Understanding the Disease and China’s Role in the Discourse of Covid-19: A Cognitive-Linguistic Perspective

Wei-lun LU, Masaryk University Xu WEN, Southwest University, Chongqing

Chinese Studies: Where Language Matters

As an open-ended field, Chinese studies concerns itself with the study of the entire Chinese-speaking world from multi-disciplinary perspectives. The field concerns itself with the composition of Chineseness from an external and an internal point of view, inquiring not only about how the Chinese-speaking people(s) think, reason, and act, but also about the interaction of these people with other cultures and the representation of these people in other cultures. In such broadly defined attempt, materials written or published in the Chinese language constitute the primary, and importantly, an unmediated, source of information. It is therefore natural for one to consider the study of the Chinese language, the various cultural elements, and the reasoning patterns invoked by the medium of the language to be not only a useful, but also an indispensable, part of Chinese studies. Materials written in various other languages on China and related regions are certainly of importance, too. We believe that the above issues constitute an entry point where cognitive linguistics (CL) may intersect with Chinese studies and where the two fields may cross-fertilise each other.

There have been various attempts from the CL perspective that deal with the Chinese language, Chinese thinking, and the representations of China. During the time of the current pandemic, with China being the first country that fell victim to the disease, we are witnessing a wide variety of metaphors in use that may shape and re-shape the Chineseness that scholars in this field fundamentally concern ourselves with. CL provides an effective apparatus for analysing those metaphors.

Language in Culture and Vice Versa: The Rise of Cognitive Linguistics and its Applications to Chinese Studies

CL started in the late 1970s as a reaction to the formalist Chomskyan conception of language and has been extensively applied to the study of how cultural thinking is reflected in the actual use of language. Based on the rejection of the formalist focus of abstract linguistic structure devoid of meaning, CL pays close attention to how social and cultural meanings are constructed through the contextualised use of language. For this reason, CL is situated in the functional camp of language study and is considered a close ally of sociolinguistics, enthnolinguistics, and anthropological linguistics. Within CL, Conceptual Metaphor Theory (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980; Kövecses, 2010) advocates the role of language as a window to cultural thinking and that cultural thinking and reasoning is systematically metaphorical.

Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) has been applied to the research of the Chinese language, with Yu (1998) being a landmark attempt. The author finds that in expressing the concept of emotion, the Chinese language extensively uses a distinctive conceptual metaphor anger is the hot gas in a container, which is instantiated by various lexical means in Chinese. The author also claims that the metaphor finds its root in yin-yang theory and the wuxing or “five elements” in traditional Chinese medicine. Another culturally relevant series of studies is Lu’s (2017, 2020a, 2020b) CMT approach to the Chinese concept of death reflected in the eulogistic idioms used at public funerals in Taiwan. The studies compare the Chinese and Western (mainly Christian) eulogies at rituals and introduce the various Chinese cultural symbols and allusions that are relevant to understanding the Chinese concept of life and death.

In addition to the lexical level, CMT also looks at the discourse level and is useful in uncovering hidden conceptual associations that underlie the construction of discourse meaning. One of the most productive areas of the application of CMT is Chinese political discourse analysis. CMT has been applied in various studies to investigating how political figures use metaphors as systematic verbal means to invoke and impose ideologically loaded conceptual patterns (Chan and Yap, 2015; Lu and Ahrens, 2008; Sun and Chen, 2018; among numerous others) and how the language of media creates a representation of the world by using certain sets of metaphors (e.g. Cao, Tian, and Chilton, 2014; Jing-Schmidt and Peng, 2017; Kou and Orsolya, 2014).

As we take one step further, what is especially relevant to our current crisis of Covid-19 is how the study of metaphor may give us an understanding of the human representation of diseases. In this area, a classic example is Sontag (1989), where the author discusses how use of metaphors stigmatise certain illnesses and those who are ill. A relevant case study in the Chinese context is Chiang and Duann (2007), where the authors discuss how different broadsheet newspapers in Taiwan (The Liberty Times and The United Daily) and mainland China (People’s Daily) create different conceptualisations of the same disease (which is SARS in their research) through the use of different metaphors that invoke different ideologies advocated by each of the newspapers. This paper provides a possible jump-off point of how CMT (or CL in general) may contribute to the study of people’s understanding of the current pandemic.

Possible Covid-19-Related Research Issues from a CMT Perspective

As has been extensively reported, the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was found in China, which is reminiscent of the SARS pandemic in 2003. However, a lot may have changed in the 17 years between the outbreaks and it is likely, though this is still unknown, that this recent Covid-19 pandemic may be verbalised and be conceptualised in a different way.

We would like to propose a list of possible research issues related to Covid-19 in Chinese studies that can be approached from a CMT perspective, which is by no means exhaustive. The issues may include:

  1. How do different media in different parts of the Chinese-speaking world use different conceptual metaphors to create people’s understanding of the disease? If there are regional variations, what are the possible factors?
  2. In the past few months, China has provided various forms of aid to various countries. How do these (non-Chinese speaking) countries use metaphor (in their own language) to create an understanding of China?
  3. In the countries that have been hit hard by the pandemic (most of which are non-Chinese speaking), what metaphors do the media use to talk about the disease, and do the media include China into the frame of the pandemic discourse, if at all?
  4. How do media in different countries use different conceptual metaphors to describe (and conceptualise) the disease, such as those based in China and in the United States? How may the different metaphors create potential impact on the Sino-American relationship and the dynamics in various social and political domains of the two countries?

From the point of view of cognitive linguistics, language is not just a means to represent the world; rather, language creates and shapes the social reality. As various papers in the field have shown, CMT is a useful theoretical apparatus that allows for systematic research of the discourse around various social phenomena. Following on from that, we believe that CMT is capable of providing a window to how different parts of the Chinese-speaking world think about the disease and how the other parts of the world conceptualise China’s role in human’s war against the pandemic. In connection to this, the volume that we are currently editing (Wen, Lu, and Kövecses, forthcoming) seeks to answer part of these questions. In addition, on top of the various works mentioned above, interested readers are also referred to Link (2013) and Wen and Yang (2016) as potentially useful CMT studies on the systematicity of Chinese cultural thinking that might be relevant in their future research of the discourse around Covid-19.


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Chiang, Wen-yu, and Ren-feng Duann (2007), “Conceptual metaphors for SARS: ‘War’ between whom?” Discourse and Society 18 (5): 579–602.

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