principles.

    The issue goes back to the 1990s when there was a hantavirus outbreak in Muerto Canyon on Navajo territory so they called it Muerto Canyon hantavirus but then the Navajo protested so they renamed it Four Corners hantavirus because Four Corners was nearby too but Four Corners residents protested and so they renamed it Sin Nombre hantavirus.

  23. Rodger C said,

    February 25, 2020 @ 7:51 am

    You can tell this is the 21st century because there are no jokes about cigars. Or typewriters.

  24. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    February 27, 2020 @ 3:16 am

    Smith-Corona. Took me a while to get Rodger C's comment.

  25. Den Childs said,

    March 1, 2020 @ 10:24 am

    Did no one else boggle over the use of "epicenter" in the original post?

    In my book, "epicenter" doesn't mean "the center – but even more so": it means the place on the surface that is vertically above the focus of an earthquake.

    Or has that horse already bolted?

  26. Den Childs said,

    March 1, 2020 @ 9:12 pm

    My apologies for the comment above. I see "epicenter" has already been done to death and beyond here.

    Can I add just one additional point, though? The epicentre of an earthquake may be the place most heavily affected by the event, or it may not – indeed, it may be relatively undamaged. This slightly detracts from the metaphorical use.

    The link below gives you some idea of where it might be best to avoid if there's an earthquake coming your way:

  27. AntC said,

    March 4, 2020 @ 1:16 pm

    "Photo of the Day: Taiwanese mascot coins acronym for coronavirus tips – WUHAN"

    Taiwan News, again Not Taiwan official MOHW.

    For comparison, the Vietnamese Health Ministry's hand-washing video also squarely describes the COVID-19's origins in Wuhan.

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