Making Sense of the Pandemic with Classical Chinese Idioms

Ashton Ng, University of Cambridge

Anyone who speaks Chinese will be familiar with the language’s numerous idioms (chengyu 成語). These idioms often capture essential aspects of the human experience. As a scholar of Chinese history, I am often surprised by how some classical idioms remain just as relevant today in describing human behaviour, especially as the world combats the coronavirus pandemic.

Our human species today can be broadly described as “three lice in dispute” (san shi zheng song 三虱爭訟). This idiom, still used in modern Chinese, is a literary reference to an allegory from the third century BCE:

Three lice (whilst leeching blood from a pig) were disputing with one another.

Another louse, passing by them, asked, “What is being disputed?”

The three lice replied, “We are fighting over the juiciest parts.”

The passer-by said, “If you are not even worried about the coming of the mid-winter festival, whereupon the pig will be roasted as a sacrifice, then why are you worried about this?”

The four lice then came together to leech from their host and consumed its blood.

The pig became thin, and the people thus did not kill it (as a sacrifice). (Chen, 2000: 502)

Initially, the three lice failed to see that they inhabit the same host and share a common destiny. It was only with the fourth louse’s broad perspective that they came to their senses and averted their collective doom.

Humanity today has done no better than these “three lice in dispute.” As pointed out by Kishore Mahbubani, former president of the United Nations Security Council, if China and the US persist in their bitter dispute, they will appear to future generations like “two tribes of apes that continued fighting over territory while the forest around them was burning” (Mahbubani, 2020: 203).

In antiquity, individuals often lived in wooden houses that were near or connected to one another. Whenever one house caught fire, everybody would rush with buckets of water to help, for failure to extinguish the fire at its source would spell disaster for all. Our species’ survival hinges on our ability to fight calamities in unison. As the virologist John Nkengasong wrote in Nature Medicine on January 27, “the global health chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so a disease threat anywhere can quickly become a threat everywhere” (Nkengasong, 2020: 311).

Instead of coming together as a species to extinguish the coronavirus at its source, some members of humanity rushed with buckets of fuel to add to the flames. In the US, some politicians, such as Senator Tom Cotton, continually fanned rumours from January to May, suggesting that the coronavirus was a bioweapon leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. These rumours were then “carried though international news outlets like the British tabloid The Daily Mail and the Washington Times” (Stevenson, 2020).

In response, 27 public health scientists from the US, Europe, and Asia wrote to The Lancet medical journal on February 19:

We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analyzed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens. This is further supported by a letter from the presidents of the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine and by the scientific communities they represent. Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardize our global collaboration in the fight against this virus. (Calisher et al., 2020: e42)

Unlike the “three lice in dispute,” humanity’s most powerful leaders have ignored the voices of our wisest members. Whilst the public health scientists above declared that “We are all in this together, with our Chinese counterparts in the forefront, against this new viral threat,” many others, with lice-like myopia, spent the first half of 2020 locked in bitter dispute over the origins of the coronavirus.

The consequences of our lice-like bickering have been frightfully disastrous, not just for China but also the rest of the world. On February 20, the day after the above Lancet article was published, the Wuhan Institute of Virology declared: “The rumours … have caused severe damage to our researchers who have been dedicated to working on the front line, and seriously interrupted the emergency research we are doing during the epidemic” (Liu, 2020). This was the very lab that sequenced the coronavirus’ genome before publishing it internationally on January 11 (Cohen, 2020).

Meanwhile, in Senator Tom Cotton’s own state of Alabama, panic ensued as the Senator’s Chinese bioweapon rumour was “floated widely” (Frankel, 2020). Like many other countries, we in Britain, too, were not spared from conspiracy theories and an unfortunate rise in hostility towards Asians (Phan, 2020).

The immense dangers of rumour-mongering were known to the ancient Chinese, who forewarned future generations through numerous idioms, such as “Zeng Shen committing murder” (Zeng Shen sharen 曾參殺人). This is a reference to the following historical episode from the fourth century BCE about the virtuous statesman Zeng Shen and his trusting mother:

Amongst the people of Lu [魯], there was a man who committed murder and had the same name as Zeng Shen.

Somebody (mistakenly) informed Zeng Shen’s mother, saying: “Zeng Shen committed murder.” The mother continued weaving calmly.

A short while later, another person informed her, saying: “Zeng Shen committed murder.” The mother still weaved calmly.

A short while later, yet another person informed her, saying: “Zeng Shen committed murder.” The mother cast aside her weaving shuttle, pushed aside her loom, leapt across the walls, and fled.

Even with Zeng Shen’s virtue and his mother’s trust for him, once three people aroused her suspicions, the mother became terrified. (Sima Qian, 2010: 4865)

Rumours are fearsome in their ability to arouse suspicion, and suspicions are fearsome in their ability to erode even the strongest trust. Today, the trust that the world has in China is far less than the trust that Zeng Shen’s mother had for her son. If even Zeng Shen’s mother could be pushed into a state of terror by unfounded rumours concerning her trusted son, it is no wonder that the residents of Alabama, as well as elsewhere, can be terrorised by unfounded rumours concerning a country that they do not trust. As the ancient Chinese said, “Numerous mouths can melt metal, and accumulated slander can dissolve bones” (zhongkou shuojin, jihui xiaogu 眾口鑠金, 積毀銷骨).

Indeed, a Pew study in April 2020 found that, in the United States, negative perceptions of China have spiked from 47 percent in 2018 to their highest recorded levels of 60 percent in 2019 and 66 percent in 2020 (Devlin et al., 2020: 3), turning “sharply negative” amidst trade tensions and the coronavirus pandemic.

The same institute found in August 2019 that the proportion of individuals with positive perceptions of China fell by 17 percent in both Canada and Sweden, 12 percent in both Australia and the US, and 11 percent in both Britain and the Netherlands. Such developments of the last two years have provided the historical backdrop for today’s anti-Chinese conspiracy theories.

As the world’s superpowers remain determined to persist in a “dispute of the three lice,” how can we, as scholars of Chinese studies, do our part for the human species?

In my view, another classical Chinese idiom might provide us with guidance: “A rolling ball comes to a stop within earthenware, and flowing rumours come to a stop with the wise” (liuwan zhiyu ouyu, liuyan zhiyu zhizhe 流丸止於甌臾, 流言止於知者) (Wang, 1988: 516). The classical thinker who coined this idiom, Xunzi (荀子, third century BCE), went on to recommend:

When right and wrong are cast in doubt,

measure them with long-term considerations,

verify them with accessible materials,

and examine them with a balanced heart.

Flowing rumours will cease,

and malicious words will perish. (Wang, 1988: 516)

“The best way to fight misinformation,” said Harvard University disinformation expert Claire Wardle, “is to swamp the landscape with accurate information that is easy to digest, engaging and easy to share on mobile devices.” The April 27 Nature article in which Wardle was quoted is a call-to-arms for scientists, aptly titled “Pseudoscience and COVID-19 – we’ve had enough already.” It recommended that, “more researchers should become active participants in the public fight against misinformation” (Caulfield, 2020).

As scientists call on their colleagues to combat pseudoscience, we, as scholars on China, must combat misinformation on China, and restore “a balanced heart” to our species. If even we fail to play the “fourth louse” and instead observe the three lice with apathy, our species will continue our disputes over short-sighted interests, ignoring our impending, collective doom.


Calisher, Charles, Dennis Carroll, and Rita Colwell et al. (2020), “Statement in support of the scientists, public health professionals, and medical professionals of China combatting COVID-19,” The Lancet 395 (10226): e42–43.

Caulfield, Timothy (2020), “Pseudoscience and COVID-19 – we’ve had enough already,” Nature, April 27, 2020. DOI:

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